Time to stop ducking uncomfortable truths

A screenshot showing Senegal-born Taiwanese Mohammad Al Bachir Gadiaga (阿巴西), a player with Shih Hsin University’s basketball team, confronting National Taiwan Normal University player Lin Shih-hsuan (林仕軒) who had hurled racial abuse at Al Bachir during a University Basketball Association game on March 2.

When it comes to social etiquette, Taiwanese society resembles the United Kingdom’s House of Commons in one key aspect: directly calling someone a liar is taboo.

Since its introduction by a young Winston Churchill in 1906, the preferred euphemism for an untruth at Westminster has been “terminological inexactitude.” Churchill, who used the phrase to weasel out of admitting that Chinese indentured mine labourers in the Transvaal were essentially slaves, was famed for his “long, orotund, bombastic circumlocutions.” Coming from the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Classics scholar for whom straight-talking is all Greek, this self-referential description is remarkable.

In Taiwan, where legislative conduct is less restrained, one is likely to hear much blunter language from lawmakers than is considered appropriate in everyday relations. Where the thorny issue of deceit is even broached in personal exchanges, a houyhnhnmic reticence to speak plainly sometimes gives way to a shift of responsibility. Thus, a straight-up porky is a “misunderstanding” on the part of the accuser; an unsent email “not received”; and anyone foolish enough to draw attention to this dissembling dismissed as “thinking too much.”

In response to other types of undesirable behaviour, some evasions have become familiar enough to have attained in-joke status among foreigners in Taiwan. Anecdotes relating to bad public manners, for example, might be met with claims that the culprits “were probably from China.” (Having related a tale of queue-jumping to a class of college-age students only to be met with this inanity, a friend of mine insisted to his audience that he was certain the miscreants were Taiwanese. How could he be so sure, the students wanted to know. “Because Taiwanese are much more skilful at that stuff,” he replied. The riposte earned knowing chuckles.)

One excuse, or – in keeping with the mealy-mouthed bent of things here – “explanation” that has become as played out as lensless glasses – showed its face in a heated social media exchange a few weeks ago. Racism was the issue – one that seems to elicit particularly fervent denial at all levels of Taiwanese society.

The discussion thread was spawned by an article posted on the Taiwan Daily News in English forum about a case of racist abuse during a University Basketball Association game.  The incident involved a National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) player directing the N-word at Senegal-born Taiwanese Mohammad Al Bachir Gadiaga (阿巴西) a player on the Shih Hsin University team. (Reports on the incident in Chinese and English-language media have repeatedly referred to an incident that “allegedly” occurred. However, in addition to an official statement by the NTNU team condemning the abuse, the culprit himself has twice apologised, so there is no dispute over what happened.)

Disgust and disapproval permeated most of the comments, though – sad to say – the usual trolls, and worse, were out in noticeable enough numbers to lower the tone. However, it was the suggestion by several commenters that Al Bachir, a Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese national, might have got his wires crossed that drew general derision.

“In Mandarin its very common for us to say … 那个 (na ge) which means this one and that one,” began one commenter, who – it should be pointed out (if it’s not obvious from the use of simplified Chinese characters) – was not Taiwanese. “In fact, they’re commonly used filler words (like our umm and ahhs) in conversations. Maybe he misheard?”

As with the “they must have been Chinese” line, this has become enough of a cliché as to be laughable. Yet, it recurred in several other branches of the thread, albeit in a slightly less condescending manner, as did feeble attempts to downplay the slur. Not all of the apologists were Taiwanese, and the most wilfully ignorant remarks were from white westerners.

The fact remains, many Taiwanese seem to have a blind spot when it comes to racism. Anyone who has lived here long enough and has raised the issue is likely to have heard that it doesn’t really exist in Taiwan or that it’s not like the treatment of black people in “your country.”

With its unabashed whataboutism, that latter observation seems to be a recurring theme in taxi-driver banter. The former, perfectly ridiculous, claim has featured in official presidential statements: Responding to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ accusations of a campaign of racism against him originating in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) insisted that “the Taiwanese people do not differentiate by skin color or language.”

David Anselme Kafando, a master’s student at National Taiwan Ocean University, calls the comment about possible confusion over the slur, “the dumbest excuse” of all. “I studied Chinese for one year in a language center before college, and I’ve lived in Taiwan for seven years,” says Kafando, a Burkinabé who was among the commenters on the Taiwan Daily News in English thread. “I’ve never misunderstood the N-word, except when people try to pretend otherwise.”

When Burkina Faso broke ties with Taipei in 2018, Kafando chose to stay in Taiwan rather than follow many of his compatriots to China, after Beijing had agreed that Chinese universities would take over the scholarships of students who had lost them. “I decided to stay because I love this place,” he says.

Still, Kafando believes there is a lot of work to be done in changing attitudes toward race in Taiwan. “It’s definitely cultural,” he stresses. “Because they don’t measure the amplitude of the effect of racism, some think that it’s a joke,” he adds, noting that it is common to hear comments about in public, about skin color being “so black (好黑)” and sometimes worse. “When you look at them, they will be staring at you like it’s normal; some may even add ‘isn’t it due to a sun burn?’”

The popularity of hip-hop and African American culture in Taiwan also appear to have played a part in the flimsy grasp that some young people have on what is acceptable. “Mates from school suddenly want to say the N-word because they have listened to too much hip-hop,” says Kafando. “They want imitate black Americans, just because they think it’s cool.”

Another commenter on the thread who balked at attempts to call the incident a “misunderstanding” was a Philippines-born teacher who has been in Taiwan since 1996. A regular contributor to this and other Taiwan-related discussion forums, the teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous here, tells me via Facebook, “Taiwanese people seem to genuinely think they aren’t racist, which baffles me because I see examples of it almost every week.”

Having previously lived and studied in Japan, she sees parallels between Japanese social etiquette and the concept of face in Taiwan. “I guess it’s like tatemae and honne in Japanese culture,” she says, referring to the twin concepts of a person’s public persona as opposed to their true feelings. She illustrates the point with a story of a student who she caught making derogatory comments about her heritage. When confronted, the individual was shocked to realise she had understood his remarks. Yet, rather than back down, he insisted he had intended no offence. “It’s because I heard their honne (they didn’t think I would understand) and they were vehemently defending their tatemae (maintain a proper demeanor) so as not to lose their face.”

This points to another view that seems prevalent in Taiwan, namely that the offence of a statement depends on the utterer’s intentions. As long as the speaker didn’t mean any harm (or get caught), everything is OK.

Echoing this were comments on the thread by a South African resident of Taiwan, who works as a DJ under the name of Mr Sunshine. “Locals already feel like they never do anything wrong,” he wrote. “Hence these highlights help them to look in the mirror.”

To be sure, racism in Taiwan is rarely of the virulent kind one encounters in Europe and North America. It seldom lapses into violence (though even this is not unheard of, as a serious assault against a close friend’s son, who is mixed race, by schoolmates showed me last year). This may be part of the reason why many people in Taiwan continue to feel it is not really a big deal here.

But sweeping these incidents under the carpet or trying to explain them away displays an immaturity that should embarrass any progressive Taiwanese with a sense of social justice. Worse, people demonstrate a distinct lack of self-respect in clutching at straws to explain something away at any cost, rather than being strong enough to acknowledge the problem and address it head on. For some of these people, a cultural aversion to confrontation appears to be at play, though in this case, the discomfort is heightened by the prospect of an interrogation of society at large.*

Evidence of a willingness to engage in introspection and frankness can be seen in places. Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) reportedly responded with some strong words, calling racial discrimination “unacceptable” and demanding an investigation into the incident.

If such calls for action are not to prove empty rhetoric, the first step, to employ the language of addiction recovery, must be to admit there is a problem.

* The default to defensiveness seems particularly pronounced when it is a foreigner raising the issue. Of course, this is hardly a uniquely Taiwanese trait: no group of people is particularly enamoured of criticism by foreign interlopers. But having discussed this with friends from a variety of cultures and backgrounds over the years (including Taiwanese), I believe the claim that Taiwanese are particularly apt to resort to kneejerk apologism is well founded. If, as has happened many times, someone tells me they experienced racism while visiting or living in the UK, I’ll be damned if I’m going to respond with, “Are you sure? / Maybe you just didn’t understand” etc.
The flip side of this is the profuse apologising that one sometimes receives when relating an instance of bad behaviour to a Taiwanese friend. While this is obviously better than flat out denials, I can’t help but feel that it is coming from the same place. Of course, by saying “sorry” for the transgressions of their compatriots, someone could just be trying to say, “I feel regret that you had to witness/go through this.” But it often feels like just another facet of the same “group identity” culture that is the prime mover in the denials.             









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