They’re known to frequent Western-themed bars, teach English, and date locals who are out of their league. They’re probably from the US, the UK, Canada, or Australia. And, more likely than not, they have little to no interest in learning the local language.
I’ve made a few generalizations, sure. But after living in Taiwan for a year, I can say with confidence that many folks who pride themselves as being members of the “Expat Community” have got some issues.
While the definition of an expatriate is simply “a person who lives outside their native country,” the implication is much more specific when it comes to foreigners living in East Asia.
Not once in my time among foreigners in Taiwan did I hear the title “expat” extended to migrant workers from Southeast Asia. Likewise, I never heard English cram school teachers referred to as what they were: migrant workers.
The term expat is loaded: it implies a degree of independence and agency which is assumed of, and granted to, Westerners (especially White Westerners) living in Asia.
When I first arrived in Taipei, I was met with an expat uprising over a change to the city’s bike rental policy. Internet forums were packed with comments from furious expats who could no longer rent YouBikes.
When they aired their complaints to Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, in the middle of an interview, he dropped everything to accommodate their needs. As reported in a Bloomberg article about this very conflict, Ko Wen-je turned to his aide and ordered:
“Tell them to fix the problem tonight. They have to report to me tomorrow morning if they can’t fix it tonight.”
After mere hours, foreigners could hop on a YouBike once more.
You could make this scenario tell any story you want: Taiwan welcomes all foreigners with accessible policies, or Taipei is an immigrant-friendly city. But when it comes down to it, the motivation was in the money — the existence of that Bloomberg article says as much.
The inequality among foreigners living in Taiwan is tangible. Those who hail from majority-White, English-speaking countries are guaranteed a higher pay than even highly skilled Taiwanese citizens. The spending power of expats makes them especially valued and protected by the Taiwanese government.
If you are a White expat who stumbles across this article, and you’re thinking defensive thoughts (i.e. “They need English speakers in the workforce, someone’s gotta do it, might as well be me!”), I get it. But you, along with the rest of the expat community, myself included, needs to do better.
Here’s where we can start.
It’s obvious, but it must be said: make a real effort to learn the local language. It blew my mind how many expats I met who thought one hour per week of Chinese tutoring would be enough.
If this next one upsets you, you might be a lost cause: check your privilege. Don’t take your income for granted, and try to spend it in ways that will help the community. As an inexperienced English teacher, I still made nearly 4x the starting wage as the average Taiwanese English teachers did. Why? Because I was born in an English-speaking country. That’s it. That’s the only reason.
The final point goes out to all the White men whose favorite part about Taiwan is dating local women: you’re not that hot.
This has got to be the most polarizing thing I’ve ever posted on this website. Feel free to comment or message me. I’d love for there to be more discourse about this!
Side note: 1. I know the term "Westerner" is Orientalist and problematic — there are just no other words available for what I'm describing, as this behavior is not exclusive to White people. If you know of a better word, please let me know.