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The peculiarities of being an American in an Americanizing Taiwan

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A Western-style Taiwanese brunch — Madison Jones
A Western-style Taiwanese brunch — Madison Jones

Last August, I decided to leave my life struggles behind in Seattle and embarked on a journey halfway around the world to live in the small island nation of Taiwan. After a grueling wait of two long years, my eagerly anticipated facial feminization surgery had finally been completed. Suddenly, there was no longer a sufficient enough reason to stick around at my crummy, abusive custodial job for its health insurance - I had finally been uplifted, like a bird released from its cage, free to spread its wings, then promptly flying onto greener pastures.

Not even two weeks post-op, still swollen and numb in the face, I took off for a 12-hour direct flight straight to Taipei. Little did I realize then the numerous discoveries and difficulties of the US expat lifestyle here that would be in store.

Certainly among the LGBT expat community, Taiwan has fostered quite the reputation of being a "Gay paradise in Asia." In my experience, the Taipei Queer scene and nightlife has mostly lived up to its reputation so far.

And yet, outside of a few well-known, ubiquitous things, like bubble tea or beef noodles, many compatriots back home would probably not know the difference between Taiwan and Thailand. I certainly had to correct some friends and relatives about it a couple of times before moving. However, the past several decades have seen many aspects of Taiwanese life slowly become more "Americanized," and if given the opportunity to experience it, I believe that American visitors would most likely find it eerily familiar.

American foods make inroads
Taiwan is home to many culinary delights, but in recent times, the concept of "American-style" brunch has been taking the island's breakfast culture by storm. On any given drearily gray and oppressively humid Taipei morning, motorbike commuters will line the capital city's narrow streets and dingy alleyways wearing their rain-glazed helmets and plastic ponchos, eagerly awaiting a quick bite at their local mom-and-pop brunch shop (早午餐店 zǎowǔ cāndiàn).

Functioning as de facto community hubs, these storefronts serve patrons with unique spins on greasy US diner-food classics such as peanut butter fried-egg burgers, corn and canned tuna-stuffed omelets, chocolate and cheese sandwiches with triangular white bread slices, and so on. The simultaneous concoction of these disparate foods cooked together emit a most unique and potent aroma.

Taiwanese brunch shops also serve their meals with those fast-food-style, ovular hash brown patties and a nice tall cup of either soy milk (豆漿 dòujiǎng) or instant coffee with milk powder (奶粉 nǎifēn). If one craves something a little more polished, perhaps real coffee with fresh milk (鮮奶 xiānnǎi), then there are also plenty of "Western-style" cafés and bookstores offering upscale versions of the same delicacies.

Taiwanese branches of American global pizza chains have also been sites of a creative culinary renaissance. The country's print and online media abound with flashy adverts from the likes of Pizza Hut or Domino's for hot deals on specialty pizzas like cilantro blood cake (a spin on the popular traditional street food 血米糕 xuěmǐgāo), Japanese grilled squid, or even bubble tea, to name a few.

If one individual could be credited for sowing the seeds of this major boom in pizza's popularity and success here, then it would be no other than former Domino's CEO Scott Oelkers. (Yes, that same person in the 2014 Japanese Domino's commercial with Hatsune Miku.) Decades before WWE superstar John Cena would attempt to court Chinese-speaking audiences on social media by telling them that he loves ice cream, Oelkers was pioneering Domino's commercials on Taiwanese cable television.

Once a missionary in Taiwan during the waning days of the Guómíndǎng dictatorship, when he learned Mandarin Chinese, he returned to the island in 1986 to act as the lone proprietor of Domino's Taiwan. Braving a totally new market, he cultivated his zany television persona by sporting funky costumes like James Bond and Elvis Presley in order to popularize pizza among the public. All these commercials would end in his signature catchphrase: "達美樂,打了沒,2882-5252!" The first part translates as "Domino's hasn't been beat yet!" with the phone number in Mandarin Chinese sounding phonetically similar to the phrase: "Dad, I'm hungry, I'm hungry!"

A "cram school" — Madison Jones  

Learning English
Outside of the realms of food, there is a strong emphasis on teaching American vernacular English (美語 měiyǔ) at numerous "cram schools" (補習班 bùxíbān) around the country. Cram schools are like a Sylvan Learning Center and afterschool daycare program mixed together - and put on steroids. Taiwanese families fortunate enough to have the funds send their children to study there; the kids are assigned homework in addition to the public-school curriculum they receive during the day. Often these children do not return home until late in the evening (after 7 p.m.).

Although most Taiwanese public schools cover English at a rudimentary level, these cram schools are where much of the population learns the bulk of its English. Cram schools advertise themselves with American iconography - bald eagles, cowboys, and US flags - to sell an even more convincing service to parents. American and other foreign expats often end up signing contracts and working in these establishments in the evenings and on weekends.

Those who decide to stick around in Taiwan long-term or exhibit stronger credentials switch to working in either the Taiwanese public school system or an international private school for the elite. My current position of English teaching assistant (ETA) is broadly part of a new experimental bilingual education program run by the Taipei city government. The country's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DDP, or 進步黨 jìnbùdǎng) has been spearheading efforts to introduce more native-English-speaking foreign nationals (like yours truly) into its public school system. The administration is hoping this will help to achieve its "Bilingual Taiwan by 2030" vision, since, over the past few decades, Taiwan (like most other places around the globe) has felt increasing pressure to assimilate to anglophone globalization.

More Americanization
This phenomenon of assimilation is also noticeable through the adoption of US holidays into Taiwanese public life. It first occurred to me when I received a simple request from a coworker: "For next week's second-grade lesson, can you cover the US Thanksgiving holiday, please?"

As my elementary school's first-ever foreign English teacher (in the affluent Neihu District of Taipei, near the de facto US embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan), I have been eager these past several months to make a proper impression among the school's staff and students. So without any reservations, I gave her a resounding: "Yes, of course!"

My Taiwanese local English teacher (LET for short) and I then briefly discussed a potential lesson plan on the major foods, celebration activities, the concept of "gratefulness," and of course everybody's favorite: a hand-turkey drawing activity.

But within this Thanksgiving lesson of sharing "American culture" with the second- and third-grade students lay my first set of internal difficulties: was I inadvertently contributing to the further "Americanization" of Taiwanese society?

Taiwanese people themselves are certainly aware of this continuous "Americanization'' of their own culture. When my Taiwanese roommate and good friend and I were out late one summer evening, on our way home from drinking at a Japanese style izakaya, they told me that, among themselves, many locals casually joke that "Taiwan is the 51st US state nobody knows about."

That certainly was the serious contention of the inebriated, middle-aged aristocratic woman who later that year decided to come over and crash the Christmas dinner party I attended with other expat friends at the Grand Hotel Taipei. The lobby functioned as the perfect backdrop for societal conflict: grandiose, traditional Chinese architecture of red and white lacquered furnishings and intricate paintings yet also adorned with bedazzling Christmas decor.

After several moments of giving the lavish table a contemptuous side glance from afar, the woman finally built up the gumption to waltz over. Sporting a luxurious white fur coat and a dazzling red, form-fitting traditional dress (qipao 旗袍), she regaled us with her woes in fluent English. She worked in Taipei's financial sector, constantly interacting with US and other foreign financiers. She lamented in a slightly accusatory tone how Taiwan has gone too far in adopting US and other Western customs.

The Queer community
But this adoption of US customs is not always for the worst, or even at the total expense of local culture. Taiwan Pride is held every year on Halloween. The reasoning behind this is due precisely to the LGBT community's historical struggle against Guómíndǎng dictatorial rule.

Back in the day, drag performers in Taipei's historical Queer and nightlife district, Ximen, were constantly subject to police raids and brutality. Taiwanese drag performers, like US ones, used to be bound by public indecency laws when it came to "cross-dressing" and "lewd conduct." Halloween, then, would be used by LGBT Taiwanese people as a form of plausible deniability against the cops, i.e., "It's just a costume for Halloween, officer!"

Continuing its authoritarian legacy by opposing legislation like marriage equality, the Guómíndǎng has never recovered from its fraught relationship with the LGBT community here. Conservative political factions in countries like Taiwan often accuse LGBT culture of being a corrupting, foreign cultural export of the United States and/or other Western places. After the end of martial law, many members of the Taiwanese Queer and feminist communities became gravitated to the rival political party, the DPP.

Overall, I believe what could be best learned from the relationship between Taiwan and the United States is that, within every power imbalance, there still lies agency among the weaker party to adapt and use the dominant culture how they so choose. There is an admirably subversive method to the way Taiwanese have taken the parts of US culture they enjoy and tailored them to fit to their own liking, to the point where Americans looking in aren't even able to recognize it as "American."

I have grown incredibly fond of the resiliency exhibited by Taiwanese people, who for decades have been placed into the perilous situation of being between the two regional juggernauts, China and the United States. Despite these dire circumstances, their communities have been able to craft something wholly unique and magnificent for themselves, and I am immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to witness and partake in it, albeit as just a Queer American playing an expat English teacher.