Standing Out Like a Sore Thumb: Are Foreigners Only Noticed in Taiwan?

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The Life of a Foreigner in Taiwan: An Introduction

Ah, the life of a ‘waiguoren’ (meaning foreigner) in Taiwan! We get stared at by children and adults alike, especially in the smaller, more remote areas of the island. We get talked about on buses and subways by people who are unaware of the fact that some of us actually understand every word they say. We get greeted with a wave of ‘Hello, hello, hello’ everywhere we go. We get approach by people all the time who want to communicate with us and practice their English. And we constantly get offered teaching jobs left, right, and center.

With that being said, the people here are very friendly and will go out of their way to help foreigners without any expectations in return. They will take the time to explain aspects of their life, culture, and traditions. They will show you how to do something through the use hand gestures and body language. They are always willing to offer a smile and tell you your Chinese is great, even though you used the wrong tone and said something completely different to what you were trying to communicate.

The life of a foreigner in Taiwan can be very exciting and a little frustrating at times. However, I have learned to embrace the fact that I stand out like a sore thumb.

Does it Happen in Western Countries?

The answer would be ‘Yes.’ And I was absolutely thrilled when my husband experienced the same in Canada!! Here is one example.

The Tables Are Turned: Standing Out in Canada

During our last visit to Canada, my husband and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and travel to a scenic area known for its challenging hikes and breathtaking views. We had an action-packed week planned: a kayaking trip, a strenuous full-day hike, a scenic drive to enjoy the spectacular views of the mountains, lakes, and other natural attractions of the area, as well as a boat tour to view the fjords.

During our first day, we opted to check out a local souvenir shop selling a wide arrange of local crafts and mementos. My husband, who is Taiwanese, and I walked into the tiny establishment and were greeted by two young people, who were clearly students in their late teens. They proved to be a great source of information as they grew up in the area and could practically answer all of our questions without much thought or hesitation.

However, the two clerks were mainly interested in my husband’s story, which was not surprising, as the area doesn’t get a high volume of Asian tourists.

We chatted for a while and were off.

However, in the days that followed, my husband voiced numerous times how he regretted not buying a certain item, a product which he regarded as the perfect souvenir to remember this leg of the journey. He mentioned it so often that we found ourselves making our way back to the store to purchase it.

I walked in first and was greeted with a hello and a smile. A few moments later, my husband entered and received ‘Oh, you are back!! How was your hike? Did you get to go kayaking?’ and on and on!!  You could tell from the excitement in their voice, they were happy to see him again!

And with a smile, I looked at my husband and said ‘Now you know how I feel in Taiwan.’ The two teenagers immediately began to apologize and I reassured them that no apology was needed. I told them that I was relieved to blend in, to be unnoticed, and I was happy that my husband was receiving all of the attention.

My husband finally knew how I felt in Taiwan: to be recognized, to stand out, and to be noticed.

When we left the store with his precious souvenir, I told him ‘Welcome to the life of a waiguoren ‘. He had now claimed ‘celebrity status’ in Canada.

And I must admit, I was delighted that the tables were reversed, even though it was just for a little while!!

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66 thoughts on “Standing Out Like a Sore Thumb: Are Foreigners Only Noticed in Taiwan?

  1. Oh so true! As a foreigner having lived in Taiwan for 8.5 years and then returning each year for a couple months, my wife and I have experienced what you are experiencing. As foreigners we all have stories of how wonderful the Taiwanese are. While living in Taiwan we would travel during Chinese New Years to other Asian countries and would look forward to returning. My favorite story took place when I had been in the U.S. for business and returned exhausted on a long flight to Taoyuan International Airport. My passport had many stamps showing leaving and returning to Taiwan. I approached the Immigration officer, said hello in Chinese. He looked at me replied hello, stamped my passport, handed it back to me and said, “Welcome Home.” I was so happy and overwhelmed that tears came to my eyes. Only in Taiwan would a foreigner receive such a warm and welcoming statement.

    1. Very touching!! Thanks for sharing such an beautiful experience. It is these stories that warm your heart and make you feel that Taiwan is your home away from home!!

      I hope you are enjoying this beautiful, sunny Sunday!

  2. That’s kind of cute 🙂
    I clicked through to your blog from Jocelyns – I LOVE your writing style and voice!

    My husband (he’s Japanese) and I stayed in Taipei for a week and a half back when we first got engaged and absolutely loved it. We both can’t wait to go back. It’s such a short trip from Japan.

    My husband is also remembered well in America (especially Texas). People think he’s American until he opens his mouth (I do adore his accent) – but they typically remember him for his smiles and such.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your husband’s experience! I am glad his experience in the States was a pleasant one.

      I am also happy to hear you love Taiwan as much as I do. It is a beautiful place and has so much to offer. If you ever come back, be sure to travel to the east coast. It is absolutely beautiful and breathtaking!!

      BTW, love your blog too!! The stories and topics you cover on your blog are great!!

  3. Good story Constance! The attention can be overwhelming at times but as long as it’s accompanied by friendly faces then all is good!
    Frank (bbqboy)

  4. We had the same feeling whilst we were in Taiwan and some of the other Asian countries we visited, I think it’s kind of unavoidable and it can be pleasant at times and kind of annoying in other occasions.

  5. Been there, done that! It’s the same in China. I guess I got used to it after a while, because sometimes when I would hang out with a Chinese friend they would notice many people staring at me and I hadn’t even noticed! Haha. It only bothered me when I was having “bad China days”. I think it happens in almost every Asian country, because the people there are mostly homogeneous- black hair, brown eyes, thin, etc. We Westerners stick out! Especially me with me curly hair!

    1. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience in Chinese!! I love hearing from other expats!!

      And I totally know what you mean!! It is something you don’t even notice after awhile!!

  6. Loved this story. It’s great that you both now have that experience in common. (On a separate note, do you think it’s easy to find a position teaching English in Taiwan?)

  7. Great story and one that my husband would really relate to. People are fascinated with him especially when we visit my tiny hometown in Borneo and they enjoy asking him questions about the US. He is very good natured about it and enjoys the interaction so I always tell him that he has the makings of a great American ambassador. 🙂

  8. Isn’t it amazing how people still stare and comment about others today (not necessarily in a negative way!) even though we have all made the assumptions that around the world, due to the ability worldwide travel, cultural mix has grown over the course of time. 🙂

  9. What a great countries with wonderful people! I haven’t been to Taiwan yet, but I can testify from my own experience that the Canadians are some of the nicest people I’ve met. I’ve lived in Canada for two years, and people were incredibly friendly and helpful all the time. I only keep the best memories from my time there.

    1. That is so awesome! I am proud of the fact that your experience in Canada was the same as my husband’s! It is a true testament that people in Canada are kind and welcoming! It just makes me so proud to be Canadian!!

  10. I love this. I think it’s nice that differences can be appreciated and spark interest. So often it is seen as a negative – that everyone should blend in and that all society should be multi-cultural….but sometimes having people be really interested in you and your stories can be so lovely. Nice that your husband got to understand how you feel and in such a positive way!

  11. I get noticed a lot in Costa Rica because I’m basically the only Asian person in my town! It’s good and bad at the same time. It’s funny to see it turned on your husband though and he experiences it first hand. Funny, I thought there were a lot of Asians in Canada haha. I can’t wait for Yeison to experience it when we get to Taiwan ha ha ha. Then he’ll know how I really feel and I’ll be the one fitting in hehe

  12. I love this story! I totally know what you’re talking about, it’s very similar in Thailand (where we are farangs), but actually it wasn’t until I met my boyfriend that I realized I really didn’t have it that bad! I am really short (Thai height) and have dark hair and dark eyes, so I garnered much less attention than my very tall, bearded boyfriend! Everywhere we went people would stare, and some children were even afraid of him! It kind of annoyed him sometimes, but I mostly found it funny 🙂

    How interesting that the tables can be reversed! Thanks for sharing!

  13. It is very much like my experience in Thailand; I’ll often hear some complete stranger say farang, farang! as I approach, and this is even more true of the provinces than Bangkok. Grown men have on occasion grabbed me by the arm to inspect my (relatively) fair skin; at one place I was greeted with little farang, little farang! (They seem to have a stereotype of all caucasians as being like 6 feet tall — a standard that I don’t quite measure up to….)

    And, like you have described Taiwan, people are super friendly, helpful, polite, and curious.

    It can be a double-edged sword, my usual style is to stay under the radar….

  14. It is definitely not just in Taiwan. While living in Korea I was often singled out and when I visited rural towns in China I couldn’t help but notice the amount of inquisitive pointing fingers. It doesn’t help that I have red hair though 😉

  15. It’s definitely not just Taiwan – this happens across Asia. Funny when the situation was reversed for you – it seems it’s also a global thing then 🙂

  16. Great story. Charlotte and I have been to mainland China five times. We really stand out in the crowd! But everyone has been friendly. The kids learning English in their schools try their speaking skills with us. The results are sometimes hilarious.

    I am following your blog (I appreciate the like from you on mine)! Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    Come by my blog anytime! I have a few travel stories from China there plus our travels in our own area! Thanks again!

    1. Thanks so much for following!! I am following your blog as well and I just love the pictures and the stories you post!

      I am glad you had the same experience in China as I have had in Taiwan. People are so willing to help here that it really makes me feel at home!!

      Have a great weekend! And Happy Halloween!!

  17. I love your positive take on this “foreigner standing out” situation. A celebrity. I am sure you feel like one when eyes are on you as you are standing in line at a supermarket in Taiwan…

    Apart from getting stared at, do you get pointed at and do you hear people whispering around you? In some Asian cultures, Caucasians are thought of as scary, to be feared – and so maybe that’s why Asians in South East Asia tend to be very polite to them., so as to not rub them the wrong way Once I was chatting with a Korean hairdresser in Melbourne as she was doing my hair. She remarked that Caucasian Australian men are very scary (in terms of looks and mannerisms) and felt the need to meet their requests.

    On the flipside, there are many in Asia who haven’t had much contact with Western culture and I belive they are simply eager to have a chat with the next Caucasian foreigner they see. Maybe even learn a bit about their back story and culture.

    Your husband sounds like he would make a good celebrity. Very calm and collected he was when accosted by starstruck Canadian locals 🙂

    1. My husband and I are really easygoing and don’t get upset easily – life is too short to sweat the small stuff. I honestly don’t mind people striking up a conversation with me to practice their English (however, intense pointing and staring and talking about me as if I don’t understand makes me a tad uncomfortable.)

  18. It’s great that your asian husband experienced this. Extremely rare though – for some reason, both in the west and east, white people are treated far better than asians are. And women moreso than men, for asians.

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