American privilege in Taiwan: I lied to my Taiwanese students and told them I didn't speak Chinese. Here's how it backfired

Because I was Taiwanese American, my students were shy, distant. Revealing I spoke Chinese made all the difference

Published December 31, 2015 12:58PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Brightrock</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(Brightrock via iStock)

“You’re American?”

I nod.

“Do you speak Chinese?”

A boy giggles as he and a group of fellow students surround me on the first day that I began teaching them English. I spent the summer of 2014 at an elementary school in rural Taiwan, a school called “Six Legs” Elementary, named fondly in honor of the monstrous local insects.

“No, I can’t speak Chinese at all. I’m here to teach you English,” I reply. But that was just a lie to keep them from blurting out answers in their native tongue during class. I’m Taiwanese-American, I thought. I’m not that different anyway, so it should be fine.

But to the kids, I was somehow glaringly American. Because I was American, they were sometimes embarrassed to ask questions they would ask their regular teachers. Everyone was conscious that I wasn’t quite like any of them.

It wasn’t that they didn’t trust me. Rather, it was as if I was too good for them, as if every student felt the pressure to learn English but couldn’t feel comfortable in my presence. I was sure that a mutual connection was lost between us. Despite standing before them, I couldn’t help feeling a distance as wide as the sea that separated Taiwan and America.

The same thoughts recur when the local shop owner discovers that I’m American. When I speak Chinese, the owner always tells me, “You must be very smart! Your Chinese is amazing for an American!” He tries to speak English to me to respond to my nationality as an American. He marvels at my ability to speak and read English, because he never had proper English classes. Because English is recognized as the language of globalization and modernization, being born in the country where it’s spoken is an impressive reputation. This is a part of my American privilege, something even my parents realized when they decided to raise me here.

Everything seems like harmless praise, but I'm left wondering: Why does being an American and speaking English give me so much privilege? Does this affect the relationships between the Taiwanese and Asian-Americans like me?

As a Taiwanese-American, American privilege is a strange thing in Taiwan. After all these years of traveling to Taiwan, I realize that I’m treated differently, not out of spite, but out of cautious admiration for the perceived privileges that come with being an American. I have access to a quality English education. I live in a country free of censorship. I will probably never know what it's like to have a war in my country.

I realize that the locals attempt to cater to my American side. But that means the shop owner down the street won’t talk about burning issues like Taiwan and China’s contentious relationship, because he says, “You won’t understand. You don’t have this problem in America.” Instead he finds my secretly ordinary American way of life to be of more significance. It's almost like a reverse form of discrimination, as if I am disconnected with the Taiwanese because they repeatedly notice the advantages of my American privilege.

The way that the Taiwanese refer to my American nationality reminds me of the Chinese concept of mianzi, or “face.” Face is a concept of one’s reputation and dignity, which can be saved, given or lost. The Chinese are particularly careful, especially in business, to avoid any humiliation of themselves and others. You “save face” by complimenting someone and “lose face” if you are humiliated or embarrassed by another person. Perhaps my students and the shop owner were saving face by constantly making sure being American was impressive. To avoid any humiliating confrontations, they adopted humbling attitudes with me and avoided topics that weren't readily understandable.

But this is not always the desirable relationship. To be constantly reminded of my American-ness and the difference between me and the local shop owner is an uncomfortable feeling, no matter how much good will he intends. I don’t want him to hold back his opinions on political issues and dismiss himself to save face. I want to be just as Taiwanese as him, so that neither of us feels the burdening pressures of social propriety and cultural superiority.

I learned to hide the fact that I’m American, so that the conversations I have with the Taiwanese are true reflections of Taiwan’s island culture when it goes beyond simply saving face and making small talk. To converse without my American privilege is like finding the travel spot that only locals know of—it means experiencing what is most valuable to the people instead of what is most appealing to me as a visitor.

It’s why I felt deep regret for lying when I finally told my students I could actually speak fluent Chinese. I knew from their conversations that they had so much to share, but didn’t, because they felt that between a Taiwanese and a Taiwanese-American stood an insurmountable gap born from my American privilege, trading faces, and learning English. But the moment they heard me announce “Sit down!” in Chinese, everyone leaped out of their chairs to share with me their hobbies and dreams in their mother tongue.

The curious border between the two demographics is real not only for me, but also for many individuals who shoulder multiple heritages. As Allen Stone sings in a song he released earlier this year called “American Privilege,” “American privilege, keeps blurring my vision.” Indeed, it’s the only time I find that the coveted American privilege disrupts my understanding of a culture. In the end, I’ve come to realize how rewarding it can be to drop the hyphen and simply be Taiwanese in mind and spirit.

Lily Hsin is a Taiwanese American who is studying at Columbia University.

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