EXPAT LIFE,  FEATURES,  Taipei,  Taiwan

Self-Realizations From Living Abroad: I’m A Foreigner

This guest blog is by Ava Apollo. She blogs about adventure travel at bemytravelmuse.com

For the previous post in this series, please click here.

As the sun rose on day two, I had already been up for hours plotting my next move – the one thing jet-lag is useful for.

I had one day left in the hotel, and I didn’t want to extend my stay, as cash was scarce.  But before I could make any moves, I needed to procure an all-important name chop, a cellular phone, an apartment, and most importantly, my foreigner ID.

I headed first to Shi-Da, the language school I planned on attending, took my placement test, then made my way to the first neon key sign I could find.  I had to get a name chop, after all, as it was as good as a form of ID in this country.

Welcome to Shi-Da

Rewind to my college days when my teacher gave all of us Mandarin students Chinese names.  Mine was Ai Shi Ting, meaning graceful and poetic.  How she arrived at that name for someone as uncoordinated and crass as I, I can’t be sure, but I thought it was phonetically pretty, and most Chinese speakers complimented it as a nice name.

I enjoyed this name until I told my friend Rick about it.  He laughed hysterically before sharing, much to my chagrin, how it sounded in English.

“Really?! Your Chinese name is “I shitting?! That’s hilarious!”

Thanks for ruining it for me, Rick.

Alas, my scholarship was in this name, my Shi-Da papers were in this name, and basically my entire identity in Taiwan was under this name.

It was here to stay, and so it was displayed on my name chop.

Shi Ting it is!

Next, I waltzed into the nearest cell phone store I could find, where I then stood frozen, unsure of my next move.  Having noticed that I was a foreigner, a younger worker who spoke some English came to my aid.  I  fabricated an address on the form, because I needed a phone to find an apartment, and apparently needed an apartment to have a phone.

The proverbial cart was in front of the horse. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I then sort-of pushed the needed materials to him and let him complete the rest of the paperwork for me, unclear on exactly what the characters said.  within a few minutes I was out the door with my new phone.

Finding that this seemed to work, I employed the “push and shrug” method  for all of the rest of the day’s tasks.  I was usually met with a look of understanding, given a little nod, and treated mostly with patience.

I couldn’t help but think of how this would go if the situation were flip-flopped.  Back home in the States, it was common to get annoyed with people who didn’t speak English well.

Yet in Taipei, even the street signs had English, as if Taipei was planned to help we English speakers out.  But there was no such help for anyone back home in the States, and I felt slightly ashamed.

That was short-lived, however, as I had managed to get things done!  I had applied for my foreign ID, set up a bank account, taken care of signing up for classes, and even managed to find an apartment in the very location I wanted.  Yes, I was walking on sunshine, head held high!  I even started to feel a bit self-congratulatory.

That was, until I overheard a mother telling her child to look at the “wai guo ren,” (foreigner) pointing to me, almost in the same way that one might say “Look at the cute dog sweetie!

It’s almost as though in that moment, I became painfully aware that yes, I was a foreigner.   Almost nobody in this country looked remotely like me, and the amount of stares I was getting had been excessive.  My goodness, I WAS a foreigner, and it wasn’t until this moment that it really sunk in.  It was a gut-check moment.  The kind where the palms sweat and the blood rushes to the face.

After a brief panic attack, I finally began to feel a bit humbled.  I was a guest in a foreign country, and it was I who needed to acclimate, understand, and appreciate.

This is the whole point of living abroad, isn’t it, Ava?

Yes, it was.  Realization of day two: I’m a foreigner.

For the next post in this series, click here.

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  • Karl

    I really enjoyed your words and pictures in your blog post, Ava. I can see how some things have changed, yet some things have remained the same since I was a student at Shi Da.

    When I came to Taiwan in the early 70’s, I stayed with some in-laws of my Chinese professor back in the ‘States. There were no cell phones then, and many homes, including mine, had no phones – though we were on a waiting list for one. All foreign students were required to register at the police station, which I did, and since I also lived in Yong–He, I had to also register at the Zhonghe district police station. A Hakkanese cop, not liking the name my professor gave me, suggested the Chinese name, 柯虎文, based entirely on my last name, Kauffman. He said that name would be pronounced Ka Fu Man in the Hakka dialect (Ke Huwen in Mandarin). He was proud of himself in giving me that official name, since it was close to my actual name, and included my birth year (tiger). Anyway, like you, I liked the way my Chinese name sounded, so I agreed and had it made official. A family friend knew a good chop maker in Ximending, so I went with him to select a stone one.

    In the 21st Century, you have the benefit of street signs in English and Chinese … something I would have loved, but didn’t have 35 years ago. There were no computers, but registration at ShiDa was pretty quick and painless.

    Though I have fond memories of Taiwan, I love how it has become more progressive these days with national health care, improved (advanced) public transport, and more focus on green technologies. In the 70’s, when Taiwan was still in an official state of war with the mainland govt. there frequently were soldiers with machine guns standing at the entrances to many of the bridges around Taipei. Also, male foreign students with hair that was “too long,” could be stopped by the police, and then given short haircuts at the station (but that didn’t happen often).

    Unfortunately, you must still endure being a source of entertainment for moms and their inquisitive children. Recalling the same thing, along with older children’s Taiwan Min Nan taunts of “Mi go lang” (American), and “A do nga” (big nose), it seems that little has changed about being reminded how we foreigners are noticed.

    • Carrie

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. I loved reading about your student life in Taiwan in the 70s. I was also given a couple of interesting Chinese names while I was here. The most recent was given to me by a Chinese fortune teller in 2006. That name Ma Kai Li is as close as you can get to my maiden name, Carrie Marshall, and it should also be noted that my tiger heritage was also taken into consideration when I was given this name. No one, however, has attempted Kellenberger. I wonder why? 😀

      My husband is a constant source of behind-the-hand whispers about his height. That has never changed, but compared to what we endured in China for the three years that we were there, I believe that Taiwan is fairly conservative in comparison. Yes, it’s annoying, but we don’t expect that anything will change any time soon!

    • ava

      It’s always kind of funny to see what names people end up with. I still like mine, despite the way it sounds in English!

      I can imagine the Taiwan you lived in as completely different from the one I lived in. I might have gone crazy without a cell phone or computer, but then again, I’m used to having both.

      I’m so intrigued by the differences in Taiwan just 35 years ago! It sounds like a different world than the one I got to know.

  • Jack Norell

    When I read ‘name chop’ I could only think ‘huh?’ Thought you needed your name shortened or something! It’s the sigil thing you got pictured, I gathered after a moment or two.

    Being a foreigner is hard, even when you’re like me, in an English speaking country and look just like the locals (a Swede in London, very cliched). Try opening a bank account here when you arrive, hilarity (read ‘hair-pulling frustration’) will soon follow.

    Really enjoyed the post, thanks.

    • Carrie

      Hi Jack,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      A name chop is also known as a seal. It’s used for personal documents, contracts, work docs, etc.

      Have you written a post about opening a bank account in London? We’d love to read it!

    • Ava

      Oh wow I can only imagine! I heard blondes get a little more attention (I’m brunette) and I can only imagine that goes up exponentially for red hair! It’s kind of fun for me to look back on now 🙂

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