3 Surprising Things Living in Taiwan Has Taught Me About Being American
I noticed it the first week of class. The teacher of my introductory Chinese language course in Taiwan treated my classmates and I differently, depending on our nationalities. She started class by pouring over the workbook exercises of my Central and South American classmates, suspiciously checking and double-checking to see if they had completed yesterday’s homework. She would then brush over the homework of the remaining students–four Japanese students and me, an American–hardly looking at what we had written before turning to the blackboard and beginning the lesson.
The varying degrees of care with which my teacher checked our homework reflects how many Taiwanese people perceive international students. In Taiwan, Japanese and American students have the reputation for being trustworthy, or at least trustworthy enough to complete their homework on time, while students from lesser-known countries are not always held in such high regard. My teacher’s peculiar method of checking homework is an exaggerated display of this worldview, to which not all Taiwanese people adhere. But she apparently didn’t stop to consider that her Japanese and American students also may not have completed their homework.
Being in such an international classroom, in which I am the only student from the USA, has made me realize that I also carry judgments that influence the way I perceive others. Here are three things that I used to believe were absolute, but that I have since realized may be the underpinnings of my American worldview.
3 Things Living in Taiwan Has Taught Me About Being American
1. The American work ethic isn’t universal, and neither should it be
Every country has its own views about what a good work ethic looks like. In Taiwan, a good work ethic might include pursuing a career you deeply dislike to appease your parents, or working long unpaid overtime hours so your colleagues won’t accuse you of being lazy. In the US, a good work ethic means doing whatever it takes to make something of yourself (i.e., a doctor or lawyer), no matter what your background is or how little you desire to be a doctor or a lawyer.
In the past, this worldview has caused me to sometimes look at friends from other countries as somewhat slothful. I used to think their lack of student loan debt and their desire to do something other than pursue a prestigious career made them aimless, or somehow deficient. The farther removed I am from this way of thinking, the more I see that it’s based on an ideology that is both unrealistic and limiting.
2. “Follow your dreams” is a privileged American mantra
That Americans like to sling around the phrase “follow your dreams” has long been a cliché, but I had no idea how much it influenced my own way of thinking until I started living abroad. A European friend recently called me out for being “too American” when I suggested she write about what dreams she hoped to fulfill in a letter to her future self.
Her comment surprised me, because it is so natural for me to measure the future by fulfilled or unfulfilled dreams. But I understand now that in most countries, people do not have the luxury of thinking about the future in relation to their own personal aspirations. For most, the possibility of pursuing a dream is impractical, if not implausible, making the “follow your dreams” mentality a distinctly American (and privileged) approach to looking at the world.
3. Being individualistic is not a virtue everywhere
Since living in Taiwan, I can’t count the number of times the fact that I moved here alone has been met with shock and confusion by locals. Their shock is not about my safety, which would be a valid concern about traveling somewhere alone in the United States, but rather about how lonely they think moving and travelling alone must make me. Travelling alone certainly has its moments of loneliness, but never so many that I would pass up an opportunity to take a trip by myself.
My proclivity for solo travelling doesn’t mean I am more brave or courageous than my Taiwanese peers, but that I am from a country that values individualistic drive and autonomy. Chinese cultures–like that of Taiwan–value groups over the individual. This difference in thinking has caused some social faux pas throughout my time in Asia, but it has also made me consider the benefits of being more group-minded.