‘You’re Not Taiwanese … You Cannot Possibly Understand Us’

On the preposterous claim that cultural knowledge and true comprehension cannot be acquired by the ‘other’
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
J. Michael Cole

Lang Lang’s fingers came to a rest as the last notes of Mozart’s C minor No. 24, K491 bounced off the walls of the sumptuous concert hall. For a brief instant there was only silence, followed by loud applause as the concertgoers emerged to their feet. Lang’s performance was stunning technically; the agility of his seemingly bewitched fingers was truly something to behold.

As the enchanted crowd dissipated, I used my journalist credentials to access the backstage. I walked past the violinists, cellists, flutists and the rest of the ensemble as they loosened strings, scrubbed their exhausted brass instruments to a shine, and packed their various sundries for the night. I reached a door at the back and rapped it musically with my knuckles. “Come in,” a slightly accented voice answered.

There I was, alone at last with the great Lang Lang. He was beaming. The performance, as the next day’s newspapers would attest, had been out of this world, one of his greatest. After brief exchanges of pleasantries and business cards (yes, the great pianist has one), I went straight down to business.

“Your proficiency, the fluidity and rapidity of your fingers, have been celebrated worldwide. In purely technical terms, you are, without a doubt, a great master,” I crooned. A thin smile flashed on his lips, his polite way of indicating that he’d been showered with similar flattery thousands of times already. “Mozart is evidently a favorite of yours, and again, let me underscore how pleased he would have been with the perfection with which you hit all the notes.”

“However …” I continued, and Lang suddenly looked up, sensing the shift in the movement. “Where exactly were you born again?”

“Shenyang, Liaoning Province,” he replied.

“Ah, China,” I said, shaking my head like a schoolteacher seconds before he berates a slow learner. “One piece of advice,” I continued, standing up. “Sell your piano and find yourself another job.”

“You see,” I continued as a despondent Lang rose from his seat, “Your Chineseness is a handicap. More than that, it is an unbreachable Great Wall. Being Chinese, you cannot possibly understand, let alone communicate, the emotions, the existential angst, the historical setting, and the cultural influences that shaped an Austrian coming of age in 18th century Salzburg. Unless you’re one of those who thinks that music is nothing more than mathematics, I’d give it up — at least, give up playing Mozart and Beethoven and all the European composers you have fraudulently presumed to interpret over the years, and limit yourself to Chinese composers.”

“You must face reality. You’re not European, and you never will. You cannot therefore possibly understand us, know what it is like to be us.” Having made my point, I walked out the door and left Lang Lang to deal with the bombshell.

* * *

Had this conversation ever taken place, Lang Lang would have had every right to pursue me and hit me on the head with his piano stool. At the very least, he could have shot back by calling my accusations by their rightful name — racism.

Yet such preposterous remarks are often made about writers, academics, and journalists who, like me, have made this part of the world their subject matter, their expertise. I’ve heard them often enough to know that it is an underlying current here. “You’re not Taiwanese, you cannot understand how we think, our needs, or what is best for us.” It doesn’t matter how long someone has been in Taiwan, or how thoroughly he or she has integrated society, learned its language, or embraced its culture. This is the “other” as perpetual outsider, as if understanding were not the outcome of accumulated knowledge, but rather something that, effortlessly, is acquired through one’s DNA. Unless you have Taiwanese (and perhaps Chinese) blood flowing through your veins, you cannot conceivably understand what it’s like to be a Taiwanese. (Similarly, young Taiwanese who lived abroad for many years and who come back to Taiwan often face this challenge, as if their Taiwanese essence was somehow diluted by their foreign experience. They are no longer “real” Taiwanese.) To hell with universalism: Sociologists, ethnologists, political scientists, historians, linguists, philosophers, anthropologists and all the others out there who specialize in this neck of the woods, who have lived here for years, who obtained PhDs and M.A.s and other advanced degrees; give it up, you’re wasting your time. Your subject is ineffable, comprehensible only to those who were born on this island.

What’s even more shocking — or insulting — is the fact that such comments are often made by Taiwanese who themselves have made only superficial efforts to know about Taiwan. Many of them have never attended a single protest, or given comfort to a victim of urban renewal, mingled with local gangsters, spoken with laid-off factory workers, cried with displaced farmers, or wined and dined with government officials. Theirs is knowledge acquired the facile way, through DNA. Knowledge as entitlement. When confronting the “other,” it doesn’t matter that the non-Taiwanese has done all of the above (and then some), or that he has been a resident for nearly a decade and made Taiwan the subject of his daily inquiries, written two volumes, book chapters, and more than a thousand articles about it. In the far-too-numerous instances when I was on the receiving end of such nonsense, my Taiwanese critic happened to know far less about Taiwanese politics or history than I did. Some hadn’t even studied politics, or history, or military affairs. But that didn’t matter; he or she was the expert, while I was the meddling idiot, the “Quiet Canadian” who needed to be reminded of the futility of his endeavors.

My response to those people (and don’t get me wrong, not all Taiwanese think like that) is invariably the same: “Following your logic, we in the West should deny the right to vote to anyone — Taiwanese included — who immigrates to our countries, because no matter how long they have resided there, they cannot possibly understand what Canadians, Americans, Australians, or Europeans need, or what’s good for their country. Try as they might, they just don’t have the proper DNA and are therefore eternal idiots, second-rate citizens.” Were I to advocate such a policy back home, I would rightly be accused of xenophobia, and the Taiwanese victims would be the first to cry foul.

(There is, of course, the obverse: The foreigner as both savant and enlightened savior, who acquires knowledge by the simple virtue of his or her being somewhere physically, or being married to a local. This island is crawling with individuals who think this way, a phenomenon that is compounded by the empowerment of the Internet.)

Those are admittedly two extremes. The attainment of knowledge is possible and its territory lies somewhere in between. It is well within reach of those who make it a profession (and in some cases, a serious hobby). There are foreigners in Taiwan who can make real contributions to this land, whose experience and knowledge is something that should be cherished rather than discarded outright. Taiwan is not exactly in a position where it can afford to close itself to new ideas. So next time you disagree with something that I say or write about Taiwan — I’m all for disagreement and by no means do I have a copyright on the truth — please spare me the old, tired, and downright insulting rhyme about my non-Taiwaneseness. Undo me with cogent counterarguments, not with cheap racism.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. He is the author of the just-published Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan.

49 Responses to “‘You’re Not Taiwanese … You Cannot Possibly Understand Us’”

J. Michael Cole

February 13, 2015 at 2:16 am, J. Michael Cole said:

“First-generation white Taiwanese.” I like that very much. Thanks for the honor!


March 24, 2015 at 9:48 pm, Guillaume E. Gillard said:

Another amazing piece. spot on in the observation and the discussion was interesting.

Prejudice. How I dream of the day when my color and sex are going to stop meaning to people that believe in … racist theories… that I am from a race of masters to be respected more than they deserve.

I hope dthose who think this argument explains all could put themselves in those shoes and understand how it feels for someone who reached a certain level of empathy with the people they live with(not amongst, with), sometimes to the point of having relived some of their trauma’s, even historical ones, with them, sometimes to the point of living the trauma with them as frontliners (Did anyone count how many foreigners joined in storming that parliement last year, all skin colors?) to be dismissed as “outsider”.

I’m trying to point out, that to this person, all theories of how or why or epistemic arguments or sociological demonstrations still won’t stop the pain of such a “You are an outsider, you don’t understand anything.” How the fact of being called Local by friends and addressed in Minnan in the streets of your neighbourhood makes it even harder to take that kind of slap in the face, when you got both the integration and the knowledge. When your life revolves on local time frames, with local friends and the family of your companion in life and you cam eto study the build of local society. I wish all this reasoning could match up with how strong such a simple slap can hurt, and the fact it hits harder because it feels completely undeserved.

So when some of you criticise mister Cole for his “lack of distanciation based on sexual or cultural prejudice on his side” on the matter, I would love to praise him for being human.

Let me write down another story, when I told a Black Belgian friend that during my stay in Taiwan I grew to understand discrimination, positive and negative, way better, she answered me : “Not enough yet, got to be an african woman for that.” I still don’t know how to turn my skin black and have a reversible sex changing surgery, but I can still listen and observe and though I won’t live her reality I will experience it first hand, and no theories will change that understanding.


April 01, 2015 at 3:21 am, QT Fu (@sunjtf) said:

This article pointed out the long-lasting racism issue Taiwanese (the general public) has, it is very frustrating to see that lots of my people seeing themselves supreme than other foreign workers/residents in Taiwan, but complained that the unfair treatment they’ve received while traveling, and of course there are still minor individuals with a fairer perspective.

I would like to share this within my circle if there’s a Chinese version, this could create a huge impact on PPT!

It is our honour to have you willing to stay in Taiwan and provide insight opinion for English users reside here. Thank you.


April 04, 2015 at 10:17 am, Gerald said:

Who in their right mind would want to be identified as Taiwanese? 99% of world’s population can’t even find Taiwan on the map. If the think 228 was bad, wait until CCP comes to town.


April 17, 2015 at 8:19 am, Fearnach said:

It’s not just in Taiwan. I have a theory that islanders in our time (when much travel is land-based, unlike previous eras) tend more to this fallacy.


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