The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

… an expat in East Asia

artist: Damon Yuen

by Joe Váradi

As I was recollecting and writing this essay, I had several working titles in mind. One was “That One Time I had to Pretend to be a Mormon to Hold Down a Job”. Ultimately I decided on a more generic title, because this story, of all the experiences I had during the three years I spent living in East Asia, probably best captures the surrealism and awkwardness, the wonder and bewilderment that comes with being an expat in that faraway land.

To be sure, it is a part of the world where being a white Westerner hardly affords you any sense of complacency or entitlement. Far from it. It is a place where you have to get used to being treated as an oddity, a novelty, a stereotyped caricature of yourself. And it is a place where, often when you least expect it, you have to be prepared to reinvent yourself, to reach deep inside and grasp for talents and resources you never knew you had …

Many foreigners — unless they are lucky enough to land cushy expat packages as diplomats or employees of a multinational corporation — come to East Asia to teach English. There is a smattering of other professions that one may pursue “fresh off the boat”, such as freelance journalism or modeling, but even these are often paired with some amount of teaching to pay the bills.

Discerning parents in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan will pay a premium for their kids to attend private bilingual schools or be tutored after school by teachers with “authentic North American accents”, and there are plenty of Brits, Aussies, and all manner of Europeans in addition to Americans and Canadians who flock to these exotic locales for their slice of the pie.

I took a slightly different tack, when I quit my IT job back in Boston at the tail end of the dot-com crash and got on a plane to Singapore, and ultimately settled in Taiwan. I was determined to build on my professional experience, and found programming jobs at technology start-ups, while taking Chinese classes in the evenings.

I was in between two such jobs, sitting in a coffee shop in Taipei one lazy afternoon circa 2002, perusing the (now defunct) English-language daily China Post, when a young lad spotted me through the window. He came in, approached me and struck up a conversation in broken but intelligible English, tested my Chinese skills and found them adequate for the task at hand, and handed me a business card of a local modeling agency where he was employed as a scout. We negotiated a time when I could come in for an audition and off he went looking for his next unsuspecting victim.

I show up a day later at the agreed-upon time, squeeze through the tightly packed parked scooters on the sidewalk, and take the elevator up a couple of flights in the aging office building.

As I walk down a long corridor of cramped offices, I catch a glimpse of the activities in each little side room, and quickly form the impression that this agency specializes in Westerners. Let me be more specific, this agency specializes in commercials starring sketchy-looking white guys. There is the one scruffy looking chap — very likely an English teacher by day— who didn’t think to shave for the three days prior to his audition, now rubbing his jaw and seemingly in great discomfort as a camera hovers inches from his face. Next door, an older gentleman is assuming exaggerated James Bond-like poses and menacingly pointing a pretend gun at various corners of the room.

I get started on filling out the paperwork, and before I know it I am back in one of those tiny studios, acting out the same contrived scenarios that I had witnessed earlier, and judging by the reactions of my handler …

I come to realize that I will not be making my debut on the Taiwanese television commercial scene as either a salesman for sensitive gum toothpaste, or as a huckster for contact lenses that can make the world’s most famous secret agent shoot straight again.

artist: Benedikt Luft

As all thespians know, there is no predicting when the next part will come along. Or how dignified it will be. Weeks pass until I get my first callback.

When I arrive back at the agency, I meet the other young man who was short-listed. He is from the Mediterranean coast of Spain and works at the Spanish consular office — I suppose they were looking for dark-haired European types.

While we wait, he entertains me with stories of his sexual conquests since his arrival in the country a few months ago.

There are no lines to read, no motion sequences to act out this time.

We are wearing the white dress shirts that we were told to bring from home. Now we are made to try on loose-fitting black pants which are then marked up for alteration by a flurry of eager seamstresses, and we are instructed to come back very early next Saturday for an all-day gig.

It is daybreak and we are already packed onto the bus — two buses in fact — carrying crew and equipment, sipping soybean milk and munching on egg pastries as our transport rushes us out of Taipei on National Highway №1 for our three-hour journey to the Southern city of Tainan. Our destination is the main campus of Chengkung University (國立成功大學), famous for its majestic and monstrous Malayan banyan trees. The expansive mushroom-shaped canopies and craggy, drooping vines are to serve as the stage and backdrop for our photo shoot. The iconic trees, we learn, are symbols not only of the university, but of the Taiwanese bank whose advertisement we are filming.

the university campus in Tainan

The concept for the shoot is an idyllic scene under the shade and security of the tree, a family picnic, children tossing balls, a young man lifting his girlfriend as she tries to knock loose a Frisbee stuck in the branches … but where, you may not be faulted for thinking, do my Spaniard sidekick and I fit in?

Fear not; we don our black pants and white shirts on the bus, then we are outfitted with additional paraphernalia to complete out costumes — black-and-white name tags, dark ties, bike helmets and a shiny bicycle each …

that’s right, we are to complete the scenery by strolling by in the background, at a comfortable distance from the frolicking park patrons, on our way to spread the word of God as globetrotting missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

It is early afternoon by the time we get our turn to perform — the blazing subtropical sun almost directly overhead. There is an awkward tension in the air because the Spaniard unsuccessfully hit on one of the female models during lunch.

Our task is harder than it sounds — due to the uneven ground and the gnarled root structure of the trees, pushing bicycles along while pretending to be engaged in light conversation proves to be a challenge. The director gets increasingly frustrated, gestures at the markings on the ground where we need to start and stop, asks for several takes, finally calls it a wrap, and we all fall back in the buses, drained from the heat and the rigors of the job.

Weeks pass, I am riding my scooter through a busy intersection back in Taipei. Out of the corner of my eye I sense something and am suddenly struck with déjà vu — I look up at the enormous billboard featuring the banyan tree and several familiar faces.

A warm sense of pride and a chill of self-consciousness course through my body all at once. I take another, closer look at the image. They’re all there, the family, the young couple, but … something is missing —

my Valencian wing man and I are nowhere to be seen.

For reasons that will forever remain shrouded in mystery, our pious biker gang of two had been Photoshopped out of the final product …

So it goes.

Editor of No Crime in Rhymin' and Language Lab | the Woke Bloke ..."come for the sarcasm, stay for my soft side"

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