From the time I first moved to Taiwan to now, one of the cleaning ladies at my apartment complex has asked me the same question nearly every time she's seen me:
“Ni (dui Taiwan) xiguanle ma?”
“Ni (dui Taiwan) xiguanle ma?”
(“Are you used to Taiwan yet?”)
From the beginning, I’ve answered her the same way with a smile and added pep to my voice:
(I’m used to it!)
But every time I answered that question, I was lying to her and to myself.
Honestly, I didn’t have any incredible expectations before I moved to Taiwan. In 2011, I went to China for a summer to study and vacation with my classmates within the Chinese department. Although I had a great time there, I experienced a lot of hostile stares and people touching my skin and hair without asking. So, if I expected anything before coming to Taiwan, it was the expectation to be seen as a curiosity more than a person by most people. Yet some friends told me I’d get a lot less unwanted attention in Taiwan, which put me at ease.
Indeed, my fears were allayed when I woke up on my first full day in Taiwan and saw the mountains outside my window. One of my roommates and a friend of a Taiwanese friend from back home in Houston took me out to show me where to pick up essentials. I got a phone plan and changed my money; I can still remember musing to myself about how pretty I thought New Taiwanese Dollars were, as silly as that sounds. I stared at those blue 1,000NT bills with the school children on them and the shiny silver stripe on the side and thought, “Aw, this is so cute…wow, I’m really here!”
Between unpacking and speaking as much Chinese as I could to everyone, I went sightseeing all over Taipei with a half-Beninese, half-French friend that I met online (I still hang out with her quite a bit). Things seemed to be working out perfectly, and I was happy to be surrounded by all the good food and new sceneries. Sure, people stared at me, but they were just curious, I thought – no problem.
That was when I had on my rose-tinted glasses and everything was “great”. How naïve I was, to think my feelings wouldn’t change. How silly I was to proclaim with confidence that after just one month I was used to Taiwan. “Wo xiguanle!” And I believed I was to boot!
Back then, according to one of my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) textbooks*, I was in Stage 1 of culture acquisition, what a person goes through when they move to a country with a culture significantly different from that of their home country. It is “a period of excitement and euphoria over the newness of [one’s]…surroundings.”
Eventually, it wears off and you reach Stage 2 – culture shock. Depending on what type of person you are, this can range on a spectrum from mild homesickness to a desire to escape to physical illness. Unfortunately, being a person who is prone to anxiety, my culture shock was pretty severe.
After I started school and no longer had the time to constantly run around and go sightseeing, I began to perceive things around me that I didn’t like, things I was able to ignore previously since I’d been having so much fun.
I become more sensitive to the prolonged stares.
I heard the insults: “black devil”, “ugly”, “chocolate girl”, sometimes even from some of my classmates who didn’t know I knew what they were saying.
I heard girls ask their boyfriends if they thought I was pretty, the boys vigorously shaking their heads “no”.
I realized that one of my roommates wasn’t as friendly as she seemed, that she’d talk about how much she disliked my appearance over the phone to her boyfriend almost daily. I felt embarrassed about engaging her in conversation and being so polite in the beginning.
I started to get used to the things I initially found fascinating.
I began to miss my family; I deeply regretted brushing my mom off so much in the past, I missed her the most. I started to feel lethargic and often had indigestion.
Progressively, I suppose in order to make myself feel better, I formed a “me” vs. “them” mentality. “I look different, but by Jove, they should frickin’ try harder to understand me!”
Still, I lied that I was used to things, and I still believed it. Nicolette-Then thought she had gotten used to being the “misunderstood black girl over there”. Being misunderstood and left out was their fault, not mine. I was such a melodramatic mess.
Then I realized after lectures from my father in January when he came to visit me as well as some pep-talks from friends that I was responsible for my miserable situation. I would always go out with my guns drawn so-to-speak, ready to glare at anyone who stared or said something rude. But it took me forever to realize that I was projecting so much negativity, and as a result, I got it back tenfold. I realized that I shouldn’t look at everyone like a culprit, and that I should change my views about the people who had put me down.
Of course some knew better than to do that, but many of them were just uncomfortable. Jesting at me was a way for them to mitigate their lack of comfort. In the case of my roommate, I’m sure her friends and boyfriend were expecting to hear stories of the black girl doing “crazy” things when she was first informed that I’d be moving in. Now that I’m here and I’m not crazy, the poor thing has to make up tales to tell everyone.
Either way, it’s not for me to worry about. Project positivity and respond to the goodness you will get in return – that became my new mantra.
So, here I am at Stage 3 “tentative and vacillating…recovery” from culture shock. I still have my days where I don’t feel like smiling or a comment rattles my core, but I try to go out with a smile on my face. In just one month, I have gotten a lot of positivity in return from simply being positive myself. I don’t think I’m anywhere near Stage 4 - “near or full recovery, either assimilation or adaptation” - but I hope to see that point someday.
I know the cleaning lady will ask me in the future whether or not I’m used to things here. I will give her the same white lie; I don’t think there’s any need to bother her with stories of my struggles no matter how motherly she comes across. It’s all good as long as I’m no longer lying to myself!
*My textbook is called “Principles of Language Learning and Teaching” 5th edition by H. Douglas Brown