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sexism taiwan

What Happened When I Wrote About Sexism in Taiwan

It’s been about three weeks since I posted the article, Let’s Talk About Taiwan’s Totally Casual Sexism. I won’t lie. I was surprised by the response.

The vast majority of people reacted positively and appreciated it was finally being talked about. A small handful of people got super irritated (some would say “triggered”) and wrote hate comments on this blog and on Facebook — not on this blog’s FB page, but on other people’s profiles and pages. Another common reaction was a dismissive retort from people who don’t think sexism in Taiwan is worthy of discussion. More on those below.

I found it all pretty fascinating. It made me realize sexism and gender bias are topics that everyone who lives, works, dates or raises kids in Taiwan should feel comfortable addressing. I even started to wonder about the overlap between sexism and some of the social and economic issues Taiwan is currently facing — like the brain drain, low marriage rate and low birth rate.

So in the interest of keeping the conversation going, here are a few things that came up from that article…

1. I learned that many men are awkward talking about sexism, but they still have a lot to say.

I’m genuinely interested in learning about people’s attitudes to sexism in Taiwan, in Asia and anywhere else, really. The problem is that most of these conversations — both online and in person — don’t get very far because evidently it’s still up for discussion whether sexism is even an issue in Taiwan.

For instance, some common reactions to the sexism article were things along the lines of: “but what about sexism against men?” Or “that’s not sexism, that’s just the way Taiwanese are.” And “the sexism is much worse in Japan, Korea and the Middle East.” I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations, but I will say that these remarks came only from men.

Back to the part about sexism against men. It’s true, a few conversations ended up being hijacked by that topic instead. As I said to one commenter: Taiwanese men are free to write about their personal experiences with sexism. But as a Taiwanese woman, that’s not what I did, or wanted to do. Imagine if a black person was sharing his experiences about racism in Taiwan and an Asian-American person interjected, “but what about unfairness towards Asian-Americans? Let’s talk about that.” Awkward.

Another popular response from men was the Taiwan media’s fawning over the shirtless Dutch waterpolo team during the Universiade: “Did you see the stuff about the Dutch male waterpolo team?” My response: unfortunately, sexism in Taiwan is real and Taiwanese people are shallow about half-naked white waterpolo players. Both of these things are true. Though I think we can also attribute the waterpolo thing to the cheerleader effect.

My takeaway: men who are interested in women’s opinions about sexism and gender bias will read, listen and discuss. The good news is there are a lot of these men in Taiwan.

On the other hand, men who do not care about sexism — in Taiwan or anywhere else — will be silent, deflect, get a little defensive or be flat-out dismissive. Until it has directly affected or hurt someone they care about, sexism is probably not a topic that has any impact on their everyday lives. But of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t share their opinion about it!

FYI, the few belligerent comments I received on this blog were immediately trashed. Yes, I manually approve each comment. So if you’re thinking of writing a rude comment to this post, don’t bother. They don’t upset me at all and it won’t see the light of day.

2. I was reminded that Taiwanese women can be enablers through silence or inaction.

Before writing that article, I never thought deeply about sexism in Taiwan. Yes, I’ve heard stories, I’ve grown up with it, I’ve seen stuff in the workplace and in social situations too. But you shrug it off because no one else complains openly or labels it as sexism. Sure, it’s annoying and condescending, but is it really that bad?

What I came to realize is that sexism in Taiwanese culture is like a ghost. It’s invisible and harmless to most people, except to those who can see it. The thing is, once you see it, it’s hard to stop seeing it everywhere.

Another thing about sexism in Taiwan is that women here can be completely desensitized to the topic. In a “well, there’s nothing we can do about it” kind of way like in this extremely gross story I shared on Twitter.

Online responses to the original article brought up the reality that women can be just as sexist against women, having been raised in families where male and female elders genuinely believe girls are inferior to boys. (I think we can all agree that’s sexist.) This makes the “boys will be boys” excuse for sexist behavior easier to accept in adulthood.

When I asked my husband what could be said in situations like the example of male coworkers who hang bikini posters in the office, he responded that you can’t simply tell them they’re wrong for doing it. You’d need to explain why it’s inappropriate because some men don’t understand (or care) why it’s wrong in the first place. For someone like me, the answer is it’s obviously inappropriate and unprofessional. For them, it’s probably, I don’t know, free speech? That conversation would be pretty uncomfortable.

Hearing that from my husband, I can understand why Taiwanese women don’t want to rock the boat and bring up something they’re in no position of power to change. It’s easier to brush it off than it is to show offense, start a confrontation or be laughed at. So when small, casually sexist situations arise, silence or inaction from women is taken to mean indifference. In other words, things like hanging bikini posters in the office must be okay because no one else has complained in the past. Akin to the stories we’re just now hearing about bro-culture in Silicon Valley startups. If it was never a problem before, why is it a problem now?

Another example is a story told to me years ago by my dad: he had invited a female French business executive to his company’s Taipei office. This French executive (in her late 30s at the time) had studied Mandarin for many years, lived in Taipei during her university years, and could speak, write and read Mandarin.

By way of introductions, my dad said to three or four employees in Mandarin: “This is So&So, she’s French and from So&So company.” Before he could continue, one of the male employees said in Mandarin, “She’s French? I thought French women were supposed to be skinny and beautiful. How unlucky for us!” My dad was mortified obviously, and from that day forward, always mentioned first the fact she can speak fluent Mandarin.

Thinking back on this story, I now find myself questioning what happened immediately after this incident. In Taiwan’s alternate universe work environment, was the male employee deeply embarrassed for making such a faux pas? Or was the group more embarrassed for the French executive that he had called her unattractive in front of the group?

3. People actually want to read about and discuss sexism in Taiwan.

You’d think politics, or maybe where to get the best xiaolongbao, would be the most divisive topics you could write about in Taiwan. But nope, it turns out the winner might be sexism. The article was shared around quite a bit on social media through Facebook, but also via Twitter, Reddit and Taiwan’s English-language blog circles.

Since I write in English, most of the responses were from foreigners living in Taiwan, ABCs in Taiwan, and also Taiwanese living overseas. But I did notice the article shared by local Taiwanese too.

In fact, the jump in page views was kind of insane. See this chart.

sexism taipei

So let’s keep talking about it, shall we? If you have any first-hand stories about sexism in Taiwan, the comments section is below.

Above image of Taiwan’s 2017 women’s basketball team from FIBA Basketball.

Comments (6):

  1. Tetsuo

    September 17, 2017 at 17:30

    “Imagine if a black person was sharing his experiences about racism in Taiwan and an Asian-American person interjected, “but what about unfairness towards Asian-Americans? Let’s talk about that.” Awkward.”

    I’ve literally left a Facebook group theoretically focused on opposing racial discrimination in Taiwan entirely because any time anyone else brought up racism against anyone else, the Asian-American mods would pitch a shitfit and all but demand everything be about how hard they had it.

    You’re right, it was awkward. And disgusting.

    Reply
  2. Red

    September 19, 2017 at 23:05

    I think there are several reasons for this:

    1) People in Taiwan are generally more willing to hear out a contrary opinion first before they give an indignant response. Whereas in the United States, people (liberals and conservatives alike) will often have a “Vitriol first, ask questions later” backlash immediately. They will bristle within seconds or split-seconds of hearing something they don’t like, without hearing it out first. So a post about sexism goes further in Taiwan than it does in America.

    2) Feminism in Taiwan does not have the “man-hating” connotation in Taiwan that it does in the US. In America, feminists are often perceived as being more about hating men than about supporting women (you don’t see a Taiwanese counterpart to Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto, for instance, or the Radical Wind blog https://witchwind.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/utopia-what-would-a-womens-society-look-like/ ) – (well, at least that I am aware of – I don’t exactly get into Taiwanese social media much, I admit, so maybe there is but I am just unaware of it.) So talking about sexism will find an easier audience here in many ways than in America.

    3) I think one culprit for the “Isn’t she cute?” culture in Taiwan that you spoke of in your previous post is the whole Kawaii cute culture, for which we can partly blame Japan. I mean the Hello Kitty, Pokemon, all-about-cute-cute-cute culture thing. Like EVA Air’s Hello Kitty airplane with Hello Kitty themed toilet paper, etc. It is infantilizing Asia and making Asia appear silly, shallow, etc. With that kind of culture it isn’t surprising that women are judged on how cute they are. It is really time to stop this whole cute-cute-cute culture in Asia.

    Reply
    • Kathy

      September 20, 2017 at 12:32

      To your first point, there has been lots of news about sexism in the US lately — see all the recent stuff about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, Fox News and Hollywood. Even all the allegations against Donald Trump. People have been exposed and fired, so I’d say sexism, gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace are discussed much more openly in the US than in Taiwan.

      But back to Taiwan (since I don’t see the point of comparing sexism in the US vs. Taiwan), I feel that Taiwanese people are often instantly combative in conversation — just look at how people discuss politics here — but if you haven’t seen it personally, perhaps this is moreso between fellow Taiwanese people than with non-Taiwanese. (Sorry if I’m incorrect in assuming you’re non-Taiwanese since you’re comparing to US.) Also, the issue with sexism is the issue of power. If it’s your boss or your manager at work that’s behaving in a sexist way, or it’s an elder family member that’s making inappropriate remarks about your physical appearance, how are you supposed to stand up for yourself? This is what I mean when I say people don’t talk about it or even acknowledge — but they should.

      Reply
  3. Ronald

    September 27, 2017 at 20:44

    Sexism runs deep here. Thanks for raising the topic. Kudos from your white gay male half-Jewish middle-class North-European ally! I do speak up about sexism, racism, etc.–it was even my job to do so for a while (diversity consultant). But, yes, it’s always a matter of choosing one’s battles wisely in terms of power, risk, and available energy and resources (financial, legal, allies).

    Reply
  4. Adam

    September 29, 2017 at 14:06

    Thanks for taking on a difficult, sensitive topic. My comment is related to this passage,

    “Imagine if a black person was sharing his experiences about racism in Taiwan and an Asian-American person interjected, “but what about unfairness towards Asian-Americans? Let’s talk about that.” Awkward.”

    I think in the specific case that a black person and an asian-american are relating xperiences of each group being racist to the other it is probably less of “hey, what about me?” and more a simple matter of pointing out hypocrisy; I don’t see one as minimizing the other in that case.

    Now, if I chime in with a story about my confrontation with racism (which amounts to overhearing a group of Indian-American girls comment that “white boys are always so horny”), then yes I would be trivializing the discussion.

    Reply
    • Kathy

      September 29, 2017 at 14:14

      Hi Adam. In that passage, I was referring to black people sharing the racism they experience from local Taiwanese. And Taiwanese-Americans jumping in with how they are also mistreated by locals for not being “Taiwanese enough” — essentially taking over the topic. I personally haven’t experienced black vs. Taiwanese-American hostility here in Taipei.

      Reply

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