Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Being a Foreigner

I had some free time today so I went to explore my new university. I’m studying at the Mandarin Training Centre (MTC) which is part of National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). The NTNU campus is very large and I made the mistake of getting lost in it. My campus it turns out is on the other side of the road. It has a huge archway that you walk under and directly to your left is the library building. To tell the truth I didn’t get much farther than that. The library has a vast collection of Chinese and English books. I tried in vain to read some the literary works in Chinese but I could only make out a small part of it. What was really interesting though was a book I found in English, Interpersonal Behaviour: The Psychology of Social Interaction by Joseph P. Forgas. A reason I was drawn to that book is how I have been feeling of late.

 When I’m with English speakers I enjoy myself but feel as if I am missing out on the ‘real experience' of Taiwan, yet when I’m with Taiwanese or Chinese friends I feel bewildered and overloaded with words I don’t understand. In both situations I can feel isolated from those around me and I wonder what my true goal in coming here was. What I liked about the book I started reading was how it helped put into perspective what I’ve been feeling.

  It starts out by saying how for most of human history people have existed in small family units, surrounded by kin and friendly acquaintances. There were never any strangers or new faces to see because people lived and died in this small familiar group. Now, in the 21st Century, everything is different! Due to many factors, like urbanization, and industrialization we are constantly surrounded by those we don’t know. Meeting someone on the street we recognize is more a novelty then the norm. This sudden change in society takes adapting too. We suddenly have to interact with others on a more regular bases and it becomes more complex since we deal with people from different, races, and religion. This can lead to I believe in either enhanced social skills or the opposite, a decline in human interaction. People can become so nervous and unconfident it leads to seclusion. 

The author borrowed a definition from Phillip Zimbardo which I quite like. Zimbardo defines shyness as the” code word for all the forces within each of us, as well as those pressures from society, that combine to isolate us from one another”. I find this amusing because it’s so true. Sometimes there is a lot of pressure, real or imagined, to stop me from interacting with others. I’m always aware of how I may be perceived by others or what assumptions they might make from looking at me. If I think about it too much the opportunity passes and then they just become another unfamiliar person. This is why my all time favorite quote is “strangers are just people you haven’t met yet” from the novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.

It may be true that we live in a society that is fast paced and seemingly impersonal, yet I think the coldness we observe in others can be due to our own making. If we look hard enough we will find the faults and shortcomings we strain to see, and this justification of our preconceived notions doesn't do us any good . An important, but uncomfortable, part of traveling is the continually laying bare of biases I wasn’t even aware I had. It makes for some inner wrestling matches which can be just as exhausting as physical exercise. At the end of the day though, I hope it makes me a better person.

I know there are thousands of self-help books or instructions on How to Win Friends and Influence People ( Dale Carnegie) , but it can’t make up for the actual doing part. It’s stepping out of your comfort zone and talking with others that will do the trick. So as much as I like my little hide-away on the top bunk of a 6 person dorm, I am going to leave its comfort. I’m going to go stretch my legs by walking in the night air. I will pass under neon lights and listen to the hum of the city that vibrates from the sidewalk shops. I may not speak to anyone, but if the occasion arises to buy some treats from a vendor on the road, I'll grab it. You never know who you may meet on the streets of Taipei.  

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