Last night I was invited to a birthday party by a girl named Janneke, a South African whom I met when I was trying to find an apartment in my first few days here. Janneke had listed a place on a popular expat Taiwanese website, and since our initial correspondence we have talked occasionally on the internet, me always promising to, in typical exaggerated Texas swagger, come out with them and show them how a real American could "drink them under the table". Having no excuse not to go (previously money has always been a deterrent), I walked the three minutes to the 7-11 across the street from the Hsinchu General Hospital and shared a cab with Janneke and her friends Robert and Lucy, all South Africans of varied ages. It was my first time meeting any of them, and they were friendly although they mostly spoke their first language, Afrikaans, which discovered is closely related to German or Dutch. I didn't mind, though, as I have become used to people speaking languages I cannot understand.
The night went exceptionally well, and evolved into something of a bar tour of Hsinchu. The first stop was at a tiny bar in Nanliao - the fishing harbor by the ocean. The establishment was run by a man named Ahur, who I likened to a Taiwanese hippie, and who was drunk when we arrived at 8:30 and continued to become friendlier and more talkative as the toasts went up and down. At one point in the evening he put his arm around me and we talked for a few minutes about his travels around the world and some of the things he has seen. His English was excellent, almost native sounding, and I was fascinated by his life.
The bar itself was even less formal than its proprietor. There was not actually any "bar", from what I could tell, and if one wanted a drink they simply had to find Ahur or one of his friends, who would cooly slip behind a curtain and disappear from sight, emerging seconds later with one's beverage of choice. The decor was amazing, the walls completely covered with posters, records, photographs, magazine cutouts; the furniture was warm and inviting, mostly couches and hand-carved wooden stools. The music was played through a small but powerful set of speakers connected to a computer in the corner, and the South Africans seemed comfortable enough to take control away from the deejay often, which contributed to a strange mix of techno, Afrikaans music and American pop as the soundtrack for the evening. When the small bar became too hot or crowded, or when one of the drunk South Africans shattered a glass of red wine on the floor, the party would spill into the street and onto the wooden dock opposite the bar, and dancing or smoking would ensue as the wet night air swept away the sweat and the darkness of the ocean lapped against the wooden pillars. I hadn't seen stars since leaving Texas on the night when Katherine and I had escaped into the night. In Nanliao, we were just far enough away from the city lights that the brightest ones burned through the cloudy atmosphere. It was nice, romantic, and the warm tequila and cold beer left my lips feeling numb and my head feeling light and carefree.
After midnight we took a cab back to Hsinchu where we stopped in a little bar district and had a couple drinks. Apparently, this area is where all the Westerners go during the weekends, and it was strange to see so many of us in one place. I met a girl named Emily from Ontario, a guy named Russell from Scotland, and a kid from Michigan who had arrived in Taiwan less than 24 hours earlier. I met an middle-aged man named Sean who told me he produced adult films because, and I quote: "The girls will do anything for almost no pay". After allowing me to awkwardly stutter some response about the value of pornography in today's society, he handed me his card which read "Sales Manager for the Gram English Center", and informed that he did not, actually, produce adult films. "When you told me you had only been here two months, I had to mess with you" he said. I drank to gullibility.
We finished the night at a "club", or possibly the closest thing to a club that Hsinchu has to offer. It was not my scene, but I didn't want to be rude and leave the party early, even though it was almost 4:00 in the morning. I didn't dance much, but made a new friend in Joanita, a very pretty South African girl with big dark eyes, and we talked loudly over the beating house music and watched the evening's stragglers dance clumsily on the lighted dance floor. Afterward, I showed the girls into the cab and walked home through the cool autumn air, the light from the new day whispering into the horizon and warming the grey-sky morning.
While this night was good and marks the first time I have really been "out" since my arrival in Taiwan, it was no different than anything I could've done back home in the States. The descriptions are mostly to lay foundation for my commentary which is as follows:
First, last night was the first time I have had to clarify the statement "I am from Texas" with "Texas...United States". In the U.S., it is a given that everyone you meet knows where Texas is, or has at least HEARD of Texas and understands it to be a part of America. However, as Americans we take this knowledge for granted and do not realize that our identities, insofar as our specific home makes up our identity, must be simplified as we broaden our horizons. No longer is my home a house or an address or a city or state; my home is now a NATION, which serves to both inspire pride and national identity, but also to create a small feeling of ambiguousness - a homeless feeling, like you belong everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
Secondly, last night is the first time I have ever been "attacked" for no other reason than because I am an American. This attack came from a South African girl, a friend of a friend of Janneke's, who was VERY drunk and very obviously wanted to take me home with her (I am not being arrogant here...she was disgustingly indiscreet). However, her tactics for wooing me was to continually insult my nationality, which she must have likened to flirting, but which I likened to insulting. On top of all this, she was far too drunk or too rude to learn my name and insisted on calling me "Bob", while I made a strong effort to learn everyone's name, as well as the correct pronunciation. I listened quietly along with other wide-eyed Taiwanese locals while famous South African songs were being played on the stereo and the South African National Anthem was being sung loudly throughout Ahur's bar . I tried to speak little of America, though it is difficult to speak of much else because it is all I have known in 25 years, and asked many questions about culture and language different from my own. Yet, despite my concentrated effort at open-mindedness, I was still accused of arrogance and small-thinking.
I realize now that this girl was probably too intoxicated to know how judgmental and hypocritical she was being, and she was definitely a poor representation of South Africans as a whole, who are very friendly and generally accepting. However, they are also passionate and they love their country and, from what I have seen, are not afraid to display their national pride. So why the double-standard? Why are South Africans allowed to revel in the colors of their country while American have to live in fear that we will be labeled as arrogant or boastful if we speak or celebrate our home? Perhaps, as I see more of this world and meet more fellow travelers who have left their homes I will understand and sympathize more, I will begin to see the ugliness of American pride. Or maybe, just like as a middle-class white male in America can never really identify with centuries of oppression or socioeconomic determinism that flourishes in the undercurrents of American society, I will always be blind to the reasons why Americans are despised because I am not on the outside looking in. Maybe my mere existence is a testament to the perceived superiority of American ideology. I hope all of this becomes more clear as the world gets smaller and the list of places I have called home gets bigger.
Ahur's bar in Nanliao (photo courtesy of Joanita Stander)
One of my favorite lines from the movie "Into The WIld":
Man: "Hello! Where are you from?"
Alexander Supertramp: "I haven't decided yet."