I usually go straight home on Saturdays. Twelve hours in any place is more than enough time and caffeine can only impede exhaustion’s seductive call to sleep for so long. I walked briskly through the hall and past the office, throwing goodbyes at people in each room. As I approached the exit I slowed, then stopped and looked into the back office. There sat my boss and co-worker, eating silently over bowls of food.
“Need anything else?” I asked in a clipped, tired way.
“Come. Try this. You want?” My boss gestured to a bag of food sitting on the table– tofu and seaweed and cabbage all mixed together and stained a deep brown.
“I, uh, what is it?” I lumbered in hesitantly, shouldering the backpack I carried everyday to work. Something about bejeweled flats and a hiking bag don’t mix well, but I will always opt unashamedly for comfort.
“It’s Liu shi,” J spoke, precisely and slowly. I repeated in my nasally Midwestern accent, erasing some of the nuances from the two syllables, I’m sure. Even now, I’m not sure if I remember the word correctly.
She smiled. C, my boss, smiled too and said something in Chinese. My boss knows English, of course, though she often sends J to speak with me. For her, English is something to be labored through. She didn’t approach it with the same wry, amused attitude as J.
J, on the other hand, had mastered English sarcasm and used it frequently. She almost always speaks in English, pushing herself to improve. So, when I sat down, she began speaking.
We talked at some length about my attitude toward rich international students in the United States. I answered honestly, trying my best to explain the divide between wealthy college students and middle class students. I explained how for the wealthy students, including international ones, often didn’t understand obstacles some of their less affluent peers needed to work through. While they focused on studying, other students focused on studying and simply surviving. For those students, getting year long internships and working for free wasn’t always an option. Getting experience they needed for great jobs was difficult enough without needing to worry about having enough money to buy food. Wealthy students didn’t understand that because they’d never needed to consider the cost of living, or the cost of anything really.
J nodded. C spoke, but only in Chinese. I’m still not sure what she said. For all I know she could have been telling J I was spouting nonsense.
“We don’t like rich here. They go to. America. They study and they don’t want. do anything. Students here aren’t like America. Not like students in America. Who want to work. But can’t. They’re lazy. They don’t want to work.” J sometimes spoke in a staccato, breaking off sentences and abruptly starting new ones, ending each word with harsh, precise sounds.
“Students here like lazy jobs. Here everyone can get a job, but they don’t want to. No internships like US. Us is very different. They don’t want to work here. They want it easy. Only easy jobs, I think. .”
“Like McDonald’s,” C interjected. “So easy.” She laughed.
“Yes! You just like clean their tables. Or something. Maybe someone wants to order or something so. you take their order. It’s very easy.”
“Well…” I started uncomfortably, wondering if I should better explain American society.
“Then they go to US. They come back. What do they do? They don’t know. They don’t know!” J became emphatic. “So they become English teachers. Why? Why? They take jobs from people who want them.”
Immediately I understood she was talking about herself. When she first picked me up in the airport, she asked me how old I was.
“Wow!” She said, genuinely surprised. “So young.”
Here I was, born speaking English and, without much work, I’d managed to secure a job she’d studied and toiled for. Meanwhile others, by virtue of their birth, were able to study abroad and hone the necessary English skills to succeed. Yet, they’d wasted their opportunities– opportunities she’d never had. They didn’t pursue any of the jobs they were qualified to do; instead, they taught English because it was easy for them to get the job.
I understood her vituperative attitude toward those students, but as she spoke more it seemed to expand beyond them. I wondered, given her criticisms, what was her opinion of the Sunflower movement?
“Oh. You know about that?” Again, surprise. “You know what about that?”
“Yes, I’ve read some things.”
“It’s stupid. Students are lazy here,” she repeated. “They are scared China will take their jobs. They don’t want to work. But China is powerful! Too powerful. Why don’t you want to work with them?”
I picked up on her last thought. “Well, some people think that China will use that power to take over Taiwan. Maybe they will buy all the businesses and if they control all of those then they basically control Taiwan. I heard the students wanted Taiwan to be a separate country. That the KMT tried to sneak the deal through.”
“Well, yes. They are powerful. Very powerful, but the students are still lazy. In China people have to work hard because there are too many [people]. It’s not like that here.”
“So you think they’re just worried about competition or losing their jobs, not about Taiwan’s independence.”
“Yes. I think so. Yes. People just don’t like China.”
“Do you think most people would agree with you? Should Taiwan be concerned about China?” I asked. “Do you think this agreement is good?”
She explained that she didn’t love the government in Taiwan or China. Still, an agreement with China could help Taiwan. It could bring jobs to Taiwanese people. To her, the students wrongly judged the geopolitical ramifications of working with China. This misjudgment was aided by Taiwanese distaste for China. This distaste, she felt, was firmly nested in something more sinister.
“Everyone says white people are so racist. They always talk about, “Oh White people are the most racist” but really we are the worst. Yes. We are the worst. We are.” She observed my doubtful expression. “We are. Every country thinks it’s the best. Taiwanese think they’re better than Chinese. Japanese think they’re better than both of us. Korea, Korea is like a tiger. They want everything. They think they are much better than everyone else. They want to take the region.”
I reflected again on earlier conversations. All of her friends moved to Korea to work. They talked about the opportunities they found there, about how amazing Korea was. J disagreed. “They pay us less than we do them. They think they can cheat us.” To her, the agreements between the Korean and Taiwanese government underestimated the value Taiwanese people had to offer. I wondered why she highlighted Taiwan’s virtue in that case, but Taiwan’s faults in the case of China.
“Still, back to the agreement with China. Do you think Taiwan and China should be closer?”
She told me Taiwan needed to be careful, and there was cause for concern with China.
“In this case though,” I pressed. “Do you think the agreement is good?”
“Yes. I do. Yes. It will help us. People just don’t want to because they don’t like China or something. But we need them to come here.”
Again, J had given me something to think about. Most would argue that people of her generation viewed China with greater hostility. To them, the line between being Chinese and Taiwanese was more distinct than that of the older generation. Above all, they wanted to demonstrate Taiwan was independent, culturally and politically. In fact, many articles highlight Taiwan’s suspicion of China and the Cross-Strait agreement. Yet, J appeared to think otherwise. How common was her view? I wondered.
“I could never say that to other Taiwanese though.” She said, answering my unasked question. She couldn’t tell them she felt the protests were based in ignorance and racism without being lambasted by others her age. I wanted to ask further about her opinion about the Taiwanese government’s decision to indict the students, but noticing the lateness of the hour I decided not to. Instead, I decided it would be better to address my own culture.
” I don’t know about the racism thing.” I commented.
” I understand what you’re saying though, especially in terms of racism against indigenous people. Still, I think white people probably have that covered.”
“White people can be a**holes,” I said. “I mean, we did try to control entire countries. We basically just took them over and didn’t listen to the people living there. Not to mention we just kinda thought we knew everything and didn’t bother to try to understand everyone. Sometimes we even pretended to help them. We’re real jerks.” I attempted to simplify issues related to colonialism and imperialism. I’m not sure if I succeeded.
She laughed uproariously, maybe out of shock. “Oh really?” she said in her usual vaguely wry tone.
“Oh yeah. White people are jerks.” I said, laughing. “Anyway, this jerk needs to go home. Thank you for sharing with me.”
She nodded, still smiling and watched me heft my green bag from the floor and walk out the door.