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The Ex-pat: A Sketch

A figure of whiteness haunts Taiwan and presumably similar places where cultural vibrancy, political freedoms, and the friendliness of the locals are promoted as reasons to “explore X country.” Underlying such seemingly innocuous invitations to wanderlust is the weight of centuries of colonialism and imperialism. This figure of whiteness, the “ex-pat,” is distinct from, but cut from the same cloth as, figures such as the soldier, the missionary, the merchant, and the scientist. The ghost-like quality of the ex-pat stems from this: its historical function in legitimizing violence and domination as a means of appropriating collective social wealth for the benefit of the few through an essentializing defense of adopted communities. Although this orientalism discriminates by worshipping rather than degrading, it is no less repugnant in its service to imperialism.

Whiteness, it should first be noted, is irreducible to skin color. It refers instead to a universalizing worldview tied with colonization and civilizing discourse. As a way of seeing, it cannot be divorced from the ideologies of racial capitalism originating with European conquest from the 15th century. It is a social ordering and bordering process separating the free from unfree, owners from dispossessed, and those belonging within the community from those forever threatened with expulsion from the nation-state or, ultimately, humanity itself. Whiteness in this sense is a political color, or, better, a metaphor for power that is globe spanning in its reach. “The problem of the twentieth century,” W.E.B. Du Bois presciently noted, “is the problem of the color-line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”

The politics of (im)mobility is central to the global development of racial capitalism and the problem of the color-line. Enslaved African peoples harbored cultural knowledge and practices providing the substance for perseverance and resistance in the face of unspeakable horrors, even as their bodies were chained and forcibly spirited away to the Americas. This is not to say that ideologies and social practices are born in one location only to travel like pathogens by air and sea to take root in destinations afar. Whiteness is a local just as much as a foreign creation. It must therefore be investigated as a psychology of oppression embedded in grounded social relations that both shapes, and is shaped by, space and time.

In this vein, Fanon’s framework for understanding anti-colonial struggles is instructive. Fanon observed two distinct political orientations animating anti-colonial struggles: movements for liberation through socialism, and movements for the continuation of class-rule led by a comprador bourgeoisie. Whereas the former is oriented towards emancipation and egalitarianism, the latter is oriented towards perpetuating appropriation and exploitation by merely shuffling the personnel of the ruling class. The colonial bourgeoisie buys into a worldview excusing genocide and slavery by pointing to the capitalist modernity they ushered in. The native bourgeoisie believes that, yes, capitalist development produces unspeakable social misery and suffering, but it is a small concession for liberal democratic institutions. As an exercise in abstraction, the ex-pat is firmly aligned with this capitalist nationalist elite.

The pathways to Taiwan of Westerners are as diverse as the individual biographies of these fellow travelers. Some arrive for a semester abroad to learn an “unaccented” Mandarin and get away from their home institutions. Others might be backpacking with friends or strangers as part of a gap year. Perhaps the appeal of teaching English for easy money is a driving motivation. Or maybe intimate relationships with Taiwanese immigrants and their offspring sparked curiosity in Taiwanese society. A possible link could be with military personnel stationed in the region who know the island as a destination for “rest and relaxation,” or with the innumerous non-governmental organizations operating on the island. In any case, decades of human movement and the fraught geopolitical relationship with China have cemented a complicated relationship between Taiwan and whiteness.

The soldier, the missionary, the merchant, and the scientist are easily found in Taiwan among these Western travelers. If European colonialism spread in the first instance with the Bible and the Sword, it has never ceased wielding these as tools of destruction in the name of trade and knowledge production. In the Taiwanese context, the 21st century avatars of the conquistador and the missionary espouse ideologies of genocidal bloodlust in the name of ‘shared values’ – i.e., the 21st century ‘white man’s burden’ of bringing freedom and democracy to the world. According to this narrative, Taiwan is a plucky underdog locked in a Manichean battle with authoritarian China, and thriving despite tremendous odds against its favor. The Project 2049 Institute, C4ADS, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Global Taiwan Institute, and U.S.-Taiwan Consultations on Democratic Governance in the Indo-Pacific Region all inhabit this camp of gods and warriors.

This rabid militaristic vision is promoted in parallel with the West’s campaign to demonize China. It draws on, and extends, imperialist narratives of the “yellow peril” and oriental despotism. According to this story of civilizational progress, Western nations act as stalwart partners in the defense of the free world. This discourse is of a piece with depictions of Israel as an “oasis of democracy in a neighborhood of violence,” and politicians of all stripes are unsurprisingly equally dogmatic about the right of Taiwan and Israel to purchase military equipment from Western arms dealers.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s phrase, “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” succinctly captures the misogyny and racial hatred of the soldier and the missionary. The act of saving should be seen as both a physical and a spiritual practice. In these terms, white men act as agents of history, doing whatever it takes to protect brown women. White men act not from individual will so much as from duty, a “calling,” or a “responsibility to protect” in the lexicon of humanitarianism. Brown women, meanwhile, are simultaneously incapable of defending themselves from bodily violence inflicted by barbarians, and tasked with caretaking a future made possible only by accepting the grace of the saviors. This is submission in a double sense – to Man as the dominant sex, and Western civilization as the natural sovereign of a global order.

Baldwin’s brilliant writings on the psychology of whiteness attribute racial hatred to a collective failure to confront the realities of genocide and slavery. White Americans, Baldwin observes, have lost touch with their inner worlds, have become thoroughly self-alienated, through this denial of history. “The American Negro,” Baldwin insists,

“has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.”

Malcolm X warned that, by choosing to believe the lies that America tells about itself and acting in accordance with these false convictions, white Americans end up “hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” This hypocrisy, underscored in Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech, is the original sin of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It requires that white Americans engage in self-deception about who they are: their fallibility, their sexual desires, their mortality, their history, and their common humanity.

It is from this understanding of the wellsprings of hegemonic ideologies that we should approach the relative weakness of populist xenophobic and misogynist movements in Taiwan. Although there are certainly traces of the soldier and the missionary in Taiwanese society, they are not prominent ideological orientations of those supporting an imperialist world order founded upon American exceptionalism. If racial hatred and toxic masculinity stem from the need for a target to blame for the failure of modern civilization to live up to its promises, particularly during times of material deprivation and uncertainty, it makes sense that such ideologies have failed to gain traction as a common sense of movement building in Taiwan.

In the first instance, the overarching mythology of Taiwan is one of tragedy, not triumphalism. Whereas the historiography of anti-colonial struggles in other contexts celebrates the coming into being of a people’s collective will through national liberation, Taiwan’s complicated national sovereignty status inhibits seeing the nation-state as a completed vehicle for self-determination. As a consequence, there is a deep feeling of ongoing struggle for self-autonomy. The sense of ongoing struggle for self-determination, in turn, reduces the tension between the promises of modern nationhood and the reality of fractured sovereignty and inequality from which discriminatory ideologies arise. Whereas the ideology of white supremacy considers the existing nation-state as the pinnacle of progress, thus closing off the possibility for revolutionary change despite the urgent necessity for it, the unfulfilled promise of self-determination in Taiwan keeps visions of revolutionary change alive.

As the xenophobia of protesters in Hong Kong makes clear, however, the framework of ongoing struggle for national liberation is insufficient to explain the weakness of the more hideous face of hegemonic ideologies in Taiwan. This weakness can be understood further in the context of the convoluted relationship between Taiwan, China, and, the US. The US-backed authoritarian Kuomintang (KMT) regime served as a beachhead against China and the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. After being driven from the mainland in 1949, the KMT government continued to harbor fantasies of one day ruling over all of China. The Republic of China (ROC), commonly referred to as ‘Free China,’ was therefore staunchly anti-communist, but could not rely on racialized ideologies to stain its enemies due to its aspirations to return to the mainland. The KMT government sought instead to instill reverence for Chinese culture while demonizing communism and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as illegitimate usurpers. In contrast, the British colonial regime encouraged a localized cultural identity in Hong Kong separate from the mainland.

Despite the authoritarian KMT’s unyielding anti-communism and close relationship with Washington, the dominant orientation of the pro-democracy movement in Taiwan was not ideologically opposed to either capitalism or imperialism. The pro-democracy movement gained strength after the US cut diplomatic ties with the KMT in the late 1970s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s death and the KMT’s increasing international isolation inspired confidence that the party would be amenable to implementing democratic reforms. Members of the dangwai (“outside the party”) movement were primarily drawn from a class of urban intellectuals, local politicians, and students.

The class character of the pro-democracy movement continues to have important implications for Taiwanese society. A neoliberal capitalist perspective has heavily shaped social movements and, more generally, the contours of political discourse since the lifting of martial law. Leftist movements portray Taiwan in tragic terms as an outcast of history. As mentioned above, this sense of an unfinished project of national emancipation is partially responsible for dampening the appeal of xenophobic and misogynist ideologies. It does so by reducing feelings of entitlement and privilege that, left unfulfilled, easily lead to blaming racialized and gendered groups.

At the same time, however, centering social struggle on state sovereignty encourages an ethno-nationalist tendency within these movements that tends to stifle the possibility for building an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist coalition. In this sense, safeguarding national sovereignty and liberal democracy takes precedence over struggling against the most pressing challenges facing humanity: poverty, militarism, racism, sexism, and ecological destruction. It is telling, for instance, that indigenous populations in Taiwan continue to prefer the KMT to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the political party that grew from the dangwai movement. Although movements oriented towards anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism were, and continue to be, active in Taiwan, these forces are written off as pro-China at best, and viciously attacked by pro-independence groups at worst.

The class character and structure of feeling of pro-independence movements attract the support of ex-pats. Taiwan has long been a destination for youth seeking to spend time living abroad. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, Westerners with the financial means could, as the Independent put it, “move abroad to beat the recession blues." The favorable exchange rate, low cost of living, stable demand for English teachers, and developed ex-pat community in Taiwan made it a popular destination. A sizable community of young, college-educated, and relatively financially secure Westerners has therefore followed the footsteps of earlier generations of ex-pats by establishing roots in Taiwan.

Ex-pats often portray Taiwan as a bastion of freedom and democracy under assault by an authoritarian cross-Strait aggressor. The structure of feeling treating Taiwanese people as an isolated but righteous group aligns with ex-pats’ sense of precariousness in becoming déclassé in the context of economic crisis. The deep-felt sense that China is the source of injustice against Taiwanese is analogous with the intensifying xenophobia and misogyny of low-income white Americans suddenly feeling as if they are unable to cash in on the “wages of whiteness.”

Although financial resources give ex-pats the option of responding to economic crisis by moving abroad, the feeling of a destiny denied is shared between these groups. This sense of existential angst, as argued above, is a core feature of whiteness. This shared character of whiteness helps to explain how ex-pats become staunch supporters of Taiwanese independence. Ex-pats are wont to pour their energies into demonizing China just as exploited working class white Americans are wont to dehumanize and blame Black Americans and immigrants for their impoverishment and immiseration. In both instances, the sense of rage is misplaced.

Describing how the nature of crises are misconstrued by dominant groups, Walter Benjamin argued that,

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.”

Ex-pat support for Taiwanese independence in this context is inextricably bound with imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. It is a backwards-looking orientation that calls for integration into a burning house rather than the revolutionary transformation necessary to address real crises that are centuries in the making.

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