How do Taiwanese people generally view foreigners?

In such a homogenous country, I'm curious if Taiwanese generally welcome foreigners or treat them with indifference, more or less like in Japan.

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I know of a guy that has been here for quite some time. Let's just call him Mr. Ryan. He is a bit of a connoisseur on the subject. This is what he had to say:

When people in Taiwan say “foreigner” (外國人), what they usually mean is “white people”, also known as 老外. This essentially removes a massive population of people from the conversation.

man facing in front of another sitting man

Let’s back up for a minute and start with the total number of foreigners, immigrants, and their descendants in Taiwan: 1.7 million people out of nearly 24 mill. This is a massive group with disparate needs.

The total number of foreigners, immigrants, and their descendants in Taiwan is 1.7 million people out of nearly 24 mill.

The largest group of foreign-born individuals in Taiwan is migrant workers, at 716,000. (Ministry of Labor, Oct. 2019)

Most of Taiwan’s migrant workers come from Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and especially Indonesia. (MOL, Oct., 2019)

They do jobs deemed “dangerous”, “dirty” and “difficult” (referred to as “the three Ds”), like construction, manufacturing, taking care of the elderly.

man cleaning on floor beside white wall

One of the most difficult jobs is fishing. I met this group of Indonesian fishermen and they showed me their living quarters. It’s a tough environment and they often have to navigate disputes with their bosses using minimal Mandarin ability.

Indonesian fishermen chat in a small, musty living quarters on a fishing boat in Taiwan.

The next largest group of foreign-born individuals in Taiwan are the so-called “new immigrants” (新住民), totaling about 550,000.

The vast majority are women who came by marriage, mostly from China/HK/Macau (66%). Here’s a breakdown of the largest groups, by country of origin.

These hairstylists I met in Hsinchu are considered “new immigrants”, but are also referred to as “foreign spouses” (外配), “Chinese spouses” (陸配), or more affectionately “sisters” (姐妹)。I've met Chinese men who are married to Taiwanese spouses, but this is quite rare.

So how many white foreigners are there in Taiwan? There are no statistics on this. But you can get an idea by looking at the top 11 countries by # of their citizens in Taiwan. The only majority-white countries in the top 11 are the US and Canada.

And *of course*, not all Americans and Canadians in TW are white! So, when talking about Taiwan’s foreign-born population, we need to focus more on the marginalized communities.

Before I finish, I want to mention one other group of people in Taiwan, a group that has its own concerns and needs: second-generation immigrants, or people who have at least one parent from overseas (新住民第二代)

This group is also often called “New Taiwanese” (新台灣人), but that could also describe their foreign-born parents or anyone who has Taiwanese (ROC) citizenship. I have mixed feelings about this term, and many of the other terms I’ve mentioned.

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Among the young Taiwanese people that I've met, a big part of them have lived or studied abroad. Most of them come back to the island with a new sense of what it means to be "Taiwanese". They are exposed to things that they could never be exposed to in Taiwan, like the multiculturalism of places like New York and London, the lack of the term "foreigner" to describe people of color, and no small amount of Western back-handed racism. This probably makes locals somewhat empathetic to foreigners in Taiwan.

I detect a level of mistrust between the two cultures balanced by curiosity. Taiwanese people ask me all the time why I came here, almost as if it's absurd I'd want to live and work in Taiwan. But from their perspective, the world is big and Taiwan is small, so it's a fair question.

The relationship between Taiwanese people and foreigners also depends on the country. South East Asian foreigners tend to be put in a subclass of laborers and migrant workers. While Americans, Canadians and White Europeans are elevated as "foreign experts" -- to recycle the term I heard in China in 2006.

I've overheard that many Taiwanese prefer to work in a "foreign" company with a "foreign" manager, due to our relatively relaxed work ethic. While with dating and relationships, it's either "love us" or "no way in hell".

With general friendships, making friends with Taiwanese has been difficult. I suspect this is because our ideas of a night out are completely different. Karaoke versus sitting and drinking beer in a bar, spicy hot pot versus a greasy burger. These things interfere with real friendships happening between Western and Taiwanese people in Taiwan. Unless Taiwanese are particularly curious or inspired to go with our flow and vice-versa.

Generally speaking, Taiwanese are polite and respectful to foreigners, and as such we don't experience any racial hatred, race-related violence, or any of that nasty stuff that happens in the so-called multicultural hubs. I hope that in the coming years the Taiwanese government encourages more foreign businesses and startups to establish themselves here, creating positive feedback loops that would benefit both local and foreign communities in Taiwan.

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