During my first two or three years in Taiwan, from 1976 through 1978, I didn’t speak much, if any, Chinese. For social interaction I relied, as have expatriates throughout the ages, on local people who could converse in English and on other foreigners. Life was lonely, but tolerable.
One of the guys who spoke English fairly well and liked to hang around with me was a student in a Veterinary school. His plan was to eventually do advanced study in the USA, so his need for English practice and mine for conversation coincided. The late 70s were a time of some political turmoil in Taiwan, and by membership in the Presbyterian Church I was assumed (correctly) to be among the “anti government” crowd. But I had been carefully taught to keep my opinions to myself.
One day, though, in conversation with a friend much more at the center of things, I was warned to be careful of my associations. Word had come “through channels” that I’d made statements that bordered on unacceptability. I tried to imagine who would have reported me, and landed on my Veterinary student friend. I was wrong.
It turned out that I’d been reported by a clergyman who was angling to get himself and his children out of the country before his son hit the age when he would have to stay and complete his military service before being allowed out. When I learned this, I had to re-think my impressions of a man whom I thought had befriended me sincerely.
I’m currently part of a group of “old guys” who meet every other week to gripe about and support each other in the task of getting older. A week ago we read a short article by Arthur Brooks, who retired recently from his position as the chief of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. Though the article was about accepting our mutual decline as old guys, I was, nonetheless, skeptical. After all, he was from the AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE. So I read carefully. I’ve had to do more rethinking. Brooks was spot-on in his description of what I’m learning to accept.
As I go forward, I imagine that I’ll be rethinking a lot of first impressions.
David Alexander now resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.