The epiphany came in an odd place.
It took place nearly 30 years ago. I was in Taiwan, not long after that small nation had lifted martial law. I was there to talk with Taiwanese journalists about how journalists operated in a free society.
My hosts put me up in a nice hotel in Taipei.
Taipei in those days was a buzzing place. The nation’s leaders had made a commitment to vault the country from being a near-feudal economy to becoming a thriving post-industrial one without any stops in between.
Construction crews worked to build new thoroughfares and office buildings around the clock. Taipei itself was packed at all hours. The city had the second-highest population density on the planet.
The relentless activity took a toll. Rush hour was perpetual. Smog hung over the city like an ever-present shroud.
Many commuters into the city rode scooters. To protect their lungs, they wore face masks. When they were stopped in traffic, they would hold their breath, take off the masks and shake out the soot.
Despite all that energy and enterprise, Taiwan remained a strangely insulated place.
At the time, the country had a population approaching 20 million people. Only a handful — fewer than 100,000 —were of western European ancestry.
Pale, white faces like mine were a relative rarity.
When, jetlagged and struggling to adapt to the time difference, I walked the streets of Taipei late at night, people would stop and point at me – as if I were some sort of exotic species that had escaped from the zoo.
Because the Taiwanese work ethic was so unceasing, the perceptions residents of Taipei had of westerners often weren’t flattering.
We Americans, in particular, were considered lazy, entitled, self-indulgent and boorish. To people who worked around the clock and didn’t really embrace the concept of a weekend, the way Americans took their prosperity and power for granted seemed to the Taiwanese foolish and even offensive.
One morning, I woke up early. I wanted to go for a run and get the blood moving before the day’s marathon of meetings began.
Smog, though, flat covered the city. I knew if I went outside to run, I’d be courting about 12 different kinds of lung ailments.
The hotel had a small gym with a couple of treadmills. I headed up there, dressed in my standard workout gear of a ragged t-shirt and well-worn running shorts.
When I got there, a small, elegant Asian woman was running on one of the treadmills. She stared at me when I walked in. The look she gave me was withering with condescension and contempt.
I approached the other treadmill, which was right next to hers.
As soon as I got close to it, I knew I would have a problem. All the instructions and all the labels on the buttons were written in Mandarin. There was no way I’d be able to figure out how to get the thing started.
I stood there for a long moment, hoping I could figure the thing out intuitively.
It was hopeless.
The woman on the other treadmill looked over at me and shook her head. Then she stopped and jabbed at a button on my treadmill, again shaking her head as if she were instructing a wayward child, to show me how it started.
I got on and started running.
She continued her run, but also kept shaking her head. If there had been a word balloon over her head, it would have read, “Not only is this American big and clumsy but he’s stupid, too.”
As I settled into my stride, a thought occurred:
This is what it’s like to have someone dismiss you and disregard you based on what you look like, the color of your skin or where you come from.
My sojourn as being part of a disparaged minority would end when I got on the plane to go back home.
But what if home were the place where I was treated that way — or much, much worse — all the time, every day, without end?
From that day, I’ve never wondered why many black Americans are angry.
Instead, I marvel at the fact that their fury isn’t even greater.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.