In my first post on this blog, I wrote:
“Fashion does not serve as an armor for me -- it is a compass. Clothing is a way of locating myself in a sea of competing personalities. It is a way of weaving a self-narrative when I feel rootless, a blank page with a pencil permanently poised above it but no lines written.”
Modcloth is having an essay contest about “Terrific Transformations,” so I figured this would be a good opportunity to elaborate on what I meant when I wrote that I sometimes feel rootless.
Two years ago, I moved to Taipei to be with my fiancé and study Mandarin. I had just finished an intensive language course when a taxi driver asked me if I was Japanese or Korean. I replied that I was American. He asked me “Are you Han Chinese?” I said yes. And with a derisive tone in his voice, he said, “You’d better start working harder on your Chinese. I’ve met white people who can speak better than you.”
I was shocked and hurt – but this wasn’t the first time something like this had ever happened to me. My Mandarin skills have always been intertwined with issues of race and self-identity, in a way that is sometimes unsettling.
I was the first of my family to be born and raised in America, and my parents never forced my younger brother or me to speak Mandarin at home. Recently, I asked my mother why and she told me it was partly because when we started kindergarten, my brother and I were so shy that our teachers told her to encourage us to speak English at home so we’d feel more comfortable with our mostly white classmates.
Scared out of my wits by our principal dressed as Santa Claus in kindergarten -- who wouldn't be?
It worked and my brother and I became more outgoing and started making friends. But the trade-off was that as English overtook Mandarin as our “first” language, we became increasingly distanced from our family and the large but closely-knit Taiwanese American community in our city.
As the first person on both sides of my family to be more fluent in English than in Mandarin, I sometimes felt like a curiosity – the strange American cousin/niece who could only express very basic concepts in Mandarin and, as such, was often left out of conversations and feeling very awkward at gatherings. Because of that, a chip landed on my shoulder that began to grow and grow. Of course, there were other second-generation Asian American kids in my situation, but my blinders were on and I didn't seek them out to commiserate.
At about 13 years old
When I went to college in New York state, it was the first time in my life that I had been separated from my family and our community. I missed my parents very much -- and, too my surprise, I also missed the other Taiwanese American families I’d grown up around. One day I heard two foreign exchange students speaking Mandarin on campus. Their accent was different from that of my parents and their friends, but it was enough to bring tears of homesickness to my eyes. I often felt out of place back home, but it was my home nonetheless. When my paternal grandparents and maternal grandfather passed away, I was struck each time by the knowledge that I'd never really gotten to know them because we simply had not been able to have real conversations -- and the realization filled me with regret.
A few years after college, I met my fiancé, who had lived and worked in Taiwan for five years before going back to the United States for graduate school, where we met. When he told me a year after we started dating that he had been offered a job in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, and planned to move back in a month, I was surprised and upset. But then Ron suggested I move to Taipei, too.
“What is there for me to do in Taiwan?” I wailed.
“You told me you always wanted to learn Mandarin. You said it’s really, really important to you,” he replied.
“My entire life is in New York City,” I snapped back at him. And I was scared of what I’d encounter in Taipei. Would people dismiss me just because I could barely speak Mandarin? Would my “American-ness” prevent people from seeing me as an individual, just as my “Asian-ness” sometimes made me the target of stereotypes in the United States?
But the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me. Eighteen months later, I followed Ron to Taipei, armed with a Mandarin scholarship I’d won from the Taiwanese government.
Reunited with Ron on a trip to Taipei, late 2006
Studying Mandarin was one of the most challenging, frustrating and amazing experiences of my life. It was wonderful to slowly open my personal door to the Chinese language wider and wider each week. By the end of the school year, I went from not being able to say things like "I didn't do it on purpose" (a very useful phrase) to carrying on relatively sophisticated (if somewhat halting) conversations about topics like ballet choreographer George Balanchine, suicidal ideation and secondhand fashion. I could write short letters to my relatives, and chat easily with them (they tell me all kinds of funny stories about my parents). For fun, I picked up copies of “Twilight” and "Little Women" in Chinese and started reading them with my electronic dictionary by my side. I made new friends here and started a job as a features reporter at an English language newspaper, where I conduct most of my interviews in Mandarin. I was – and am -- very happy.
With genealogy cards representing three branches of my lineage at a Hakka museum near Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan. For more information about this part of my heritage, click here.
But then things would happen like my encounter with the taxi driver and I would feel diminished. Once again, I felt like I’d been called out: “You’re lazy because you speak Mandarin with an accent.” “You’re a traitor to your race and culture.” “You are neither Taiwanese enough nor American enough. You don't belong.”
As irrational as those feelings were, they were hard to push away.
Then one day my mother wrote me an e-mail. She’d read a blog entry I’d written about the taxi driver and sent me a Chinese saying -- 禍福相依 -- that means when something bad happens not everything that comes out of it is negative, and when good things happen it doesn't mean it will bring all positives.
“The reason we meet people like that is to remind us not to be like them,” she added.
I realized that what I’d been looking for all these years was not acceptance from other people, but a sense of acceptance from within myself. If you already know who you are, then how can you get hurt when narrow-minded people try to force you into a box?
I think I needed to be in Taiwan in order for that lesson to truly crystallize in my head. As an expatriate, my time here is, by definition, limited. If I let silly little comments or my own baggage get to me, there will come a day when I look back on what should have been a wonderful adventure abroad learning about my heritage – and regret all the time I wasted feeling sorry for myself and angry at other people. I will regret the connections I could have made, but didn't because I was too busy rejecting people before they could reject me. For years I’d carried that chip on my shoulder – and I have to admit that I still do, even though it's smaller now. But I’m sick of letting negativity affect my life, whether it comes from other people or from within myself.
With my parents and members of my extended family here in Taipei at a lunch celebrating my engagement to Ron
I’m glad I’m American, but I’m also happy I am of Taiwanese descent and that I can lay claim to two cultures at once, even if I