Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Modcloth Transformations: Two Kinds of Lessons

(To the left: My brother and me on a trip to Taipei, 1985)

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.

Nightmare before Christmas
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.

On a beach in 1995
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.

Ron and me
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.

Me and my three Hakka branches
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.
My many, many relatives
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 am a minority in both of them. I'm closer to my relatives now (especially my wonderful maternal grandmother); I know they love me for the similarities and differences we have. I used to be embarrassed by my American-accented Mandarin, but now I don’t really care. It’s part of my history, like every happy memory and every bad moment, every achievement and every regret. All these things make me who I am, and I have the benefits of gifts from two cultures. For the first time in my life, I feel at home in the world – and I hope that I always will, no matter where I am, no matter what language I am speaking.


  1. very profound...I am amazed at your story...My partner is a bit like you, he grew up in NZ and he used to have identity problems, not feeling like he really fit into any culture and had difficulty mastering the chinese language until he forced himself to.I'm glad you wrote this essay, its very good and I hope you win the contest!! :)

  2. Thank you! Even though I felt very alone when I was growing up b/c I didn't speak Mandarin, I since realized that there are a lot of people like me out there. It's nice to know my experiences are pretty common place among second-generation kids everywhere.

  3. This is wonderfully written! I identify a lot with what you mentioned here about being Asian but not being Asian enough. As a non-Mandarin speaking Chinese, I get rather embarrassed at my lack of proficiency in what is considered my 'mother tongue'. Someday I intend to go to Shanghai and work while studying the language. Regardless of how you did in the contest (are the results out, by the way?) this essay is rather brilliant. Just lovely!

  4. Thank you so much Karen! The results are here: A couple of really amazing essays made it to the final round.

    It's always good to hear from people of Chinese descent who don't speak Mandarin proficiently (or as proficiently as they'd like to). I consider myself pretty fluent at this point (exotic accent and English-ified grammar aside), but I'm still sometimes made to feel like a freak for not having perfect Mandarin.

    Most people in Taipei don't make a big deal out of my accent, but of course the instances where they do get kind of old and, if I let them, would certainly chip away at my self-esteem and take away from my happiness in having improved my Mandarin. It's kind of hard to explain to people who *do* want to make a big deal out of it that language isn't linked to race or ethnicity.

    Having said that, learning Mandarin has been one of the best experiences of my life! I'm not at the point where I want to be yet and I suck in general at learning languages, but it's a bit like learning a secret code. Also, it opens up a whole new world of blogs for me to dilly-dally my time away at :-). Shanghai would be an awesome experience!