Last week, I had an interesting conversation with one of the fifth graders in my class.
“Laoshi (teacher), you’re from the USA, right?” she asked.
“Ah, so that’s why your Chinese sounds so weird!”
“I know. Thanks.”
“Then why don’t you look American?” (btw a lot of Taiwanese seem to think the US is just white people with a few African Americans)
“My parents are Taiwanese. I’m just like you or your classmates, except I was born in America,” I explained.
“Oh, okay.” The girl paused. “So…are you Taiwanese or American?”
Good question. Sure, I identify as Taiwanese-American: By that I mean that my nationality is American (I hold a US passport, for example) but my ethnicity is Taiwanese. Technically, though, if scientists looked at my DNA they would label me as Han Chinese. But I’ve never even been to China! So what do I really mean when I say Taiwanese-American? Yep, racial/cultural identity is a tricky subject.
There have been many times during these past two months in Taiwan when I have felt absolutely, quintessentially, you-can-practically-tattoo-it-on-my-forehead-if-I-didn’t-have-bangs American. My students love telling me that my accent is “guai guai” (strange), storekeepers look at me funny when I ask for something, and my coworkers have said (in front of me!), “Sometimes I can’t understand what Kaixin says.”
Well, thanks. I mean, xiexie.
It’s not even just a language thing. Yeah, my Chinese sucks. But despite my best efforts to understand Taiwanese culture, a lot of major events, celebrities, and jokes also go way over my head.
The other day I cried to my parents over Skype that I was in no way a true Taiwanese person. Enjoying stinky tofu, navigating night markets, and wearing parachute pants will only get you so far. I just didn’t feel fluent enough, good enough, Taiwanese enough.
I think many Asian Americans find themselves in the predicament where they don’t really feel Asian or American. In the US, the first thing people think when they see us is “Asian.” And with that comes the usual bad-driver, good-at-math stereotypes. But when Asian Americans go to Asia, the racist element takes a backseat (because everyone looks the same, right?)–that is, until we open our mouths. Seriously, some Taiwanese people simply can’t get their heads around the fact that ABTs (Americans born Taiwanese) actually exist (what about Jeremy Lin, yo?!). In their eyes, it also doesn’t make sense that somebody who is biologically Taiwanese cannot speak perfect Mandarin. So while half of the population thinks we’re kind of cool, the other half looks down on us for being too stupid/lazy/ignorant to study Chinese.
For a long time–especially during middle and high school–I wallowed in self-pity because I felt different no matter which continent I was in. But now I would not trade my Asian-Americanness for anything in the world. Even though the kids in my classes joke about my accent, they don’t dispute that I’m bilingual (a favorite quote from a student: “Man, our teacher knows Chinese and English?! What are we going to do now?”). And living in two cultures means twice the holidays and food. Seriously–there is nothing better than watching the Packers win the Super Bowl while munching on sushi and congee.
There’s this sign in the National Museum of Taiwanese History that struck a chord with me. It reads, in part:
All those who identify with and are concerned about Taiwan, who love and accept Taiwan, and who wish to live together in this land can declare with a loud voice, ‘I am Taiwanese.’
I have a photo of this quote saved on my iPod and look at it during whenever I have those mini-identity crises. You can actually fill in “Taiwan/Taiwanese” with any other ethnicity or nation and it would mean the same thing. This is probably one of the most accurate and eloquent definitions of cultural identity I’ve seen (and it has perfect English too! *Claps*).
So just as I love America–football, tater tots, and wearing my “I just voted” sticker–I also love Taiwan, with its singing garbage trucks and taro buns. I think I’m allowed to declare with a loud voice, “I am American AND Taiwanese!” Eek, so cliche. But true, too.