3 Months In Taiwan: Reality Check
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
I won’t lie, these last three months in Taiwan haven’t been easy.
They haven’t been the fairytale I imagined they would be, a romantic, blissful time of re-connecting with my heritage and finding myself at last. Actually, quite the opposite. In fact, the reason I haven’t posted in so long is because this blog was supposed to be me telling that whimsical fairytale, when instead I’ve spent most of the last three months watching it blown to pieces.
Though I am Taiwanese, I am also American, a reality that has hit me in the face as I’ve found myself battling classic expatriate challenges since moving here: alienation, isolation, anxiety, frustration, overcompensation, stress, exhaustion, disenchantment. Being Taiwanese American and biracial has made this experience much worse. Because I belong here in some ways, I didn’t expect to feel like an expatriate too and have been woefully under-prepared for how hard that part has been.
At the same time, I am Taiwanese. But I’m a tall, big-boned Taiwanese Mixed American who speaks clumsy Chinese, has mediocre cultural fluency, and doesn’t look Taiwanese to any Taiwanese person ever. Local people don’t see me as anything but a foreigner. Taiwan has ethnic diversity, however racially and visually it’s still very homogeneous. The number of mixed-race Taiwanese is small, we stand out like the proverbial sore thumb, and folding us into Taiwaneseness seems difficult to impossible for most locals. For instance, I am called or forced to use the term 外國人 (wàiguō rén, literally “outside the country person”) all the time despite my family having lived on the island for six generations. Other mixed-race folks can likely relate to how painful that is.
This means that while I’m coping with unexpected feelings of alienation as an expatriate, I’m also–confusingly–having to continually stake and defend my claim to being Taiwanese. On the daily, I find myself explaining where I come from and why I look the way I do, then tolerating being cross-examined and visually dissected more than I ever have to in Seattle where there are a lot of diasporic Asian Americans and mixed-race people. The fact that my father is Taiwanese is a surprise to everyone in Taiwan, ironically, far more often than it is in the U.S. where he is an immigrant. It’s all an enormous mindfuck.
My Taiwanese father flew back to the U.S. on November 16 after traveling here with me and my son this summer to help us get settled in. I grew up visiting family in Taipei every year, but this is the longest I’ve ever been in Taiwan for one stretch. It’s also the first time I’ve ever been here without my father, who has always been my ambassador to “being Taiwanese.” Being here on my own is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s an unprecedented moment in my life and I had reveries about how this time would unfurl like an elegant flower, revealing the full bloom of my as-yet fully unrealized identity.
Instead I am now here, on my own, raising a homesick 11-year-old during an epidemic without my husband who had to stay behind. My time is consumed not with reclaiming my culture or exploring beauteous Taiwan like I dreamed, but instead with single parenting, commuting, running errands, doing laundry, grocery shopping, muddling through endless immigration paperwork, and grappling with a myriad of overwhelming feelings. I would say nothing has turned out the way I hoped so far. Walking out the door in the morning can take a lot of energy and there are many days I just want to stay home and hide.
Despite how sad this all sounds, though, I think the difficulties of the last three months are exactly what I needed. My Taiwan fantasies and fairytales weren’t based in authentic reality and having them blown apart has exposed a raw truth upon which I can now begin to rebuild the honest story I want and need to tell. I was very struck by a recent Hyphen Magazine interview with Taiwanese American poet and author Sheng Kao, who just released her debut novel Bestiary. In the interview, Kao writes about the tendency of diaspora to mythologize the “homeland” as a way to cope with our feelings of distance, disorientation, and loss:
I don’t want to mythologize Taiwan and make it into this romanticized homeland, which I think is really common for people who write within the diaspora. I don’t want to overly romanticize it as a place of origin, and have what I write completely removed from the reality of the people who actually live there. It’s definitely something I’ve fallen into in the past, because it’s something that’s easy to lean onto.
If I had read this passage six months ago, I think it would’ve flown over my head a bit. But three months into my major Taiwan reality check, it was the perfect thing for me to lay eyes on. It is alright to admit that I still have unearthing, sowing, and re-growing to do. This puzzle I’m living–of being a mixed-race, transnational, multicultural woman–was never going to be easily solved just by moving to my mythologized “homeland.” What does it mean to be a 2nd generation biracial Taiwanese American? Maybe I still can’t answer that question yet, even at mid-life, and that’s okay.
In the same interview, Kao goes on to write, “Just because something is no longer there or accessible to you doesn’t mean that you don’t carry it, or that it doesn’t haunt you, or that you can’t still have a perpetual relationship to a place.”
I take heart in these words and know this is deeply true for me. I have always been haunted by Taiwan from the marrow of my bones, despite living 6,000 miles away for most of my life. My husband of over a decade can attest to the pull I have long felt to come live in this place where my father grew up. It is a triumph, I remind myself, just to be here. Rather than wallowing in disappointment, I celebrate the knowledge that living in Taiwan for a few months is not the end-all-be-all of this experience. I am on a journey and things will change.
Let’s see what these next three months bring.
Header image: Koala at the Taipei Zoo, shot on a 2019 visit, pre-pandemic
© 2020 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫