I have thought a lot about this blog and how to start writing here again. I almost gave up because living in Taiwan turned so many ideas I had about being Taiwanese American upside down. But though it’s been almost 6 months since I last posted, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this site, pining for the little space I’ve carved out here to untangle the complexities of being a 2nd generation, biracial Taiwanese American. Because where else am I going to do that? There are so few spaces in America where I can embark on that specific journey. Even in Taiwan, there isn’t a lot of space to parcel out the multicultural, mixed race, and transnational pieces of me.
When I moved my son to Taiwan temporarily last summer because of the pandemic, my husband and I had a one-year plan. At first, I swore I wouldn’t follow in the footsteps of my own parents, who took me to Beijing, China, in third grade and only stayed nine months. I've always been sorry we didn’t stay in China longer. But cliché as it may be, history does repeat itself. The minute my son and I landed in Taiwan, I knew we probably wouldn’t make it to a year either.
I spent most of the next 9 months in denial of that fact, trying to fight the inevitable, but I knew it deep in my bones. It was just too hard to have the family split apart. What started as an exciting adventure to discover and reclaim heritage was quickly overwhelmed by sadness, loneliness, homesickness. My son missed his father and I missed my best friend every day. That painful sadness grew and grew, swelling until it overtook our hearts and minds. The romance of living abroad wore off, the excitement disappeared, and nothing seemed fun anymore. We decided to end our stay early and go home in May 2021 instead of July.
Though I wish my son and I could’ve had more time in Taiwan, leaving when we did was the right choice for us, for our life, at that moment. I have often reflected how different my experience would have been if I had moved to Taiwan in my twenties, unattached, with no children (and tons of energy lol). Likely I would’ve been able to stay longer, socialize and travel more, go out at night, make local friends, and perhaps learn a lot more language and culture.
I certainly could have spent more time in Taiwan during my teen and college years and even after, but I chose not to. Instead, starting at 16 years old, I did summer abroad programs in China, later in Italy and England. Given the chance to go overseas again for fun, I went back to London. After college, I wanted to try somewhere new and moved to Seattle. I look back now and wonder why I chose those places, not places that had history and meaning for me?
I think there are multiple answers to these questions. But one I know for sure is that though I knew I was Taiwanese as a young woman, I didn’t actually know my history or the importance of the islands to my story. As a result, I didn’t identify strongly as Taiwanese. I didn’t really care back then about holding on to my culture, my heritage, my father’s first languages. I wasn’t ready to live in Taiwan until I realized what it meant to me, which just took time in my case.
"We don’t have to resign ourselves to loss.
We can commit to redefinition
One of the most important takeaways for me post-living-in-Taiwan is the realization that there’s not a prescribed way for us diaspora folk to figure this stuff out. There’s no one size fits all. We all come at this in different ways, from different directions, at different points in our lives. And if it works for you, then it works. But we should never give up trying because we never know where that entry point may be. We don’t have to resign ourselves to loss. We can commit to redefinition and re-building.
I met up with Taiwan friends the other day, here in Seattle, who were visiting for the summer. At lunch, we got to talking about our families and the history of the islands. My friends are also Taiwanese Americans but have been living in Taiwan the last four years. We talked about 華語 versus 台語, 228 事件 and 白色恐佈, 本省人 and 外省人, what it was like for our immigrant parents, for us growing up Taiwanese American, the KMT blacklists and culture of silence that often meant we didn’t get to learn our histories compounded by living in a place where most people thought being Taiwanese meant Thai food.
It was validating and liberating to hold space with other Asian Americans with whom I share cultural history. It made me realize how important it is to keep storytelling and record-keeping as much as I can. I confess, while I was living in Taiwan it seemed ridiculous to create media about “being Taiwanese.” As though I were some kind of expert when I was obviously so different from the locals around me who’d lived in Taiwan most or all of their lives. Case in point, as I’ve said before, Taiwanese locals see me as 外國人 and are surprised when I say my father is Taiwanese. I felt like an imposter even trying to write about my experience. What did I know?
But being back in the U.S., having this conversation with my friends the other day, I realized my mistake. Of course I have no expertise in what it means to be a Taiwanese local or 1st generation Taiwanese immigrant. That’s not my lived experience and I wouldn’t be writing from what I know. What I know is my own life which I shouldn’t devalue: four decades navigating being a 2nd generation Taiwanese biracial American, the daughter of an immigrant, and the first child in my Taiwanese family born into U.S. citizenship; and now partner to a man who’s Japanese family were settlers in Taiwan and mother to a Japanese Taiwanese son who embodies all that history. That, I think, is a point of view well worth writing from.
So, here I am.
Header image: Photographed at Xiangde Temple in Taroko Gorge National Park at sunrise on my birthday, March 30, 2021.
© 2021 Sharon Ho Chang 張曉倫