Week Four: I Reflect a Little


Week Four at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (7/28 – 8/3)

During this weekend, I revisited 北港 (Beigang), a small town in central Taiwan where my grandfather grew up. In the house where he spent his childhood, my 92-year-old great aunt lives with her youngest son and his family. My family had gone there in June and I returned this weekend with a few other cousins from Taipei. 

The entryway to the home where my grandfather grew up (my 老家).

The entryway to the home where my grandfather grew up (my 老家).

I felt very comfortable with my relatives. Actually, I realized I was more relaxed than I had been in a while – perhaps since my parents and brother left in June. It’s not that I’d been stressed or uncomfortable, more that I didn’t feel completely home. 

I suppose a large part of it was the language barrier, especially in the beginning. I think by now I’m less troubled when I can’t understand an exchange. But at first, the language barrier was both intimidating and a little humiliating (by which I really mean humbling, because I thought my Chinese was better than it actually was). I was too proud, thinking that I ought to understand more. One reason it was felt embarrassing is because most people in Taipei speak much better English compared to my Chinese. I needed to swallow my pride and learn to ask for help (or at least use my dictionary app while in line for food).

I’m also embarrassed to use my Chinese because of my desire to fit in. I’m ethnically Taiwanese, so people only notice I’m a non-native when I open my mouth. There ought to be no shame in using my broken Mandarin (it’s not my fault), but I still felt self conscious. Then I realized – this is almost like being an immigrant. I wanted so badly to assimilate – to just blend in with the locals. And that shocked me, because it’s almost ingrained in me that assimilation isn’t good.

For me, the word “assimilation” conjures up images of people forced to give up a way of life (as with Native Americans) or compelled to abandon their culture for fear of harm or ostracization (as with many immigrants). The idea of assimilation runs up against the modern voices that say “don’t be ashamed of yourself, be proud of your culture, don’t conform to the mainstream.” On a personal level, I harbor some resentment towards my conception of white America in the ‘70s for pushing my parents and grandparents to assimilate (especially linguistically), though part of me says that resentment is irrational. 

When I realized my desire to be seen as a local, my mind sort of rebelled, swerving in the opposite direction. Suddenly I resented my neighbors for not realizing I was American. People don’t expect white people to speak Chinese – my imperfect Mandarin would be laudable, not confusing. Perhaps I needed to wear something that would broadcast my nationality.

Then I started noticing an odd pattern of thoughts that would go through my head every time I saw a Caucasian person (not uncommon in Taipei). First I would be excited, thinking that perhaps she is a fellow English-speaking American! Then I’d berate myself for making assumptions (but admit most white travelers can speak English). Next I’d remind myself that nearly all people in Taipei speak at least some English. And finally I’d realize the worst assumption is that no one else exists in my situation (Asian Americans who don’t look different). How horrible to get excited over strangers when I already know people in Taipei who have life experiences similar to mine. I discussed this cycle of reactions with another American, who admitted he’d had similar thoughts. By now, though, I’ve seen enough foreigners that it doesn’t have as much of an effect. 

At my apartment and at work, I was comfortable but not exactly at home. Maybe it’s because I’m a twamp, but every time I relaxed in my room I’d feel restless, like I should be out exploring and sightseeing. And at work, the nagging doubt at the back of my mind somehow alternated between  imposter syndrome and bored overconfidence. I don’t mean to complain, though, I was actually quite happy.

So why did my relatives make me feel at home? For one thing, language is only a barrier if you lack the time or effort to communicate (and my cousins speak English) so there was no problem. I guess there’s just something about sharing blood, knowing we had a connection that lets us work outward from there. And though we’d probably interacted four or five times in our life, I feel familiar with them because meeting them stood out in my memories. Perhaps it’s overly romantic, but there was a sense of drama in returning to my family home. Though I’ve one been back to Taiwan three times, some of my older family members would insist I’m still 北港人. 

After thinking these things through, I feel confident in my ability to intentionally relax more – not in the sense of changing my activities, but in the sense of choosing an attitude of contentment.