What you need to know
Taiwan was becoming something. And I was getting left behind.
When we speak of “homesickness,” the German romantic idea of Heimweh dominates our collective consciousness. We have an entire literary, poetic, and musical tradition that immediately connotes the melancholy of the émigré or the exile, nostalgic for a past, a home, and a childhood that no longer exists. Among twentieth-century Chinese diasporic writers, this mood has perhaps been most popularly evoked by Yu Kwang-Chung’s poem Xiangchou, translated “Nostalgia,” on separation from China because of the traumas of twentieth-century history.
In his fascinating book, Homesickness, Carlos Rojas inverts our familiar notions of the term. He begins his book with a scene from the Chinese novel Flowers in the Mirror. Upon the protagonist’s return to her village, symptoms of sickness — in her case, stomach pain — relapse. The travelers ironically refer to her sickness as “homesickness” (lixiang bing). “This is a homesickness,” Rojas writes, “in which the home itself becomes literally a space of illness.”
I felt a moment of recognition while reading his book. Growing up in Taiwan, I had chronic allergies and persistent sinus infections. Even now, when I return to Taiwan, I count the days expecting my childhood discomfort to return; I usually give it a week. I remember vividly the feeling of my sinuses — and my thinking — clearing up when I arrived in the United States for college. I linked my newfound nasal clarity to a sense of political and social emancipation that came with leaving home for the first time.
Now I realize that I was unconsciously doing what Rojas writes about in his book — linking my own experiences of illness with broader metaphors of political and social change. As Rojas reminds us in his book, disease is never just about the physical manifestations of pain. Rather, tropes and stories about illness become a way in which people begin “to reassess notions of individual, family, and national identity.”
These connections between sickness and nationality, or sickness as a metaphor for the state of the nation, have never been more clear since the pandemic. Think pieces on the coronavirus as a catalyst for the further decline of the “West” have proliferated in the popular presses. On the flip side, Taiwan — long neglected in the international media — has received an uptick in news coverage as it has been hailed as one of the success stories in handling the coronavirus.
Watching these discussions unfold from abroad, I started to think about the narratives of public health that I was surrounded with growing up. When I was a child, I was constantly warned by my parents — my mother, in particular — to be vigilant of unhygienic, unsanitary conditions both inside and outside of home. I was instilled with a vigilance against mold and damp — the smell of camphor oil immediately brings me back to my elementary school days. I was exhorted to put on mosquito spray because of the threat of Dengue fever; I was told to be on constant watch against the possibility of poisonous snakes. Throughout my childhood, my mother reminded me to always boil water, telling me that the water in Taiwan was not clean. I was told that in the United States — where I was born and where my parents had pursued their post-graduate degrees before returning to Taiwan — you could drink water straight from the tap.
As the rest of the world locked down, and many within the Taiwanese diaspora went to Taiwan to wait it out, I saw my social media feed fill up with photos of night markets and street food. I was happy for my friends, but the scenes didn’t evoke much nostalgia for me — my mother refused to take me to night markets when I was young. One of my harshest scoldings when I was a pre-teen came when she found out that I had secretly bought some fried chicken off of a street vendor. You don’t know how many times they have reused that oil; the food is so dirty, she yelled. (I felt a pang of guilt when I met a famous writer, and he asked me where I was from. Taiwan, I said. “I hear the street food is amazing there,” he smiled. I nodded vigorously, “The scallion pancakes are amazing,” I added.)
The stories that I learned and heard from my parents — one a scientist, the other a teacher of math — were of progress, of Taiwan as a place that was in the process of becoming: becoming modern, becoming democratic, becoming hygienic. My father, an eternal optimist, had a favorite saying at the time: “Taiwan is making progress! (台灣在進步!)” (Recently, it’s changed to “Taiwan is great now! — 台灣現在很棒啊!”) An expanded English section in our favorite bookstore: Taiwan is making progress! The opening of the first metro line in Taipei: Taiwan is making progress! The first direct presidential election in Taiwan: Taiwan is making progress! Growing up in Hsinchu, I remember taking a trip to Taipei around the time of Chen Shui-bian’s re-election campaign for Taipei City Mayor, and my father pointing out the simple fact of trash cans on the streets. My father beamed with pride as we walked around the city — “Look at how A-bian has cleaned this city up! Look at how much progress Taipei has made! I’m sure he’ll get re-elected!” (A-bian lost.)
Only later, when I studied to become a historian, would I come to understand that this image of Taiwan as a diseased land, in desperate need of development, had a long historical lineage intertwined with colonial power and oppression. The Qing state saw Taiwan as a “land of miasma”; the Japanese empire dubbed Taiwan an island of head-hunting savages, plague, and fever. The KMT government saw Taiwan as not only a place of disease and sickness, but also a small island devoid of history and culture, destined to a marginal irrelevance.
On the issue of public health, the KMT wasn’t entirely wrong. When Japan ceded Taiwan to the KMT government in 1945, one-sixth of the total population had malaria. In 1946, an outbreak of smallpox hit Taipei. Then came cholera. When refugees from China flooded into the island, parasitic worms found new hosts to latch onto. In my parents’ generation, more than 70% of children were infected with some type of worm. (The scientific term is “soil-transmitted intestinal nematode.”) In certain counties, the infection rates ran as high as 99%.
From the 1950s onwards, the Nationalist government waged massive public health campaigns against endemic diseases. Most spectacularly, it tackled malaria. Planes dropped DDT from the sky; military troops fanned out throughout the countryside spraying indoor surfaces. The government blanketed rural regions that it considered “hyper-endemic;” it went easier on large cities that they marked as “non-malarious.”
The rural township in Hualien where my mother and father grew up was located in one of these “hyper endemic” areas. As a child, my mother would spray DDT beneath her tatami bed; then she would spray underneath on the sheets. When she was a teenager, she was told that DDT was extremely dangerous and she should stop using it. My mother — born in 1951 — would be diagnosed with breast cancer six decades later.
But as a child, I did not experience my parents’ birthplace as a site of hyper-endemic disease. My parents’ hometown was, and still is, to me, a place of joyous, magical wonder. Yuli lies in a valley rift on the eastern coast of Taiwan, in one of the most spectacularly beautiful parts of the island. Not too far from where my mother grew up, there’s a place where you can drive out and look out onto the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, a different world from the Western part of the country where I grew up. On the drive, at one point you are surrounded on the one side by mountains and on the other side by water. The beaches there are rocky, not sandy, and I remember climbing around the sharp rocks with my mother looking for polished rocks, my father teaching me how to skip rocks.
Only later did I understand that the region’s beauty also was the source of its underdevelopment. The mountainous terrain made its resources difficult to exploit, and even today, it remains difficult to get from Taipei to my parents’ hometown. And only later would I come to realize that the assumption of Taiwan as a backward place, devoid of history and culture, destined to a marginal irrelevance, had deeply shaped my own education. Growing up in the 1990s, we barely learned anything about the history of Taiwan, from the colonization of the Spanish and Dutch to the relations with China in the 1800s to the long history of over thirteen Indigenous tribes. To this day I can recite the Chinese dynasties from memory, even though I feel very little emotional connection to China.
Even though the KMT ended martial law in 1987, its legacy of intrusive public health examinations continued to intervene in our bodies. When I was in school in the 1990s, There was the dreaded parasite test, where every year, the homeroom teacher passed out a piece of cellophane with a blue bulls-eye in it. I had to take the paper back, and my mother placed me on my stomach, applied the cellophane to my butt, and then taped it up. We had to do this for two days in a row and then bring the cellophane, sometimes smeared with feces, back to school. “Do these worms even still exist?” I asked my mother. You never know, she answered. My mother had believed in the narratives that the land contained dangers that could make us sick.
Certainly, these stories have taken on the form of intrusive, oppressive, and authoritarian measures. That shadow hangs over us still. But as Rojas reminds us, these metaphors of sickness and health can also serve as “potential sources of dynamism and structural transformation.” The idea of a sick country, in need of being transformed and rescued, can also serve to mobilize grassroots organizations.
Reading Rojas, I was reminded of how prominently metaphors of sickness and the body played into the Sunflower Movement of 2014, when students occupied the Taiwanese legislature for close to a month. I read the Black Nation Youth Front declare how corporate greed had led to the polluting of their “forests, their coasts, their land, their home, and even their bodies,” turning Taiwan into a “Black Island” with little hope for the future.
It was in 2014 — as I tried to trawl the PPT message boards, the livestreams of the occupation, the conversations on micro-blogging networks like Plurk at odd hours from Paris — that I felt for the first time a visceral sense of homesickness, of pain at being so far away from home. This form of homesickness, I now realize, was not a form of cultural nostalgia, a reactionary yearning to turn back the clock, to move history backwards. Rather, Taiwan was becoming something and I was getting left behind. I wanted to learn from the teach-ins, I wanted to participate in the experiments with deliberative democracy, I wanted to see how this younger generation of activists conceived of and articulated their place in the world. I wanted to march alongside my parents, who called me before they put on black T-Shirts and yellow armbands to join in a march alongside 500,000 other peaceful protesters. That feeling of homesickness, that knot in my stomach, has only grown with time.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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