What you need to know
On being grounded not in the dead wood of the doorframe but the rich soil of earth.
I look at the circle formed around me — Taiwanese Americans, Taiwanese international students, Taiwanese who grew up in other parts of Asia — connected by diaspora gathered in New Bloom’s space in Taipei’s Wanhua District. I’m excited: two years out of undergrad and twenty years out of Taiwan, I’m sitting on a foldable chair with PDFs on my phone and a notebook balanced on my lap. I’m learning about Taiwanese history for the first time.
Though I visited Taiwan often during my 15 years in China and five years in the United States, what I knew of Taiwanese history was a patchwork of family stories, personal anecdotes, Taiwanese television, sporadic Wikipedia rabbit holes — more a collection of half-remembered facts, not quite woven into a history.
Besides, I never sought out Taiwanese history or community to learn from, or belong to. Beyond a vague intellectual curiosity, the longing for “my people” never struck me. My feelings were those of indifference, at times dismissive, even resistant. When I read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, his initial reluctance to be defined by his ascribed identity resonated: “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.”
I planned to live and work in the U.S. long after undergrad — no other place held so strongly a conviction or imagination for my future. When I didn’t get the H1B work visa to continue working in San Francisco, only one place in the whole world would take me unconditionally — Taiwan. It’s unromantic — I returned firstly because of visa logistics. I felt flattered by my own country’s hospitality towards me, with a hint of anxiety, reminding me of JFK’s line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I have the freedom from visa (and, until very recently, coronavirus) restrictions in Taiwan. But with freedom comes the necessary question: What’s my responsibility here?
Growing up going to international school in China, my peers and teachers were from all over, my history education was a miscellany of world events. Ancient civilizations in the third grade...Afghan women in the seventh...the communist revolutions in China and Russia, and the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the ninth...the Israel-Palestine conflict in the tenth…I shared pride in being educated broadly as a global citizen and responsible to the world. I harbored an anti-nationalistic pride in not knowing any national anthems in full, not belonging to ethnic- or national-identity based student groups in college.
What’s the purpose of learning history? In his memoir, Obama recounts a conversation with Asante Moran, a high school counselor at a predominantly Black school, who said, “Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn — the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment.”
In international school, learning about “my” world or “my” community never seemed significant. We were a bunch of expatriate kids in a detached bubble in China learning about “the” world. We grew up with friends and teachers from different countries, which made national identity seem like the first thing to transcend if the whole world was ours. Our belonging and duties were tied to “the” world to the extent which local, real places seemed abstract — even though it’s these real, tangible localities that make up the world.
Over the years, however, a nagging feeling grew: that there was no sense of depth or connective narrative to my understanding of history in general, including mine. “The world” seemed exceedingly abstract when I ached for concrete belonging and responsibility.
In Dear Andreas, Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai’s collection of letters between her and her son, she asked: “Why am I so indifferent to matters of ‘my people’?” (“怎麼我對「民族」這東西這麼冷？”) Growing my identity, I believed, meant developing the parts of myself that I wasn’t born with, affinities that I earned for myself. I didn’t come out of the womb reading Allen Ginsberg or running long distance or making sales calls. And if I didn’t “earn” my being Taiwanese, I thought it was lazy to dwell on it, despite my ignorance. Despite her self-conscious lukewarmness in the book, she advised her son: “Before entering the world, first have your tribe.” (“希望你在走向全球之前，先有自己的村子。”)
It’s a common refrain: know your roots. Yet, having grown up in international school, I considered my tribe not fellow Taiwanese, but those who grew up between tribes. I found comfort in that liminal space, as if standing in the doorway gave me the most access to all worlds, when in fact to do so, I need to enter through it. To be grounded not in the dead wood of the doorframe but the rich soil of earth in places I have called home and am making homes in.
But I need to remind myself: knowing isn’t enough. What’s more important is being rooted, rooting yourself in place, wherever you are in the world. Prioritizing the verb, to root, over the noun, the root. “What’s my place in the world?” is an overly broad, existential conundrum that can only be answered and lived through its smaller questions — “What’s my place in Taiwan?”
At the end of Dreams from My Father, Obama meets a Kenyan teacher who commented on her daughter: “They live in a mixed-up world. It’s just as well, I suppose. In the end, I’m less interested in a daughter who’s authentically African than one who is authentically herself.” Coming home, I’m less interested in being authentically Taiwanese than in being authentically myself. Learning what it means to be from here is where I’m starting.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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