Picking me out of my high school senior class photo is a short game of “Where’s Waldo?” Representing 50% of the Asian American families in Small Town, OH, my family had many things, in addition to physical appearance, that helped us stick out: taking our shoes off at the front door, bee-hwun for New Year’s, and our militancy about our Taiwaneseness. The older I get the more I realize that the things that made me stick out like a sore thumb in Ohio are the very things that connect me to other Taiwanese not only around the country, but also around the world. This fact was highlighted most recently on a trip to Chile over the New Year.
Wedged tightly between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean, Iquique is a small resort city doing double duty as a major shipping port for Chile. Surprisingly enough, in this seemingly random desert city is a community of 30 some Taiwanese families. Drawn by opportunity, the 1st generation Taiwanese, including my wife’s family, went to Iquique with little to no Spanish and found success in the import-export business. Despite all the differences between our adopted countries, the 1st generation of Chile echoed the Taiwanese community I grew up with in Ohio; we spent time karaoke-ing (“ai biahn ka e yiah!”), eating Banquet-style dinners at Chinese restaurants on the holidays, drinking and toasting each other often and loudly, mixing both Taiwanese and Mandarin in conversation.
Spending time with a few 2nd-generation Taiwanese Chileans who were home for the holidays, there were a few clear differences to be sure: Spanish, Mandarin, and English fluency, different tastes in food, music, clothes, and interests. In particular, the Mrs. and her Taiwanese friends lived a much more bi-cultural life (strictly Mandarin at home, Spanish outside). As a result, the 2nd generation’s Mandarin is on par with a native speaker, not the bastardized, grammatically funky Tinglish/Chinglish that most the U.S. 2nd gen and I have.
Yet again, for all these differences, growing up 2nd generation Taiwanese Chilean sounded eerily familiar as we talked about our personal search for identity over pisco sours (the national drink of Chile, NOT Peru unless you want a tongue lashing). Similar to my own experience, many talked about not feeling completely Taiwanese or Chilean growing up and through college. Many did not find a home in the Taiwanese or the Latino student groups on campus, but rather in the international student group. Even today, the question of identity is not so straightforward and seems to depend on context (my wife’s brother who live and works in Chile identifies as Chilean, whereas my wife who lives here in the U.S. will say she is Taiwanese).
Thoroughly immersed in my U.S. bubble, I’m always surprised to meet Taiwanese that grew up in different parts of the world. Like the Korean Scot from the Starburst commercial, Taiwanese Chilean at first glance may seem like a novel “contradiction.” Despite the different mix of languages and cultural differences, I found many of my experiences growing up in Ohio similar to those of Taiwanese Chileans. Moreover, having met Taiwanese from all over the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Indonesia, Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, and now Chile, its no mistake that there is a tremendous overlap in our experiences growing up a minority. In the end, it’s not only the cultural things that we share, but also the experience as a 2nd generation that ties us all together.