Q: Hi Jade! Or is it Elena? What do we call you? We’re confused!
A: [Laughs] Actually, I go by both. So, the people who are closest to me—the people who meet me in person—they’ll usually call me Elena, because that’s my real name. But all throughout the website, I post everything exclusively under the name Jade—for a number of reasons, one reason being that the name Jade is pretty symbolic to me.
My Chinese name is Chéng Yù Xīng (程玉星). And the last two characters translate to “Jade Star.” Given that the website is about Taiwanese culture, I thought that it’d be appropriate to use my Chinese name. But given that there’s this cultural tension and that I’m an outsider to the culture, I translated the name into English. So it just really fit with the theme of the website and this very dualistic identity.
But I’d definitely say that any of my readers who meet me in person can feel free to call me by either name.
Q: Thanks for straightening that out. So tell us a little more about this wonderful website you’ve created. What’s the focus? What do you blog about? A: The content on the website is pretty diverse. But it’s all connected by a very common theme. I’ve separated the website into three main sections. One deals with Taiwanese Entertainment, another deals with Learning Mandarin—Learning Chinese—and the last one is more like blog posts and articles dealing with specific, very personal topics.
Kind of overarching is the theme that my name symbolizes—that Jade symbolizes. It’s this experience of being culturally very interested in and connected to Taiwanese culture and Taiwanese American culture, but also of being outside of it. For me, I’m outside of it because I’m ethnically not Taiwanese, and because I’m geographically not in Taiwan.
And so, through each of the sections I try to find a way to deal with some aspect of being outside. Whether I’m watching a TV show or a movie, I’ll talk about the little culture gems that I get from that. For example, “I found it interesting that this is how the movie portrayed X, Y, or Z.” Or I’ll talk about what I got out of it linguistically. With the “Learning Chinese” section, I think there is so much of culture that you can get and understand and you can grow through when you’re learning a language. And so I explore that cultural growth through those posts and I spend a lot of time giving suggestions to others as well.
The “Wai-Taiwan? Articles” are a little different. Unlike the other sections which are a more subtle treatment of being an outsider, the articles are much more explicit in the way they deal with issues of cultural identity and cultural exploration. I try to be as frank and as honest as possible. The articles cover all sorts of experiences. Whether I’m in a store trying to find travel chopsticks and someone confronts me about it. [Laughs] Or I’m going around Chicago trying to find things like books or food or pens. I talk about relationships. I talk about topics like holidays. I talk about personal stories.
As the website evolves, I hope that there will be more depth to each section, especially the “Wai-Taiwan? Articles.” Some friends have offered to write articles for the website and I hope they’ll share their unique experiences of being an outsider. And as the website grows, I hope that it’ll turn into more of a dialogue rather than just stand alone experiences.
Q: When you post your content and articles, who is the audience that you have in mind? What kind of following do you hope to attract? A: The content is diverse, so I’m sure the people who read the website will be equally as diverse. I think Chinese language learners will enjoy the advice and experiences in the “Learning Chinese” section. I think entertainment lovers and especially newbies to the Taiwanese Entertainment scene will be drawn to that section.
Through the Wai-Taiwan? Articles, I’m trying to speak to pretty much anyone who feels like they reside in this space of being inside but also being outside of Taiwanese culture specifically, but any culture generally—for any reason. Hopefully people will feel like they can relate to those experiences.
Q: What was it about Taiwanese culture or experiences that drew you toward it? I mean, one could easily just write about Asian cultures generally, but you have such an appreciation for Taiwan specifically. Can you share more about that?
A: That’s a really interesting question. I remember during my freshman year in college I lived in a dorm with a girl who was Taiwanese American. She had so much pride for Taiwan that she would talk about it all the time. “Taiwan’s the best place on earth! It’s so wonderful!” Later on, I decided that I wanted to really learn Mandarin, so I had to pick a place to study. Her words stuck with me, so I went to Taiwan and I fell in love with it. There’s something about Taiwan that I just really connected with when I was there. When I moved back to the States, I was in LA and my appreciation grew even more.
When it comes to the language, I love the Taiwanese-Mandarin mix. When it comes to food, I love everything about the food. When it comes to entertainment, I love that it’s such a small community, so you get to feel like you know and can actually follow everyone throughout their careers. There’s also a unique character to the people I meet who are culturally very proud of being Taiwanese American that just clicks with me.
Of course, there are certainly going to be pan-Asian elements to this experience. So that’s there, too. But I just think Taiwan is pretty special.
Q: Outside of your Taiwanese experiences, you spent a few years living in Los Angeles where there is a significant Taiwanese American population and community. What was that experience like for you?
A: So, I lived in LA immediately after coming back from Taiwan. I’d meet people and it would come up in conversations here and there that I lived in Taiwan, and I’d been studying Mandarin. And it was kind of a mixed experience. One of the responses I got a lot was “Oh. That’s really cool. Let’s go out and do this or that.” A lot of new friends that I met there were so excited to meet someone like me who was this outsider who was really interested in the culture. So, one Thanksgiving when I stayed in Los Angeles my friends had me over for hot pot Thanksgiving. They’d take me out to KTV and they’d invite me to all of their Asian American and pan-Asian activities.
There’s a very large part of my Asian American, and specifically my Taiwanese American friends who really did embrace me and accept me and introduce me to really cool things around the city—which were so abundant. There was another part of the community that was less accepting and more skeptical. And on some level, I understand that, too. But overall the experience was really positive. And it was probably the perfect transition going from Taiwan to a very part-Taiwanese part-American place. I really enjoyed it.
Q: Now that you’re living in Chicago, the Midwest, what is the Taiwanese American community like there from your perspective?
A: If you had asked me when I first got here, I would have definitely said “It’s incognito.” But, now my answer is more, “I’m not really sure yet.”
I’m starting to realize that LA made me very lazy and it really spoiled me by giving me this attitude of “Oh. I should be able to just drive somewhere and be completely surrounded by Taiwanese stores, and restaurants, and whatever I want.” To me, that was a big part of what it meant to be in an ethnic community. But I think here, because things aren’t so overt or consumer-based, finding community is a bit more complicated.
What I’ve been discovering lately, through the help new friends and organizations like TaiwaneseAmerican.org, is that there are some great groups here that really unify the community in a different ways. To be a part of the Chicago or Midwest Taiwanese American community, you really have to be proactive to meet people. You have to actively develop relationships. And I think that’s pretty cool.
So, I’m still exploring, and hopefully I’ll learn more as I continue to relate through this website.
Q: Do you have a favorite Taiwanese food?
A: I actually eat a lot. So I definitely couldn’t tell you just one favorite Taiwanese food.
I’m a huge fan of papaya milk and ginger milk tea. When I lived in Taiwan, night markets were like wonderlands for me. So any foods that I associate with night markets, I love. Topping that list would be oyster omelets. Beef noodle soup is my personal comfort food. I have a sweet tooth that is out of control. So, besides Mango Snow Ice, the kind that’s drenched in condensed milk, I also really love just about any baked good that’s not made with shredded pork.
And because I used to live in Taichung, I’m super partial to Sun Cakes and Taiwanese meatballs. But the list definitely goes on from there.
Q: What are you doing these days, and where do you see your path going in the future?
A: That’s a tricky question. In my personal life, I wear a lot of hats. Professionally, I’m an attorney and I practice law. But I also do a lot of other things. I try to surround myself with as many creative and artistic people as possible. I write a lot. I’m still trying to explore Chicago more bit by bit.
When I look at my path in the future, I see it as pretty open. I’m always exploring and learning and growing. I’m really excited about all the possibilities for me in the future. So, we’ll see.
Q: Your site is really cool, and we hope to see more perspectives “from the outside” as you continue to grow! Thanks for taking the time to hang out with us!
A: Thank you, Ho Chie. It was a pleasure meeting you. I’m super excited to be a part of the community.