We recently connected with Charles McDonald, a hapa Taiwanese American, who has spent several years living and working in Taiwan. He mentioned to us a year ago that he intended to start a Taiwanese-inspired clothing line. Back then, it was just an idea, but a year later, his company has become reality and showcases some interesting Taiwan-themed designs all printed on Made in Taiwan T-shirts. The IDCY brand is available online and occasionally at select Night Market locations. We at TaiwaneseAmerican.org were fascinated by Charles’ personal story and experiences after seeing how far he has come. We’ve invited him to share some guest articles, and below is the first in the series. Enjoy!
There is no doubt that the differences between east and west are plentiful. And if you find yourself fortunate enough to experience the differences you will find that things are sometimes completely opposite of what you are used to. My mom is from Taiwan and my Dad is from America. I grew up near Washington DC speaking English at home and visited Taiwan once when I was 7 years old. I chose to come back to Taiwan 18 years later in 2009 for many reasons, of those being to learn Chinese as well as a culture that didn’t heavily influence my childhood, but was in my blood.
Most of my family is in the south but I decided to settle in Taipei. Being an international city I thought it had the most opportunity and as I absorbed Taiwan through my senses, it was at first very refreshing. Everything was exciting and new, but eventually the honeymoon was over. If you’ve ever been to Taipei you know how noisy it is. The millions of scooters zipping by make short work of any ‘bird song’ you might hear or your own voice, and Taipei’s size to population ratio makes it a densely populated place to live. But one of my biggest adjustments was getting used to the Asian way of thinking and communicating with family here in Taiwan.
Visiting for Chinese New Year was a bit…overwhelming. I didn’t know Taiwanese or Chinese leaving me able to communicate confidently to one cousin. Most other times were filled with having multiple people I barely knew simultaneously speaking and pointing at things in a foreign language while I try to make sense of all this over-stimulus. After a little bit, I found that I could get away with a lot by just saying 好吃！and then quickly returning to my bowl of food since eating was a frequent occurrence (which was awesome). At one point it was just me and my uncle at the table finishing off some 酒 (alcohol). I understood maybe 18% of what he was saying and my face was red as I was trying to figure out what in the world he was talking about, all the while hoping that he doesn’t ask me a question only to have me incorrectly nod along (對!) as if the question never took place. (Yes, this has happened more than once). Suddenly as my 二舅媽 (Aunt) was clearing the table I hear “Ha! 你的臉是紅的，喝了太多!” (Ha! your face is red, you drank too much!) I had officially been called out…incorrectly. I don’t even get red when I drink! Slightly embarrassed I went back to sipping my alcohol having learned that family are pretty blunt and certainly aren’t shy about pointing out your imperfections, despite barely knowing you (or the adult you). You’re too skinny, you’re too fat, you drink too much, your stomach is huge! Usually in America we either don’t bring it up or passively tiptoe around the actual point to point something out.
One thing in Taiwan that I started noticing is how far my thank you’s…didn’t go. In America most try to show their appreciation (family or not) when someone does them a favor, gives them dinner, a place to stay etc. In just offering to help clean the dishes or help out, that willingness goes a long way. While visiting family in Taiwan, I would always express my gratitude in helping clean the dishes, help around the house, dropping thank you’s here and there only to get a “hehe” like “he said it again…” and a 隨便 (whatever) wave of the hand. After a while one of my aunts told literally told me to stop asking. I finally realized that my gratitude wasn’t really required. I was family and even though I only saw them once before when I was just a kid, in their minds we were blood and that’s all that mattered. It was a really cool to see how welcoming they were to the unfamiliar American they had met 18 years ago.
Being able to communicate through speaking or body language is often taken for granted and I really missed it when it wasn’t there. I misunderstand, they misunderstand and navigating that interaction can get tricky (and embarrassing) sometimes. Learning to keep a cool head about things and to be easy going makes the whole experience much less stressful. Dictated by my life in America, my subconscious expectations of how people should act or how society should be really held no weight when I came here (as it shouldn’t), and I found that coming with those expectations greatly limited my own openness. Night is day, day is night. As soon as I stopped trying to force my own culture and adopted a ‘clean slate’ mentality, things became much less stressful and I became much more open. There are lots of ups and downs when you cross cultures, but I found how clean your ‘cultural slate’ is will greatly determine whether you love it or hate it. Fortunately, I have grown to love it.
Charles McDonald lives in Taipei and is currently working to create a Taiwanese clothing brand, IDCY, in Taiwan. He has been in operation for less than a year and is focused on Taiwan’s creativity, artist and street scene. You can visit his website at www.idcyclothing.com