Daniel D. Zarazua has spent his life navigating the ways globalization and international migration have taken root in the daily experiences of life in Taiwan. As a mixed-race 1.5 generation Taiwanese American who has returned to Taiwan several times, he has explored the hip-hop scene, capoeira community, Latino restaurants, and made a number of friendships within Taiwan’s Black and Latino communities. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Daniel a couple of times during Taiwanese American conferences and have been fascinated by stories of his experiences through the lens of his multi-racial identity. Now, as he seeks support to publish a book and companion documentary photo book that highlights Taiwan’s growing Black and Latino communities in order to explore what it means to be Taiwanese and multiracial in the 21st century, I thought it would be interesting to hear about some of his personal experiences and motivation behind this project entitled Taiwan is My Home: Stories of the Black and Latino Diaspora.
H: Hi Daniel! Great to connect with you again! Out of curiosity, how do you identify yourself?
D: That’s a complicated question, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say Taiwanese and Chicano!
D: It’s been a lifelong process. Since the age of three my family and I moved around due to my father’s job, including Italy and different parts of the U.S., I quickly learned that identity is fluid and impacted by our circumstances, including assumptions people make based off what we look like, our names, or even our taste in music. Despite returning to Taiwan often I felt myself losing a connection with the island as so much of my worldview was shaped by Latinos and African Americans, who I didn’t often encounter in Taiwan. However, about six years ago I came across a Mexican-owned restaurant and a Guyanese/Jamaican owned restaurant in Taipei. I met the owners of both, began developing more relationships and was opened up to a whole other side of Taiwan! I’ve returned four times since then and in January I will return for at least six months to gather more material.
D: Three things immediately come to mind. 1. To help share the stories of some of the many Black and Latino immigrants who’ve moved to Taiwan, including a few who’ve lived there for decades. Most Taiwanese do not often have the opportunity to get beyond superficial interactions and I’ve seen the power these stories and images have had to open up dialogue. 2. To contribute to the the discussion of what it means to be Taiwanese and Taiwanese American. Throughout history cultures and communities have always changed. It will be interesting to see how Taiwan tries to position itself in the global community. How it deals with its growing diversity is part of that positioning. 3. I’d like for people in general, but particularly Black and Latino folks, to see that Taiwan has a place for them. I’m not romanticizing it, but particularly because I work as a high school educator I want young people to see possibilities! There is so much I love about Taiwan and I want to share that. I want to create a resource that I wish I had growing up.
H: Tell me more about your parents? How did they meet, and what kind of struggles or challenges did they face as an interracial couple in Taiwan?
D: My father, who is originally from Michigan, was in the United States Air Force. He was stationed in Taichung and met my mother there. From my understanding, any issues weren’t simply about race, but also cultural and marrying an American and leaving the country. Was he going to take care of her or abandon her? Most of their time together has been in the U.S. so I’m more familiar with time period as I was a child when we left Taiwan. The thing is, the way interracial couples are treated depends on so many factors including what races the couples are, if the spouses are able to communicate with their in-laws, and where they live in Taiwan. On one hand, people in relationships have to deal with each other as individuals, yet it’s naive to say that coming from different races or cultures doesn’t matter. I dig a little deeper into these issues in the book.
H: What were your experiences like growing up? What made the most impact in influencing your personal identity?
D: Due to our moves, even as a child I had to learn how to navigate different situations constantly, often times trying to make sense of contradictory information and customs. It heightened my sense of empathy and ability to look at multiple perspectives. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is the need to develop a strong sense of self. That doesn’t mean that we can’t evolve and adapt, but without that foundation it’s too easy for us to be lead astray.
D: There was a period in college when I actively sought out a Taiwanese American community to be a part of, but it didn’t really work, which was interesting as I used to go back to Taiwan often with my family and I even did “Love Boat”. Ironically, I have more Taiwanese friends than Taiwanese American, even though I was essentially raised in the States! I realized that I didn’t need to drape myself in a flag to be Taiwanese. It’s just who I am. From my morals, to my views on politics, to the foods I eat, Taiwan is in me. I’m always reading books about Taiwan and try to keep up with the news. In more tangible ways I have tried to contribute to Taiwanese culture including DJing there a few times, documenting a number of events through photography and writing, and promoting Taiwan back in the States. This book project combines all of these elements.
H: What do you do now?
D: I’ve been working in education for the past 15 years, primarily as a high school teacher and vice principal at Unity High School in Oakland, CA. Recently I helped start a publishing company called Pochino Press that focuses on works exploring the intersection of cultures and communities.
H: When we talk about Taiwanese or Taiwanese American communities, we often don’t think of the mixed race experiences. But, as in any multicultural and open society, these changes are taking place in Taiwan. Even here in the States, as we move into the 3rd generation, these stories are becoming more common. What are some of your thoughts about this? And what kind of insight can you give on these growing communities, especially the ones in Taiwan?
D: Growing up around military families, it was natural for us. I grew up knowing other multiracial families and even non-Taiwanese who were born on the island or spent significant parts of their childhood there and culturally considered themselves part Taiwanese. Unfortunately, in general I didn’t find the larger Taiwanese or Taiwanese American community too welcoming, particularly if that mixture didn’t include White. I remember getting into some serious arguments with Taiwanese Americans over these issues when I was younger, particularly around stereotypes of Black and Latino communities. This isn’t to say that there weren’t individuals who aren’t incredibly warm-hearted and giving but it’ll be interesting to see how Taiwan adapts at a societal and institutional level, including dealing with immigrants from any country. Will it be a model for progressivism and social justice or stuck in outdated models based on fear and isolationism? Will the broader Taiwanese American community embrace a culture of diverse experiences or a mythical homogeneous one? I’m optimistic as I’ve found many people on both sides of the Pacific want to have these discussions and things have definitely improved over the years.
H: Well, I think it’s quite admirable that you’re tackling this subject. I know you want to save some of your best stuff for the book and photo documentary, but can you tell me about one of the more memorable connections you’ve made or people that have left an impression on you?
D: I’ve met so many incredible people, including local Taiwanese, that I can’t pick just one. However, the following experience is telling. A few years ago, when I first met up the Taipei-based Pan African music group, we met at a cafe and it was myself, my friend Mike, who’s Taiwanese and white Australian, and three Black members of the group. When we entered the cafe, people looked up, but nobody stared and people just went back to whatever they were doing. Our motley crew was nothing special! To see that in some parts of Taiwan they’re so used to seeing Black people as part of the community that it’s ordinary was shocking to me. Again, I’m not downplaying some of the real issues, but it shows that in some ways Taiwan is adapting. But isn’t that the entire history of the island?
H: True, indeed. Speaking of cafes, it makes me think of food. So, what’s your favorite Taiwanese food?
D: I have to go with beef noodle soup!
H: Can’t go wrong with a good bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup! So, Daniel, what can people do to help you complete this project?
D: Right now, backing us on Kickstarter is our focus as the deadline is nearing. Every little bit helps! It’s truly been touching to see who’s contributed so far and receiving e-mails from people who want to see these stories told! I’m always open to ideas and suggestions so I would love to hear from people.
H: Thanks so much for your time, Daniel. I’m looking forward to seeing the beautiful pictures and stories in print. Our staff at TaiwaneseAmerican.org are behind you all the way on this important project. Good luck to you!
D: Thank you so much for this opportunity and promoting Taiwanese American voices!