228 and the Power of Storytelling

"For those of us who remember that every struggle is for a glory beyond our own." Drawing by Leona Chen, December 2016
“For those of us who remember that every struggle is for a glory beyond our own.” Drawing by Leona Chen, December 2015

(Amma, I may be studying Walt Whitman, but I am writing my way back to you.)

I was born in 1996, the year of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election. Exactly two decades later, we have named the first woman president of Taiwan (and the second female head of state in the history of East Asia).

And while we have tremendous cause for celebration, I believe that we must continue to pay attention and homage to our past. Equally importantly, we have a responsibility to our lifelong examination of what it means to be the children of Taiwanese America.

Recall the weeks following the 228 Massacre in 1947, when local leaders demanded administration reforms, free elections, greater autonomy, and accountability for government corruption. An estimated 30,000 were killed.

But also,

recall the Sunflower Movement of 2014, a student-led protest against the lack of transparency and public oversight in cross-strait agreements with China.

Recall the demonstrations in the summer of 2015 — also student led — against proposed changes to Taiwanese textbooks that would incorporate China-centric elements into the curriculum.

Recall 16-year-old Tzuyu, a Taiwanese singer in a K-Pop group who, after waving a Taiwanese flag, was pressured to film an apology to “One China.”

For decades, social movements and political protests in Taiwan have been a rallying cry against the pervasive and perpetual threat of state-sanctioned and interpersonal erasure. So while we easily recognize the dangers of the former, why do we continue the latter?

Our ethnic claim is a historically challenged one, but our existences are indisputable facts and eternal truths. I believe, then, that our stories are worthy of agency. I believe that each of our stories matters tremendously.

I believe that human history and human memory feed the soul of Taiwan; without these, we starve her dignity and commit our own cultural genocide.

gen·o·cide

ˈjenəˌsīd/

noun

the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.

Storytelling through both oral tradition and documentation continues to be vital to the memory of 228 and our continual resistance against systemic knowledge, shame, and ignorance.

Last year, I had the opportunity to speak to a multi-generational audience of Taiwanese Americans in St. Louis. In a conversation themed, “The Power of Storytelling to Bridge Generational Gaps,” we shared our relationships with our elders (and their children), our frustrations with being perpetual foreigners, and our own tentative explorations about what it means to occupy golden bodies in black-and-white spaces.

Among the discussion questions were:

  • What does it mean to be Taiwanese?
  • What does it meant to be American?

And finally, inevitably, the question with unexpected intricacies and heartaches:

  • What does it mean to be Taiwanese American?

I asked us all to reflect on these questions within the context of our own lived experiences, and to understand that our individual and collective stories are integral to the evolution — yes, evolution, as in a work in progress , as in an inclination towards growth and change — of a Taiwanese, American, and Taiwanese American identity.

As an artist, I am endlessly grateful for the first generation Taiwanese Americans who recognize the necessity of creative documentation and investigation — and for my fiercely Taiwanese mother, in particular, who never discouraged my desire to write, but instead gave me a reason to do so.

For every grandparent whose Japanese-Mandarin-Taiwanese tongue bore complex scars and experiences.

For my aboriginal ancestors, who have somehow embedded in me a severe determination to decolonize my work, my body, my space.

For every green book turned to blue. Every sacrifice made for immeasurable opportunity and trajectory. The burden of the Taiwanese American diaspora is a complex one, but I would argue that any work that we do — any radical movements that we lead — is not good enough if it leaves our parents behind.

I urge us to reaffirm our own agencies in the patchwork of the Taiwanese American experience. I have said before that to be the involuntary ambassador of a threatened identity is both a privilege and an exhausting responsibility. But remember that personal pursuits of disorientation, investigation, and storytelling — wanting to learn about your history, as it was written by your people — can also be revolutionary, radical acts.

I believe that, above all, generational allyship will foster a more inclusive Taiwanese American community, one that is able to recognize and reconcile a violent history.

Today, on February 28, 2016, I reflect on the intricate legacy of my ethnic allegiance. I have learned that there is no “right” way to be Taiwanese American, that both public protest and silent observation are valid modes of inquiry. I have learned that strength and residual trauma are not mutually exclusive; we can better celebrate Taiwan’s resilience if we understand the uncomfortable mosaic of her past. I have learned that Taiwanese American culture is not just about the food we serve on our dinner tables, but about the ongoing dialogue and relationships between the generations. If we want to take pride in our culture, we have to first take pride in each other.

Tell your stories.

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