There is only one Taiwanese restaurant in the city of St. Louis.
When I introduce Taiwanese culture to my new college friends, I bring them to Tai Ke (台客), and my friends are always surprised when they find themselves eating a dish resembling Chinese food instead of Pad Thai. Yep, they thought Taiwanese people lived in Thailand. In a way, it is kind of funny because this is one of the quintessential experiences of every Taiwanese American: being mistaken as Thai.
Originally from the Bay Area, I encountered many other variations of the Taiwanese American experience and, consequently, definitions of Taiwanese American identity. I grew up in a local Taiwanese School that placed the same emphasis on learning Mandarin as they did with learning Taiwanese Hokkien. The definition of my identity then was inherited from my mom’s sentiment about Taiwan; I was not old enough to develop an opinion of my own, but old enough to understand that I had a clear, distinct ethnic identity. I was a language enthusiast (my mom is quadralingual – she speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and English), and this in turn opened new dimensions of cultural understanding for me. In high school, when I was part of a dance troupe that spread Taiwanese culture through performances and education, being Taiwanese American meant that I had the power to share my culture with my peers. I was an educator. These are not the only identity markers of Taiwanese Americans from the Bay. There are ones that include professional development or blissful summers where first-generation parents can finally relax after sending their kids away for a Taiwanese American-centered summer camp. It also encompassed visiting Taiwan every other year or having a mad boba addiction (and fierce opinions on where to satisfy them). Either way, I fully expected to encounter these and new definitions of what it meant to be Taiwanese American when I entered college in the Midwest.
I was wrong.
What I discovered instead was this tiny seedling of Taiwanese American identity that seemed to start and stop at the phrase “I am Taiwanese American.” I was confused: where was the “and”? I am Taiwanese American, and I have performed traditional Taiwanese dance for the past twelve years of my life. I am Taiwanese American, and I understand multiple of Taiwan’s languages. I am Taiwanese American, and I go to an after-school program with others who are. Where was the “and” for my immediate community, here in St. Louis?
After conversations with my peers, I realized that for many of them, this was their first interaction with people who shared the same ethnic heritage.
After conversations with my peers, I realized that for many of them, this was their first interaction with people who shared the same ethnic heritage. They did not grow up in communities where there were a lot of Taiwanese Americans and thus did not know much about it other than the fact this was something they could, and ought to, claim. And so, my first reaction was to build upon their understanding by immersing my community into all things Taiwanese – to trigger an identification beyond terms but towards a personal context for what it means to embody the culture. After all, I have done this before – I brought Taiwanese culture to my high school by teaching my friends Taiwanese dances. However, I quickly realized that I was naïve to believe that my own passions and experiences (and the many ways these were privileges) would be the catalyst for change. I wanted to be a problem-solver, but not understanding Taiwanese culture (essentially an “and”) is not necessarily a problem, as I had once perceived it to be.
I wanted to be a problem-solver, but not understanding Taiwanese culture (essentially an “and”) is not necessarily a problem, as I had once perceived it to be.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I have never been truly questioned about my political affiliation, which is curious considering the amount of diversity there is. However, in St. Louis, I found myself constantly defending my political and cultural identity. Each one of these conversations made me question why I am still proudly Taiwanese American when there is another readily available ethnic term that people might assume of me. I realized that just identifying as Taiwanese American in St. Louis is a huge struggle among my peers, as we are constantly challenged on something that we never chose. There is no time or mental capacity to learn about Taiwan when we are struggling with this very elementary phase of identity formation.
In St. Louis, or at least in Washington University in St. Louis undergraduates, there is one definition of being Taiwanese American. There are infinite in the Bay Area. Both amounts are correct and acceptable. One is not more culturally developed than the other because both require an incredible capacity for strength, empathy, and self-discovery to understand and embody our identity.
Now my sentiment has changed to, simply and profoundly, “I am Taiwanese American.”
My definition of Taiwanese American used to be conditional and pointed: I am Taiwanese American and, or I am Taiwanese American because. Now my sentiment has changed to, simply and profoundly, “I am Taiwanese American.” For the first time in my life, I am not pushing my agenda on what it means to be Taiwanese American onto my peers. Rather, I am exploring what it means to not feel “Taiwanese” enough in Taiwan and vice versa: not “American” enough in America. Learning to be okay with others perceiving me as a F.O.B. (“fresh-off-the-boat”) from Taiwan because of my fifth-grade Mandarin speaking level. To justify my amount of knowledge of both Taiwan’s Sunflower movement and America’s #metoo as a young woman in Missouri. And finally, to be okay eating at the one, lone Taiwanese restaurant for the rest of my four years in college.
I was raised Taiwanese Californian. I’ll be a Taiwanese Missourian for a little while. But I’ll always be Taiwanese American.
Vivienne Chang is currently a student at Washington University in St. Louis, pursuing double majors in Economics & Strategy and Finance. She is an Executive Board member of their Taiwanese Student Organization (TSO) and was previously president of Junior Taiwanese American Student Association at her high school.