Finding Myself through the Taiwanese American Community

I grew up in San Marino, a small 3-mile radius town that was pretty Asian. No, I mean really Asian: my high school was 75% Asian, and probably 30% Taiwanese. I always knew I was Asian because I looked it and spoke Taiwanese at home, but I didn’t actually know what that meant. So when I went to college at Northwestern University where the Asian population was (only) 20%, I was in for a culture shock.

“Oh my God, white people.”
When I got to Evanston, I was hyper aware of my Asian identity. My first experience was a week-long camping trip where skinny dipping and reading erotica aloud were expected –not your most traditional Asian activities. And when I got to campus, hanging out with my dormmates was also not the most comfortable. It was the little things: They focused a lot on holidays that didn’t mean much to me like Halloween or Valentine’s Day. Their families would even send care packages with Super Bowl decorations which I regarded as fancy future-trash. It seemed like they talked about going out and partying all the time. They were just a bit too intense about rushing frats and sororities.

But it’s not that ALL the white people were doing this (it seemed to be most of them, though). And it’s not like my Asian friends and I didn’t celebrate these holidays or go out or excessively talk about who was joining (read: rushing) which Asian clubs. Everything was just slightly different.

But slight enough to make a difference. Enough for me to trek across campus to hang out with my Asian friends, many of them who were part of the Taiwanese American Students Club (TASC). Enough for me to cope with the “shame” I felt for only hanging out with Asians. When I was with these friends, I was carefree. I was myself. I didn’t have to put on so many filters. I felt relevant. I felt cool, damn it.

Growing through Northwestern’s TASC

Believe it or not, this made me feel cool.

I joined TASC because I was Taiwanese and it was fun, but I stayed because I felt useful. I was teaching others about my heritage by planning Taiwanese cultural events. I was learning how the Northwestern system worked: how to book rooms, how to get funding, how to get the word out. As a sophomore, I was on the executive board so I helped the freshmen out. I was a leader and felt like I was doing something real. Through TASC, I finally found my place. I could finally “do” Northwestern.

Growing through Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association (ITASA)
Even though I was heavily involved with TASC, I still wondered if I was really doing something real. I wanted being Taiwanese to mean more than just night markets and Jay Chou (don’t get me wrong, both are awesome). I started to ask questions: What does being Taiwanese mean to me? What was the history behind Taiwanese culture? Around this time, the movie Formosa Betrayed came out, and this inspired me to delve into my parents’ history. I learned about the 228 Incident and resistance against the Kuo Min Tang (KMT) during the martial law era. I was moved by the undying underdog spirit of so many inspirational Taiwanese and Taiwanese American individuals. I participated in the Formosa Foundation ambassador program and learned how this history carries over into issues today. I got my answers, but I still wanted more; I wanted other people to talk about these “deeper” Taiwanese issues too.

Cue the ITASA conferences. They brought together members from Taiwanese American collegiate groups from across the nation to talk about Taiwanese history and celebrate a common heritage. The ITASA conferences were exactly what I was looking for…and more.

To me, they were magical playgrounds where I felt an instant, inexplicable bond with people. I had no idea why, but I just wanted to be friends with everyone I met. And they wanted to be my friend too (hopefully)! It made no sense, but it was beautiful. Through these encounters at ITASA conferences, I realized that, heck, we really aren’t all that different from each other. ITASA helped me open myself up and understand that when we accept ourselves, we accept others; and when we accept others, we accept ourselves. ITASA made me think outside the box and beyond myself. ITASA opened my eyes to the bigger picture. And because of that, I fell in love with it.

I'm BFFs with everyone here, no lie.

Eventually, during the 2011-2012 academic year, I became ITASA National President. And so, I was actually living up to my nickname: “Queen of Taiwan.”

How offensive. At least get it right. “Queen of Taiwanese America.”

It was while serving as President when I gained most of my self-confidence. I was doing something meaningful by bringing people together, encouraging them to be themselves, and helping them see the bigger picture. I felt like I was doing something real because I was giving others the opportunity to experience the empowering transformation that had moved me. I was doing what was important to me.

Addressing the 2011 ITASA Midwest Conference was one of the scariest moments of my life, but I did it for ITASA. I did it for me.

As I continue to grow, I find myself asking the same question: was I really doing something real?

What if there’s an even bigger picture? What does it mean to be Asian American? Or just American? Or even a human being? I’m working on that right now.

I’m really not that different. From Northwestern students. From Taiwanese Americans across the country. From Asian Americans. From people.

In the end, WE are really not that different from each other. (Let’s hold hands and be friends?)

But I have to admit, it’s ironic that I didn’t realize all this until I was surrounded by people similar to myself.

So, for those of you out there who are in leadership roles or highly involved in Taiwanese American student organizations, but find yourself being questioned about the value and importance of such an organization, I hope you will find the following useful. I’ve composed this FAQ based off of questions often asked of me when I was active in TASC and ITASA and questions I ask myself. Feel free to use as you see fit. And never forget that it’s your own story about your life experiences that matters most.

The Importance of Taiwanese American Student Organizations: a FAQ

What’s the point of Taiwanese American student associations (TASAs)? Aren’t you just being exclusive by hanging out with other Taiwanese people?
TASAs aren’t purposely trying to be exclusive. TASAs are actually a means for people to connect and really, to just have fun. It’s endearing how excited some people get talking about summers with family in Taiwan, pigging out at night markets or judging which tea shop has the best boba. TASA is a place (though not the only one) where people can feel that connection.
At the same time, they serve as safe places where students can feel understood and welcomed by others beyond the small talk. I like to think that everyone wants to be able to his/her true self with everyone. But when your culture is different from the mainstream, you feel different and uncomfortable, and it’s a lot harder to be yourself.

I have friends where I can be myself. Why do you need a club for that?
People often group themselves together by shared interest or a shared feeling of being different from the norm. This can come in all forms, whether it be personality, career interest or even something like height. Ethnic/racial identity is a large part of many people’s identity, so people often feel different from others because of it. At the same time, ethnic/racial identity can also help people feel the same as others.

Doesn’t having TASAs just allow people to not be comfortable with people outside of TASA?
Yes, the existence of TASAs does make it that much easier for people to stay in a comfortable place but people first need to find a place where they feel comfortable before they can feel comfortable in other settings. Imagine if you never found your closest friends. Imagine a world where you never felt like yourself.

Do TASAs encourage people to get out of their comfort zone?
No and then yes. TASAs are a home for students to find community, gain confidence and develop leadership skills. But ultimately, TASAs are meant to build leaders for the world, not just for TASA.

What’s the point of TASA at a school that’s 60% Asian with a large proportion of Taiwanese Americans?
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that TASAs vary widely from school to school. It’s true that Asian students in this environment may feel more comfortable with their ethnic/racial identity by default, but students may still be drawn to TASA because of something nuanced about Taiwanese culture, or something completely outside of Taiwanese culture. A simplified example: it’s easy to find non-TASA people to drink bubble tea with, but no one will get stinky tofu with me except for my TASA friends. Or all my TASA friends just happen to like playing Settlers.

I’m frustrated by TASAs because people think I’m like the people in TASAs just because I’m Taiwanese.
That’s totally fine that you’re not like the TASA people, and I’m sorry other people generalize you so. But TASA members aren’t really at fault for being themselves. It’s human nature to simplify even though humans are complex beings, so we should challenge people to think beyond stereotypes about clubs, ethnic groups, and really, everything else.

I’m in TASA and I feel kinda lame for only hanging out with TASA people.
Don’t! If that’s where you feel like you belong, embrace it and be proud of it. At the same time, I also think it’s important to challenge yourself to expand your comfort zone. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be your true self all the time and not just with TASA?

Bottom line: TASAs are similar to frats/sororities, community service groups, informal families or any other form of social group. They’re all based on a form of “culture.”

2 Responses to “Finding Myself through the Taiwanese American Community”

  1. Karen TL

    Insightful points, Pamela! No one ever accuses a fraternity or sorority for making “outsiders” feel excluded even though by default, forming any kind of group entity means drawing socially constructed boundaries. But for minority groups, whether those boundaries are perceived as permeable or not is often defined by an outsider majority that doesn’t necessarily (care to) understand nor respect the insider culture enough to see that these groups serve a very well-deserved purpose. It’s really up to each individual/group to determine how much effort to direct into educating others with what limited time/resources are available (which from what I remember in college, has it’s unique challenges).

  2. Pam’s a wonderful young leader on our commmunity!

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