PHOTO OF DEREK SHAO & HIS GRANDFATHER
Dear Ah Gong,
Mom didn’t tell me that you were a hāfu until I was about seven years old, and like most second graders at the time, I was too preoccupied with Wii Sports tennis and Cartoon Network to really think about what that meant. It wasn’t until I had learned more about the history of Taiwan and its relationship with Japan that I began to understand the circumstances surrounding your childhood, while also starting to make sense of experiences I had taken for granted growing up.
Everyone in our family knows about your incredible success story as a self-made man, in which you rose above the nadir of personal tragedy to start your own company and raise a healthy family. I am fairly certain that nothing in what is soon to be my twentieth year on Earth bears the same importance as what you have experienced in your life, and this is in large part due to the effort you have put into providing better futures for your children and grandchildren. Consequently, I’m writing this letter not only as a means of reflection, but also because I feel a particular obligation to explain to you things that I have never been able to put into words until now.
Arguably the most important event from your birth year was Germany’s invasion of Poland, which officially set in motion a series of events whose effects are still felt today. But your story begins over 5,000 miles away in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, where complicated questions about the island’s political and ethnic allegiances reflected its equally complicated history. As the son of a Japanese man and a Taiwanese woman, you were a manifestation of the confused cultural state of Taiwan as a country that possessed mixed feelings about its Japanese occupants, yet was also unsure about its own national identity.
With your father being forced to return to what remained of his hometown in Hiroshima after the war, and with your mother eventually passing away just a few years later, you learned to be independent, selling popsicles on the streets of Taipei to help support you and your younger brother. Despite your uncle insisting that you enter the workforce instead of pursuing an education, you persisted, learning the skills of accounting and eventually starting your own firm. This story of hard work, grit and determination has laid the foundation for many of our family’s core beliefs. But hidden within this story of success is also a story of both loss and reconciliation.
It would be an understatement to say that I was surprised when Mom told me that in the first few years of your life, you spoke Japanese at home and went by the surname, “Kawasaki.” I learned that Taiwan’s rapidly changing political scene in the years following the war was the reason why you changed your last name to “Wang” and abandoned your mother tongue. I learned that by the time Mom was born, you had grown accustomed to life in a vastly different Taiwan, and that it was also around this time that you reconnected with your father after an exhaustive search throughout Hiroshima. I learned that despite initially having to communicate with him through your mother-in-law, you made an effort to relearn Japanese, and that you would continue to do so even after his passing.
In history classes here in the United States, we often focus on the atrocities that the Japanese committed during their mad conquest of the Asia-Pacific region. Having grown up in an area with a diverse Asian immigrant population, I have heard strong anti-Japanese sentiment being echoed by the likes of older Chinese, Korean, and even Taiwanese folk. But while such opinions are less prevalent among the younger generation, I have always challenged such rhetoric, for reasons that I became increasingly more aware of as I continued to learn more about your story.
I have only recently come to the realization that Japan’s influence on Taiwan is much greater than I had originally thought, whether that be through food, media or sports. Many of the things that I love about Taiwan, things I had believed to be quintessentially Taiwanese, have such profound Japanese influences to the extent that the colonist versus colonized dialogue becomes no longer about good guys versus bad guys, but about families, tradition and heritage instead.
As a Taiwanese American, I’ve struggled at times with my dual identity, often falling into the twilight zone between being Taiwanese and being an American. But perhaps things don’t need to be as black-and-white as I have made them out to be, just as you found a way to reconcile the duality in your own life by reconnecting with your father.
One of my fondest memories from when I used to visit Taiwan every summer was getting to watch reruns of Abarenbō Shōgun with you every night. In all honesty, the show’s recurring themes were incredibly predictable and its practical effects were just as cheesy. But to this day, there is still nothing more gratifying than seeing how invested you are in a show whose dialogue you do not understand, yet may remind you of a time when you might have.
And I look forward to the next time we can watch Abarenbō Shōgun again.
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