When my mom was twenty, she moved from Taiwan to the United States. Now I’m twenty, and I’m doing everything I can to get back.
There are practical reasons for this, of course. I applied for dual citizenship in high school, and since coronavirus has pushed everything, including my college classes, into the virtual world, Taiwan has become my fabled “land of opportunity.”
But there’s something deeper going on. I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove my “Americanness,” and I’m tired.
I always understood myself as primarily American, even if the people around me didn’t. I was born here. I grew up here. My English is far better than my Mandarin will ever be. I didn’t realize that my Americanness was something that could be called into question, until it was.
I am fortunate enough not to have experienced the overt discrimination that many in our country have in the past and continue to confront today. But I’m hyper-aware of the fact that when I mispronounce a word in English or don’t catch something in conversation, some people read into it and think that I don’t speak English at all. It’s led to some awkward moments. One time I didn’t hear a flight attendant ask me what I wanted to drink, and she responded by miming the action of taking a shot while overenunciating “DRINK?” over the hum of the plane engine.
It would be one thing if I felt at home in Asian culture, but I never felt more American than when I went back to Taiwan during summer vacations growing up. I didn’t know how to read menus or social cues, and I never understood which honorifics to call my distant family members.
After a while, I started thinking it was unfair that I had to juggle not feeling Asian enough while also having to prove that I was American. I went to a mostly white elementary school, and I just wanted to be like everyone else. But in a country that boasts of its melting pot heritage, why did “Americanness” feel so conditional? For how many generations did my family have to be here before people stopped asking us where we were from?
So in second grade, I begged my mom to buy me Lunchables because that’s what all the white kids were eating. She said no and continued to pack me rice, vegetables, and soup. In middle school, I had to choose between my extracurricular activities. I couldn’t keep up with Chinese and stay in dance class while also participating in school clubs, so I dropped out of Chinese weekend school, telling my parents I would never need Chinese anyway. I was the only Asian kid in my dance class for years, and I even hoped to be a cheerleader despite the fact that I hated sports.
In high school, I got a car, which I then used to drive myself to Walmart to buy Lunchables. They weren’t all I’d made them out to be. In class, I studied English grammar intensively, thinking that if I could just speak without grammatical mistakes, no one would correct my English in conversation again.
I look back at that period with mixed feelings because I’m not exactly sure what I was trying to do. Did I just want to fit in? Did I think I could somehow become American enough that my friend’s mom wouldn’t dislike me just because I wasn’t white? Regardless, it seems like those actions paid off. After studying English, perfecting my speech through debate, and writing many drafts of emotional personal essays, I was accepted as a prospective English major at Yale.
My decision to attend Yale represented a shift in how others perceived me. I simultaneously got my “Good Asian card” from the Asian American community and my “Good American card” from people at school.
My decision to attend Yale represented a shift in how others perceived me. I simultaneously got my “Good Asian card” from the Asian American community and my “Good American card” from people at school. Overnight, my parents became parenting experts to complete strangers since whatever they did had helped me get into an Ivy League school. When I came back to Arkansas for breaks, I was treated differently. Girls from high school who had ignored me when we ran into each other at Walmart suddenly made it a point to introduce me to their parents when we saw each other at school functions. I never knew what to do with that.
For my part, as I studied Asian American history in college, I understood that part of my identity better. After taking six semesters of Chinese, I stopped feeling as awkward in situations where I had to speak it. And through living with mostly non-Asian suitemates, I realized I was a lot more Taiwanese than I’d previously imagined myself to be.
In March, I watched as people like me were physically attacked and accused of bringing the virus to America. This was compounded by comments by leaders such as President Trump and one of Arkansas’ senators, Tom Cotton, calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” or even “Kung-flu”. It seemed that overnight, all the work that people like my family had done to establish themselves in this country didn’t matter. We weren’t “American” enough, and we never would be.
But was “Americanness” even desirable anymore? In light of recent events, the “Americanness” I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove seemed less important. Over the summer, I took Chinese classes through a university in China. For two hours each day, my professors asked me questions in Chinese: Did people really panic-buy toilet paper? Why aren’t Americans wearing masks or staying home? Did the president really say (insert the latest scandalous news)? I repeatedly found myself explaining that I don’t know why America is like that, because I’m not American like that.
I repeatedly found myself explaining that I don’t know why America is like that, because I’m not American like that.
In light of the recent racial reckoning our country is experiencing, I find myself leaning into my Taiwanese identity more and more. Being American is more complicated today than it’s ever been for me. When people complain about America, there’s a subset of people who say “if you don’t like it then leave.”
The thing is, I could. My Taiwanese citizenship means that I have the profound privilege of picking up and moving to Taiwan, where they’ve had just over 700 COVID-19 cases and seven COVID related deaths. Compared to the US, that seems like utopia.
Despite all this, I find myself unable to completely let go of the American idealism that brought me here. Of course I see that America is deeply flawed and in dire need of change, but I still feel like America made my family a promise, and I just want her to keep it.
I still feel like America made my family a promise, and I just want her to keep it.
As much as it might be easier to cut my losses and enjoy life somewhere else, I feel an obligation to stay and help– even if only to make America a little easier to navigate for some younger version of me that’s growing up in these surreal times.
I am American. I am also Taiwanese. When I thought of myself as Taiwanese American, I always felt as if the modifier before -American meant that I could never truly be either, but I’m learning that I am fully both.
Still, I’m packing up my belongings to go to Taiwan. Ironically, my American passport is expired, and even though I have my Taiwanese passport, I won’t be able to leave Taiwan because I won’t be able to prove that I can be in the United States legally. This is a technicality, but it reminds me that I can’t just forget my Americanness. I’ll be back.
Serena is a freelance journalist who writes about accessibility, culture, language, education, and the ways they intersect. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Teen Vogue, and she writes regularly for the Yale Daily News and the Yale Logos. You can find her work and personal blog at dearyall.net.
I am Hapa, Taiwanese mom and Jewish American dad of Polish, Ukrainian ethnicity. I was born in Taiwan and grew up mostly in the states. I speak Taiwanese and English not Madarin. I am more than twice your age. I went thru the same thing growing up in America and I have always wanted to move back. I don’t think it matters how many generations Asians have been here. We will never be American enough just based on how we look.
I love this piece, especially “The thing is, I _could_.” That gave me a big smile. And, you are so right. America is a great country, but that doesn’t keep people from saying stupid things. I’m sorry you ever felt your Americaness was called into question. You are as American as anyone and you are also Taiwanese. And that’s cool. Especially in these Covid times, I hoped to travel back to Taiwan for a visit this year with my wife but at the moment that’s not easy to do. Still, I’m looking forward to my new visit to Taipei. You are an awesome writer and have a unique vantage point for using that writing gift to create more understanding between the the USA and Taiwan. No doubt you will.