FEATURE PHOTO PROVIDED BY VANESSA WAN
When I was little, I thought I was Chinese. That’s what my parents said when we were asked the inevitable question: “What are you?”
I later learned we were not Chinese.
Assigned to research the flag of my parents’ home country for class, I went home to find out that I needed to check out books not on China but on Taiwan. As it turned out, my parents simply went along with people’s assumptions that we were Chinese because it was “easier.” When I asked why it was easier, I was met with one of my favorite phrases: “It’s complicated.” From then on, I embarked on a journey to unravel the complicated. This first led me to a Taiwanese summer camp where I was first surrounded not only by other Asian kids (a rarity where I grew up) but Taiwanese kids. There I learned more about Taiwanese culture and felt a sense of community that I had never experienced. A part of my identity was stirred from the dusty chest it was shoved into — I no longer wanted to be embarrassed and hesitant to be Taiwanese American.
It was exhilarating and refreshing to share a space with people from the cultural roots as me, who had many of the same experiences as me, who knew what it was like to grow up Asian in America. That was something I didn’t have in my hometown. Back in Concord, I was the one Asian kid in a sea of people that did not look like me, and I was expected to code switch between the outside world and the world inside my home.
I think a lot of people of color growing up outside communities of their ethnicity understand when I say I did not feel as if I fully belonged where I was, though I was able to blend in. The experiences other kids had growing up were vastly different from mine and the understandings they had of my experiences were superficial and quite frankly stereotypical. At the same time, I didn’t feel Asian enough for my summer camp community either. My Mandarin was incredibly broken, and I laughed at phrases and jokes I didn’t quite understand. There were things in English I couldn’t translate into Mandarin, and there were things in Mandarin I couldn’t translate into English — I found myself constantly at a loss trying to explain one world to another, all the sounds that made sense in my head stumbled and crashed out from my lips. It was as if I was putting together a puzzle but never seemed to understand how the pieces could fit together.
During the winter break of my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to go to Taiwan with my mom and my sister. I was excited to finally have a chance to better understand my culture and the references that my Taiwanese friends made. Maybe I’d finally get an understanding of where the pieces are supposed to go, an explanation of why I just couldn’t get things to fit. Getting on a plane for the first time, and leaving the country for the first time, I was anxiously headed toward the place where my mother and father grew up, toward the home of strangers that my mother called family.
13 hours later, walking out of the airport in Taoyuan, instant sunshine wrapped itself thickly around my entire body, making me painfully aware of the many layers I had put on during the freezing plane ride. I tried to keep a calm composure and pretend as if my chest was not disastrously imploding with nerves, anxiety, and excitement. No travel guide can prepare you for the culture shock of having your relationships reverse in an instant — suddenly my mother had become my guide and my translator, helping me weave through the cultural capital that slipped through my fingers. At home, my mother often leaned on me, as I guided her through conversations while she mindlessly nodded along. Here, I was the one leaning on her, I became the one whose tongue tripped over words from a limited vocabulary.
We stayed with my mother’s side of the family in Taichung. I was unsure of how to act, desperately trying to find any sort of footing. Do I pretend I know what I’m doing and try to converse only in Mandarin? Do my sister and I look out of place in our clothes? Is this tank top showing too much skin? That same day we walked around the street markets, the tropical weather clinging to my back, along with the eyes of the locals who, turns out, could tell right away I was cóng mei guo lai de, or “from America.” It was only day one, and I was already itching to settle in and shake off the unfamiliarity of the area. My mother, on the other hand, was radiating like I had never seen before. She expertly led us along the roads without sidewalks, through neighborhood day markets filled with fresh fruits and cheap clothes, past long lines of mopeds parked outside food stalls. Everything was drenched in golden sunlight, nature crawling out through the spaces between tall buildings and snaking through the cracks in the concrete. Unique variations of potted plants lined the fronts of houses, all tightly packed together along the roads.
During this time, I thought a lot about other children of immigrants who spend their lives unable to, for one reason or another, reconnect with their parent’s motherland. Is it still considered reconnecting if there was never a connection made to begin with?
Taiwan was a kaleidoscope of memories. In Taichung, I discovered night markets and witnessed the street smarts my mother was never able to show off in America. There, I began to watch the lessons I learned at camp appear before me, dancing in multi-colored lanterns and string lights amidst cramped store fronts and a million street snacks. Taiwan comes to life at night. The streets fill with the sound of vendors yelling orders and the sizzling of food being fried, stir-fried, or tossed in the air. Blocks and blocks of people swarm under the soft glow of light for their fix, a cool breeze running in the warm night interrupted only by the lines of grumbling stomachs. At the night market, your taste buds dance with flavor. The savory, albeit acquired, taste of chòudòufu, “stinky tofu,” goes into your nose with the first crunch, indulgent da chang bao xiao chang, a Taiwanese hot dog wrapped in a glutinous rice bun, makes your mouth water and stains your breath with garlic. On every corner, there is an ā gōng with a cart making fresh plum juice or serving hóngchá, “red tea.” In Taichung, content, I slept on the floor mats at the “house” of Auntie Number Six. I awoke covered in mosquito bites the size of dimes and developed an unspoken kinship with my aunt and cousins in only a matter of days. We shared the same tastes in food and in clothes, wanting to go back to the same food stalls and spending nights scouting the night markets for just the right pair of overalls. They took me under their wings quickly, patiently giving me lessons of the cities we were visiting and sticking to my side at restaurants and markets to make sure I wasn’t too overwhelmed or lost. Most importantly, we bonded through jokes and teasing remarks at my Mom, who’d smile before swatting us away for being “silly.”
In Tapan, I discovered my disdain for hot springs, which smelled faintly of eggs and the soap my grandmother always uses. Sweating in my swim cap, I drowned out the conversations my family had about the health benefits of the springs and took note, as I frequently did, of the scenery around me. Growing up, I’d always found grounding in nature. During hikes, I’d always get distracted by the way light filters through trees or the family of ferns waving hello. During the height of my stress during finals week, I’d go for a walk. Like all the times before, I found myself getting lost in nature, in the dark green mountains that rose from a sea of fog. It was a hazy dream, though that might have been the lightheadedness speaking (of my own doing and indication of poor health, according to my Mom, who had been re-energized through this cooking pot of flesh).
Everywhere in Taiwan, we were met with lush green vegetation, grassy mountains that kissed the clouds, and water so clear you could see the sand dance in it. There, I met Auntie Number Four and more cousins, which led to the discovery that my little sister’s mannerisms did indeed run in the family. In Rìyuè Tán, I discovered what it really meant to be humbled by the vast and awe-inspiring presence of nature as I sat in a tiny sky gondola, one in a line that seemed to run forever, overlooking the largest body of water in Taiwan, contrasted by the bright green mountains that surround it. In Rìyuè Tán, all the thoughts in my head were stunned to silence. The sparkling waters of the lake demanded that I take in fully the beauty that surrounded me in every place we traveled, rather than in brief glances from passing people. The mountains reminded me of how small we all are and it felt foolish that I was trying to read the thoughts of all the people around me, hoping to be accepted by strangers when my family had already welcomed me in. There, I began to feel comfortable; there, I began to feel the pieces starting to make more sense.
In Jiufen, I discovered bawan made by someone who was not my grandmother and found myself enchanted by the narrow staircases lit by iconic red lanterns, just like a scene out of Spirited Away. In Kenting and Kaohsiung, I discovered stillness staring out at crystal blue water that sparked relentlessly and seemed to touch the ends of the Earth.
At the end of my trip, I found that self-revelation came in another form. I had thought I would be able to find myself by traveling across the island my parents knew so well, that things would all make sense and that I’d discover the picture my puzzle was supposed to be. But on arrival I realized that the Asian part of my Asian American identity was just as out of reach as my American identity. They just barely grazed my fingertips. In Taiwan, I was embarrassed when people could immediately spot that I was an outsider and I found a thrill when I was not questioned about where I came from. Though I was immersed in the culture I so longed to understand, a culture that I wanted to proudly claim, I still did not feel as if I seamlessly belonged here. Taiwan holds references I will never be able to understand, experiences I have never had, and a language barrier I am constantly attempting to scale with no end in sight. Though I became more familiar with the pieces I carried, I still could not put the puzzle together.
When I was growing up, there was a phrase that was tossed around: Third Culture Kid. At the time, I thought it had been meant for kids who were born in one place that ended up moving to another while still young, unable to fully assimilate to either culture. It was not until recently that I began to consider how this truth could apply to the whole of us that exist in the in-between.
And though I carry this diaspora on my back, I am not alone.
I was raised in the traditions of my parents, but physically apart from my ancestral lands. And though I carry this diaspora on my back, I am not alone. I’ve learned since returning from my trip that I share many more lived experiences with other Asian American kids than I previously thought. That same sense of confusion, of not really belonging, lingers with all of us, in all the stories we exchange. It has made me realize that we do belong here. We do belong in America, even if we don’t feel like it, even if we are told differently. Our parents made sure of it. They made sure of it through the trials of immigration, and labor, and daily microaggressions. If there is a price to pay, then they’ve already paid it. And we belong to our culture because we were raised in it, it bleeds into all our thoughts and decisions, we carry it from our ancestors. And if anything else, we belong to each other.
I have been walking the yellow line that divides the road in two, believing one day I’d figure out which side to step on, never realizing that perhaps I was already where I belonged: where two roads touch, existing in the transition between two scenes of a movie, living in the jagged mismatch of two halves of a puzzle, right where I am supposed to be.
Vanessa is a Bay Area native, child of immigrants, eldest daughter, low income first generation college graduate (a mouthful of identities). Growing up, she’s always loved reading and writing — as a quiet kid she first found her voice through paper and pen. The art of words and storytelling have a special place in her heart and she’s so excited to share that with all of you.
From Vanessa: “I’ve always wrote to better understand and reflect the things that confused me, oftentimes returning back to the behemoth that is cultural identity. This piece in particular focuses on my first and only time ever going to Taiwan, meeting family I never knew existed, and confronting the idea of belonging, or more aptly, of not belonging. I struggle with feeling as if I have a right to claim the Taiwanese (and honestly, American) in Taiwanese American, and I hope this piece resonates with anyone else who also might be going through that. One of the things I love about writing is finding the words to my own truths, hoping those words might allow others to understand and navigate their own confusions a little better.”
You can keep up with Vanessa on her LinkedIn.