On the intersection of Zhongxiao E. Road and Fuxing S. Road, the streets are crowded with sounds of office workers heading home, parents bringing toddlers on walks, and classmates going out for snacks after school. It’s five thirty in the evening in Taipei, my favorite time, and the last glimmers of sunlight are reflecting off the glass panels of surrounding buildings as the street vendors set up their stalls. The city begins to wake up after a long day, filling up with conversation and movement– a big contrast to the suburban California pandemic emptiness I had just come from.
The light turns green, and I take my first step into the chaos. One, two. One, two. It’s the rhythm of a catwalk, steady and confident. At this intersection, I know I can take my time because just as it has been for all the summers I’ve returned, the traffic lights at this intersection have a one-minute grace period for pedestrians after the light turns red. It’s nice to have a reminder of all the things that stay constant in my absence, like the cuckoo clock in front of the SOGO department store that chimes the tune of “It’s a Small World” at ten to every hour, and the shoe store owner who has seen us through sparkling sneakers to heeled pumps. It’s nice to know that on my way home, I will always be able to see the three turtles sunbathing in front of our complex’s tiny fountain, and the nice family that runs the fruit stand down the street, who once gave me extra slices of guava when they knew Grandma wasn’t home.
But this time was different. The world had paused, and this time, I got to stay too. I found myself immersed in sidewalks full of strangers, taking in the outfits around me and becoming interested in exploring my own sense of style. For the first time, I walked confidently; here at the crosswalk, I could forget about family dinners, where large, round tables would be piled high with food, and– even as the smell of much-anticipated braised pork buns seasoned with ground peanuts and cilantro traveled to my nose– koo po, great auntie, would pause to clarify, “are you not on a diet?” I could forget that this was a city where the only young woman you’re allowed to be is dewy-skinned, lithe-limbed, and soft-spoken, where outfits must be “naturally youthful,” feminine but not sexy. And I could forget the feeling of shame for this body that didn’t look or dress to my family’s satisfaction. Here at the crosswalk, I am liberated by anonymity, simultaneously a mere pedestrian among hundreds and the sole star of my personal catwalk.
It turns out that under the spotlight, a lot can still go unseen.
I never used to seek the spotlight, until I saw my aversion to it mirrored in the unspoken etiquette of Chinese culture, the way distaste is conveyed through subtle snubs that you only comprehend when the conversation replays in your head hours after it has occurred, and it’s too late to feel offended. It turns out that under the spotlight, a lot can still go unseen. I always make fun of my family for their nosiness, the way they stop at nothing to find out the most insignificant details, but I think I’m starting to get a grasp on why we Taiwanese love to pry so much: it’s because nosiness is the perfect disguise for personal pain. By gossiping about Uncle Lin, who only spends weekends with his secret baby, or judging his girlfriend who isn’t able to have children, my family is able to pace time adeptly so that none is left to talk about the things that really hurt. Everyone knows about Great-Grandpa’s three wives (Great-Grandma was his second) and my decent SAT scores, but no one knows about Great-Uncle’s Parkinson’s, which I only found out about when I overheard them ordering medication from the doctor. No one knows about the only time I’ve seen Grandma sob, her body shaking in my arms after she found out about Uncle Ken’s stage four stomach cancer. And everyone knows about Dad’s affair with the mysterious woman in China, but no one acknowledges it; Mom tried, but whenever she talked about it she teared up, and then her friends would jump out of their seats to usher everyone to leave for dessert instead of having to watch her cry in public. No one asked my siblings if they were doing ok. No one told them, “I’m here if you need someone to talk to.” Some things, when hidden, only cause more pain. I’ve learned to savor the spotlights that lay our secrets bare, that force us to be nothing less than all of our joys and our sorrows. I used to be someone who lived on the perimeter, preferring to be the photographer rather than the model, but Taiwan, the land of tradition and history, turned out to be the spark for change. Nine months is a long time to spend in the womb of a country you didn’t grow up in. Rapid industrialization and globalization in the past years have given rise to places like the glitzy, exhilarating Xinyi District, where fluorescent lights stay on until morning, and department stores boast not only local specialties, but all the top international brands as well. Street signs, restaurant menus, and train schedules are now printed in both Chinese and English, and international schools are so competitive that foreign citizenship is often required for admission. Being an Asian Tiger country comes with certain responsibilities, after all, and it’s imperative that the image is well-maintained. Taiwan elected its first female president in 2016, then became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2020. But public and private pride remain two separate matters. It’s been at least four years since Auntie Jules has been married to Auntie Merry, but Grandma still refuses to follow her on Facebook. When they all visited the extended family in Taiwan a few years back, and everyone inquired after the Australian lady laughing next to my aunt, Grandma stubbornly shrugged and brushed off their questions. “It’s hard to explain.” And even though Tsai Ing-Wen has proven to be a capable president, I’m still expected to give up my dreams of medical school, so I won’t be too busy to take care of my future children.
“Are you American?” It seemed people wanted me to be, and I was glad that I had my American identity to default to when the expectations of my Taiwanese culture started to feel too restricting. I enjoyed the celebrity status that came with being a foreigner in Taipei, the way my classmates at summer camp would flock around me to hear about my American school and American friends, and I secretly loved hearing the adults’ praise for my ability to speak both Mandarin and English fluently. In past summers, whenever we heard other English-speakers on the elevator or in public spaces, my siblings and I would raise our voices just to make sure everyone knew that we were part of them too. It’s exciting to see Western culture being celebrated and represented in what used to be a very conservative community, to hear all the cool kids cussing in English and see the weekly billboard charts become increasingly dominated by American and Asian-American artists, but it’s terrifying, too. The allure of American culture is something I know well, and I’m scared that my generation is making the same mistake I used to make. I’m scared that we are losing grasp of our Taiwanese heritage, especially since Taiwanese Hokkien is a spoken language, not a written one, and fewer and fewer young people in Taipei are willing to learn.
A few weeks after I returned to the US, I picked up Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians for the first time. It was a light and quick read, until the last paragraph of page 84, where I stared for a long time at a single phrase: kopi tiàm. Coffee shop. The first Hokkien word I had ever read in an English novel. I wished that I had read it when it was first published in 2013— maybe then it wouldn’t have taken me an extended nine-month stay in Taiwan to realize that Grandma was right when she said it was embarrassing for a Taiwanese person to refuse to speak Taiwanese. Maybe I would have discovered sooner that I don’t want to travel my city as just a foreigner anymore, no matter how much admiration and praise it gets me.
Instead, I’m learning to master the seamless movement between foreigner and local. There are certain things that only strangers of the city are able to appreciate fully, like the sweetness of the fruits that locals find too artificial, the friendliness of night market vendors who will make extra banana egg rolls even though they just cleaned up, or the indescribable feeling of safety, even at midnight, that I have never felt anywhere else. There are other things, though, that only come naturally to people who have stayed for a good amount of time, like catching all the internet slang in the dramas, or giving directions to the taxi driver (when before we were told to stay silent so our accents would not make our family vulnerable to swindling). Seamlessness is a difficult concept to master, but I try to learn from the haute couture dressmakers in my magazines, who remind me that seams exist to create the most intricate and gorgeous designs, and that there’s a world that values clothing custom-made for bodies, instead of bodies made for clothes. Just like the folds of each dress accentuate the model, the city bends to my shapes and curves too, reassuring me that I am not just passively existing; and in return, I breathe life into Taipei, the way a model gives life to their outfits.
I’m learning to master the seamless movement between foreigner and local.
I’ve come to realize that Taipei is a city that expects you to be sure of who you are. It has no mercy for fragile almost-divorced families, or self-conscious average-weight girls; it has no mercy for the hesitant. The city doesn’t hold back its interrogation, jabbing at your most vulnerable sides, daring you to push back. People tend to walk on eggshells around me, perhaps because I’m a quiet person by nature, and they think my softness is something that needs to be shielded from harm; but Taipei respects me in a way few people do, treating me like an adult, throwing the punches one by one with the expectation that I will be able to handle them. I saw what I should have known all along: that dignity is about holding my energy until the right moment, tightening my fist only at the point of impact and saving my brilliance until the proper time because sometimes, it’s an advantage to be the only one who knows how capable I am. Trains, buses, planes. Catwalks and crosswalks. Runways that are places of simultaneous arrival and departure, the linking points between my two homes. Wherever I am, public transportation reminds me of home. It is in these liminal spaces that my destination can be equivocal. In these spaces, I have the luxury of imagination: perhaps I will end up on Bancroft Street, where I’ll walk up the steps of Wheeler Hall to my next lecture, greeting my friends along the way. Perhaps it will bring me directly to the hustle and bustle of Main Station in the center of the historic Wanhua District, where the ashes of my great-grandparents live, where the smell of incense first stung my eyes as the ember glowed orange at the end of my wooden stick, where once a year, the Yang cousins fold joss paper offerings and then get into a formation we know by heart to prepare for Great-Grandma’s ceremony– one single-file chain up the narrow staircase, with one person at the bottom bringing plates from the kitchen to the stairs, and one person at the top, bringing the dishes from the stairs to the altar. Or perhaps I will emerge at the intersection of Zhongxiao E. Road and Fuxing S. Road in my hometown Da’an District, where the signature one-minute grace period, to me, is the city’s way of holding the space, telling me that it will watch proudly as I take my place with gentle confidence.
And on this crosswalk surrounded by strangers, where everyone is hurrying to get to the next destination, where the air is infused with commotion and vivacity and intention, I think I will take my time.
FROM YANG: “I’m very fortunate to have grown up surrounded by Taiwanese culture, even in the suburban town of Foster City, California. My parents made sure that my siblings and I are well-connected to our Taiwanese roots, teaching us to speak Mandarin fluently and Taiwanese (semi-fluently) at home, as well as celebrating the various holidays, which often include paying respect for our ancestors. I am also extremely close with my extended family; aside from our yearly visits to Taiwan, we maintain contact with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins through frequent video chats and virtual games. Last year, because of online learning, I was able to stay in Taiwan for nine-months during my freshman year of college, which was an eye-opening experience of finally being able to live in my motherland as a local instead of a visitor.”