Enjoying the best of both worlds or finding comfort in a “third culture”? A stranger in a strange land or a homecoming full of quirks and wonders? Learning about a foreign yet familiar culture or rediscovering one’s own identity? These are some of the questions Jennie explores in her return to Taiwan as experienced through her Taiwanese American lens – via Colorado, to be exact.
“The Jennie Show”, a short-form animation recently released on the fast-growing global streaming platform TaiwanPlus, employs humor and candor to uncover the quirks and revelations that come with re-immersion into one’s supposed homeland. The show delves into a range of cultural identity nuances while portraying the misadventures of Jennie in Taiwan, from the very public garbage collection ritual to the amateur karaoke idols to the skilled subtleties of family hot pot conversation.
From Taiwan to America and Back
Creators Michael Lalo Wong and Jasmine Wu Hanley’s life experiences of growing up in both the US and Taiwan inspired the idea of “The Jennie Show”, offering plenty of material for its 10 episodes. Wong grew up in Maryland before moving to Taiwan in his early teens; Hanley grew up in Taiwan and later attended college in the US. They both attended Taipei American School (TAS) and have each been living and learning their cross-cultural identities ever since.
“A lot of our show came from real conversations about how Taiwan is,” said Wong, who went from being an outsider to becoming Taiwanese to falling in love with Taiwan. As for many other Taiwanese who grew up American, his was a journey of finding that connection, realizing the myth of summer visits and family customs and embedding them into his identity. It is all a part of carving out a “third culture” and sculpting one’s multi-cultural identity.
“It’s about creating a whole new identity for yourself,” Hanley expressed, referring to both her and Wong’s experiences as “third culture kids”. The term was first coined by sociologists John and Ruth Useem to describe people who were raised in a culture other than that of their parents or their nationality at birth. “In some ways you never fully integrate,” said Hanley, who is of mixed Taiwanese and American background. She recalled her reverse culture shock moments when returning to Taiwan after college, including singing karaoke with friends (Episode 5) and local residents lining up daily for garbage collection (Episode 1). Imagine residents of San Mateo standing in line every evening to take out the trash? Not likely.
Animation or Reflected Reality
The issues and idiosyncrasies portrayed in “The Jennie Show” may be as widely relatable, especially for Taiwanese Americans, as they are uniquely personal. In one episode, Jennie side-steps her strong urge to talk about her love of snowboarding during a hotpot dinner, only to find a refreshing and unexpected openness from her relatives in Taiwan when she does come clean.
Episode 6 touches on matters lost in translation, even relating to gender perspectives amid the #MeToo movement, when viewed through an American lens. Jennie at first reacts awkwardly to being called mei nu, or “pretty lady”, by the owner of a local breakfast joint. Once she learns that it is a common local term of courtesy, even endearment, she tries every fashion trick to re-earn that label.
“We also tried to capture the cuteness of Taiwan,” said Hanley, whose experiences since returning to Taiwan after college and again two years ago during the pandemic helped shape many of Jennie’s. For her, that cuteness expresses the charm of Taiwan shaped by its cohesive culture, open society and public safety. The show also depicts a few important Taiwanese religious customs (Episode 8) and social norms, like the expectation for achievement and success portrayed in various episodes.
Treading Stereotypes Carefully
For the wealth of subjects that Wong and Hanley were able to include in the 10 episodes, there were plenty more themes or storylines they considered but ultimately left out. Among them were Taiwan’s typhoons, cross-cultural family drama, political issues, and the complexity of Taiwanese identity. “Taiwanese culture is actually a mix of cultures,” said Wong, noting its Indigenous influences and Chinese heritage from various provinces.
Many of those topics came with particular intricacies and nuances that would detract from what Wong and Hanley had intended to create. For them, “The Jennie Show” is a “love letter to Taiwan through the form of comedy,” said Wong.
They also wanted the show to shine a light on the subtleties that define Taiwan and shape everyday life there. That comes into starker focus when contrasted with American culture through Jennie’s experience. Think Disneyland or Las Vegas – big, brash with bright lights. In fact, they were extra careful to avoid any possibility the show would be seen as portraying a foreigner mocking Taiwan. If anything, it makes light of Jennie and certain aspects of American culture.
In a way, “The Jennie Show” reflects what TaiwanPlus set out to be when it was launched in August 2021. Its multicultural team of journalists and producers from Taiwan, the US and other parts of the world aim to provide news and stories that inform, enlighten and inspire viewers worldwide. Similarly, Wong and Hanley hope “The Jennie Show” will appeal to a wide audience, not just “returnees” from the US and other western countries, but also people living in Taiwan and those curious about Taiwan, even some who may consider moving there.
Episodes of “The Jennie Show” are uploaded weekly on the YouTube channel TaiwanPlusOne. The channel’s content is designed for Taiwanese American viewers, offering a “Taiwan 101” on the nation’s history and culture. “The Jennie Show” is also available on the TaiwanPlus website, mobile app (Android, iOS), Facebook, and Instagram.
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