Remote Year Month Five: Remembering How Fucking Asian I am in Chiang Mai

Thailand is where I think I had the most divergent experience from the group. For context: I was one few People of Color in our Remote Year cohort and the most visibly and culturally Asian in the group. 

I’m surprised there wasn’t more friction in the year, but when you’re forced to live together with 30-some-odd people as your only people for a year, the dynamics change quite a bit. I am glad to say now I have matching tattoos with a bunch of people I would never have been friends with in real life in America. I digress a bit but feels poignant when I’m looking over the notes I wrote for this a year later finding myself getting more caught up in if Wuhan is a Chernobyl moment for the CCP than the impeding global pandemic.

What I learned on Month Five of Remote Year in Chiang Mai was how fucking Asian I still am, and I am. How I feel so tied to this continent, even when in this country I have very little real relationship with. Before I went to Chiang Mai, I spent my first Lunar New Year in Taiwan. I was really feeling the vibes, of the journey home

After a month in Hanoi, which very much feels like part of the Sinosphere culturally – it actually feels like Taiwan of the past; Chiang Mai is a different animal. Thailand, unconquered and uncolonized, except perhaps by themselves. Kishore Mabubani’s writing on his love affair with Southeast Asia mirrors my own.

Southeast Asia feels like a porous cultural transition zone, with influences from all over Asia, especially the combination of Indian and Chinese, but Thailand holds steadfast to its own culture and identity. Thailand was never colonized , in contrast to its neighbors, and that is evident despite being overrun with Western tourists now, there’s a different feeling there. A lack of inferiority complex and brazen addiction to tradition not found in its neighbors and especially in contrast to my own Taiwanese upbringing, always longing for a “pure Chinese” culture, Japanese culture, and American culture, etc. You can feel the reverence for tradition everywhere in Thailand, especially in the aesthetics. 

 

In Chiang Mai, I felt the most acutely aware of how your lived experiences and background make you different. How differently you’re treated, in a good way. And how you look at the world with different eyes. I know a lot of people get annoyed at how touristy Thailand can feel, but that’s a bit of snobbery White nonsense there as well and distinct discomfort from Western people. It’s like they want things to be backwards to enjoy it and have it feel authentic and special to them, whereas I’m like, the Thais and anyone else are allowed to be rich and have nice things too, and I’m not out here judging if their tourism industry has figured out that hustle to the fullest. White tourists tend to be looking for the wild wild east at fire sale prices, as if people don’t have to live there and want to live as well as everyone else. 

There’s also a huge Mainland Chinese tourist presence, so I felt like in a way a lot of the more highbrow tourism was catered to me versus the backpacker crap for White people, although I definitely was treated better than the Mainland Chinese because of my demeanor and American-accented English and just being able to say I’m Taiwanese, but it was also that I haven’t lost the gestures that are universal to us as Asian people. An internal language spoken by us. I felt so at home and welcome. 

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What a delight finding that Thai people love this in the AM too, but the tapioca in the soymilk was a clutch move I never thought of.

It’s hard to explain such a high context and nonverbal culture to those on the outside, but for those months in Asia, it was so easy to find an easy affinity with people and even the same ways of arguing with each other. In those months in Asia, I felt like parts of me long buried, reconstituted themselves. To feel so deeply and spiritually connected to the Buddhist paintings and stories and ancient traditions in temples so culturally different from my own, but sharing long ago common roots.

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Even now back in America for half a year now, I find that a lot of traditionally Asian American touchstones don’t really vibe with me anymore. I emphasize more now with how bewildered Asian immigrants probably look at us Asian Americans, it’s probably like looking at a walking talking uncanny valley doll, people the same eyes staring back at you, who eat the same food as you, believe in some of the same things you do, but are still so different from you. I know a lot of Asian Americans feel alienated in Asia, but that’s not my experience.

I’m a western Asian for sure through and through – and that’s how most people read me, definitely at least at first, but my heart is firmly rooted in Asia at this point. I’m Taiwanese-American, and live in America, and I know a lot of people don’t like this perspective, but our hearts are in Asia in traditions history that go back thousands of years rather than a generation of American-ness and Wonderbread what I see as shallow identity based mostly on shared oppression. It’s just not enough for me.

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I wrote that I “Resolve to fight. Believe in my perspective” in my notes for February 2019. If there’s anything that I have changed from pre-RY Bessie to now, is that I’ve really doubled down on who I am, even the parts that others and myself find sometimes contradictory, bewildering, and uncomfortable. Thanks Chiang Mai welcoming me to connect to your culture so I could rediscover my Asian diaspora self.

Back in Taiwan

TBH part of me lowkey wants to stay in Taiwan and not go home to NYC, back to America, and back to the West. Over the last few days, it sank in how truly nightmarish it has been to live with so much hatred in the relative absence of it.

Taiwan is far from perfect and not free of divisions, but right now, like Gil Scott-Heron sang, home is where the hatred is. It hurts to live with so much constant unease and anger. We’re in for a long fight. Recoiling in horror has always been a constant for People of Color, but the collective fear level is amped even more now.

In a weird way, I can kind of see the false seductiveness of maybe what a lot of conservatives feel. It’s incredible to not feel your race, to walk amongst your own kind. There is something to be said about feeling your blood and history being connected to everyone and everything around you in a way that makes sense. To be connected to the land and see yourself in generations forwards and backwards. It’s beautiful. I can see the desire to not want to deal with anything more complicated than that. There are plenty of other folks like me here “back from” the US, Canada, Australia, and other such places here working, running bar & burger shops, living corporate, etc speaking funny versions of Chinese and Taiwanese, a simultaneously revered, reviled, and recognizable social category. It still feels like home though, especially in these sour times. The thing that’s mutually missed is Mexican food. I feel that draw and temptation as deeply as anyone else – that China problem is worth the risk. Maybe someday I’ll give into it.

In a way, Taiwan is a nation of leavers like Ireland. People coming and going. I couldn’t help but see a lot of what I already knew when I was there a few weeks ago, both in the sense that being American is to immediately recognize so much of what we know as American culture actually comes from Ireland, but also in the sense of being part of a people from a much hotter but also emerald-colored island with a history of similar struggles and with an equally if not more fanatically devoted diaspora.

Unlike in the West, your bloodline in this part of the world is inescapable. The Irish and other Europeans don’t seem to consider people who share their blood and distant heritage as brethren, but it doesn’t function that way in a lot of Asia, for better or worse. I get undeserved brownie points for being a natural born American that can read and speak the language and know how to code switch into the culture, which I really only know because really I am a fat woman who likes being able to eat everything. Other Asian Americans get seen with scorn for “forgetting who they really are.” Both of these are simplistic narratives that don’t fit the world we live in.

I’m an unabashed globalist. Maybe I’m a condescending liberal elitist. A loudmouth hip hop head in New York who holds it down for the California Republic but a polite and loyal Taiwanese-American when I’m back on the island. Theresa May would probably call me a Citizen of Nowhere and I’m truly part of what the Make America Great Again crowd hates. And I hate them too, no doubt. At a most basic, it’s just self-defense against people who condone multiple levers of violence.

But what’s obvious to me as a perpetual outsider, code switcher, and lucky (privileged) enough to move through borders and cultures is that problems we might think are singular are global and interconnected better or worse that can’t be solved alone. Climate change, racism, ethnic strife, gender inequality, the failure of global markets to provide prosperity and their ability to accelerate inequality, the darksides of technological transformation – can’t be solved only locally though that has to be where it starts.

As John Donne once said, No man is an island, entire of itself. Any man’s death diminishes me. Because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

I believe in liberalism: I believe in liberty, equality, social justice, free press, free markets (the Adam Smith definition), freedom of religion, minority rights, feminism, etc. Facts are real. There’s an America and a rest of the world worth fighting for, and I’ll be ready to re-join The Resistance when I’m back.

Ashes to Ashes Dust to Dust (drafting for Taiwanese-American Anthology)

This is a piece in a Mini-Anthology on Experiences of the Taiwanese Diaspora I wrote a few years back.

ashes to ashes dust to dust

From the moment I hit the shore at Taoyuan Airport, every interaction becomes a delicate dance of code switching fraught with identification, alienation, and intimacy.

I’m a fat American, but when I speak Mandarin it sounds I came from here. Even with the American accent creeping in, it’s not enough for people to try to speak English to me. There’s recognition. She belongs to us. Like misplaced property.

Even without the accent, there’s an inflection. One of unbridled confidence, even arrogance, of someone who was raised to believe she would inherit the world. The Ugly American inside of me.

There’s also another rhythm to my voice that’s defiance. It creeps in when I’m with people from San Gabriel Valley or places like the Sunset District in San Francisco or Elmhurst, Queens. The voice I speak with when I’m not with White folk, a voice dripping with a hip hop swagger, a SoCal drawl, and a Chicano melody.

Rapper Bohan Phoenix calls himself, “Too foreign for here. Too foreign for home.” In America, some part of me never feels right. Sometimes I feel like an alien, even among other Asians. I don’t feel their need to fit into Whiteness. I already know I’m American, but as Pharrell declares, “i am OTHER.”

The customs officer sizes me up and sees the dozens of “Republic of China” stamps. Unlike for some others like me, she speaks to me in Chinese as she waves me through.

welcome home

I get into a taxi and head to the Daan District. My relatives all live in New Taipei City, but I like my privacy and freedom to wander in my yearly escape back into another reality. An alternative destiny that never came to be.

I shift in the seat. I steady my speech for the inevitable political conversation with the cab driver. To not sound like a disconnected arrogant snob ABC because that’s not who I want to be.

I’m always shifting the way I speak. Sometimes I try to downshift the more 標準 Mandarin, peppering the pathetic amount of Taiwanese phrases I know when appropriate, whatever I learned when I lived in Taipei and from my Taiwanese friends growing up in LA (born and raised) because my 外省人 family don’t speak it. I think I want to affirm I’m related. This island, this country, is where I started from.

I remember arriving back in New York once after a trip to Los Angeles, on a visit back to my part of it, of what was called Little Taipei growing up. I opened my phone to figure out the best way to get home and instinctively opened Waze and chuckled. I had spent last weeks in LA on freeways, but I was back in the land of subways.

I switched to Google maps to check train times while walking through the cacophonous internationalism and diversity that is NYC on an extraordinarily beautiful night. I thought to myself how I always wanted to be a global citizen despite inclinations for tribalism. I rep LA I say. 626 I say. But a part of my heart always craves for Taiwan though. Irrationally, insatiably, like pining for a secret lover.

To be Taiwanese American is to be a lot of things at once. I constantly travel and move in different circles. Jumping place to place space to space. I wake up to Monocle24 radio, stream Power106 during the day, and listen to 臺北之音 Hitoradio at night.

Even though I can read Chinese fluently, all I’ve really do with it is order a lot of food and read Taiwanese design blogs. Occasionally, when I feel like re-visiting teenage angst, I’ll look up old videos of rapper 宋岳庭, a man who grew up so much like me. In a long ago AzN scene full of parachute kids in pool halls, long before I could imagine a life as a global citizen living as a yuppy in New York City as a wannabe ad executive. I put on different clothes, talk with a different accent, speak in a different language, change different IDs and transit cards out of my wallet all without thinking. Feeling like an emotional immigrant, not quite real and definitely not down.

But in a way, isn’t it a fitting if not poetic part of being a daughter of the Orphan of Asia?

British Indian writer Nikesh Shukla describes himself of having three voices. A White People Phone Voice. The one I speak at work. One of a native tongue, for me, a now Taiwanese version of Mandarin my family brought to Taiwan with the KMT with my unwilling American intonations. One of your normal voice. For People of Color, this is how talk to each other. It is our true voice. My true voice. One I fight to keep.

On one side of my office sits young agency staffers from Asia, mostly China and India, on the other side a bunch of White Americans who are up the payscale. I don’t quite fall in the Asian or White category in the office hierarchy, nor do I try to play that game. I speak loudly in my clipped Taiwanese Chinese with the American accent but also talk about how race in a way that can make White people feel so damn uncomfortable.

I grew up in a Taiwanese-American neighborhood, but these days my friends are mostly People of Color that run the gamut. When I lived in LA I’d go hang out with my Black friends in one area, go to house parties with White people in another, but mostly stayed in my Asian and Latino neighborhood. Some might call me a cultural chameleon, but it’s weird, but I think that’s the Taiwanese experience to some extent.

Of living always as an outsider, but someone who moves past borders, real and invisible. My adaptability has sometimes made me wonder if I’m a plastic person. Sometimes I feel like I’m selling out or that I’m being a faker. When I have these thoughts I often pine for a lost paradise in the form of Formosa where I don’t really fit in either. After the Brexit, I wondered if it’s a way I deal with the fact that we will never really be home or belong in the West. Craving it like first love that got away that’s easy to idealize later on, asking myself where do I really stand in my relationship with this land.

Every year I make this trip, these thoughts repeating like scratches on a turntable. I move to the beat. But then when the plane lands and I walk on the jet bridge with the humidity hitting me, something primal stirs with me and stays with me. The flesh and blood my people in the air.

One distinctive memory of when I lived in Taipei as an adult was putting my grandfather to rest. I have no clear memories of him to speak of since I grew up in America. I knew he carried my family across the strait. He would end up with Taiwanese-speaking grandchildren, not that I’m entirely sure he liked that. Our dark blue blood has teetered into a shade of aquamarine. Of being a part of a Taiwanese generation that defines our identity with our values and recent shared history, rather than the official mythology of any party.

I remember seeing all the different people in different garbs of mourning, the white sack clothes of others and the black robes my family wore, of the respect and solemnity of sending our ancestors to their final resting places. I remember the endless smoke bellowing out of the dead of my people at the crematorium, as if 媽祖 were beckoning us to return to the land and sea. I remember scooping the bones and the ashes into the urn.

I’ve morbidly thought to myself that when I depart from this earth I didn’t necessarily want a 靈骨塔, for my ashes to sit in a cupboard or to be the ground. I want to be scattered into the Pacific, so I’ll drift in the sea between California and Taiwan.

ashes to ashes dust to dust

On that day, I felt such a profound connection and loyalty to the land, even though it’s likely I’ll spend out the rest my days living in the West.

That profound connection and loyalty has felt more urgent in the last few weeks.

The irony is not lost upon me that my family left Taiwan partially for the promises of freedom after a life of autocracy, but the bonds of affection would never break.

Who knew two short decades later Taiwan would destroy the notion that democracy, free thought, and Chinese culture are incompatible, despite the incessant claims from the PRC, and transform into a prosperous liberal democracy.

Who knew three decades later the United States would lean into fascism and authoritarianism while simultaneously putting Taiwan’s fragile peace at risk? I want to destroy the One China Policy, but we’re nothing more than an asterisk to the world, a nuisance to be dealt with.

A place used as a bargaining chip, a nation refused recognition, and a people defiant against erasure. There’s a certain humiliation and anger a lot of us Taiwanese carry, even those of us “lucky ones” who ended up in America.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of why I end up seeing Taiwanese Americans involved in social movements in unexpected places even though we have incentives to keep our heads down and align with those in power, even butting heads with other Asian Americans who believe we should.

We’re one of the wealthiest and most educated groups in the country. While some do chose to forget the past and assimilate into second-class Whiteness, there are so many of us who decide not only to honor what we come from, but also to align with Black Lives Matter, against DAPL, for the DREAMERs, for the refugees, for LGBT rights, for environmental justice, and other causes rather than saying, “That’s not our problem. We should let just make money, enjoy a simple life, and not think too much.” Nothing more Taiwanese love to say than 不要想太多. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism after all we’ve collectively been through.

For some of us though, I think that constant inner tremor of anger and humiliation sparked a clarion call for justice rather than a capitulation to fear and amnesia.

Shawna Ryan Yang said she wrote the book Green Island because she wanted to dispel the myth that Taiwan’s transition to democracy was bloodless. It took decades of will, suffering, and work. It will continue to. Now I wonder if it’s our turn to fight. Given what has happened to the United States and its implications for Taiwan as well, I suddenly feel what I imagine must been a tip of that incredible burden of what people before me must have felt. To realize what they might have to sacrifice to save their country, the very being of who they are. To speak in all the voices than can be spoken to be free. For me, it’s for Taiwan and for America.

When I exit the cab in Taipei I say 多謝. I stop to breath in the thick humid air again. I relish in hearing the voices and accents of the people around me. I feel the ground of home beneath my feet, and even though where I am may shift, the earth and air of this place is always with me. Its history and values forever bound to me: the blood, ashes, and the sacrifices for now and for the future.

ashes to ashes dust to dust