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.

Peumayan’s Door to the Indigenous and Ancestral

I’ve had the pleasure of eating a lot of delicious food around the world this year, but this place struck me as so special because of uniqueness of the food, celebration of heritage, and the fact that if this restaurant were somewhere like LA or NY, the chef could charge 3x as much and be the toast of the town for innovation.

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A badass female chef took us through Peumayan Ancestral Food menu on lovely Sunday. The restaurant concept takes indigenous ingredients and cooking methods from groups like the Mapuche, Rapa Nui, and other indigenous groups in South America and builds a multi-course tasting meal with all those elements, with bonuses.

 

Normally, I loath the concept of elevating “ethnic food.” For an Asian person, that often comes with the baggage and implication that waters down food and plates it in a fancy way to make it more palatable to White people, when 1) the food is good as it is 2) high-end Asian cuisine already exists that isn’t geared toward White audiences.

On the flip side of those politics, why can’t “ethnic food” be just as finely enjoyed as French Food and Italian food, with the same pomp and ritual? Especially when food with seasoning just tastes better? (Haha.)

I don’t think that latter stance was fully clarified for me until going to Peumayan.

An explanatory comma first, traveling to Santiago was my first time truly traveling in Latin America. My stereotypes about Chile mostly came whatever content I absorbed on the internet through time talking about how the southern cone of Latin America is so “European.” Luckily my friend Maria from Santiago complicated those notions and told me the history of her country. Still, I knew so little about complexity of the indigenous history in Chile, and how the Mapuche were the one indigenous group to successfully resist the Spanish conquest.

Peumayan takes the richness of that history and creates a high-end dining experience celebrating the ingredients and cooking of pre-Colombian food, and does so exceptionally well. I’m mad that the dining and food culture locally and globally doesn’t seem to have that on the radar at all.

Most of my travels through Chile and Latin America weeks later all have the same sad undercurrent as the indigenous culture as among the least celebrated heritages in these countries. Although there are exceptions, especially in Peru and I’m assuming Boliva and Paraguay, the present-day living culture, and food culture in particular case of Chile, it isn’t something that seems to pique curiosity, let alone as a part of the rich heritage of the country to cherish and value.

I hope Peumayan and what the chefs are trying to do here gets a lot more famous. A tasting menu for food this quality would easily be triple the price in LA or NY. I put this at the top of the list for a restaurant recommendation in Santiago.

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Exceptional flavors from sweet to savory that I’ve never quite experienced. Everything tasted so earthy yet refined.

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The above is the bread platter and amuse bouche for the first round.

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Main courses.

 

Desert, with a lot of flavors of local Chilean wine.

 

More about the food.

More about Peumayan:

  • Website
  • Providencia Constitución 136 Santiago, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile
  • ~$50-70 USD tasting menu plus drinks

 

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

 

 

 

I am not a skittle.

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On Monday, in a building that’s less than a fifteen minute walk from my apartment, the UN General Assembly convened to tackle the world’s worst to-do list, in particular how to handle the refugee crisis.  That same day, Donald Trump’s son referred to refugees as poisonous skittles. Now that same administration is poised to take power.  

I’m here speaking today as someone who is a person, a proud American, and not a piece of candy.   

I’ve been following the refugee crisis probably more than the average American, and I’m reminded of a lot of writing that’s been haunting me in the last few weeks, such as the above New York Times article on refugees in Denmark.  It’s pretty terrible, for pretty much everyone involved, clearly some worst than others.  

As much as we’re having problems with Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism in the United States, it can pale in comparison to a lot of Europe.  This was quite vivid to me especially since I was just in Copenhagen and London shortly before the Brexit vote.

A Danish man actually tried to harass my friend and I when we were in Copenhagen asking, “why refugees get this and that?” and gibberish about some grievance about perceived allocations of resources.  We were kind of glib about it, but it was still troubling, which I wrote about awhile back about the irony of him going after two well-to-do vacationing Asian Americans descended from a recent refugee past.

Today I feel the call to speak again, echoing the words of the this year’s Pulitzer Prize author of The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen:

Today, when many Americans think of Vietnamese-Americans as a success story, we forget that the majority of Americans in 1975 did not want to accept Vietnamese refugees. (A sign hung in the window of a store near my parents’ grocery: “Another American forced out of business by the Vietnamese.”) For a country that prides itself on the American dream, refugees are simply un-American, despite the fact that some of the original English settlers of this country, the Puritans, were religious refugees.

Today, Syrian refugees face a similar reaction. To some Europeans, these refugees seem un-European for reasons of culture, religion and language. And in Europe and the United States, the attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., have people fearing that Syrian refugees could be Islamic radicals, forgetting that those refugees are some of the first victims of the Islamic State.

Because those judgments have been rendered on many who have been cast out or who have fled, it is important for those of us who were refugees to remind the world of what our experiences mean.

People tend to have different frames of reference for who they identify with and who they humanize more.  This refugee situation has been particularly troubling for Asian Americans because it feels so familiar.  

 

 

Migrants pulled an inflatable boat crowded with Syrian refugees arriving last month from the Turkish coast on Lesbos island, Greece. From the NYTimes.

My family didn’t enter the United States as refugees.  We came as immigrants.  But our story of being in America came as a result of my grandparents fleeing China to Taiwan as the losing side in the Chinese Civil War who would have imprisoned, tortured, or slaughtered had they stayed.  We waishengren Taiwanese are not technically refugees.  However, many of the psychological wounds in experiences of our families who left their homes unwillingly to never see anyone or anything they knew again resonate on for our people.  Many felt that Taiwan could never be a place they could belong and left to the United States, bringing our story to this part of history I’m living in.  

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Fleeing China. Photo taken from China Times

As an Taiwanese American growing up in San Gabriel Valley and later attending a UC campus, I grew up around Asians who were refugees from the Vietnam War, eventually living with Hmong roommates in the dorms of a school that over-indexed for Asian Americans from these backgrounds.

As we Asian Americans converge with the histories of our peoples and our stories blurring into a shared collective memory, this narrative of unwanted people in boats cast fleeing destruction and persecution cast adrift in subsequent cycles of loss, alienation, discrimination, and suffering in strange lands is a potent arc in our story, one we see tragically being repeated now. 

Our psyches continue to bear witness to this history.

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Fleeing Vietnam.  Photo taken from Canadian Encyclopedia

Today, many Americans consider Vietnamese Americans a model minority, conveniently forgetting how unwanted they were and how hard they many have it and still have it. Some of them even consider themselves the good immigrant and shirk away from the Syrian refugee crisis.

For many Westerners, people in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, this idea of refugees continues as a faceless mass on dinghies in the sea or heartbreaking pictures of children, as those to be pitied or praised from afar but not to be dealt with as actual people. We don’t like to remember that the United States turned away Jewish refugees, including Anne Frank.

These pasts rendered not real.  People abstract.

It’s important for those us of who have these experiences to show our existence for those who cannot.  For those of us who see those adrift in the Mediterranean and see our own past staring back, we have to be real to counter the ignorant and the political opportunists that dehumanize other people.  

 

The St. Louis: A boat carrying Jewish Refugees refused by the ports of Cuba, Canada, and the United States. A quarter would eventually perish in Nazi death camps. Picture from Wikipedia.

As Nguyen writes:

We can be invisible even to one another. But it is precisely because I do not look like a refugee that I have to proclaim being one, even when those of us who were refugees would rather forget that there was a time when the world thought us to be less than human.

Many former Southeast Asian refugees are helping Syrians.  I continue to advocate that the United States and Canada, despite imperfections, are much better suited to give refugees an accepting home.  

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This picture of a gay Syrian refugee with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Pride and Aatish Taseer’s articulation of his love for America they day he got his green card paint a more vivid picture than any empirical example of success in re-settling people why these places have been and continue to be more prepared to integrate people than parts of Western Europe.  

It is important for those of us who have memory and can bear witness as real people living in the West must continue to hold values sacred, to articulate humanity, and also to fight, we have to fight, against the tide of bigotry, intolerance, and inaction. These battles have to be refought every generation. There is never a moment which these values are safe, especially now. 

To Start:

Awkward Post-Colonialisms and Contemporary Friends Between Taiwan and Japan

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Living in NYC, I am all about taking advantage of the cultural institutions and opportunities around me.  Being Taiwanese-American, I’m more than generally supportive of Taiwan’s new fledging efforts at cultural diplomacy rather than dollar diplomacy.  I believe that the future is in investing in soft power, to build up Taiwan as a brand and identity with recognition the way French, Italian, Japanese, and and now South Korean culture have been successfully exported the world over.  All the ingredients are there, it’s all in the investing resources and execution at this point.

Shameless plug – I once did a brief study on this conceptually in grad school.  

All this is why I was delighted to go to several Tea Ceremony events this weekend in NYC by Taipei Cultural Center, one of which is springboarding these thoughts here.  I’m also just a aficionado of tea and tea cultures and art(茶藝 for you Chinese reading folks) in general.  

I went to the Tenri Culture Center, “a non-profit organization with a mission to promote the study of Japanese language and the appreciation of international art forms,” where they showcased a traditional Japanese and Taiwanese Tea Ceremonies.

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This is me realizing I’m terribly underdressed, sweaty, and out-of-place.

My life being a consistent crash into different worlds and identities would of course this weekend involved me walking into this place after hanging out earlier in the West Village buying The Fire This Time and then walking in neon adidas with my hipster backpack in a crowd of impeccably dressed Japanese people and Upper East Side types.  Out-of-place as usual, but dgaf as usual, sat on them tatami mats to participate in the Japanese ceremony.  I’d seen the Taiwanese tea ceremony and have done it myself many times, but it was cool to see Lin Ceramics Studio out, true craftsman brand that Taiwan is rightfully proud of.  

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Taiwanese Tea Set from Lin Ceramics

They did a demo of both, the Japanese in full beautiful kimono regalia and explaining the symbolism.  The Taiwanese representatives did something similarly except we have no long-standing agreed upon national dress for such things, so we basically are just minimalist craftsman hipsters everywhere forever now.  The Taiwanese speaker, Rita, explained that Taiwanese tea ceremony is about being chill and enjoying the company of others more informally after the relativeness formality of the Japanese one, which totally vibed with me.  

It seemed like the event it was a huge hit to a relatively diverse crowd, good amount of Japanese, Taiwanese, and the kind of white people in dresses and hats who come to these events “oh look at this exotic eastern delicacy” to which I made sarcastic remarks to because I got no chill like that.  There’s one thing to appreciate another culture, it’s another to cross into creepy orientalism.  

(Man, I should totally just film videos of myself in Europe or something acting like the way ignorant White people do with Asian culture or being an Anthony Bourdian type archetype, who is not ignorant and snarky as a fuck about it, that would be a hoot, except I’d be both angry woman of color and ugly fat American at the same time.)

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Group photo between Japanese and Taiwanese representatives and tea masters.

Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the strange relationship now between Japan and Taiwan.  Former colonial master, now political ally, and strange bedfellows all around.  I won’t get into this so much here, there are much better writers who’ve articulated this issue.  Taiwan and China problems aren’t going way.  I’m more reflecting on my own thoughts about the contemporary relationship and the complexity it took to get to this cultural moment.   

Taiwan has largely crossed the tensions of the Japanese colonial era to post-WW2 martial law into years of a vibrant multi-party liberal democracy, but it is still in the early chapters of defining its modern self now, with much difference between the generations and demographics.  One of these fault lines of course is the relationship to Japan.  First, it’s really hard to deny the continuing relationship and closeness of that relationship as time has gone on.  Many of Taiwan’s modernization efforts, like many Asian countries, followed the line of Japan’s, down to the shopping experience department stores and industrial operational procedures.  There’s general genuine affection and understanding.  It’s complex.  

Do we have to have forgiveness and how to we articulate questions of power?  

It’s hard and weird thing.  I personally see no contradiction in support efforts for proper apologies and reparation for World War II crimes (eg. I’m really supportive of the film The Apology), not forgetting, and not letting go of that fact that Japan tries to whitewash its history.  At the same time, I don’t see it as a part of my identity to hate Japanese people, especially people born in our time period.  Don’t get me wrong though, while they while not directly responsible for their ancestors crimes, they have the responsibility to remember.  The contrast to modern day Germany’s reckoning with its past is astounding.  For the record though, I feel similarly both about the United States lack of reparative justice for slavery and for crimes commited by the KMT.

However, that oppositional identity has been part of a nation building project and even a distraction to field away domestic problems, one that politicians from both the east and west would no doubt pull the strings on its people like puppets for depending on the situation.  There are plenty who still talk of an inevitable war again with Japan.  Unlike many (and perhaps like many Taiwanese of my generation), I don’t feel any level of bloodlust towards modern Japanese people and find it appalling and dangerous that so many do.  I will admit I do have more of a psychological distance from it as someone who spent most of her life in the West.

There’s also the awkward question of how you feel about Japan depending on what section of Taiwanese society you come from but also the practical concerns of now.  49er Taiwanese fought suffered dramatic losses against the Japanese.  There is still crazy deep blue talk radio in Taiwan lamenting about Japan’s influence on Taiwanese people.  Then there are those who remember the Japanese era fondly as an era of relative refinements compared the brutal suppression by the KMT that followed.  Then again, I’ve met indigenous people in Taiwan who have pointed out footbridges to me in the valleys and gorges in central Taiwan, saying that the Japanese forced them, “our Taiwanese ancestors” to build them, but really it was the indigenous people that paid the great cost in deaths.  Then there are the years that followed, where Taiwan modernized together, with Japan being the modern Asian that all Asian countries followed the model of to some degree, especially when you speak of the four Asian tigers.  

When I think of my own family, who fought tooth and nail with the Japanese.  The 49er Taiwanese members of my family suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese. Dead and tortured broken bodies.  In Taiwan, they worked closely with Japanese people in efforts to modernize Taiwan.  Our family homes are full of Japanese finery.  My mother would talk about tea sets and wrappings at an Isetan department store as ones she recognized from her childhood when my grandparent’s Japanese friends would come to visit.  I spent a lot of time playing as a child in LA’s Little Tokyo because of the familiarity with that culture.  We still go to certain stores we know there to buy certain things.  Yet there’s also a distrust and subtle hatred.  It’s also no secret that some Japanese tourists and Japanese people still have an attitude of colonial superiority to Taiwan and vis a vis a Taiwanese inferiority complex some have to Japan.  My mother said once when we were on a trip in Japan “we look at each other with complicated feelings.”  The interpretation of Japan and our history is deeply complex.  

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I grow up admiring beautiful Japanese finery like this.

All that aside to give some color again, China is growing in power in Asia to the fear of all of its neighbors and against a Taiwanese identity that continues to grow stronger.  

I’ll say this now, I maybe a waishengren/”49er Taiwanese”, but I’m probably basically the last of my kind.  Being Taiwanese in a modern sense – identifying with values, customs, and history – overrides my Americaness or not being able to speak Taiwanese.  

Common enmity can make strange bedfollows.  China and South Korea’s articulations of modern identity and even levers pulled for social cohesion have to do with its struggle and crimes against the Japanese.  Others also suffered horribly, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, numerous pacific islands in Oceania, and on and on, but their identities ultimately were more defined in their postcolonial struggles.  I have wonder if Taiwan’s identity would have been very different and the Japanese regarded less favorably if the KMT had not be so violently repressive or simply if they weren’t the last conquerers.

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The characters mean “giving tea” as a manner of communicating hospitality.  You’ll find pots of tea on the side of the road in the Taiwanese countryside for people passing by with these characters.

I find that as we forward now as friends, we can’t deny these complex relationships of power and history.  If we don’t talk about them in a thoughtful if not totally imperfect and critical way, there is no real way to move on and have transformative justice and a better future for all of us.

In the meantime though, I’m happy to break bread and drink tea with our former enemies as friends moving forward, as long we we move forward together more as equals with mutual interest and respect.  I’d pull up a chair for China too should they decide to be peaceful about it, but maybe that’s why Japan and Taiwan are at the table together at all.

With fondness.