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.
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