“I’m moving again….uh….I’m moving….to Taiwan……..”
I wasn’t sure if my mom would be exasperated by or expectant of this announcement, given all the times in the past that I’ve moved away from home, each move further away than the last, each time harder to bring up than the last. But this time, I would move back to my parents’ hometown of Taipei, the place they left nearly 40 years ago in pursuit of a new life in America.
If I were to describe my cultural identity, I’d say “Taiwanese-Californian”. But while I can define my identity as a Californian through all the tacos I’ve consumed in the golden state, my Taiwanese identity has been proxied through my parents and relatives, the zeitgeist of fellow Taiwanese-Americans, and the few trips I took to Taiwan growing up. It wasn’t until I came to Taiwan on my own as a grown adult that I began to become aware of a world so different yet so personally related.
I was never fully satisfied with the stories my parents told me about their hometown and the conversations about our cultural identities over milk tea with fellow Asian-Americans. Maybe because many of the conversations with friends and family only further deepened my curiosity, realizing that in a not-too-alternate reality I would’ve grown up a completely different person alongside my cousins in Taiwan.
As a minority in America, it’s easy to feel lost, unsure of your own identity and place in society. To most Americans, Asian-Americans are reduced down to a single minority group: a group that is often stereotyped to be politically quiet and academically focused. Never mind that Asia is home to 4.5 billion, over half of the world’s 7.7 billion people, has the widest range of economic and political situations, you just check the “Asian or Pacific Islander” box.
How am I supposed to welcome and appreciate diversity when I have such a weak understanding of my own family and cultural background? And so I began looking for ways spend a few years in Taiwan: work or school? If work, where? Ultimately, it felt like just a dream. Is this really how I want to spend the next few years of my life? Am I really going to leave my wonderful friends to live a parallel life on the other side of the world?
The most common question I’ve gotten from people is a curiosity of why I wanted to move to Taiwan, given that most skilled Taiwanese are trying to move away, leaving Taiwan as among the most talent-deficit countries in the world. There’s an attitude here that Taiwan’s future can’t be seen, a mere flash in the pan among the centuries of Chinese history.
But I see things differently. The more I learn about Taiwan, the more I realize how dynamic, complex, often contradictory, and important it is. It’s one of the most frequent targets of cyberattacks, misinformation, and fake news, despite it often being ranked as the highest press freedoms in the world. It’s home to the most temples per capita in the world, but also regarded as the most progressive country in Asia. It’s been a thriving, colorful democracy for the past could decades and yet not recognized by most of the liberal west. It’s history is part of the polynesian family of languages, as well as a hugely important seaport for global trade. It’s home to an overwhelming percentage of the world’s electronics manufacturing, but also a place where salaries are far behind developed economies.
I’ve now been in Taiwan for about a month, the longest I’ve ever spent here at a single time. I still stumble over my Chinese, get lost in conversations when the vocabulary goes over my head, and wrestle with what it means to be an American-born-Taiwanese in Taiwan. If America is the place where people can go to become whatever they want, maybe coming back to Taiwan is a place where I can have the space to figure out why it matters.