華僑 or 台橋? I think it’s a political issue and I don’t want to get into it.
The questions in my friend’s surveys however, made me think about what I had learned about my search for cultural identity over the last five years. I had almost forgotten in the midst of criticizing lousy politicians and ridiculous administrators as part of my job.
Part of the reason I came back to Taiwan, where I was born but left for the US when I was six, was to find out what it was like to be “a Taiwanese in Taiwan,” as I had always been a foreigner in the US where I grew up, and a foreigner in Japan where I last lived. The other parts were to start my career and spend some time with my parents (whom I stopped living with after going off to college). My conclusion after almost five years: “I yam what I yam,” as Popeye likes to say. Although I don’t neatly fit into any category, and I am only part Taiwanese, but I am part a lot of other things as well.
Here’s an excerpt of survey and my answers:
1. Birth place, where you grew up, what kind of environment did you grow up in
Born in Taipei, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Father was a businessman in Silicon Valley and I went to school in Cupertino and Palo Alto, so I mostly grew up a high tech Chinese-American computer geek who got a lot of sun and played a lot of sports with a lot of American kids.
2. Were you ever exposed to any education specific to your culture?
Forced to speak a little bit of Mandarin at home. Parents spoke Taiwanese when they didn't want us to understand (but we picked up on some of it). Miserably forced to go to Chinese school for 2 hours every Friday night, but played a lot and learned very little.
3. What ethnicity do you associate yourself with?
Chinese, Taiwanese (which is more of a subculture or nationality, rather than ethnicity), Japanese (spent 2,5 years in Japan, and it really changed my life).
4. What do you think shaped your understanding of cultural identity?
When I was little, I wanted to say, "I'm American," or "I'm Chinese," or "I'm Asian-American," etc because it was clear cut. But the level of "Asian-ness" or whatever-ness in everyone is different, so there was no clean category I could jump into and feel totally comfortable. I've learned that I am what my environment has made me, whether it is the countries I've lived in, the languages I've learned or the people of different nationalities that I work/associate/are friends with, is who I am - a multi-cultural person whose values and way of doing things can be very different in various situations.
5. Do you have mixed-race parents? -what was your circumstance/upbringing like?
Both are Taiwanese whose families came from Fujian, China generations ago.
6. If you do have mixed-race parents, which do you identify most with? Why?
7. Do you feel you identify more with your ethnicity or culture?
I identify more with my potpourri of cultures.
8. When you were younger, did you identify yourself with a different culture? -Explain the situation.
Just Chinese/Taiwanese/American. Japanese part came at the tail of the growing-up process. Sometimes I identified with one more than the other, it depended on the situation. World Cup matches were difficult – I couldn’t decide who to root for when the cultures I identified were playing against each other.
9. When you think about yourself now in terms of cultural identity, how do you feel about the multiple cultures in your life?
I’ve grown up with multiple cultures in my life and I wouldn’t know my life any other way. It just is. It was hard when I was little, but I’ve made my peace. Still, sometimes it can be tricky. Occasionally there are conflicts, especially when it comes to family, especially filial piety. Argue with parents when you think they're wrong? Or hold your tongue because they're the parents? Go to an omiai they've set up for you, marry and procreate like they tell you? Or say, "No, I don't believe in that kind of thing and I don't like it"? My mother keeps asking me, “What’s wrong with the doctor?” There’s nothing wrong with the local Taiwanese man they’re trying to set me up with. He’s an excellent heart surgeon and a nice guy. We can be friends, but probably not more than that. And there’s no chemistry. So one of the downsides to being multicultural also makes it difficult for me to find a companion who is just as multicultural or has the ability to coexist with someone who is so much different in terms of cultures and values on the inside than what just the outside hints.
10. Growing up, was there more emphasis put on your native culture or the environment you grew up in?
No. Parents just didn't want us to be out of touch with Chinese culture. So we had pizza, pasta and salad for dinner as well as pan-fried noodles, stir-fried vegetables and steamed fish with soy sauce and scallions on a regular basis. We did more celebrating around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s than Chinese New Year.
11. Have you experienced discomfort with your cultural identity?
When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be like my classmates so much that I had wished I could get an American blood transfusion to cleanse all the Asian-ness out of me. I grew up in an environment where it was only 3% Asian. Kids looked at you different when you look different. Plus I had a name that people made fun of. “Michella? That’s weird! It should be Michelle! You’re weird…” That was the worst time for me. Then I got over it. Coming back to Taiwan and attending international schools in 7th, 8th and 9th grade probably helped.
12. How strongly do your parents identify with your culture? -Family structure, emphasis on language and perceptions
My parents are much more Taiwanese and much less American & Japanese than me. But they speak English, so when I can't communicate effectively with them in Chinese, I switch to English and take over the argument. :D Then my mom flips out and does the Chinese parents thing, “You ungrateful child, we’ve raised you with so much love and this is how you repay us?!” In the end, she still wins. Dad, the much more diplomatic and international one keeps his mouth shut during the argument and then gives me candy afterwards to show he understands. Ha. But generally, they're liberal people and give me freedom to do what I want. Either that or they can’t control me.
In regards to being forced to choose between “華僑/台橋,” by a blogger, I didn’t. To me, that was a political matter. “Chinese-American” was the term we grew up with in the 80’s and 90’s in the Bay Area and it was a term to label who an Asian-looking person was ethnically. There was no “Taiwanese-American” until the DPP came into play. At that point, the “Taiwanese” part to me was all political and not something I wanted a part of because whether you’re of Chinese descent and lived in Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the US, France, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, etc, you’re still at least part culturally Chinese. So when people see that I’m Asian and ask, “Are you Chinese?” I say, “Yes, but I’m from Taiwan,” hoping that they will understand the distinction between my ethnicity, nationality and slight difference in culture. If they don’t, then it’s not worth my time to explain to them, unless they ask. In addition, I have indigenous Taiwanese blood in me (just like 80% of the population in Taiwan), among other bloodlines. And I hold a passport issued by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s also nice to be associated with crowd that’s known to be better mannered and have slightly better ethical business practices compared to those on the other side of the strait.
On the other hand, if I replied, “No, I’m Taiwanese,” to me that means I’m denouncing my Chinese roots and that I don’t feel is the proper thing to do.
Asides from the difference that you can actually experience in government and in political/social freedom, I feel that the difference between being culturally/ethnically Chinese and Taiwanese is not all that big if you take Western European, Eastern European, American, South American, African, Middle Eastern, etc into consideration.
Some politicians in Taiwan try to make China and its people the enemy and vice versa. In the process, they create labels and draw lines and push people to take sides. That’s business between the politicians, not mine.
I am a multicultural person living a happy, multicultural life.
For a bilingual post on identity politics I wrote last year, please go here.
Here's me in the train on the way to Danshui last Saturday. A very different person from the anchor you saw on TV earlier that morning, eh? And it was beautiful weather, beautiful sky!
I called Dad before going, "Is the doctor coming?"
"No, don't worry," he said. When I got in, he said, "Hi Honey, give me a kiss."
After getting a kiss and a squeal out of me (he always squeezes me like a bear and his weekend, unshaven face always feels like it's going to scrape skin off my face), he says, "The doctor will be is here."
The first thought I had was, "What's wrong with his English?" Then it dawned on me that they had pulled another fast one, and it was, "OH MY GOD." In my head, I was already hard at work making up excuses to leave early.
Then when the shocked and panicking expression on my face was at its peak and my eyes couldn't grow any bigger, Dad said, "Ha-ha, just kidding. The doctor will-be is here. That's me!" I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Dr Dad and his sense of humor... Mom almost fell over laughing. Not funny.