Thursday, 5 November 2009

Multicultural is as multicultural does

The topic of cultural/ethnical identity keeps popping up around me these days. First it was a fellow blogger who wanted me to specifically name myself as a 華僑 (hua2chiao2 overseas Chinese) or 台僑 (tai2qiao2 overseas Taiwanese). Then came a couple of surveys from a friend who was researching for her college thesis which had to do with Asian-American studies.

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.


Anonymous said...

The funny thing about when you said, "I yam what I yam" is that yam is a cultural symbol of Taiwan. I didn't realize you were quoting Popeye, haha :)

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

No pun intended, but...yeah, yams. Haha!

BTW, Shu Flies has some similar things to say about this here too ;)



catherine_sr. said...

I agree with a lot of what you write here. I'm very proud of being of Taiwanese descent and am the first person to explain the difference between Taiwan and China to anyone who doesn't know. But I also feel like disavowing my Chinese heritage would be insulting to my family (not to mention disingenuous and inaccurate). But, ultimately, each person has the right to decide how they define themselves, and it's unfair for anyone to bully people into politicizing the personal!

Michael Turton said...

I don't think being Taiwanese is disavowing Chinese heritage, or even Chinese rule, any more than being American means disavowing my Italian heritage (god forbid I give up pasta!).

Problem seems to be that China has constructed a political identity where being Chinese = being part of China. So everyone navigating in those eddies of identity that swirl around the Han mainstream is basically forced to make unpalatable and probably politically counter-productive choices.

I've never liked the essentialist constructions of identity so prevalent in some DPP circles, since they mean that I and my children can never become Taiwanese. One good thing the DPP does is advocate a non-racial citizenship for Taiwanese, at least formally and ideally, unlike the KMT. On the other hand, the blunt colonial instrument that is Han cultural chauvinism is even less acceptable. *sigh* It is so difficult to locate a space to be oneself.

Michella, the phrase Taiwanese-American long predates the DPP and has nothing to do with it. It was coined by the pro-Taiwan exiles in the US in the 1960s, though it did not become common currency for quite some time. After martial law was lifted and the Taiwan identity came out into the light, people started identifying as T-As.

Michael Turton

Ben Goren said...


I'd have to agree with Michael. I think if you can regard a question about your nationality as referring to the country you feel you come from, rather than a description of your culture, then you could refer to yourself as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, and not feel like you are disowning your heritage.

amida said...

I thought 華 as in 華人 was politically correct in that it refers to ethnicity and not nationality, and 中國(人) is the more politically charged term. No? I didn't realize you had to choose between huaqiao and Taiqiao.

Άλισον said...

The term 中國 (中華人民共和國) is used by the PRC, and the term 中華 (中華民國)is used by the KMT-ROC for referring to their respective terminologies associated with the word "country" China.

I didn't mean to ask anyone to choose between the 2 words, 華僑 and 台僑. I simply would like to find out how anyone (including Michella) will translate the word "Chinese-American" into Chinese words if a person identifies herself or himself as being from Taiwan and parents are Taiwanese.

It didn't mean bad, I only want to raise a concern that the KMT-ROC have deeply transformed (brain-washed) some Taiwanese into identity confusion through its biased educational policies.

The only thing I didn't like was that Michella said in another post's comment area that "Why can't we just love each other as human beings", and I don't know what that implies because I have always separated the Chinese people from the Chinese government, they are 2 different things. The Chinese people are oppressed by the CCP rulers just as the Taiwanese are oppressed by the KMT.

Identity is everyone's business, and I'd refer readers to an interesting article that neither the KMT nor the CCP would like to include in their textbooks.

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Just when I thought I had my cultural identity almost all figured out... Well, it's an ongoing search, I suppose. Maybe not just for myself either. In any case, it makes life interesting.

I really appreciate especially the academic insight from you guys :)

Mike said...

Hiya - I really enjoyed reading this post as well as Catherine's. I'm also a self-identified 華裔 but of PRC lineage. I realize the impossibility of extricating politics from the issue of ethnic identity, but for me it's particularly alarming how the term "Chinese" can be viewed so one-dimensionally. To me it smacks of a desire for othering this signifier when faced with undeniably ugly aspects of the mainland's governance. And while the political certainly shapes the cultural, to conflate the two so seamlessly is also quite ignorant. So I appreciate the rather level-headed viewpoints you've both outlined. 反正身分是自己的事兒,其他人管不著。

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