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“The sacrifice wasn’t in going… the sacrifice was in leaving.”

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To love a place. To hold it so dearly that one aches at the memory of it. Are we not most fortunate?

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Both quotes come from Bo Caldwell’s A City of Tranquil Light: A Novel

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It was while we were in the midst of this packing that Mr. and Mrs. T. K. Hu came calling. Mr. Hu was carrying a large box which he handed to my father. “Since you are packing,” he said, “we thought this would be the time to give you our remembrance.” My father unwrapped the package and took out a very large ginger jar. Shiny Chinese yellow it was, the happiest color in the world, and it was decorated with bright green characters which wished us long life and health and happiness and lots of money which certainly took care of my wishes.

As we stood admiring the jar, Mr. Hu took it from my father’s hands and set it on one side of our fireplace. “A pair of these jars was given us as a wedding gift,” he said. “They have always stood one on each side of our fireplace. We will keep one and now you have the other. When we look at ours, we will think of you and when you look at yours, you will think of us.” My mother put her arms around Mrs. Hu. My father took one of Mr. Hu’s hands in both of his. “Old friend,” he said. “Old friend.” He must have been misty-eyed, for he took off his glasses and wiped them.

Suddenly I found myself blinking back tears and I didn’t know why. I was counting the days on the calendar, wasn’t I? Then how could a yellow ginger jar turn everything inside me upside down? Mr. Hu, a large, merry-faced man whom I’d always liked, turned to me. “And when you look at that jar, Miss Jean,” he said, “you can think: ‘I was born in China. Part of me will always be there.”’

Fritz, Jean (2007). Homesick (Novel) (p. 93). Puffin. Kindle Edition.

The final two sentences of the above quotation, properly edited mentally to account for the fact that I wasn’t born in China, have comforted me through years of departures from Taiwan. And made me ache sometimes in America, when that part of me I always leave here, on the other side of the planet, seems all too far away.

When I try to write about leaving, my own words tend to ring false. They’re melodramatic or distortedly optimistic or just empty, dull. As the previous paragraph seems to the more I look at it.

I’m thankful that other, better, writers can lend me theirs.

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Last night I went to my dancing-with-the-aunties exercise class for the last time. The typhoon kept 2/3 of the class at home, so only a dedicated few were there to dance to American club music from the 1990s and then stretch to piano concertos, give me hugs and take some silly photos.

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Topics of conversation while we did our exercises included what Laoshi’s mother should be fed to keep her from losing weight in her old age,

    Ensure and chicken bouillon

what people think about retirement homes,

    It’s agreed that retirement homes sound like fun – your own room, TV, and fridge and clubs to join and activities like knitting classes.

the best age at which to have children,

    My age, apparently. =o

what the greatest inconvenience of having children is,

    Laoshi said that milk powder is too expensive, but another woman reminded her that kids don’t need milk powder for as many years as they need to go to school.

about how some children are born owing you something from a previous life and how others are born with you owing them something, and that Laoshi thinks maybe she hadn’t made enough incense offerings in a previous life so she’s saddled with taking care of her grandchildren in this one,

    An alternate theory proposed is that she actually is being blessed with having a full house with children and grandchildren to cheer her in her older age, and that any life happening can be turned into a better interpretation.

and whether or not LA is anywhere near Chicago.

    It isn’t.

You can probably see that nobody particularly takes this class seriously. Its effect on my fitness level has been minimal, but going isn’t about that.

I’ll miss rolling my eyes along with the mirror’s reflection of the woman in purple when we both notice Laoshi losing count as she gets distracted by talking about what she saw on the news or giving advice or complaining about kids these days. I’ll miss the bizarre results that these exercises are supposed to bring about (Keep you from going bald! Shrink your appetite! Help your memory!). I may get in better shape with a yoga or pilates class back in Chicago, but I probably won’t have as much fun.

It sounds kind of ridiculous, but I think I fulfilled the purpose of the Fulbright grant most of all this year through joining this class. I became part of a neighborhood. I made friends. Sometimes we compared how things are in Taiwan versus how they are in America. For all its zaniness, for all that I could barely keep my face straight through sometimes, those two hours every week with a group of accepting, friendly women has been really important to me.

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When I posted last week about my ongoing questions about identity and feeling Taiwanese in America, I had no idea it would become my most-viewed post ever and elicit such a positive response from the Taiwanese American community.

I owe TaiwaneseAmerican.org a huge thank you. My post linking to them triggered an alert, which led someone there to read what I’d written. Their almost immediate response was overwhelmingly kind.

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(click to enlarge for readability)

In a single day, I saw hundreds of new readers visit this little blog, some of whom left comments here or messaged me with friendly words on Facebook. Days later, I still lack the words to describe how grateful I feel for such an open, welcoming response.

From now on, if you see me in Chicago joyfully wearing my Taiwan pride t-shirt, make sure to say “Lí-hó!”

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Trying to get to all the questions Britt asked me back in March. It’s shameful how long it’s taken me!

Is the area where you are popular with tourists? Are there expat centers?

I’d venture to say that the area of Taipei where we live is unpopular with tourists. There’s nothing to see here. Two stops away on the MRT there is a small park with a pond and the trailheads to some easy hiking trails. I imagine tourists go there much more often than wandering around this neighborhood.

There are definitely expat centers, but since I don’t take part in expat culture in Taiwan (much of it rubs me the wrong way), I don’t really know where they are. By reputation, the Tianmu neighborhood is an expat center, but I haven’t been there all year! When I’d go there in middle and high school because we played in sports tournaments at the American school there, the area always felt weird to me.

Trying to describe why expat culture bothers me – maybe the simplest explanation is I don’t feel much like an expat here. I don’t want to recreate my American experience, reminisce about wonderful things in America, or complain about how much worse things are here in Taiwan*. And my encounters with expat culture, though few and likely not enough to provide me with a definitive answer about it, make me uncomfortable. I love Taiwan. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect here or that I have no complaints about living in Taiwan, but the complaints don’t come from a position of setting up another country as an ideal other. Difference doesn’t imply a hierarchy. Things can be different, and one can still have trouble adjusting to that difference, without defaulting to the judgement that what one’s used to is better.

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*I understand that there are other kinds of expats in Taiwan. But I don’t find that these voices are as represented in expat spaces online and expats being loud in public. One can be an expat and not participate in mainstream expat culture.

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A few months ago, I was chatting about my own TCK identity with an American woman in Taiwan and mentioned how I was thinking about getting one of these great shirts from taiwaneseamerican.org that says “I am Taiwanese American.” Look at that amazing green!

Image from taiwaneseamerican.org

“But you’re not Taiwanese American!” she replied. Sigh. I guess not.

That’s part of why I didn’t order one. Another part is that I’m worried Taiwanese Americans themselves wouldn’t like me using the label either. I’m afraid of that rejection. Perhaps it’s best not to invest money in apparel proclaiming an identity that I’m not entirely sure I should go about proclaiming. And that the first assumption will likely be that I’m wearing it ironically, as a white woman thinking it’s funny to pretend to be Asian. That’s a reading that will upset and hurt precisely the people I don’t want to hurt when I’m in America.

Instead, I want to share in the joy of having found another someone from my little home country while far away across the ocean in that big strange land. Like I’ve done several times in Chicago thanks to my boys’ and girls’ high school bags from Kaohsiung. I’ve had many delightful conversations about home. I’ve helped lost Taiwanese tourists who saw a familiar object and dared ask me for directions. If you’re reading this, Ching-Fang, our chance meeting on the 6 bus and continued friendship is probably the most fun of them all. :)

I suppose I’ll just stick with those identity markers, rather than anything more explicit and open to negative interpretation.

You know, I’d buy the Ai Daiwan shirt that taiwaneseamerican.org sells, but the brown t-shirt it’s printed on would look awful on me.

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Last week, Gene and I went and watched the new Superman movie. For me, it was the first Superman movie I’ve ever seen, whereas Gene, being American, was raised with the mythos. Yes, all along, part of our relationship has consisted of him introducing me to elements of American popular culture that I either hadn’t bothered to figure out yet or hadn’t even realized existed.

The movie put me in a weird state of mind. Initially, I thought I was frustrated by how American the whole thing was. Before I get jumped all over for that comment, yes, I realize it’s supposed to be. I’m not claiming that Superman should be Chinese. It’s just that throwing the American flag into the background of shots left and right (and don’t get me started on the scene in the church) got a bit tiring. Yes, he’s in America, we get that. Yes, he stands for the American way (or something like that, right?), you’ve established that. Let’s move on to something more interesting! Gene pointed out afterwards that the film could be seen to be poking fun at American ideas about the inherent rights of its national interests and its military superiority, a perspective I found rather fascinating, but that’s not what this (very long) post is about.

Before the movie descended into half an hour (or more?) of explosion after explosion that left me worried about all the innocent bystanders (I am not good with summer explosion laden blockbusters), there were moments in the narrative that did manage to hook me.

One of the criticisms I read before seeing the movie is that it’s tough to make Clark Kent relatable, being an alien and all. This film was supposed to help with that, to a degree, emphasizing his struggle to be alien while identifying with the human parents who raised him. After I saw the film, I read the New York Times review of it, which ended with

… if you wave away all the computer-generated smoke and see past the pulverized buildings, it’s possible to remain hooked on the resonant origin story that wends through “Man of Steel” — that of the immigrant. It’s a story that begins with the launching of the spaceship and continues through a child’s pained attempts to assimilate and a young man’s sense of not belonging. In his excellent 1987 essay “What Makes Superman So Darned American,” Gary D. Engle wrote that “Superman raises the American immigrant experience to the level of religious myth.” Mr. Snyder isn’t capable of mythmaking, but in his sometimes poetic, sometimes crude way, he has given Superman a new lease on franchise life by affirming that this most American hero is also an alien yearning to breathe free.

I really like the reading of him as an immigrant, but I think we can also read him as third culture, can’t we? It’s not as tidy as I’d like it to be because at the same time, in the same place, his character speaks to both sides of the third culture experience – the alienation upon feeling hidden and different when in your parents’ culture AND the alienation that comes from feeling tied to a culture that isn’t your family’s background.

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He’s not only an immigrant, marked by obvious differences to an origin in disparate world. On the surface, he looks like he belongs. Which makes him a “hidden immigrant,” which reflects the experience of many TCKs, including me. When you go back somewhere where it looks like you belong, but struggle with the knowledge that you’re from elsewhere and no one else can see it, that’s, oddly, like being Superman. Maybe it’s easier to hide what’s special. To be from Kansas, not Krypton. I know I’ve occasionally told people I’m just from the Midwest when I’ve been unexcited about having yet another conversation about how “interesting” it is that I’m from Taiwan. “So what was it like growing up there?” “Say some Chinese.” “So what’s it like being an alien?” “Show me some alien powers.” How am I supposed to know? It’s just the way things are, it’s just the way I am, I am not a performer. Perhaps the defining struggle of the movie, when you take out all the explosions, is that to remain hidden like this is to deny too much of yourself.

At the same time, he deals with the struggle of origin culture vs. host culture. Even though he is from Krypton, being raised human means that no matter how alien his birth parents were, Clark demonstrates an abiding connection with his host culture. Race. Species. Whatever. For selfish reasons, perhaps, I wish he was less able to blend. Instead of being just a weird little boy, that he’d been that weird looking weird little boy. Ever wonder what would have happened if that spaceship with a white baby inside had crash landed somewhere occupied predominantly by people who looked different than him? Maybe if alien-yet-conveniently-generically-white Clark had been raised in Pakistan or Nigeria? That he’d always looked different, that he carried an alien residence certificate, that people stared at him on the street when he was just trying to walk to school in peace?

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That conflict is an all too familiar part of the TCK experience. I may feel happiest in Taiwan, identify deeply with Taiwan, and love this place more than anywhere else in the world, but I will never been seen as Taiwanese. I don’t look the part. I don’t speak the languages (Taiwanese and Mandarin, in my case, but there are at least a dozen more languages in Taiwan) as well as I speak English. I went through a different school system and then left to study abroad. Just about every time I open my mouth and say something in Mandarin or Taiwanese, I have to explain how it is I’m able to speak them. What on earth someone like me is doing here. This is the hardest part about it all. But if given the chance to fully integrate, to be adopted, to blend and live as an average Taiwanese person, would I actually take it? Probably not.

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We need to talk about privilege too. Growing up white in Taiwan was like having some superpowers. I could summon English at will! Fly off to America for the summer to see my grandparents! Read English novels in a single night! Clark Kent knows that all that makes him special on Earth disappears when exposed to the atmosphere of his home planet. Even worse, he’s weaker than everyone else. It’s more than a few degrees different than being unable to figure out how a mailbox opens (they just have slots in Taiwan!) or feeling lost while trying to navigate the overwhelming aisles of an American grocery store, but what’s at base is the same: super within the host culture, weak and confused in the origin culture. How easy would it be to equate one’s love of the host culture with one’s love of being special, of being super?

Is that ugliness at the root of my ambivalence about integrating fully into Taiwan, would that option open up to me? I hope not.

I hope it’s actually because being from two worlds is what makes me who I am. That I wouldn’t be me without being both and neither. A hidden immigrant in America. A foreigner in Taiwan. It is heartbreaking, belonging nowhere. It is powerful, belonging elsewhere.

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A heavily edited and condensed version of this post was published at Denizen as the article Clark Kent and Third Culture Superpowers.

I now blog at Far From Formosa.

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