“That’s so un-Taiwanese,” my sister said, shaking her head and sticking her tongue out. My cheeks quivered as I smiled back; I hoped she hadn’t seen me wince through the grainy façade of our video call. But the jokey disdain in her voice and the humiliation of being called un-Taiwanese reverberated through my living room long after we’d hung up:
Un-Taiwanese. Un-Taiwanese. Un-Taiwanese.
We had been discussing gift ideas for my mother’s 80th birthday. I’d suggested a photo book of her life, from her childhood in post-WWII Taiwan to her emigration and subsequent years in the U.S. But due to a massive flood which destroyed my mother’s home in Taiwan when she was a teenager, it is nearly impossible for us to find photos of her from that period. I’d thought we could reach out to her old high school friends, but to my sister, looking at photos and reminiscing about the past was simply un-Taiwanese. Moreover, she thought my mother would be embarrassed to find out that we had inconvenienced her friends.
Incidentally my sister had also been the one to teach me that I wasn’t white. My memory is blurred but I remember a few details: we were riding in the back of our Toyota Previa as I told a story about something that’d happened at school. My sister, eighteen years my senior, listened quietly but nudged me when I mentioned something about being part of the majority. She asked what I meant. When I answered that I was part of the majority because I was white, she laughed, pinched me gently and said: “Silly bunny! You’re not white, you’re Taiwanese-American, which also makes you a minority.”
I should have known. My mother had taught me to speak Taiwanese Hokkien first; I was Taiwanese before I was American. But as I grew up and went to school my awareness gradually ballooned up with more and more English words, until one day it was no longer possible for me to articulate my thoughts in Taiwanese alone. I switched to English with my father, who loved to talk philosophy and politics. Conversations with my mother became a hybrid of mostly Hokkien with English sprinkled in – we once played a game to see how long we could go using only Hokkien, but neither of us made it past a single sentence. I came to believe that my mother was the only person in the world with whom I could communicate in this blended language. (This illusion was only partially shattered when I met Hokkien-speaking colleagues on a business trip to Malaysia in 2019: although they could speak both Hokkien and English, they still struggled to understand my Americanized pronunciation and use of vernacular from Hsinchu, the city in northern Taiwan where my mother grew up.)
The trouble with my sister’s un-Taiwanese comment was that it was, like many painful things, wrapped around a nucleus of truth. I’m not Taiwanese: I was born in Florida to parents who met in the U.S. after immigrating separately from Taiwan. I haven’t been back since 2006 and have no idea what it’s like to live there. If I were to visit today, my relatives would probably notice how not-like-them I am, from the fact that I barely speak Mandarin (which most Taiwanese people my age learned in school), to my recent decision to quit a stable job to pursue some vague Western ideal of “self-fulfillment”. I’m Taiwanese-American to Americans and American-Taiwanese to Taiwanese people.
My sister, in contrast, blends seamlessly into Taiwanese society, having lived there for more than half of her life. Maybe she is right; perhaps reminiscing just – isn’t a thing over there?
So I’ll indulge my American side with this memory: in the first or second grade, I came home from school one day to see my mother sitting at the kitchen table holding a letter opener in one hand and an envelope in the other, her eyes pink and slightly puffy. I don’t remember if she spoke to me in Taiwanese, English or our usual mix of both, but her message was this: “you might be too young to hear this, but life means nothing.”
I didn’t understand what she meant, but there was a fragility to her posture and voice which lingered with me. I have looked back at various times, sometimes with sadness, but other times I've thought how freeing it is to truly believe that life means nothing; that mistakes are inconsequential, or that the people you’ve disappointed have no permanent stake in you.
It is a tug towards that all-encompassing emptiness – sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter – which tethers me to home, more than any sense of Taiwanese- or American-ness.