Not too long after I publicly launched this site, I started posting a lot of self-conscious “Wai-Taiwan? Articles” about my fears and anxieties in actually writing a blog like this. And I’ll probably continue to write a few of those articles here and there. But after a few months of pouring myself into books, documentaries, movies, and so many other things to learn more about Taiwan (I’m trying to be a responsible writer), I wanted to take a step back.
So much of what I write is supposed to be snippets of my “Wai (outside) Taiwan” persona. Each article tells a piece of that story. But maybe, now that I’ve had a chance to really reflect and hear others’ stories, I ought to give the long version of my answer to the title question of the site so I can move through each future post without the weight of answering such a big question:
And so it begins. . .
When I first arrived at university, I used to joke with my friends that the first 8 and 1/2 years of my life were spent immersed in Liberian culture and politics because of my Liberian father. Then, when my parents divorced, I spent the next 8 and 1/2 years living out a classic American narrative with my American mother. At that point, if someone had asked me to choose two song titles to describe my life, I would have chosen “Liberian Girl” by Michael Jackson and “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz (cover from Jimi Hendrix).
Although, this joke was an exaggeration, growing up, I often felt that my cultural identity was strongly pulled in two directions by my parents. Any attempt at self-identification was considered an act of rebellion. . . or at least an act of choosing one parent over the other. In an attempt to be neutral, at some point I started calling myself “bi-cultural Liberian and American” and sticking to that label regardless of how much it may have complicated the conversation, just because I wanted to spare each parent the hurt of not being acknowledged.
A new understanding of cultural identity. . .
However, when I arrived at university at 17, I felt like I could finally make up my own mind about who I wanted to be culturally without feeling shame or pressure. And I lucked out instantly. My freshman dorm was called the “International Studies Residential College” (ISRC) and students came from everywhere. There was a healthy balance between international students and locals. It was a very safe environment (abnormally so). We could talk about cultural differences without judgment; most people felt safe exploding [as in blowing them up] and questioning stereotypes; and we were allowed to do all of those superficial things that most people associate with culture. For those of us who took advantage of the environment, it was the absolute cliche of college identity exploration — but on steroids.
At ISRC, I found and created a really safe bubble around myself. By the time I moved out, I had formed an (admittedly new agey) perspective about what it meant for someone to construct her own cultural identity. In a nutshell, I grew to see my stories and histories as inherently intertwined with those of my friends. Perhaps it was because of my bi-cultural childhood, but it never made sense when people seemed to demand that I arbitrarily choose one cultural affiliation box — my personal narrative has never been singular. As I grew older, when certain people, places, languages, music, art, or cultural belief systems spoke to me on a deeper soul level, I would embrace them. For some, this philosophy could have led to a world of cultural flaking (moving from one culture “de jour” to the next). For me, I searched out the cultures I had the strongest connections with and decided to go deeper.
When I came to this conclusion, it seemed simultaneously like a really revolutionary idea and complete common sense. But this concept is far from common. I realized that once I finally stepped out of my happy bubble.
The bubble extended to my study abroad time in Argentina and to Taiwan. Back when I first lived in Argentina the country was still pretty white (Italian and Spanish), so I was a novelty and people were usually nice to me. Men sang Portuguese songs to me while I walked down the street (because they thought I was Brazilian) and except for one really unsafe experience at a club, life was good. Things were pretty similar in Taiwan. Not too many people of African descent visit or live in Taichung. Most people were generally curious about me and loved touching my hair, which was usually braided or in some “natural” style. Sometimes I felt like a local celebrity, but mostly I felt like I had permission to ask polite questions and explore all within my bubble.
Here comes the end of innocence. . .
It wasn’t until I returned from Taiwan and arrived at law school in Los Angeles that I felt like others really questioned the idea of having a cultural lens that included aspects of things outside of one’s own ethnic identity. I purposely chose to go to a law school that prided itself on its diversity. But I soon realized that the school’s understanding of living in a diverse community was a bit twisted. Diversity for the school, like many other academic institutions, was purely a numbers game with virtually no acknowledgment of the profound dynamics of difference below the numbers.
While there, I felt isolated. The dean warned us that we had no time to do anything except study hard (and get drunk on Thursday nights). So, I watched the Taiwanese movies and television shows that I had brought with me. My excuse, “If I’m not allowed to relax, I’ll just study Mandarin the fun way.” And I got pretty hooked. When my classmates discovered that I had lived in Taiwan, they were either curious about me or skeptical (to say it nicely).
My mentor suggested that I run for a position on the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA). I did. I had the sweetest co-chair ever and I genuinely loved the experience. During my time on the board, the one question that I got asked more than any other question was “Why are you in APALSA instead of BLSA (Black Law Student Association)?” Of course there were the “yellow fever” rumors. “Why did you decide to learn Mandarin? Was it for a guy?” And during my last month of law school, a student told me that people had been calling me a “race traitor” behind my back for years.
I can honestly say, that experience wreaked emotional havoc on me. Since then, I’ve build a more solid foundation, but I still carry a bit of insecurity (among other things) that I might get that kind of judgment each time I write an article. And sometimes when people ask “Why Taiwan?” I hear other more loaded questions (not all bad, but certainly more complex). So, I don’t always know how to respond. Which may explain some of the delay with this article — this answer.
But, no seriously. . . Why Taiwan?
I’ve given you all a lot of background and context, but I still haven’t actually answered the question of “Why Taiwan?” So, here it goes. . .
When I first started blogging, I was living in the environment I described in Los Angeles. I was away from my super multi-cultural friends and my safe cultural bubble for the first time. Initially, I wanted to write about really “normal” blog topics like visiting restaurants and posting everyday pictures, but I kept coming back to my obsession with culture and trying to process my ever evolving cultural identity. For a while I thought I could just write about culture (generally), but all I ever wanted to write about was Taiwan (specifically).
Now that I’ve left that environment and have access to friends who don’t judge so harshly, I still have a very strong desire to dig deeper into what it means to have a cultural identity that relates to Taiwan despite my lack of ethnic or national connection to the country. So, in a way, I’m still trying to figure out “Why Taiwan?” for myself with each post. But here’s what I have come up with so far. . .
Why Taiwan? Ethnically/ Culturally?
Q: Let’s get back to the question of APALSA (Asian) versus BLSA (Black) in law school. Sometimes people tip toe around this, other times they ask directly. Why don’t you write something more ethnically appropriate like a story about being Liberian or black?
A: I think it goes back to my revelation in university about the difference between ethnic and cultural identity. I clearly know that I’m not Taiwanese.
But there are aspects of my personal culture that I picked up in Taiwan (or from Taiwanese American friends); there are things that I always did as a kid that I didn’t see other people doing until I lived in Taiwan (or had Taiwanese friends); there are ideas and feelings that I had about culture or people that I could never express until I learned the 4 syllable phrase in Mandarin that captured the idea perfectly; etc.
Don’t get me wrong there are obviously aspects of my culture, values, superstitions, and beliefs that come from places other than Taiwan. I’m exploring and processing those these things too — outside of this blog. But Taiwan has become a permanent part of my story, and it deserves a special space.
Why Taiwan? Generally?
Q: Sometimes the question deals with why I refer to Taiwan rather than some other place I’ve lived, visited, or thought about. You said you lived in Buenos Aires twice, why not write “Why Argentina?”
A: Simply put, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever know. I find myself drawn to Taiwanese culture, history, etc. more than almost anywhere. There’s no “rational” or logical explanation. My draw to Taiwan is very sincere, but sometimes it’s also really hard to dissect.
Why Taiwan? Specifically?
Q: Often, the question lives in the details. “Why Taiwan (or why Taiwanese [blank]). . . and not some other country?” Ex: Why watch Taiwanese mini series when Korean dramas are “so much better?” or Why study traditional characters when China (the more heavily populated country) uses simplified? How unpractical!
A: Every time I watch, read, eat, learn, or do anything, I try to put it into a greater context. I don’t ever want to see myself as a casual participant in the “superficial” aspects of culture. So, I’ll usually give a “bigger picture” answer for each question. I have no problem getting a broader perspective on other cultures and things, but ultimately, the goal is to understand better the relationships I have with Taiwan. As before, some specific answers will be personal (not rational) — “I just like it because I do and no other reason.”
On one level, this blog is actually just a continuation of the personal journey I started back as a freshman in college. On another, I absolutely welcome anyone to chime in and share their own stories and connect. I will always try to write in a way that is accessible and useful for others. I’m sure I won’t always succeed, but I’ll always try. This certainly is (and always will be) an ongoing process.