I was seven when I first visited Taiwan. My parents referred to the three-month trip as “going back”, a return to the motherland. But for me and my siblings it was a novel experience, journeying to a place we knew only through our parents’ stories and long-distance phone calls.
In the beginning, I complained a lot. There was the heat – Taipei in the summer was unbearably hot and stiflingly humid. In my grandparents’ apartment we would lie on tatami mats wiped down with wet sponges, trying to get cool enough to sleep. Then there was the smell – the city’s thick mix of gasoline and damp moss, the faint hint of sewage. Smelly gutters, my parents shrugged when I wrinkled my nose. And of course – there were squat toilets.
But it didn’t take me long to fall into Taiwan’s open arms. I met a warm crowd of extended family, eager to show us where to find the best mango shaved ice or the best hot spring baths. In constant chatter with my cousins, my Mandarin came fluent and fast and full of schoolyard insults. While my parents cracked watermelon seeds with old friends, I picked up Taiwanese schoolyard games from their kids. Everyone from family friends to shopkeepers could be addressed as auntie or uncle, as if we were all part of some enormous family.
As the summer stretched on and the new became mundane, I had the growing sense I had always belonged in Taiwan. Mornings began with milk bread and sweet soymilk set out by my grandmother as she bustled around in soft house slippers. My grandfather would take me with him to buy vegetables at the neighborhood market, where I would gawk at the live chickens. Afternoons were devoted to watching Japanese cartoons with my cousins, Sailor Moon and Doraemon and Chibi Maruko-chan. Running around under the banyan trees in the park, I felt as Taiwanese as any other kid on the playground.
I had almost forgotten we had to go home to America. On our last day in Taiwan, I burst out crying when the airport cab rolled into the lane in front of my grandparents’ apartment. Clutching my cousin’s hand, I bawled that I wanted to stay. My mom had to haul me into the car as I continued wailing.
But back home in Indiana, Taiwan felt worlds away. Our family was one of a handful of Asians in our predominantly white suburb. Though I was a birthright U.S. citizen, I often felt the way I appeared – other.
Upon meeting me, kids and adults alike would often ask where I was from, where I was really from. My mom gave me a canned answer for this: I was born in America, but my parents are from Taiwan. But this answer prompted further questions, as if people couldn’t figure out which box to put me in. So you’re American? Or Taiwanese? Is that the same as Chinese?
At school, I was often the only minority student in my classes. In the cafeteria my face burned every time I had to explain the contents of my lunch box to a dubious classmate – the fried rice, the packets of nori, and worst of all the dried cuttlefish, shredded pale filaments that elicited incredulous disgust. Then there were the occasional questions about my appearance – why was my nose so flat, could I see as much as other people through my eyes. And once, there was the ball of ice hurled into my face by boys who called me Chinese girl.
I began to chafe at the feeling of otherness, the questions I provoked by looking more like the kids on the Taipei playgrounds than the ones in my classroom. It was hard not to feel that I was on the fringes somehow, left out of the touchstones that my white classmates seemed to share, the things that the world told me were truly American. I wanted Lunchables and blue eyes, a First Communion and a grandma who baked apple pies. I wanted people to stop second-guessing me when I told them I, too, was American.
It began to feel important for me to declare my American-ness, to defend my presence among my peers. So I spent years trying to melt myself into a pot of stars and stripes. I tried to hide anything that betrayed my family’s immigrant background. I begged my mom to pack me “normal” lunches, so she swapped my rice for ham sandwiches. If kids asked me questions about Taiwan or Chinese culture, I often felt so awkward I just feigned ignorance. I started speaking English to my parents in front of my friends, and eventually, even in their absence. Once, my mom came to pick me up at school after I had skinned my knee at recess, and I remember the sudden stab of annoyance I felt as she said in English, I heard you were injured!, forgetting her ‘r’ so the word came out “injahed”.
The parts of me I felt were not American enough, I folded up small for hiding close to the heart. At home, I loved lion’s head meatballs and aiyu jelly. I was proud when my parents’ Taiwanese friends complimented my Mandarin. And every once in a while, I would bury my face in the folds of old clothes in my parents’ drawers, inhaling the mothball scent that permeated my grandparents’ closets in Taipei.
Over time, I came to understand that Asian-America is also America, that my cultural heritage was no less worthy than any European-American’s. I learned that immigrants have always belonged in this country, I learned to name the skepticism of others as racism or ignorance. But even with this knowledge, I couldn’t shake that childhood feeling that my claim to America was not on equal footing with that of my white peers. How could it be, when my face and name and blood must be traced across the span of the Pacific?
It was not until I left Indiana that I fully believed I belonged to America, and that it was also mine. I wound up in New York and DC, cities where people are always from somewhere else, where hyphenated America thrives and dares to drop the hyphen. Now when people ask me where are you from? I answer South Bend, Indiana, thinking of the green rippling of cornfields and the hiss of sprinklers over suburban lawns. And people will simply nod in acceptance. Some part of me still reflexively braces for the follow-up question. Where are you really from? But it has not been asked in so long. Surrounded by people who are all the colors of this country, I have finally begun to accept my own answer. I am American. I am from South Bend, Indiana.
A part of me is from Taiwan, too. A couple years ago, I returned to Taipei over New Years’ with my family. It had been a decade since I had last been there, and I felt distinctly foreign walking around the city. I realized then how little I truly understand about my cultural heritage, how much I pushed away in my quest to be a “real” American. I felt shy talking to my cousins, ashamed that the Chinese words fell halting and misshapen from my mouth. Visiting the graves of my grandfathers for the first time, it occurred to me I did not really know their stories, the reasons they fled the mainland or the names of their hometowns. At the museums and memorials, I read the placards and considered that I had only the vaguest comprehension of Taiwanese history or politics.
Yet there was a deep sense of having returned, the release of something I had not known was being clenched tightly in my chest. Taipei’s humidity wrapped itself around me like a welcoming embrace, carrying that familiar smell of gasoline and moss. I walked through the night markets humming with a frenetic energy I remembered well, the hubbub of people haggling, the air pungent with oyster omelet and fermented tofu.
In my grandmother’s apartment, I traced my fingers over the Sailor Moon stickers still plastering a chest of drawers, placed by childish hands long ago. A deep cello note of nostalgia overwhelmed me, the vibrato trembling between pain and joy. Taiwan will always feel a little like home to this American girl.