“so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.” — “diaspora blues,” Ijeoma Umebinyuo
This is me. When I saw the quote above, I immediately connected with it. Who am I? What am I? Where is “home”? Those are questions I’ve been asking myself since my husband accepted a teaching job in Taiwan — my birth country, but not my passport country.
Not that these questions are new to me. Having been born in Asia, but having immigrated to the United States at an age when I was old enough to be on the cusp of forming a cultural identity, I’ve always grappled with the question of identity. Growing up, I felt I was living two lives. By day, I was “American” — or at least acted like one — speaking English, reading in English, eating American foods like pizza, dressing (more or less) like those around me, talking about American pop culture, listening to American music. But everything else about me still made me an “other” — my foreign family name, my accent (which didn’t last long; I made sure of that), my physical appearance, my background, my culture. By night, I was “other,” speaking in a different language, following different customs, eating different foods, living with those with different expectations and standards, and thinking differently. I even went by a different name! At home, I was free to be myself and was surrounded by family members like me.
But inside, I never felt” either “American” or “Chinese.” I didn’t understand or connect with some American traditions or cultural practices (and certainly didn’t practice them at home), and didn’t subscribe to many American values. However, I didn’t quite relate to some of the cultural traditions my family practiced either, and certainly didn’t quite buy into a lot of my parents’ ways of thinking. I constantly struggled with this dichotomy, living between two cultures. I constantly fought to distance myself from my background and culture in an effort to fit in with my American peers while craving the familiarity and comfort of it at the same time, never truly knowing what I was or where I fit in.
Then Thailand happened. While my face might be very similar in appearance with those of the locals, I was most definitely not Thai. (Every time I got into a taxi, I would inevitably be asked, “You speak Thai?” or “Are you Thai?” When I responded “I’m American” to one man, he pointed to his own face and exclaimed, “But your face!”) Compared to the locals, my behavior, thinking, mannerisms, ways of doing things, and preferences, not to mention the language I spoke while there, made me realize how “American” I am. For once in my life, I identified as American and felt like one too! At the same time, because I looked like most people around me and felt a certain familiarity with the Thai people and their customs due to the similarity between them and some Chinese customs, I also felt a sense of belonging and acceptance in Thailand and everywhere else in Asia. For the first time, I felt I belonged wherever I went, whether it was within the expat community (most of whom were American), with the locals, or in other Asian communities.
And now, there will be Taiwan. While I am technically of Taiwanese descent, as that’s where my family and I are from, I am also not “Taiwanese.” On the one hand, I look like the Taiwanese, my family still follows some of their customs and traditions, I speak the language, and I love their food. On the other hand, I grew up in the United States, have lived longer in the United States than I have anywhere else, I’ve assimilated into the American culture, I speak and write in English much more fluently than I do Mandarin, and I hold a U.S. passport. What will I call myself? How will the locals see me? Will I be repatriating, an expat, or something else entirely?
I recently came across the term “hidden immigrant,” and that term seems fitting for me. A hidden immigrant is “a person…who looks like everyone else on the outside but is more like the foreign host country on the inside.” Returning to Taiwan, I will be an immigrant all over again. This time, though, because I will look like everyone else, there will be expectations that I will act, behave, and think like them as well. But I won’t. While my outside will fit in, most of the differences will be beneath the surface and unseen.
I’ve already dealt with this type of treatment my entire adult life, even in the United States. A stranger of Chinese descent — usually someone older who immigrated as an adult — will spot me and will inevitably strike up a conversation, usually in Mandarin. I will respond in the same language. Usually, I’m asked where I’m from, and to keep things simple, I just say I’m from Taiwan. S/he will then bring up a topic that I’m not familiar with because I was raised in the U.S., and I will have to explain that I didn’t grow up in Asia and, therefore, am not familiar with the topic of conversation. This person will then eye me with a look of surprise, skepticism, and sometimes suspicion.
I admit I’m feeling somewhat apprehensive about this re-emerging conflict. My current strategy for handling this is to make it known that I’m not a local, so I can better manage others’ expectations and so people will not think I’m a complete idiot if I happen to fail to understand how things work and make some mistakes along the way. But I also don’t want to hide and deny my cultural heritage, as I did growing up. In fact, I want to learn more about it, celebrate it, and be proud of it, and I want my son to get to know this part of his heritage.
Once again, I will be reshaping my cultural identity. But hopefully, this time, I’ll be embracing and integrating the multiple cultures I’ve experienced in my lifetime, instead of living between them. Regardless, it will be an interesting social experiment of sorts for me, as well as a “second chance” to reclaim and embrace my heritage and pass it down to my son.