My family moved around a lot during the first decade of my life, which is to be expected I suppose for my parents themselves, have made several migratory journeys themselves during their own lifetime. My father’s family, in an attempt to escape the power of the Communist party, made the move from Mainland China to Taiwan. My grandfather left his bride and family to start anew in Taiwan where he met my grandmother and started a new family including my father and his three brothers. As my grandfather was a military official and later the head of the local Police department so he and his family were allowed to live in a large ostentatious (for that time period) house that was once the Japanese army headquarter during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Although I don’t know too much about this segment of my father’s life aside from the little stories embedded with morals and lessons that he occasionally told me as a child, I know that post his obtainment of his college degree, he moved to the United States in the 70s to get his graduate degree in New York which somehow led to meeting with my mother who attended the same church as him. My mother whose family resides in California flew back after quitting her job in New York and my dad who flew to California several times finally proposed to her after my grandmother’s suggestion to do so. After the marriage, the newly weds relocated to Bronx, NY where they bore me and soon afterwards moved to Douglaston Queens where they soon had my younger sister. Their stay in their first house was brief for they soon departed for California and then, Taiwan again where my father found a job as an engineer in a nuclear plant (he claims that the job is not as exciting as it sounds and consisted of mostly blueprint drawing). Due to my mother’s insistence after a brief two year stay in Taiwan, the whole family moved back to California where I attended elementary school for two years and then ended back, where fate would have it, in New York in the same apartment building my parents had lived in as newlyweds. My memories are a jumble of foggy past homes, neighborhoods, climates, languages, and people–so obfuscated that no chronological order can be made.
The cyclical nature of our travels suggests that we were never meant to leave New Yorker and although I steadfastly love the city, I somehow feel as though I will always be an immigrant–that perhaps, the inconstancy of my childhood has prevented me from completely connecting to one area. In the same vein, I don’t feel like an immigrant for I don’t believe I am particularly Chinese–how can I be after having spent the majority of my life abroad and away from my roots? My visage and upbringing add another dimension to my cultural identification dilemma– in America, I am undoubtedly immediately labeled as Chinese whereas back in my parents’ homeland, my mannerisms and less than perfect grasp of Mandarin immediately oust me as a foreigner. I never paid attention to this dichotomy–this divide in my cultural identity until I revisited Taiwan as a teenager:
Like all stories, mine was centered on a journey although this particular one began as an arduous and cramped one. I imagined my mother, craning her head to the East, eyes tightly closed and hands grasping the jade pendant she wore around her neck, silently willing the plane afloat and my father with spectacles in hand, peering down at printouts of my ticket, noting the plane’s landing time. I sat alone on an airplane to Taiwan, a small nation 13 time zones away from New York that I had not seen in over a decade–a country I felt no apparent ties to. My parents often waxed nostalgic about their homeland–praising the natural scenery, food and fruits, and reminiscing about their relatives that they had not seen for years. As a child, I had sat spellbound by sagas about the Monkey King and Kuan Yin intertwined with their own childhood experiences that my parents would recount to me; my parents urged me to return to Taiwan to create memories of my own.
I attended a Chinese enrichment camp in Taiwan, OCAC for a month; campers were issued neon green shirts for excursions so we would be immediately recognizable to counselors and unfortunately, locals. The English speaking campers merged into a giant clique–united simply because of language. Although we all wore an Asian face everything else indicated that we were foreigners and this reflected in the locals’ disdain and treatment of us– we were imposters; the yearly crowd of rowdy, ignorant aliens.
My camp friends and I held ourselves aloof— somehow holding the notion that we were better than them and that we didn’t need their acceptance and for the duration of the camp, this mentality sufficed for we had each other but perhaps like me, post-camp, my friends felt this divide most acutely with their relatives. Numerous times, I found myself trapped behind the cold, frosted veneer of my prejudices, disabilities, and general “Americaness.” While spending time with my cousins, I sat an outcast in my own culture watching the scene as though through a screen: my cousins sit close together in varying positions denoting comfortable familiarity speaking Chinese in a speed that my clumsy, un-tuned ears perceive as a hodgepodge of mismatched words and simple phrases. Occasionally, a kind cousin would ask me pity questions all of which pertained to my life in the States marveling at the discrepancies as though they believed me to be vastly different from them… and maybe I was in their eyes. I was content to leave Taiwan unenlightened for the trip back to my ancestor’s land that had promised me an authentic Taiwanese experience left me feeling disgustingly American.
However, on the last day of my stay, my youngest aunt and uncle approached me with the invitation to join them in the annual visit my grandparents’ graves; I accepted and was rewarded with a set of raised eyebrows. My relatives drove me to a remote area in which the grave of my grandparents was located; their burial site was a serene mountain range at the tip of the Taiwanese island—an area which I imagine originally borne the legends of the Monkey King who grew from a peach and the goddess, lady Kuan Yin who, with her incensed water blesses the good and humble. In dignified muteness, we cleared up a year’s worth of leaves and vines that the gardener ignored. Under the stunning sunlight, with solemn faces, we burned the packages of iridescent and gold-flecked paper money meant to support our family members even in death. In silence, we set up the altar with the food my grandparents loved in life. Bowing, with the incense sticks we prayed for their protection and our happiness. I am never one to admit that I am in any way spiritual, but as we honored their existence and life, and as our unspoken thoughts reached a crescendo in our heads, I felt a steady pressure on my shoulders. In that very moment, there seemed to be an invisible chain that bound us together. The feeling was intensely delicate and I felt as though I was balanced on a precipice. The moment passed but when I opened my eyes I was still aware of having experienced perfect unity. With the same surreal calmness, we left. As I sat in the car hip to hip with my relatives, with the lazy summer sun filtered through leaf canopies casting an intricate pattern on my clothes and the heavy aroma of incense permeating the air, lulled by the gentle murmur of conversation, I felt drowsily content.