This interview was conducted to help document a heritage journey to Taiwan.
Q: What is your ethnicity or ancestry?
A: My parents are both Chinese, however they both grew up in Taiwan. I guess I would say my mother’s side of the family is from southern China originally and they immigrated to Taiwan – I think it had to do with the politics at the time. And then my father’s side of the family, as far as I know, they have been living in Taiwan for a long time. So I guess I would consider myself Chinese-American.
Q: Have you gone to Taiwan to see remaining family?
A: Yes, I actually went back a few years ago and it was really nice. I’d say about half of both my father’s and mother’s side of the family still resides in Taiwan. But I can talk more about that later.
Q: What ancestral home did you return to?
A: That’s kind of a tough one to answer because I’ve resided in China. I guess that would actually be the ancestral home, but I identify more with Taiwan because that’s where my parents identify with in terms of where they grew up and what their childhood was like. At first, before this interview, I was thinking China was my ancestral home, but now that I think about it, I think it’s actually Taiwan.
Q: Can you tell me why did you decide to return to your country of ancestry? And when did you return?
A: So, I would say the last time I visited Taiwan I was living in China. It was one of my goals and dreams to go back to Taiwan. The first time I visited I was 15. The last time I went back was in 2010. I was 32.
What brought me back was a dream. I had very fond memories of spending parts of my childhood in Taiwan. And also I just have a general fondness of Chinese culture and food. I also have relatives there. I find that the people there – they are island people – and I find them to be different than the Chinese people on the mainland. Also, the proximity was accessible because I was living in Shanghai so it was easy to get there and it was affordable. So there were a lot of reasons why I decided to go to visit again.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the first time that you went to Taiwan?
A: When I was born – I was born in Los Angeles – and my parents were pretty poor at the time and were new immigrants. My sister was a couple years older than me and we were living in a motel and my dad was working. My uncle owned the motel and my dad was the person who took care of the maintenance. As an exchange, my family got to live there in the motel – I think the funds were pretty low at the time. After they had me they couldn’t really afford two children I guess. So when I was three months old my maternal grandmother actually took me back to Taichung in Taiwan and she was raising me for a while.
While I was there a lot of other relatives there to help take care of me. I would say I was there 3 months, and then I eventually came back to California to go to school because they wanted me to have an American education. I think it was probably around, like, 3 or 4 years old when I came back for good.
So that was the first time I was back there. I think the next time I went back to Taiwan was when I was 15. My mother started some sort of business – it’s like there’s a balloon and you put the stuffed animal in the balloon – it’s something you sell at a flea-market-type swap in Taiwan. She wanted my sister and me to help her with that business. I remember I was excited and my sister and I went there and we were there for the summer because we had to be back for school. I remember that it was really nice being back there. There I felt like a princess – that’s the best way I can describe it – everybody was l, “Oh, who is this Chinese girl. She can speak perfect English.” It was this cool novelty. I felt so special and they would say, “Oh you’re so pretty. Oh, you’re so smart.” Wow, I could live here forever (laughs). When I was there I actually didn’t want to come back. I wanted to live there. I could see myself living in Taiwan. I really resonated with everything there at age 15.
The next time I returned was 17 years later. That’s when I went on my own free will. I really wanted to go back there again. I wondered if it was going to be as it was when I went there before. I wondered if they were going to treat me as a princess (laughs). I went back there and of course, no, nobody treated me like a princess. But I still loved it. I saw the house where my grandpa resides. That’s where a lot of my memories took place when I was younger. If you look at a lot of my childhood pictures in Taiwan, it’s all taken in that house. And there’s a park – Taichung Park – which is where a lot of pictures were also taken. A family friend took me and my boyfriend around. We went to eat all this delicious food and we went to see all the sites. The family friend also took us to where he lived which is in the country side. I remember that drive and looking around. There were a lot of stray dogs in Taiwan, and I remember feeling really sad because they’re all along the freeway ramps when you exit. It’s kind of a problem there actually. We stayed at my cousins’ house. I think we were there a week or so. It was nice because I hadn’t seen my cousin in many, many, many years. So it was nice to see her again. And I also saw my aunt. It was a chance to just connect with different relatives that I hadn’t seen in a while. Everybody was so happy to see me and I felt really loved. So, in terms of before that trip, yes, I was highly anxious and excited. It was one of my dreams to go back there.
I remember seeing tons of mopeds and scooters and stuff. I remember looking at the palms trees and looking out the widow and thinking, “Wow, what a cool place.” I really liked it and could see myself living there. This has been kind of an ongoing feeling for a while. It just hasn’t happened yet.
Q: You talked about how, again, you spent time there when you were really young and went back when you were 15 years old. Were there any moments or memories that you can recall when you were in Taiwan from your latest experience where a memory hit you from earlier in your life?
A: My grandfather’s house, which is where a lot of the photographs of me as a child were taken. When you’re small, everything seems bigger. And so when I approached it as an adult I was thought, “Things aren’t as big as I remember.” So that struck me. Also, everything looks the same in that house. There were these pictures I had as a child where we would sit on my grandfather’s or someone’s moped. I remember we had these funny hats on. I still have those pictures. I think being at my grandfather’s house, made me think of when I was a there as a child.
Q: Based on your own experience, do you have any thoughts or advice for those people who for example, my son who was just born (his mom is from Korea); for someone like him, for when he is older, to go back to his ancestral home in Korea? Do you have any thoughts or advice for people who are thinking about doing something like this and are debating whether they want to go or not?
A: My advice is that everybody needs to do it and should do it in order to understand where your parents came from, where their parents came from, and where you came from. It doesn’t matter how many generations that you’ve been here either because people have been here a long time. Even if you’re a tenth generation Chinese person – a lot of the traditions and things you do in your life – it came from somewhere else. You may not even realize it or be aware of it – why your parents do things a certain way or the messages they give you when you’re growing up. But it’s all very subconscious – they don’t even realize it. And so, part of self-awareness and growing as a person is understanding where you come from, wherever that may be. Even if you are tenth generation European-American. If you think you’re American, you came from somewhere else. We weren’t all from here originally. So, it’s huge – it’s growing.
But it’s also going to come with disappointments and shocks. The thing is, people I think sometimes have a Pollyanna-ish view – like, “Oh, I’m going to go there and everybody’s going to love me because I’m special” (laughs). Like, “I’m the ambassador of America and everybody’s going to learn from me.” Sometimes you will be disappointed – in fact you will be disappointed, but that’s ok because that’s just part of reality. For me, in going to – I guess I have 2 ancestral homes – I would say China and Taiwan – but, you know, just having gone to both and residing in one of them, it’s been eye-opening. In terms of coming back to America and now living here and, you know, now I’m working in Chinatown, where, again, I’m spending a lot of time with people from my culture.
I feel like I have a better understanding with more clarity. When I interact with people I think, “Ahhhh, I understand that tradition or how they tend to be that way” – it all kind of makes more sense than even before. You start to appreciate it and you don’t judge as much because as humans we tend to judge things we don’t understand. So now that I understand it better I’m think I’m more patient and compassionate about certain things that I might not have been with my parents.
Q: Did it give you some insights into how you grew up and why certain things were the way that they were? With the context of going back there and seeing it first hand?
A: Yes. My parents are extremely traditional people – I would say conservative, traditional Taiwanese people. In Taiwan, if you just drive along the streets, they are big into ancestral worship and Buddhism – they are actually more religious and follow religious traditions I’d say more so than people from mainland China. And so, my experience is that people from Taiwan are way more conservative than people from China. But I actually think that’s surprising because Taiwan is actually more modern in terms of technology and ideas and in terms western culture coming in and having them acculturate and assimilate. But they’re surprisingly more conservative and in some ways and much more resistant to change. So, I kind of understand why my parents are the way they are. Coming from that culture they are super conservative. Part of it could be the family culture – like the families that they grew up in was probably like that. Also, just the little things – my mom is very superstitious. A lot of Chinese people are culturally quite superstitious, so maybe she learned it from growing up. Little things. Like, when I was growing up everything in our house was there for a reason – from wind chimes, to bells, things you had to do when you walked through a door. She would put red powder around the house. It was just a lot of kind of strange things. But I think their idiosyncrasies – I think some of it comes from their culture for sure. It’s very eye-opening. If you want to understand yourself – at least that aspect of yourself – you need to go back to where it came from because everything comes from somewhere.
Q: One last question. Do you think you’ll ever return at some point in your life?
A: I think the next time I go to Asia – and I don’t know when that’ll be – whether for travel or to live, I will definitely make a trip there. I’m hoping at some point I will end up living in Taiwan. I would like to make my way there or find a reason to go back. Because it’s been my dream since, probably since I was 15, after that trip, “I want to live here someday.”
Q: What is your main motivation?
A: I guess it’s everything I shared before. I resonate there. I wasn’t born there and I didn’t spend that much time there in my life, but every time I go back I feel like, “This is where I belong. This is my home.” But that’s strange because California is my home. But there is kind of this ‘homey’ feeling and that feeling has always stayed and always been there. So that’s I think what will be pulling me back to Taiwan. I hope I won’t be disappointed and I don’t think I will be. But it’s definitely on my bucket list and I have been finding ways, scheming, and making plans on how I can get myself there but it just hasn’t happened yet.