Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Where Am I From?

I moved to the United States four years ago, but I never felt more like a foreigner until I was back in my homeland of Taiwan last summer. It was a sunny afternoon and I was being kicked out of a cab by a short-tempered driver who had strong feelings about his country.

"Are you Chinese?" he barked at me, moments before dumping me on the street. "You speak Taiwanese with a Chinese accent."

I was barely able to explain to him that while I was born in Taiwan, my father is of Chinese descent. Next thing I knew, he was shouting at me: “Get out of my car! I don't drive Chinese.”

My grandmother once said that everyone is a foreigner. Now her words have meaning to me.

I don’t feel Chinese or Taiwanese and I certainly will never be American either. So who am I? I often wonder what “foreign country” and “home country” really mean. What does it mean to be Taiwanese, Chinese, or American?

Is it a language?

“When I first took your dad home, his fluent Taiwanese bluffed my family into believing that he was a native of Taiwan!” My mother, a native born Taiwanese, giggled when she told me the story, “Otherwise I’d never be allowed to marry him!”

Is it a birthplace?

Ironically, my mother was not as lucky as my father was with the language skills. She applied for a reporter position at a Taiwanese radio station when she graduated from Journalism School in 1971. She was asked to say “Algeria” in Taiwanese during the job interview. Although she was a native born, due to her pronunciation, she never got the job.

Or is it an appearance?

After I moved to America, I often heard other Asian Americans complain about how hard it is to be a “foreigner” in this country. Most of them were born in this country and speak fluent English, but were bothered by the color of the hair and skin.

If being Taiwanese, Chinese, or American doesn’t meant speaking a certain language, being born in a certain place, or appear to be a certain way, what does it mean?

My grandparents escaped from Mainland China to Taiwan during the civil war with their two children, including my father. Every single day of my grandfather’s life in Taiwan, he wished to return to China.

I usually sat on his lap when I was a little girl and listened to all those civil war stories. I was taught that we were Chinese and we would go “home” one day. However, the tension between China and Taiwan rose. My grandfather’s wish never came true. He eventually passed away with deep regrets.

I remember my father arranged a “home-returning” trip for my grandmother when the Chinese and Taiwanese governments first permitted people from the two countries visiting each other in 1987. We were surprised when my grandmother resisted going.

“But, Mom, we thought you and dad always want to go home!” my dad said.

“It has been thirty years…I don’t know where home is anymore,” my grandmother mumbled. “Every homeland was once a foreign land...everyone was once a foreigner…”

I was young and did not pay much attention when she said so. However, after so many years, when I was kicked out of the taxi in that sunny afternoon, the scene of my grandmother mumbling those words appeared before my eyes, clearly.

To-Wen Tseng

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