I Thought This Memoir Wasn’t “Taiwanese Enough”—Because That Was My Fear About Myself
My instinctive reaction to Jessica J. Lee's "Two Trees Make a Forest" helped me understand fault lines in my own sense of national identity
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In March of 2004, my family and I were at home in Taiwan for the national election, and I got into my first-ever screaming match with a perfect stranger. The election choice, as always, was between the Kuo Ming Tang, which favors reunification with China; and the Democratic People’s Party, which advocates for an independent Taiwan. This woman was clearly going to vote for the KMT. She was yelling at me in Mandarin, the national language of China, and I was yelling back in Taiwanese (which, in my perspective, should be the national language of Taiwan), trying to tell her that I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying. She lifted her chin and pointed at me, the very definition of superiority. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked, finally deigning to speak in Taiwanese. “Are you uneducated? That’s why you can’t speak Mandarin?”
Until then, I could never really reconcile the idea that scores of Taiwanese flew home from the United States every year there’s a presidential election. My parents had tried to explain it to me; my relatives had given up trying to talk to me about Taiwan’s fate, I said, should be left to people who still live in Taiwan. But that day, standing in the still spring air, I finally got it.
“Hey,” I said, still in Taiwanese, “you ate Taiwanese rice for breakfast; you drank Taiwanese tea with it. You’re going to eat Taiwanese rice for lunch and dinner, too. You live in Taiwan. Speak Taiwanese.”
I know. I sound like an absolute jerk. Let me explain.
“Languages make a home,” writes Jessica J. Lee in her memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest, and I couldn’t agree more. My parents’ families had come to Taiwan from China in the 1750s. When martial law came to Taiwan in the form of Chiang Kai Shek and his Kuo Ming Tang party in 1949, Taiwanese people were forbidden from speaking Taiwanese in the streets or publishing in Taiwanese. We would live under these rules, families like mine confining their Taiwanese to the privacy of their homes lest they be fined or worse for speaking it in public, until 1987. KMT martial law also meant that you couldn’t advance in business or in school unless you agreed to join the party. No one in my family ever did.
We moved to the United States in 1977, when I was three, but in the safer environs of a democracy, my parents insisted on us learning and speaking Taiwanese. Until recently, I never wanted to learn Mandarin. I’ve long believed that Taiwan’s history is what makes my parents who they are. They are mostly rigid people, although they moved here so we could have broader opportunity. Predictably, we clashed through almost every decade of my life, but I was always impressed with their conviction, and I hunger for literature that helps me to understand more of what Taiwan is like.
Early on, I’d reach for any book about Asia, regardless of who it was written by, just to read about people who looked like me. But it’s a new day, now, and Taiwanese Americans are lighting up my bookshelves. Lee’s book, published late last year, would feel like home, I thought. The promotional materials promised “parallels between the natural and the human stories,” as she gets to know her “ancestral land.” The marketing copy says she spends time bicycling along saltwater flats in search of spoonbills. I had reported on those very birds in a bid to cover the local population’s attempt at ecotourism for a nature magazine. Hiking among Taiwan’s peaks was also mentioned. I have finally experienced some of Taiwan’s mountains: after years of begging my family to take me to visit the more natural features of the island I still call home, my husband and I visited Taroko Gorge; Yanmingsan, a local mountain near Taipei; and Shousan, “Monkey Mountain,” near where a cousin lives.
Lee was searching for a connection to Taiwan, and I could not wait to feel that singular flush of joy that always accompanies a feeling of solidarity—me, too! Even better, she’d maybe serve as a guide to Taiwan’s natural landscape; whenever I go home, it’s restaurant this and dinner that, and how-many-relatives-can-I-visit-in-two-weeks, and my family still looks askance at me when I lace up my shoes to go for a run. The last time I mentioned wanting to go to the Penghu islands, to see a part of Taiwan I’d always wanted to visit, my uncle snorted. “Whatcha wanna go there for? Tourist trap.”
I couldn’t wait to meet Lee’s family, experience her Taiwan, share with her the beauty of my homeland and mourn with her the many miles between it and us.
“The island holds both migrant and endemic species,” Lee writes early on in the book, in her sure, professorial, hand. Her botanical expertise makes itself present with every single scientific name for the plants I only know by their colloquial monikers. I know Taiwanese flora by names like “crazy flower” or “shy plant”; she has Dendrocalamus latiflorus and Diplofatsia at her disposal. And yet, for all her multilingualism with plants, Lee focuses early on Mandarin, calling it her mother’s tongue, referring to Taiwanese only a few times in her book. As I read, awe over her intimate knowledge of Taiwan’s flora and geographical history mixed with a burgeoning rage at the absence of Taiwanese throughout the book.
In my head, as I read, I was confronting the woman who insisted I must be badly educated because I only speak Taiwanese, my mother tongue.
Lee doesn’t hide the fact that her maternal grandparents came to Taiwan in 1949 as part of the Kuo Ming Tang, the party that leveraged martial law on Taiwan. It is a critical part of their history that they adopted Taiwan as their home for decades before emigrating to Canada, where Lee was born. It’s her quest to get closer to them that leads her back to Taiwan, since her grandparents were identifying as Taiwanese by the time she knew them. But Lee’s grandmother worked in Chiang Kai Shek’s secretarial pool; her grandfather flew fighter jets for the Republic of China (the KMT’s preferred name for Taiwan). Lee writes, “New arrivals like my grandmother would come to dominate the social and cultural life of Taiwan.” Immigrants like Lee’s grandmother would have enjoyed freedom that my own grandparents would not have had; they would not have had to contend with the loss of their rights to speak, write, and publish in their native tongue. Knowing that my parents had had to leave their home—my mother calls it “our sweet potato island,” in a nod to Taiwan’s shape—just to comport themselves like real Taiwanese people made it hard to read Lee’s casual description of a shift that was so painful for them.
Reading the book, for me, was an exercise in contradicting emotions. In one paragraph, Lee acknowledges the fact that “the Nationalist state supplanted much of the complexity—linguistic, cultural, and intellectual—that had distinguished Taiwan from its neighbors.” I breathed a sigh of relief that she was finally addressing what my parents known as “The White Terror,” during which about 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, and between 3,000 to 4,000 executed, for real or perceived opposition to the KMT. But in just the phrase just before it, she writes that “Many [mainlanders] took shelter in Taiwan in the belief that they might one day be restored to their homeland,” couching the White Terror in a kind of odd nostalgia.
Coupled with this confusion over what I was reading was the fact that I was jealous of Lee—not just of her deep knowledge of Taiwan’s geologic history, her relationship to its mountains—but also of the fact that she had gone there in her adulthood, spending three whole months just getting to know the place. In comparison, my annual or bi-annual trips, two weeks at a time, paled.
When I go home to Taiwan, we stay in my maternal ancestral home, a cluster of buildings huddled around a central courtyard. I refer to it as The Compound. Until very recently, much of my time there was spent waiting for cousins to come and fetch me for meals or for day trips. In between, I idled away the hours in loose conversation with my elderly aunt and uncle, pinging between their quarters and ours, reading, or sometimes sitting with visitors who had come to see the family back home from America.
Life in The Compound was more robust when I was younger and more aunts and uncles lived there–in my parents’ Taiwan, women married and then went to live with their in-laws, and since my mother had four living brothers, there were always cousins to talk to. But eventually, everyone got older and moved their parents north to Taipei or south to Kaohsiung or Taitung, and I began to realize that vacationing in Taiwan was a little like being at an all-inclusive resort: things were brought in to you, and if you went out, it was under an escort—a kindly, familial escort, but still an escort.
Just a few visits ago, when I was in my mid-30s, I started running on the university grounds across the boulevard. I began making forays into town on foot for my morning coffee and to catch up on email. (The Compound was built in the 1800s and still does not have WiFi.) I started feeling comfortable enough to make my own plans, and my tiny tentative steps made me realize how little I knew the place, and that began to consume all of my thoughts. My parents, with whom I usually travel to Taiwan, seemed to finally recognize that perhaps I was old enough to make these trips by myself, to make a schedule of my own.
Lee, on the other hand, recounts her arrival in Taiwan from the perspective of a fully formed adult. She navigated streets and villages by herself; got to know the country on a level I still have not yet achieved. She made excursions on her bicycle all over town by herself, and, perhaps most galling for me, learned Mandarin well enough over her months in Taiwan that she wouldn’t get as easily lost as I do on a regular basis without a map and asking a lot of directions.
Lee’s Mandarin is good enough that she can get by no matter where she went in Taiwan, since Mandarin is still the official written language of Taiwan. My Taiwanese is only good with about 70% of the population, if census reports are to be believed, and I’m no good at reading beyond street signs and menus. Lee, despite the fact that she’s only been to Taiwan a handful of times, despite the land and homes and family I still consider a part of me, was beginning to feel like more of a Taiwanese person than I was.
I could not escape comparing the two of us: Her mother left Taiwan for Canada in 1974, the year I was born. Her grandfather, the fighter pilot for the Republic of China, was stationed for a time in Chia Yi, my paternal ancestral home. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t stop drawing parallels, filling out the bar graph in my head about who was more Taiwanese.
Even worse, I kept on coming back to the KMT thing, as I’d started labeling it in my head, and in doing so, unearthed an even uglier truth: By obsessing over whether or not Lee’s family was “truly” Taiwanese, I was being a straight-up nationalist, just like the ones I spent all of election season trying to get out of office during the United States election cycles in 2016 and 2020.
Flailing, consumed with way too many feelings, I turned to my parents, the only people in this equation who had first-hand knowledge of the historical events I was leaning on to establish my heritage. I spent a breathless half-hour on a long walk explaining it to my mother. She listened carefully, asking questions to place Lee’s family in the timeline of events, and then said, quietly, “You should thank her.”
“There are a lot of mainlanders who won’t even acknowledge that they live in Taiwan. They say they are Chinese and that they live in the Republic of China. Jessica isn’t doing that. She’s saying she’s Taiwanese. Her mother is saying she’s Taiwanese. So are her grandparents. That’s…” She shook her head. “That’s wonderful, to me.” She gripped my wrist. “You should thank her.”
Ever since that conversation, random memories have come back to me. The time our family went to a Cub Scout camping weekend with my brother, and two boys from our school walked by balancing a boombox on their shoulders. They walked back and forth, back and forth, in front of our family tent door, blasting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” I was maybe twelve, and, thinking it’d be what my parents wanted me to say, I stood with my hands on my hips and shouted, “I’m Taiwanese and I’m proud of it!”
My mother, though, was not proud. She was mortified at my shouting, presumably, although she was too angry to articulate it at the time, and I was confused. Was I meant to try and fit in, or was I meant to be proud of my heritage? Still later, in my teen years, when we’d argue over little things I was convinced my white friends got to do that I couldn’t, like dating or staying out late or even wearing cut-off shorts or spending a weekend with a friend, my parents would always echo the same tired refrain: You may think you can be white. But you’ll never be, and they’ll never accept you.
But then, I wanted to shout back, why did you move us here?
I never did say these words. Maybe I sensed it would have been too painful to watch them revisit the complicated calculus of leaving a place they loved for a place they’d never belong.
For years I tried to be white, to be American, to be Born in the U.S.A. I wanted so badly to prove my parents wrong. I wanted to prove folks could see me for just me and not for my ethnicity. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade growing out of that; owning up to my heritage, embracing it as my own. The irony of my strident reaction to Lee’s book isn’t lost on me: in my need to establish my own Taiwanese heritage, I was too eager to take it away from someone else.
A couple of years ago, my cousin’s wife, whom I consider a close friend, had laughed gaily when I said I was proudly Taiwanese, and then lovingly said she found me so American! I had been furious, but you don’t get to be furious with an elder. I was also deeply ashamed, but I wasn’t about to tell her that.
When I reminded my mother of this event, she laughed, open-mouthed, joyful, surer of me than I had ever been. “Yeah. I remember,” she said.“You told her, right? You told her that you’re as Taiwanese as they come, didn’t you?”
I hadn’t told her, at that point. But reading Lee’s book, I realized how deeply I needed to believe it.