As a Taiwanese American woman who grew up in Los Angeles, I felt a little bit of a disconnect between my world and that of my parents, who worked hard to bridge the gap. I was fortunate to have experienced some things that made me “feel” Asian, such as shopping at 99 Ranch or watching Taiwanese TV channels. But the Asian American experience lies on a huge spectrum, and I sometimes felt that I wasn’t Taiwanese “all the way”, especially as our trips to Taiwan became less and less frequent. Last summer, I went to Taiwan to teach English in a rural part of Taiwan called Yunlin County. There, I learned so much and felt so much more deeply connected, as the local volunteers accepted me with open arms and shared their home and world with me. I am forever grateful for the incredible experiences and people I encountered. I came home feeling touched not just by connecting with my parents’ home and world, but also by the recognition of the many similarities shared across the human experience that transcend the cultural gaps.
I was born and raised in SoCal in a neighborhood that was relatively diverse. Far away from my parents’ native soil of Taiwan, my parents served as my primary source of connection to my Asian American identity. We spoke Mandarin and wore slippers at home, celebrated Lunar New Year with all the traditional foods, called our relatives in Taiwan using a telephone card my dad bought from a small shop in the 626 area, watched Taiwanese soap operas, shopped at 99 Ranch on the weekends. But these are only the tip of the iceberg.
My parents had come from a world and a life that was foreign to me, but as I child, I looked to them as people who had “gotten used to” life in the U.S. and who seemed to just “know” what they were doing, much as many children look to their parents. I had little understanding of the disconnect between how I saw my parents and their actual lived experience before dropping everything they knew and moving to the U.S. As I grew older, this disconnect deepened as I learned more and more about their childhood. This information would come in tidbits: “The schooling here is so different; you should be grateful!”, “When I went to school, we had to stay late and go to cram school”, “The teacher would shame us in front of the class if we did poorly”, “We had to walk/bike home from school ourselves”, etc. Often, they came in the form of mild scolds–something many first-generation children seemed to relate to—but the reality is that they were also a reflection on the changes they had to endure. It was hard to connect the dots and relate to and understand their experience when it felt like my own life couldn’t be any further from theirs.
Last summer, I was offered the opportunity to go abroad for two months to teach English in a rural part of Taiwan. It gave me time to explore life in Taiwan as a little more than just a tourist, unlike the previous times I had traveled to my parents’ home country. As a teacher in a junior high school, I experienced school life and little bits of daily life that opened my eyes to a little more of my parents’ lives before they had left it all behind for a new life—I had the chance to experience some of the things I had only heard stories about or in brief comments made in passing.
At first, there were many differences that took some getting used to. The blistering summer heat and humidity, for one: I became accustomed to the feeling of “always wanting to take another shower” my parents always reminisced less fondly on. The toilets: the toilets at the school were on the ground—many of the older toilets were these kinds of toilets you had to squat over—and the first couple days were a struggle to become comfortable with using them without the deep paranoia of accidentally getting something on your pants or losing your balance and falling in altogether. There was also the naptime in the middle of the day after lunch: naptime?! In my schooling in the U.S., naptime was more of an unintended byproduct of the post-lunch slump that occasionally cut into class time! The mini-society: students would come in early before I arrived to teach them, to carry out their delegated jobs of cleaning up around the classroom before class began. And the smells! The smells of street food and incense from the abundant beautiful temples and the hustle and bustle of the night markets that were absent on the streets where I grew up: I finally grasped some semblance of the “emptiness” my mother felt when she first moved. I also noticed some of the things that were baked into my parents’ lifestyles, even as they raised us in the U.S.—mild superstitions, such as not whistling at night (because that apparently calls the ghosts) and eating every last bite of food on your plate because wasting it was a sign of disrespect to those who provided it.
But as time went by and I gained acceptance from the students and Taiwanese volunteers I worked with, they opened their world up to me. I began to recognize that amid all these differences, lay so many similarities. Student mischief, practical jokes, looking up at the clock to see when lunchtime is, having a (maybe not so) secret crush in class, playing games together with your friends during breaktime (“Truth or Dare” appears to have transcended cultural bounds), hanging out with your friends after school to grab something to eat together…it was comforting to see that I could connect to my parents’ childhood, which, on the surface, had seemed so different.
I was touched to be accepted into a world that I always felt I had looked at through a crystal ball but was just out of reach. Touched by the warm welcome the students and volunteers extended to someone who they knew came from a different world but who also, deep down, shared so much in common. And touched by the realization of the many ways my parents tried to connect their own lives with the new life they found here to create something that would make sense to me as they raised me as an Asian American woman in the U.S. I was humbled to be able to walk, even if just for a little snippet, in my parents’ shoes in the world they knew before they left it behind. And to find that, at the end of the day, we have common ground to stand on and connect, and perhaps, this is something that I didn’t realize I was searching for – the common threads of being human that underlie the differences between my world and that of my parents.
Writer’s Biography: Alyssa Chiang co-founded Lotus Magazine with her best friend from college as a platform for Asian American stories to be told and voices to be heard. Besides working hard on Lotus Magazine’s bimonthly releases and meeting other amazing folks in the AAPI empowerment space, she is working on her Ph.D. in bioengineering at UC San Diego and in her free time loves to dance, exercise, garden, and cook!
Lotus Magazine Biography: Lotus Magazine serves as a platform for self-identifying Asian American womxn to share their stories/perspectives with each other and the world around us. We hope that it will lead us to be able to empower and inspire one another, and to create a sense of community within ourselves and as a part of a greater whole. Our goal is to be proactive in bringing forth stories that are often overlooked or forgotten, and to be as inclusive as possible in our readership.