I think part of what is making schoolwork so difficult is the post-conference lethargy associated with nostalgic longing—which of course, is exacerbated by daily monotony. It’s the trough after the peak, the low levels of endorphins after too much stimulation—the emotional flatline. So here I am blogging, reminiscing about a short-lived high jammed into the middle of a tough [albeit last] semester.
April 2, HoChie Tsai and I drove down to LA for the ITASA West Coast Conference held at USC. Because of MMIAF’s slight relevance to Asian American issues (think cultural gaps, identity issues, communication barriers), I was invited to hold a workshop for a college crowd, despite being a college student myself. Fast-forward two weeks, and on April 17, I flew to Champaign, Illinois by myself for the ITASA Midwest Conference held at UIUC.
To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. I always assumed cultural clubs consisted of first and 1.5 generation students—the “fobs” on campus with distinctive hairstyles and fashion tastes who always cluster together in Asian food courts and speak loud but authentic “dao di” Mandarin at 200 wpm. You know, the loaded parachute kids with parents back in Taiwan who send them wads of cash to rice up their M3s and buy Gucci messenger bags to make up for not being there. No? Okay, the silent killer nerds who never speak up in class but still set the curves in multivariable calculus and organic chemistry—because they’re all expected to be engineers and doctors one day (once they retire the plastic black-rimmed glasses and Chucks, I assume). (P.S. I secretly love you guys.) Of course, my preconceived notions of ITASA were completely wrong.
There are simply too many Asians here in the Bay to require minorities to group together in order to gain any sort of political and social mobility or recognition. I never really understood why so many Asian clubs existed on campus when Berkeley was 45% Asian to begin with. I mean, take the first four books of the New Testament and mix and match with Kim, Lee, Huang, and Chen—and you get my high school and college. How many John Kim’s and Matt Chen’s do you know? Let’s not even compare on Facebook.
My point is, the Bay Area is such a comfortable and sheltered safe haven for Asian Americans that discrimination, isolation, and underrepresentation are practically nonexistent. Never once have I been a victim of any racial slurs or attacks. Racial stereotyping? I guess I’m automatically smart, I play the piano, and my mom wears a plastic Darth Vader mask in public…awesome!
At ITASA Midwest, I met another Serena who told me she had friends back in Tennessee who were “completely unwilling to get in touch with their Asian roots” and just “denied being Asian”. As I was telling my SoCal friend, Jeff, about the differences between the two conferences, he boldly commented, “I think SoCal’s the least assimilated while NorCal’s a little more assimilated and the Midwest and East Coast are just white-washed.” I understand that I’m treading in dangerous waters for blogging about sensitive matters, but I’ve been dying to talk about identity ever since the West Coast Conference got my neurons firing two weeks ago—and so I will, as politically-incorrectly as I dare.
At USC, Award-winning Journalist, Helen Zia, pointed out that two-thirds of the Asian community is foreign-born, which makes us an immigrant population. As a result, those like me who are American by birth are still sometimes mistaken as “foreigners”. It’s true, my ancestors never went through the whole grassroots experience. We skipped all the American strife dealing with the wars, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl—yet here we are enrolled in the nation’s top universities, living in the best suburbs, and working at elite Silicon Valley firms. (As a coincidence, my aunt is an alumnus of UIUC while my uncle is an alum of USC.) If I were White, I’d hate me too. “It’s so unfair! Go back to where you came from!” I’m so sorry, I truly am, but God dealt his cards, my mom gave birth to me here, and I’ve never lived anywhere else in my life.
During the second wave of immigration in the 80s, only the academic elites were allowed to come here to pursue further education with companies lined up and providing them with work visas. As a Silicon Valley native, I have many Taiwanese-American and Indian-American friends whose parents fall under this category. Then of course, there are other Asians who came here to escape from the Korean War, Vietnam War, Chinese Communist dictatorship…and started an entrepreneurial phenomenon with family-owned businesses, especially in SoCal. One day, there will be a tipping point when the Asian population will become much like the Latino population—US born and “authentically American”. Until then, there will still be dangerous Asian soccer moms driving around with arm sheaths and fashion-backward dads playing tennis and ping pong with socks hiked up to the knees. Until then, there will still be angry Craigslisters and honest Google searches.
“Creative Identity of Ambiguity”
As USC ITASA’s theme suggests, my identity as a Taiwanese-American is ambiguous, because Taiwan itself is ambiguous. I remember my sophomore year roommate, Amy, once asked, “When people ask you what you are, do you say Chinese or Taiwanese?” I usually say Taiwanese. She said she’d just tell people she was Chinese for fear of being labeled as “too political” or having to explain what is and where’s Taiwan. My other roommate, Vicki, once told me that at her high school in SoCal, the Chinese and Taiwanese made huge efforts to differentiate themselves and always argued about who had better cuisine and whether or not Taiwan was part of China. That never happened at my high school, so I never really thought much about my identity. I was never placed in a position where I had to either defend myself or be forced to “assimilate”.
It wasn’t until freshman year of college that I learned about the state of Taiwan and its opposing parties in my Asian Studies course. In a nutshell, Taiwan is a de facto independent nation with a somewhat flawed democracy. It is also a colorful crossroads of many cultures, which makes it difficult for me to define exactly what it means to be Taiwanese. In the end, it doesn’t really matter that my best friends’ parents originated from Taipei and support the Kuomingtang while my grandparents are die-hard Democratic Progressives in the South who constantly worry about China launching their missiles across the strait one day.
The purpose of searching for an identity is not to “get political” and point out our differences but to be united despite our differences in order to strengthen the Taiwanese American community and relate back to the larger Asian American community in general. This all sounds ridiculous only because I’m from the Bay where “White Flight” is an actual issue, but this sense of community empowerment is quite apparent in the Midwest, where the TAFers are like extended family with noble aspirations to give back to the community one day. To quote Award-winning Author, Jeff Chang, “We are fighting to preserve the gains we’ve had these past few years” and in order to do so, we must evaluate how we understand our work in the entire context of racial justice.
Spoken word artist, John Kim, mentioned during dinner that he felt as if we’ve ran out of things to fight for—and to some degree, I agree with him and feel like I’m just making petty arguments. We’re quite comfortable where we are now, we excel in school, we’re given all opportunities—why am I even blogging?
To me, I don’t care so much as to meddle in politics, but I do want to conquer ignorance and embrace my identity. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never heard of the names Wen-ho Lee or Vincent Chin prior to Helen Zia’s keynote. I never even knew what had happened in Taiwan on February 28, 1947—until HoChie told me on the car ride down to LA. What’s interesting is that my parents seem ambivalent about our history and have kept me at bay about these issues—perhaps because it is a historical wound they wish to forget and not revisit. As a result, this is the first time I’ve been exposed to my cultural history, and so here I am, excavating each puzzle piece and putting everything together—better late than never.
Only ten days ago, my mom asked me what I had learned at the West Coast Conference and sent me this gloriously fobby Engrish email:
I knew about my great-grandpa’s statue at the park near my grandparent’s home, but I had never asked for details. As the eldest child of my great-grandfather’s eldest grandson, I should know better than to be an uneducated, ignorant douche.
I met Will Tiao, Producer of Formosa Betrayed, at the West Coast Conference, but I didn’t see clips of the film until the Midwest Conference. Surprisingly, those few scenes alone were powerful enough to evoke a few tears, despite my obvious disconnect with my own history. To quote Jon Lee, Associate Producer, “This is the story of our grandparents, funded by our parents, which needs our publicity.” The film is about more than just “Dawson going to Taiwan”—it’s inspired by actual events and aspires to tell a bit of a story that most of the world knows nothing about.
To be educated is step one. To be aware is step 1.5. According to Zia, what happened to Vincent Chin happened at the beginning of great economic stress. The eventual dominance of China as a global economic power is going to result in a lot of finger pointing and scapegoating for those who just look Chinese. I’m from the Bay, I didn’t really believe her…until I confirmed with others.
In an Asian American community—specifically a Taiwanese American community, “Six Degrees of Separation” is more like two or three. Mutual friends on Facebook and Twitter from all over the US can attest to this fact. Victor Lee, one of USC’s conference directors, went to my high school. Jesse Feng, one of the photographers at the West Coast conference went to my high school. Andy Yan, one of the brothers at AKPsi who hooked us up with the afterparty, went to my high school. At UIUC, I met one of last year’s Northwestern Midwest conference directors, who said his Co-Director, Kim Chiang, went to my high school. The Stephanie Chuang featured on TaiwaneseAmerican.org went to my high school as did the Allen Yeh featured on TurtlistMedia.com. Now you have no doubts about Fremont being “too Asian”. Interestingly enough, within UIUC’s speaker group, five of us were from Berkeley/SF. What’s even more interesting is that all of these Taiwanese American organizations sprung from the Midwest, yet here we are (individual Westcoasters who have never been to TAF camp) getting our feet wet in ITASA in an effort to network with others and discover more about ourselves.
As I see it, the Asian American communities have grown tremendously these past few years, and we are doing okay gaining political mobility and recognition (although we are generally still lumped together under the ultra-vague umbrella term, “Asian”). To many, especially those in California, these associations seem almost superfluous. However, for the first time, our generation has had the luxury to choose our own careers, so there is a recent explosion of Asian American artists, particularly indie artists. Asian American actors, producers, singer/songwriters are still underrepresented in the media, so these tight-knit communities become integral support groups with invaluable networks.
Because of ITASA, I’ve met some amazing people ranging from Spoken Word Artist, Kelly Tsai, to Singer/Songwriter, Alice Tong, to Actor and Writer, Jimmy Tsai. I’ve also met quite a few film and journalism majors, so I have a resurgent confidence in myself to further pursue the arts (which is quite difficult when all of my friends here are current or intended Silicon Valley engineers). While most of my friends will still become doctors, engineers, lawyers, and business owners, it’s comforting to know that at least I have an artistic community to relate to and grow with. As soon as I tweeted about getting published by Penguin Group, Wong Fu’s Phil texted me while others like writer Jeff Chang congratulated me on Twitter. As an aspiring “starving” visual artist/designer/photographer/writer, what more can I ask for?
I’m graduating in less than a month, with a degree in the most improbable field right now—and for the first time, I feel okay. I’m going to be okay, we’re all going to be okay…together.