My mother, my culture: A personal essay

Taiwanese culture
Katherine Qiu/Staff

She sits on the couch, eyes on the TV, family dog at her feet, no idea of the role she plays in my life.

My mother is my culture.

Tracing the lines on her face and on her palms takes me all the way back to Taiwan. Without her hand on my back and her smile by my side, I would not know how to cross the great gulf between now and before, between American and Taiwanese.

She plays Chinese music when she picks me up from elementary school. I grow up singing songs about turning into a bird and flying, about autumn leaves returning to their roots, about writing our own fairytale endings. I know these songs by heart long before I know what they mean. I think to myself now that this is what culture is.

As a child, I fall asleep on her lap, the rapid Mandarin of the news host on Channel 26 washing over me. I sneak up beside her to listen when she’s on the phone with her sisters, switching between the melodious Chinese that I know and the fascinating Taiwanese that stirs little recognition in my mind. When she makes her flashcards to teach her Chinese class on the weekends, I watch her sweeping, perfect strokes build up characters that I hate to learn but love to understand. I scribble through my own Chinese homework minutes before class but sit by my mother watching hours of Chinese dramas and asking her to translate.

My mother does not cook much, but in her repertoire are flavors uniquely Chinese. I grow up not realizing the difference until my days are filled with scrambled eggs made from a carton and my tongue recoils at the taste, missing the savory tang of soy sauce and pepper in my breakfast. Stepping out of my home is much like this, a constant unrealized recoiling as these contrasts reveal the extent to which my culture has permeated my childhood.

I take these pieces of my culture for granted. Only in retrospect do they gleam and reflect like an incomplete mirror, showing me a space in a community that I have claim to. Yet it feels as though I occupy it only partially. Only peripherally. I am a visitor to my mother’s hometown. My Chinese is warped and unconfident, my reading skills dismal at best. I have Google Translate bookmarked. I know only cursory things about my mother’s life before me, in Taipei, and with these holes in my cultural background, I wonder what makes me Taiwanese. What keeps me tethered to my culture now that I am out of my mother’s house and speaking Mandarin to no one but her? What parts of my culture am I leaving behind that I will not discover until I lose them? Am I Taiwanese “enough”?

I take these pieces of my culture for granted. Only in retrospect do they gleam and reflect like an incomplete mirror, showing me a space in a community that I have claim to

Amid these anxieties about my own background, my mother and I have traded our nights watching dramas for afternoons discussing culture. We talk about it broadly, the culture of respect and filial devotion in Taiwan and the culture of independence and individuality in the United States. I take a cultural psychology course over the summer and learn the ways I am influenced by both parts of my Taiwanese American identity. I walk backward into my memory, pinpointing and discerning, and I realize my mother is as much my connection to culture as my disconnect from it. My idea of culture, broad as the sky, a blanket over a community of people, tunnels into a single, individual experience of it.

In my endeavors to become a writer, my mother has been my biggest advocate. From the recommendations of a third grade summer teacher, she enrolled me in a writing class and fell in love with my happiness. She asks only for me to do what I love. She tells me not to settle or cut my aspirations short for others, for marriage, for the expectations of society. She tells me not to overwork myself for a 4.0 and not to miss out on life because of school. When I talk to her about depression, when I ask her to be considerate of my self-worth and self-image, she listens. As much as she teaches me about the beauty of my culture, she guides me away from its pitfalls. The things she wishes she’d known, the mistakes she had made following the expectations of the only culture she knew.

In looking back at the ways I have been brought up by my mother, I find an answer to whether I am Taiwanese “enough.” I know I am neither completely Taiwanese nor completely American by virtue of the mixed environment I grew up in — a community of Asian Americans with our own shared culture of experiences. But the legacies that have come down across generations to reach me are Taiwanese. I have lived my Taiwanese culture as much as my American one, in ways that echo through my life choices. I am Taiwanese in an unquantifiable manner, a manner so intertwined with who I am today that it is innately “enough.”

And, in watching my mother navigate the tensions between what cultural legacies to carry on and what past pains she hopes future generations will live differently, I have learned more about the cultures in which I exist and have become more aware of the paths I have beyond their paved norms. I know now that my mother is so much more than my bridge to culture. She is my symbol of choice beyond it.

Contact Sean Tseng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @STWeekender24.