The Asian and American tug of war

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I never imagined my first semester at UC Berkeley would be spent in Taiwan, 10,355 km away. But, I find myself here, soaking up a cultural community that is so close to me — yet feels so, so far away.

Growing up in the United States my whole life, it’s arguably all I really know. My parents primarily speak Mandarin to me, but I instinctively answer in English. Sometimes, I’m considered “too Asian,” and other times, I’m “too American.” I hesitate to taste test oyster omelets, despite the raving reviews my relatives give them. It’s a shame that I feel so detached from such an integral part of myself. But sometimes, it is just easier.

Moving across the world to rectify this admitted disconnect was a mental fight of excitement, fright and apprehension. To put it bluntly, my Mandarin was subpar at best. My listening and reading abilities passed for mild conversation, but nevertheless, my tongue twisted when it was my turn to speak. My knowledge of the Taipei Metro system, or really any public transit, was nonexistent — cars rule Southern California, where I’m from. Perhaps the only thing I can confidently say was that I knew to stand on the right side of escalators since the left was for people climbing up or down. But this wasn’t enough.

After a two-week quarantine that seemed like a blur, I descended from my 14th-floor apartment to ground zero. Oh, how magical it was to feel the earth and its pulse, pounding underneath the soles of my shoes. 

Like a kid in a candy store, I found myself enchanted with Taiwan. Armies of motorbikes intimidated pedestrians. Night markets flooded the evening scene. Persuasive restaurateurs pitched their menus to passersby even if all they did was walk past their shop. 

Yet, what struck me wasn’t the delightfully pungent smells of stinky tofu or the miniature 7-Eleven stores guarding every intersection. Nor was it the inexhaustible menu of bubble tea, or the staircases so narrow you had to turn sideways to move through them. Rather, it was Taiwan’s artistic scene, a culturally rich playground I never knew I was deprived of.

Window shopping at Xinyi Place also meant traversing through a diverse jungle of street artist concerts. Aimlessly strolling through Ximending led to the center of a competitive break dance battle. Tiptoeing over crowds to admire the Lungshan Temple festival was like sitting in the most visually appealing history lecture ever. 

Despite these baby steps I made, I still felt like an outsider. I savored the covers of trending songs by the talented Xinyi musicians, but I couldn’t sing along with the crowd. I marveled at the versatility of the Ximending performers, but I couldn’t precisely comprehend the difficulty of each movement. I studied the rituals of each parade member, but I couldn’t connect them to Taiwan’s history and determine their religious significance. As much as I wanted to, I simply couldn’t relate the same way a local could.

Eventually, I found elation in an unexpected place. Because of Taiwan’s impressive control over the COVID-19 pandemic, a cast of “The Phantom of the Opera” traveled to Taipei to perform a 22-show run of the musical. The auditorium, packed with thousands of audience members, felt illegal — but, taking advantage, I went. Although, I must mention the crawling guilt that came over me, knowing that my friends back home were going through one of the worst phases of the pandemic.

Phrases translated from English floated above the theater stage to accommodate the Mandarin-speaking spectators. The actors tweaked their lines to include Taiwanese jokes that invited sweet engagement. It was the first time I felt like I fully blended in without the aid of Google Translate or bilingual waiters. 

I can’t ignore that this epiphany struck only with the presence of a bit of America and a bit of Taiwan. A bit of English and Mandarin. A bit of me at home and me in Taiwan. What I craved when I came to Taiwan wasn’t a transformative alteration of my cultural identity. What I sought was to locate a missing half of me without losing the other. To locate positions where both parts of me could reside. This was found in art first.

Truthfully, I don’t know if the perfect relationship exists between being an all-American girl when I’m in California and an ethnically tuned-in individual when I’m in Taiwan. This tug of war question is likely to have no single right answer. It’s an identity intersection I’ll be forever exploring and refining, picking up fragments where both cultures collide in the encounters and emotions I stumble upon.

After all, my Mandarin has improved, but English is still my preference. I can navigate the foreign subway signs without losing myself, but I look forward to driving the Interstate 5 again, traffic and all. It’s not everything — not even close to it — but it’s a start. With these collected experiences in the pockets of my jeans from California to Taiwan and back, 10 or 10,000 miles away, maybe one day, I’ll finally sing along with the crowd. 

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected].