The right to be seen

Cal in Color

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Once in a while, there comes a moment so beautiful that I tell myself to stop in my tracks and look at the world around me so I can commit it to memory: every scent, every breath of air, every bit of color I can see.

Usually, during my visits to Taiwan, I encounter this feeling, this flood of pure gratefulness and connection to the world around me. I felt it when I walked through the rain-soaked streets of Jiufen, red lanterns dangling along the elegantly curved dark rooftops while the smells of warm mochi and savory soup lingered in the air. I felt it when I sat for breakfast in a small, dilapidated shop in Hualien, a steaming brown sugar mantou in my hands. I felt it when I watched the sunrise in Alishan, bathing everything around me in light and warmth. 

Yet, I still think that the most memorable moment among these clips of my life is the first time that I went to a night market. To me, that market seemed to buzz with an energy and vivacity found nowhere else. Stalls adorned with colorful, lit-up signs stretched on in seemingly infinite lines, selling delicious snacks and drinks. In the background, the babbling of Mandarin and Taiwanese blended in with the pounding of bright, upbeat rhythms from various speakers. As I walked through the dizzying world of lights under the dark sky, I was filled with a joy and sense of belonging. This was my beautiful culture.

Taiwan always reminds me where I come from, of a story that has been a part of me even before I knew it. When I go back, I feel like I am being welcomed home: salespeople call me “mei mei”
(little sister) while walking through a department store, and my grandparents’ friends smile and tell me how much I’ve grown while they warmly pat my face. Even immersing myself in the Mandarin language feels intimate because it’s the language I only hear at home. 

It’s always been a somewhat sad experience when I fly back home from Taiwan. Even coming from the hustle and bustle of the Taiwanese airport to the American airport feels like a complete change of pace, a shift of worlds within myself. I think that the most striking realization when I come home is remembering that my life in America often feels more like a life defending my culture rather than experiencing new moments and connections I have with my Taiwanese side.

Here in the American world, I am an outsider just because of my skin color. Often, after easing into conversation with an American, I’ve suddenly been asked where I’m “really” from. Sometimes, they begin guessing what kind of Asian I am, like it’s a game, or they immediately assume that I’m Chinese just because I’m Asian. “I’m Taiwanese,” I will feel inclined to respond, “not Chinese.” Still, the world here is small, and people here are often confused by my answer or quickly try to correct me by saying it’s the same thing.

Is it because of my American accent and my American mannerisms that they feel comfortable enough to ask me these questions? Is it because they think I won’t be offended once they’ve decided I have assimilated to life here? 

I hate when I encounter these conversations. These people’s questions imply that I am not really from here, that I am not truly an American yet. How juxtaposed this world is next to the Taiwanese one, where I am accepted and treated as family even when I have not even lived there. 

After moments like these, I usually feel a sense of nostalgia for life in Taiwan even though I have only visited it. I miss that sensation of pure appreciation for the world around me. I miss that childlike joy of being in the night market, surrounded by colors and excitement and a world all my own. I miss that immediate sense of belonging without having to address the microaggressions and underlying discomfort of being a minority: to be seen as someone who belongs.

I know it’s naive to believe that the United States can be like the comforting place that Taiwan is for me. Even though this country advocates for a “mixing pot” of races, it still struggles to address the years of inequity and privilege that have formed the inherent racial hierarchy ingrained in almost every aspect of our life here. There are still miles to go before everyone can have moments in which they can marvel at our country and feel like they are a part of it — myself included. 

Yes, America is a different place than Taiwan — it’s a country where I must fight to be seen and included. Still, I don’t mind defending my culture, even if that makes me different from those with the privilege of not having to do so. I, too, have a right to be seen as a person who belongs here.

Bella Chang writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.