An American in Taiwan: being a stranger in the motherland

Taipei 101, night and day. Created in Adobe Illustrator.

My brother and I grew up in America, but our Taiwanese-born parents still refer to our family trips to Taiwan as “returning to the motherland.” Our relatives there welcome us back with open arms every time. Just last month, we flew back to Taipei to attend my cousin’s wedding.

Being Taiwanese American in Taiwan always feels odd. I look Taiwanese, and people address me in Mandarin. But people can tell that I dress and walk and talk like an American. Even the soul-sucking mosquitoes manage to zero in on my fragrant American blood. I find it amusing that white tourists stick out here more than I do. I fantasize about going up to one of them and saying “Hello! Let’s speak English!” Instead, I watch them struggle to speak with street vendors. I did manage to strike up an amusing conversation with an American Mormon who was on his mission.

I have a solid grasp of conversational Mandarin, but I’m still missing a huge part of Taiwanese culture by not knowing the strange local dialect. Since my brother and I don’t understand it, my parents use it as their secret code at home. I’ve decoded bits of phrases as time went by. Taiwanese people casually interact with one another through this carefree language, which is shaped by vulgar slang and colorful descriptions. Hearing it on the streets feels familiar, comfortable, and more intimate than formal Mandarin.

Besides the language, Taiwan feels like home in other ways. Shopping here is convenient, because the clothing is made to flatter small Asian women like me. Most American stores sell outfits with gangly long sleeves and gaping necklines that don’t make sense on my body. I envy my oldest cousin, who’s around my size and lives in Taiwan. Subway trains and buses here are also designed for short people. Back home on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), I can barely reach the handles. On the Taipei metro, I don’t have to tiptoe.

Visiting Taipei helps me understand my parents a little better. They navigated this hectic city as children before they met in America, and their stories are etched into the buildings and streets. And if I start feeling mature and worldly, I get a good wake up call when we pay visits to our relatives. Despite the fact that I’m a “legal adult,” I’m still like a small child in Taiwan. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles have all seen me grow up, and their life experiences humble me.

It’s fun to imagine what my life would be like if my parents raised me in Taiwan. Would I have succeeded in the grueling school system? How good would my English be? Would I feel claustrophobic on such a tiny island? Alas, I don’t want to know.

Taiwan has never been my permanent home, but it feels like my native country. And yet I embrace the feeling of being a foreigner there. Perhaps where I truly belong is on the airplane: on the way there, on the way back, always going somewhere.


2 thoughts on “An American in Taiwan: being a stranger in the motherland

  1. So well-articulated! This was really touching. And I’m so glad to hear we’re not the only ones – “Since my brother and I don’t understand it, my parents use it as their secret code at home.” this is how it works in my family too!


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