Discovery identity

Story by Kimberly Hsueh
Senior Staff Writer

It took 15 years to finally feel Taiwanese. As a LA born Taiwanese-American, I struggled with boredom at Chinese school and only visited Taiwan once every one or two years. To me, being an American meant that I didn’t have to embrace my Taiwanese identity, as English was the only language that mattered in American culture. 

Mandarin is a complex language; a change in the five different tones of the language can drastically prompt a character’s transformation into another, from a verb or noun to an adjective or adverb. I always muddled my attempts to speak Mandarin while visiting family in Taiwan: I thought I told them I wanted to ride a motorcycle, or “mó tūo chē.” What I actually said was “rub a watchman’s rattle car.”

From then, my usage of Mandarin slowly diminished as the confidence in my sentences, grammatical structures, and tones crumbled away. As I grew older, I realized the consequences of my lack of effort.

I felt motionless as the rest of my family was busy at work. 

Being Taiwanese immigrants, my parents came to the United States to turn my father’s education into a chiropractic clinic. They brought little more than their hands, and the years had left them rough and scraped. My mother’s hands were dry from bleach and burnt from cooking oils; she learned how to cook Taiwanese cuisine from thrifted recipe books and prepared us meals even after she’d spent the day cleaning the clinic. My father’s hands were steady and confident, though at night they shook with exhaustion. 

In order to maintain the business, my sister and I bustled about the office, registering and collecting payments from our patients, many of whom were Mandarin speakers. However, mistaking one word for another, I was clumsy and unable to translate Chinese to English. I was eventually demoted to the sink, where I scrubbed the chiropractic instruments. My parents saw my discomfort interacting with the patients. They wanted the best for me. 

And I wanted to be better than I had been. Instead of hiding behind a wall of fears, insecurities, and doubts, I needed to find my voice in order to resolve the discord between American and Taiwanese culture. I would have to push beyond my limits; so after researching events and organizations that engaged with the Taiwanese community, I found the one farthest from the boundaries of my comfort zone — the Formosa Association of Taiwanese American Ambassadors. 

But I still needed to do one more thing. I signed up for AP Chinese, and I filled the space between me and my parents with newly learned Chinese phrases. As I reached closer to them, I wanted to connect more with my identity as Taiwanese-American. So I joined Taiwanese-American organizations to build my knowledge of Taiwan’s history, culture, and language. I became the next Ambassador, representing Taiwan in America, and I built my own knowledge of Taiwan’s history, culture, and language, even as I taught it to others. 

Taiwan’s national flower is a plum blossom, and sometimes, I feel like a maturing plum blossom myself. I no longer have to hide behind white petals; I could finally bloom with my culture. I am a colorful mix of Taiwanese and American, and I have risen to set my own expectations and standards for myself. My parents thought that the best they could offer me was education in America, but the greatest thing they gave was themselves. Now, I want to do the same for them. 

Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and reflection, and high school is a suitable place to start. But, finding correspondence in cultural differences, generation gaps, or other challenges you face in discovering your identity will only unravel if you take a step forward to make a difference.

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