As a Third Generation Asian-American, Going ‘Home’ Is More Complicated Than I Thought

i was expecting an epiphany. i didn't get one

purewow associate editor marissa wu in taipei, taiwan

One day, in the throes of a New York City summer, my mother called:

We’re going to Taipei this Christmas, she said.

My stomach dropped at the sudden change in plans, followed by a cocktail of emotions: anxiety, dread and irritation. I had been looking forward to the Grand Canyon trip we had been planning—a bucket-list experience for any American family. Plus, I had just moved to NYC the year prior and was still finding my footing; it had been a long, lonely year trying to make friends and figure out where I belonged in a town packed with personalities. An international trip would be draining (#introvertlife) and ultimately mean putting my NYC efforts on the backburner. But what rattled me the most was that this meant I would finally have to step foot in what my friends and I jokingly called the “Motherland.”

Growing up, my many children-of-immigrants friends often spent their school holidays in their designated motherland, often China or India. But I was somewhat of an anomaly. Though we had family in Asia, too, we never went, and that was fine with me. As a third-generation Asian-American, I have always felt more American than Asian. Which, of course, looking at me, is a problem, because I very much look Chinese. But nothing else makes me “Asian” in the sense of the word. I obstinately refused to go to Chinese school on Saturday mornings growing up and am illiterate in all Chinese dialects. If it weren’t for my grandparents, we wouldn’t have celebrated any holidays. And it’s hard for me to fully express how I feel in Chinatown when people come up to me chattering away, my only reply being a blank face and a very American, “I’m sorry?” Maybe it’s a feeling of shame, embarrassment, regret or inadequacy...or all four.

And now, thanks to one plane ticket and a nagging sense of filial piety, I would have to confront this part of myself that I’ve always tried to avoid. And yet, part of me thought that maybe, just maybe, I would touch the ground in Taipei and everything would make sense. There would be an epiphany complete with angels singing in the sky. I would finally understand who I was...what I was. I would finally be “home.”

quotation mark

Roots are an anchor. But for growth, they need to be firmly entrenched in one place. How could I be rooted to a place to which I had not been in exactly two decades?

Five months later, we landed in Taipei, ravenous. Too impatient to wander far, my siblings, cousins and I scrambled across the street from the hotel to 7-11. (IYKYK.) I wandered the aisles, seeing many familiar American imports, like Häagen-Dazs, Oreos and Frito-Lay chips, plus the familiar Asian grocery store staples: every possible flavor of instant noodles, aloe juice, dainty cakes and tea eggs. Most of the comestibles, however, were unrecognizable beyond the pictures on their packaging. At that moment, under the florescent lights, struggling with a packet of biscuits, it truly hit me: I couldn’t even read the labels. I’d been in Taipei for less than five hours and, as an introvert with a food allergy, I was already having an identity crisis. Maybe a 7-11 wasn’t where I was going to find where I belonged.

But I’d definitely feel at “home” experiencing the cultural sites, right? Over the course of a week I climbed the steep stone steps in the foggy mountainside village of Jiufen and launched a paper lantern on the railroad tracks in Shifen. I stuffed myself with soup dumplings and dan dan noodles at the original Din Tai Fung; I bounded across rocky formations in the seaside town of Yehliu; I held my breath through the wafts of stinky tofu at the night markets; I made haphazardly-shaped pineapple cakes and I peered from the observation deck of Taipei 101. But no. After a week of immersion and incredible sightseeing, I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. No awakening, no angels, no miracle that would suddenly make me feel I was going to find my roots in Taipei. At the end of seven days in Taiwan, I didn’t feel more Taiwanese. Instead, I was longing to return to New York, to my own bed, apartment and friends. I was longing to return home to nurture the roots I had just planted.

Roots are an anchor. But for growth, they need to be firmly entrenched in one place. How could I be rooted to a place I had not been in exactly two decades? There was no groundwork for an identity in Taipei. After the week was over, I think my sister said it best.

“I feel super Asian in America, but I feel super American in Asia.”

That’s my fate. To belong everywhere and nowhere, trying to be rooted in one place despite others’ attempts to re-pot me where they think I belong. And maybe I’ll never figure out where this elusive home is...but, for now, I’ll keep trying to bloom where I’m planted, here in New York.

MW 10

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