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Tug of War
September 13, 2000



Visiting Taiwan with my parents
For the first 18 years of my life, I can honestly say I never gave a second thought to my family heritage. I am a second generation Taiwanese-Chinese American who was born in New York and raised in suburban Southern California. I always assumed I was as all-American as the teenagers on Beverly Hills, 90210. Besides the fact that I spoke broken Mandarin Chinese and my parents had given me a Chinese middle name, there was nothing else to make me curious about how my family came to live in the United States of America. The far-off land of Taiwan, which my dad repeatedly spoke of with such passion, failed to arouse much interest in me.

But there was another reason why I never cared to learn about my family's roots. It's because those roots are deeply controversial and have caused great schisms within my family. To look at my family history is to also trace the bitter conflict that currently rages between Taiwan and China, a conflict that just may produce the first great war of the new century. Growing up, my father always made it a point to tell me and my brother we were NOT "ABCs", an acronym meaning "American-born Chinese." We were "ABTs"--American born Taiwanese. The truth is, I am both, and that is not an easy place to be.

My mother was born in the Sichuan province of China. She was the youngest of eight children, though two had died earlier. Her mother (my grandmother) was the only child of a concubine, a common practice in China at the time. In the family, her mother was the second of three wives. The custom in China was to treat the first wife very well and all the other wives like slaves. Another unfortunate practice was foot binding. By the time a girl turned three years old, all her toes but the first were broken, and her feet were bound tightly with cloth strips to keep her feet from growing larger than 4 inches. This was done because tiny feet were considered feminine and beautiful.

My grandmother's feet were only partially bound, but she would never be able to feel the pleasure of kicking a soccer ball or running through a field. However, my grandmother managed to circumvent other traditions. Most women of her time could not read, but she managed to graduate from high school and proudly thought of herself as educated. She was also able to avoid an arranged marriage and choose her own husband.

My grandfather came from a middle-class family that owned some land. When the Japanese invaded China during World War II, he enrolled as a soldier to defend his country. After the war ended, my mother's family moved to Beijing. The government at the time was ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT), which was engaged in a civil war with the Communists. As the Communist forces grew stronger, my grandfather knew it was only a matter of time before the entire family in all likelihood would be killed if they did not escape soon. In 1949, they fled, along with many other KMT people, to Taiwan, an island 90 miles off the coast of China. Most of them believed that one day, they would overthrow the Communists and regain control of China. But for now, they would set up shop on Taiwan.

When the news media talks about Taiwan today, they usually talk about the conflict as one between the KMT and the Communists. But Taiwan's history does not start from 1949, when my mother's family and the KMT army took over Taiwan. For centuries, people had been living in Taiwan. Some, like my father's family, came over by boat from China in the 1600s. Indigenous tribes descended from Malaysia go back even further. The KMT brutally slaughtered many native Taiwanese people when they first arrived on the island. About 10,000-20,000 people are thought to have died. Colonialism certainly produces strange effects. Because my father's mother grew up during the time the Japanese controlled Taiwan, she mostly speaks Japanese and Taiwanese. My mother, as a Mainland Chinese, did not teach me Taiwanese as a child, so I can only understand Mandarin Chinese. It has always been very sad for me to not be able to communicate with my grandmother.

Both my parents immigrated to the US in the late '60s. They came to the United States seeking freedom and opportunity. For my mom, this meant a scholarship to Texas Women's University. For my father, it was being able to escape the KMT's dictatorship and practice medicine in a country that tolerated freedom of speech. Marrying my mother, someone from the "enemy's side," would have been a huge deal had they been in Taiwan, but in America, where everyone is given a clean slate, it was not.

The first time I would see the land of my ancestors would be in December 1998. It was an experience that changed me forever and made me hungry to learn more about my historical roots. I went to Taiwan as part of a tour for second generation Taiwanese kids -- kids like me who knew only about MTV and Barbie and little about our parents and where they came from and their sacrifices in immigrating to America. We watched a PBS documentary called "Tug of War," which documented the plight of the Taiwanese people for the last half century.

A familiar face flashed on the screen. He spoke movingly about his time in prison and the political murders of his twin daughters and mother. I was shocked to see that the man was a friend of my father's and someone I had grown up with in Southern California. Seeing him on the movie screen and listening to the narrator talk about how those terrible events galvanized Taiwan's democracy movement, it dawned on me that I had lived in total ignorance of the history that was being made in my own living room.

When Chen Shui Bien won the second-ever presidential election in Taiwan in March of 2000, my father cried as he saw his lifelong goal come to fruition. After 50 years of KMT rule, the opposition party had won. For my mother's family, it was a bittersweet moment. Their loyalties lie with China, and their dream is to see Taiwan and China united again.

Looking at the accomplishments of the Taiwanese people and their love for their country has inspired me to think about what I can contribute to my own country as I embark on this journey with The Odyssey. I know that I will see things that disturb me deeply, that I will see injustice that will anger me, but I will think of my parents and their friends, and of their struggle and know that hope and optimism are the strongest allies one has.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


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