A Letter to My Future Children: Reflections on the Chinese Diaspora

My name is Hsin-Mu “Morris” Chen, and I am a Taiwanese international student studying in the US. I have not lived in Taiwan for almost a decade, and my nuclear family is also scattered around the world in search of better opportunities—in terms of work, education, as well as living. In my mind, my eventual return to Taiwan has always been a given. However disconnected I have become with my homeland, I will return because my families still live there and because that’s where my roots are. I’ve been treating my life in the US as if it’s a “prolonged temporary displacement” that will benefit my family and future children financially, raise my personal and my family’s social status as an educated elite, and provide us with many other resources. However, as time goes by, and as I “take root” in the US, my return to Taiwan seems to be perpetually postponed.

These are some of the reasons why people around the world leave their home country, with or without hopes of ever returning. In a broader definition, we are all diasporic people. Diaspora originally describes the plight of Jewish people, and can be defined as “the movement, migration, displacement, or scatter of people of whatever cause from homeland.” The use of this term has expanded to cover mass-dispersions of people in general. Among other examples, this includes African trans-Atlantic slave trade, southern Chinese “collie” slave trade and, more contemporarily, mass migrant work forces from “developing” or “third-world’ countries. People in diaspora, and immigrants in general, face specific challenges as they navigate new life in a new country, and these experiences in turn shape their identity. My mother and I both face these diasporic challenges, so do the characters in The Joy Luck Club (1993) and The Wedding Banquet (1993).

 

Example criteria for diasporas:

  • The group maintains a myth or collective memory of their homeland
  • They regard their ancestral homeland as true home, to which they will eventually return
  • They are committed to the restoration or maintenance of that homeland
  • They relate personally or vicariously to the homeland to a point where it shapes their identity

 

The Joy Luck Club and The Wedding Banquet both portray the Chinese diaspora in the US; while Joy focuses on the second generation, Wedding focuses on the first generation. Watching these films spurred an in-depth conversation between me and my mother about diasporas, challenges, and our personal experiences. In a way, our conversation was like a hybrid between Joy and Banquet: We are similar to Joy in that we gained deeper understanding about one another, and bridged generational gaps that have emerged due to different cultural identifications; we are similar to Banquet in that I am a queer Taiwanese escaping traditional sexual moralities in the USA, and in the fact that I am the first generation in my family to “take roots” in the USA. Based on our discussions, we decided to outline the challenges faced by diasporic groups and strategies to overcome them through our personal experiences. This way, when I have my own little diasporic family, I will be ready to answer my children’s questions about how they should situate themselves in whatever circumstances they may find themselves. I do not distinguish migrant experience from diaspora experience in this blog, because I think the anxiety that rises from the uncertainty of return is most present in the examples given in this blog, and that uncertainty blurs the line between the migration and diaspora.

I, as a first generation migrant in the US, find that the most difficult challenges for first generation migrants are navigating diasporic identities to their advantage, and finding a balance between personal identification with different pieces of homeland and migration destination. As mentioned earlier, first generations leave their home country due to various reasons, such as war, oppression, poor living and financial prospects…etc. Once they arrive at their destination—in both movies and my own case, the US—first generation migrants face specific diasporic challenges. For example, the first generation has to face xenophobia, racism, language barriers, and being uprooted and separated from family and homeland. They also have to make sense of the unfamiliar customs, culture, racial dynamics, government, geography…etc.

Personally, deciding what parts/how much of my homeland identity to deemphasize/hide in order to succeed in the US, and their consequences, has been the hardest part of my diasporic experience. Like Wei-Tung, the gay Taiwanese character in Banquet, I have come to embrace my queer sexuality, and identify unequivocally with aspects of American queer culture even when this part of me has significantly distanced me from my parents, and more tragically, my Taiwanese identity. Meanwhile, whether I like it or not, my queer identity has “helped” me take roots in the US. My queer identity changed my outlook to life, and plays an increasingly significant role in my life experiences in the US. Among other cultural capitals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_capital) that have helped me fit in and navigate life in the US, my queer identity has successfully signified me as a cultural-insider of US, helped me establish important networks, and shaped my daily interaction with others. Even homophobic experiences have embedded me deeper into US through solidarity with other queers, and helped me gain nuanced understanding of what it means to be an American through intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and socioeconomic status. However, in the process, I downplay/reject aspects of my Taiwanese identity—such as strict gender boundaries, obedience and adherence to social norms—that may contradict with my queerness. It pains me to be torn between two non-compatible cultures and, given how removed I am from Taiwan, it pains me even more to loose what little parts of Taiwanese-ness I have left. In addition, balancing, presenting, and monitoring different parts of my identity according to context is also arduous task. For example, I emphasize my Taiwanese heritage and exaggerate challenges in adapting American life when interacting with other international students; I invoke my knowledge about US and sometimes withhold information about my experiences as a Taiwanese when interacting with domestic American students; I minimize my queerness and American values—such as sexual freedom, assertiveness, exuberant demeanor—and become more conservative when I interact with fellow Taiwanese or Chinese. Wei-Tung in Banquet also faced similar dilemma: he even changed the entire interior of his fairly “gay” house in order to meet his parents’ perception and expectations of him. Although clashes and fluid management of personal identifications can exist in anyone, the above examples demonstrate specific and exacerbated challenges regarding personal identification and adaptation that first generation migrants face.

In contrast, my mother’s experiences are similar to those of the second generation Asian Americans in Joy: instead of dealing with unresolved cultural and personal identity, second and further generations are challenged to re-discover and maintain their “authentic” roots should they wish to. For example, the daughters in Joy don’t ever hesitate to identify as American, and with American culture. However, their experiences as Americans are still shaped by their Chinese heritage and physical markers. In other words, they need to know what makes them different from others in the same country.

Before I move on, I’d like to give some background information about Taiwan and elaborate on my mother’s experience as a second-generation migrant. Unlike the US, Taiwan is an extremely racially homogenous country. Since there are no physical markers of difference, inter-group differences and conflicts in Taiwan mostly emerge from ethnicity and political affiliation that are deeply intertwined. My mother is ethnically “wei-sheng”, and is affiliated with Chinese Nationalist Party/Kuomintang (KMT). Wei-sheng literally translates into “out of state”, and refers to the newest wave of migrants to arrive at Taiwan with KMT around 1949. Under the KMT rule, there were serious and long-lasting ethnic conflicts, blood feud and political battles between the wei-sheng and the beng-sheng ethnicities (translates into “original to state”, these are Chinese who have settled in Taiwan since 16th century, and are affiliated with the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP]). Although wei-sheng people are fewer in number, KMT government was, at the time, exclusively comprised of wei-sheng people and rigorously promoted “Classical Chinese values” as opposed to localized “Taiwanese” culture. As a result, beng-sheng people were subject to discriminatory and oppressive policies. As terrible as the early KMT government may be, its policies protected my mother to a certain degree. While her Taiwanese beng-sheng peers were penalized for speaking Taiwanese dialect, she didn’t have to change anything about herself to conform to the government’s idea of appropriate Chineseness. Maybe this is why my mother did not resonate to the concept of diaspora when I explained it to her.

My mother never suffered any identity crisis for being a second-generation migrant or a wei-sheng person (although she did experience discrimination when she married into my father’s family, who was beng-sheng); in fact, claiming a wei-sheng identity helped her make sense of life experiences in Taiwan as well as appreciate, and relate to her parents—in her own words: It’s a cool thing! Although my mother is as much of a Taiwanese as any ben-sheng or aboriginal person, her identity and experiences are still shaped by her wei-sheng ethnicity. To make sense of these differences, my mother must first understand what being wei-sheng means for her, and doing so requires her to filter through layers of re-presentations of wei-sheng identity. These are challenges that are unique to second generations, and can be seen in Joy as well. The second-generation Asian American daughters in Joy faced racial discrimination, marriage problems, conflict that arose from interracial romance, intergenerational conflicts and other challenges. While some of these challenges are directly related to their racial background, and some not, their ethnicity impacts most every part of their life. For example, Waverly and Rose both married Caucasian husbands, and faced different problems in interracial relationships—Waverly’s husband is ignorant of Chinese family customs and table manners, and constantly humiliates himself and Waverly, Waverly therefore believes that her mother disapproves of her husband, in addition to everything else Waverly does; Rose sacrifices all of herself, including her independence and assertiveness, to support her husband’s family business empire, but her husband takes these sacrifices for granted and eventually begins an extramarital affair and files for divorce. It took Waverly and Rose an examination and reclaiming of their roots through their mothers—Lindo and An-Mei—to resolve these conflicts. Waverly realizes that she possesses the same determination and stubbornness as her mother does, and that Lindo’s criticisms are actually loving concerns that have taken a negative form in response to Waverly’s American values and attitude. Although Lindo, as well as all mothers in Joy, deliberately minimized the influence of Chinese culture on their daughters so they can assimilate into US society more easily, Lindo cannot operate a mother-daughter relationship that’s different from her relationship with her mother in a Chinese context. An-Mei saw the parallel between the life of her mother and her daughter. Despite being raised in two different countries, Rose and her grandmother both sacrifice themselves so much that they forget how important they are, and how much they are worth in marriages. Grandma’s story, and their overlapping destinies empowered Rose and made her realize that, given all the privileges she has as an educated Chinese American living in the US, she has no reason to remain silent and repeat grandma’s tragic fate. These re-discoveries and reclaiming of roots/heritage not only help mend generational gaps that are intensified by non-compatible value systems between first and second generations, but also help second-generation migrants make sense of, and resolve specific diasporic challenges.

Due to my academic training, I originally looked at Chinese diaspora with very specific questions, and expected very definite definitions and answers. I wanted to organize a list of diasporic challenges and strategies to overcome them—something my children can follow through step by step to answer questions about being part of the Chinese diaspora and second-generation Taiwanese in the US. However, my conversation with my mother changed my attitude towards this topic. Through our discussions, I’ve realized that it is futile, and practically impossible to, for example, “define what ‘authentic’ Taiwanese identity or experience is” or ask questions like “how should people navigate diasporic identities?” In real life, the ideas, concepts, experiences and personal identifications involved in the Chinese diaspora are entirely subjective and shaped by infinite number of external variables. Even if academic scholars can identify trends and similarities from different diasporic experiences, I won’t tell my children that there is a “certified”, “authenticated” diasporic experience, or that there are specific ways to overcome diasporic challenges and navigate life as a diasporic Chinese. Like the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, all I can do is guide my children—through my personal experience and understanding of the Chinese diaspora, through stories about my mother, grandfather, sister, and other family members who’ve dispersed from Taiwan. I can only make sure that I give them tools for critical thinking, provide them with whatever information they need to examine their own experiences, and say: These stories and lectures may seem boring, but they come from afar and carries with them all my good intentions. Ultimately, it will be my children’s personal journey and decision to make.

At the end of this blog, I want to emphasize that everything written here is based on subjective experiences. I do not intend to essentialize the experiences of Americans, queers, Taiwanese, international students, and any other groups mentioned in this blog, or make sweeping generalizations about American and Taiwanese culture, politics, society, history…etc. I believe the conclusion that my mother and I arrived at reflects this anti-essentializing attitude—it is impossible to claim that one specific description applies to, and represents everyone; it is especially so when what is at stake is something as personal as personal identities.