My eyes scanned words my brain barely managed to process and instantly blurred with tears. I was having a “Miss America” moment.
A whirlwind of joy and excitement whipped through my chest because the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office had graciously granted me a scholarship to learn Mandarin in Taiwan, my foreign motherland, even though the extent of my vocabulary was “Hello” and “Thank you.” I would return to the country where I had spent the first four months of my life before flying to the States with the adoption agency and becoming as American as apple pie – as if I had been both born and bred there.
. . .
People jokingly compare Asian American adoptees, and American Born Chinese, to bananas: “yellow on the outside, white on the inside” – like being Caucasian is the only way to be American.
I was only eight when I learned to doubt my “American-ness.” Or realize that others saw me differently. While wearing my oversized cotton “Proud to be an American Girl” t-shirt on the playground, I heard a boy snigger, “Why is she wearing that?” I didn’t understand, but my heart sank because somehow I didn’t fit the criteria for being American. Though, if I was not American, what else could I be?
. . .
In Taipei the uneven road seemed to rise up in waves underneath my feet, making me stumble along the green path designated for pedestrians as cars squeezed past. Jetlag certainly didn’t help to distinguish my gait from that of a drunkard. Complex traditional characters on storefronts swam before my eyes, teaching me how it feels to be illiterate. Vendors called out to me, and I practiced saying, “I don’t understand Chinese,” but they kept shouting, confusing and jumbled sounds, piling into my ears.
I fled from them.
. . .
My Taiwanese teacher paraded around the classroom like a mother duck as our tongues struggled to bend backwards to meet the roofs of our mouths for “zh” and “sh” sounds, our lips stretched in a smile for “i” sounds and our vocal cords strained to produce the correct tones.
Supposedly Mandarin has no grammar. There are no verb tenses, but there are certainly rules. When my hand shot into the air, quivering with questions, my teacher would gently call my name.
“Yu Nong,” she said softly, perhaps as sweetly as the Taiwanese woman who birthed and named me once said – “use your Chinese mind.”
My American mind always sputtered, “But I don’t have one!”
. . .
Outside of the classroom, my conversations with the locals were progressing.
“Why don’t you speak Chinese?”
“Because I’m American.”
“But you don’t look American.”
The dumbstruck look on my face bade them to continue: “You look Asian.”
I blinked in disbelief.
“Because Americans are white and having protruding noses!” they offered triumphantly as evidence, like they were experts on my homeland.
It is not fault of the Taiwanese that American media rarely features Americans with Asian physical features, so their ignorance should be excused, but these common interactions irritated me. Again, I had to defend my American identity.
. . .
Through Couchsurfing and happenstance meetings, I collected a group of local friends. Once we got past the “Why do you look but not act Taiwanese?” stage, I was able to experience the shy friendliness of the Taiwanese. I felt sincerity when they told me to be safe on my bicycle, a sweet concernedness as they asked, “Have you eaten, yet?” as a greeting. I surprisingly began to understand the two finger peace sign in photographs, how it belongs to a culture that values cuteness with silly cartoon characters plastered on backpacks and childish patterns on umbrellas. I began to feel a connection to the country, but all sorts of foreigners fall in love with Taiwan in the exact same way.
. . .
One day I lazily pedaled through balmy air to the fruit stand near class. I snapped down the kickstand and climbed off my bike, wandering over to a table filled with a marvelous variety of colors and textures.
“Which fruits are special to Taiwan?” I asked the salesman.
“This one. This definitely doesn’t grow in America.”
Astonished, I ventured, “How do you know I’m American?”
He stared at me and answered matter-of-factly. “Because of your accent.”
For a language learner, that is not a compliment. But with that simple acknowledgement of my identity as an Asian-American adoptee, an Asian anomaly, I grinned.
I self-identify as an American, and I carry that with me wherever I travel. There is no one place that I belong, but even as a resident of London, I see America first and foremost as home.
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