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Am I still Chinese enough?

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan coined the term topophilia to describe a strong personal bond with a place. That’s the way I feel about Taiwan.

February 23, 2022
Vivian Hir at age 11
Vivian Hir at age 11
The author, Vivian Hir, at age 11 in 2015 at Zengwen Reservoir, near Alishan, Taiwan.Courtesy Photo

“Vivian, we might leave Taiwan and move back to the US next year,” my mom told me as she helped me get ready for the middle school candlelight dance. 

I knew that my family would return to the US at some point; we were in Taiwan only because of my dad’s work with a pharmaceutical company. Our family had no compelling reason to stay, since we had no relatives there. Sure, I was American and still told people that the United States was my home, but I loved living in the bustling city of Taipei and attending the international school. I had already spent a third of my life in Taiwan. 

My mom’s announcement was no surprise, yet I refused to accept what I had just heard—that this would be my last candlelight dance, that I would have to stop volunteering with the Orphanage Club, that I would be leaving my school, my friends, and everything I loved in the seventh grade.

My first year back in Danville, California, was miserable. I went through the school year with a few close friends and struggled to find a club that was as purposeful and involved as the Orphanage Club, which helped underprivileged people in Taiwan and around the world. What I was experiencing, though I didn’t know it, was reverse culture shock, a situation in which expatriates returning to their home country struggle to readjust. According to the US State Department, more than half of US expats say that it took them three to 12 months for their lives to be normal again. Twelve months may seem like a long time, but the reality was that it took me a couple more years to fully move on. 

The pleasant aspects of American suburbia that I had missed while living in Taiwan no longer mattered. I did not care that the houses around me had nice, trimmed green lawns with beautiful gardens. Endless rows of houses reminded me of the dull and repetitive days I lived here: go to school, do homework, practice piano and violin, sleep, repeat.

I was unaware that I was experiencing reverse culture shock, a situation in which expatriates returning to their home country struggle to readjust.

Stuck in my cul-de-sac, I felt cut off from all the five senses that I’d once used to explore my surroundings, tasting the cold grass jelly that smoothly slid down my throat and smelling the savory scallion pancakes that made my mouth water. Despite living in a community with a large Chinese population, I found it difficult to connect with my roots. Gone were the days where I could easily immerse myself in the culture, whether it was seeing the bright red lanterns at the local temple or taking part in festivals.

Five years after I moved back to the US, my perceptions changed significantly. I still lived around houses that looked like carbon copies of one other, but I no longer viewed them with contempt. I grew to love the quiet and calm of the town. When I hiked up a neighboring hill and saw a panorama of my community for the first time, I entered a state of awe. I was fascinated by how small the world looked—thousands of tiny houses dotted the grassy green hills while the breeze gently caressed my cheeks and the sun’s rays shone on me. Never had I felt this still and peaceful before. 

As I stared out at the horizon, I thought of how the town was the world I came from—something I would never have thought of saying when I first arrived. It was the place where I spent my adolescent years, maturing from a middle schooler who solely focused on volunteering to a high school senior with a passion for science and STEM education. It was where I rekindled my long-lost passion for piano and classical music. When I took one last look at the scenery before walking down the hill, I could finally say with confidence that I was home. 

As my memories of Taiwan became fainter, though, I romanticized the place even more. Those memories became distorted, highlighting all the good things that Taiwan offered. When I realized that these gradual changes were happening, I found it strange that my brain leaned toward inaccuracy, but psychology tells me it was normal. 

I read an article in the New York Times by Charlotte Lieberman, “Why We Romanticize the Past,” that I completely identified with. The cognitive errors that occur while reconstructing and forgetting certain memories lead to rosy retrospection, a process in which “people tend to think back on the past more fondly than what they experienced at that time.” The psychological reason is that people want memories to be consistent with the narrative that they tell about themselves. 

Despite being aware that I was prone to cognitive biases, I still idealized Taiwan, ignoring the unbearably hot summers and the concrete buildings stained from countless rainstorms. All I wanted was to go back, because not only would I get to reconnect with my ancestors’ traditions and beliefs, but I would also be able to relive my late childhood. 

For years, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why did I experience such strong homesickness for a place where I had no family members living? I blended in with the locals there, yet I was still considered an outsider because I was American and my mom came from mainland China. It wasn’t until I read these lines that I realized: where I would consider home was for me to decide, not others. My heart aches for Taiwan because it is the place where I fell in love with Chinese language and culture, ultimately shaping who I am today. 

Without Taiwan, I would still be detached from my Chinese heritage. The farther I am from Taiwan, the larger the chasm between me and my ethnic identity grows. I flip through my old Chinese workbooks and fail to recognize some characters. I skim my elementary school Chinese textbooks and realize that I have forgotten so many traditional poems and stories. I mourn that I spent my entire time in Taiwan building my Chinese identity only to lose it after moving back to the States. 

Am I still Chinese enough? 

I continue to think about Taiwan occasionally. Taiwan is more than a place to me; it is more like a loved one with whom I had a complicated relationship in the past. I play songs on a Spotify playlist called Taiwan Nostalgia. I watch music videos of my favorite songs by Taiwanese artists like Fish Leong. I watch Taiwanese teen films such as Our Times to relive those unspoiled golden days. 

I know that my efforts to re-create these experiences are futile, yet I still find beauty in nostalgia because it is the ephemeral nature of childhood that makes these moments worth remembering. So I let random thoughts about Taiwan pop into my head when I walk down Dorm Row or bike on Massachusetts Avenue. I may be more than 7,500 miles from Taiwan, but there is one thing I am sure of: it will always stay in my heart, no matter where I go.

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