Cross-Ocean Relations: Bridging Cultural Gaps

-- Tsunah Cultural Tour

-- By Shinzong Lee

Some of my earliest memories of Taiwan involve sitting at restaurants with relatives and friends of my parents, spinning a lazy Susan amid the sound of adults gossiping in Taiwanese and bombarding me with questions about life in the States.  During those days, I viewed Taiwan as a place full of adults who argued too much in a language I barely understood.  I could not comprehend why my grandparents spoke to each other in Japanese, why all the adults I met cursed the KMT or even why my parents always corrected people who called them Chinese instead of Taiwanese.

My perspective changed drastically after spending my winter break in Taiwan with about thirty kids my age.  As participants of the 2002 Tsunah (Chilin Foundation) Cultural Tour, we spent ten days traveling around the island, sightseeing, eating, and hiking.  Led by our intrepid captains Dr. and Mrs. Chris Fan, we bonded while getting to know more about everything from geographical to cross-strait relations.

When we all first met in the Chilin Foundation office in Taipei, I was uncertain how I would get along with the other participants.  Some were only seniors in high school, while others had graduated from college and were already working full-time jobs.  Additionally, as one of the few representatives from the east coast, I didn't know whether I could relate to people who actually considered Taiwan's non-snowy, above-freezing weather cold.  The only things we all had in common were Taiwanese American roots and an interest in learning more about our cultural backgrounds.

We began our trip in Ilan, where we spent three days at the Chilin Foundation center, learning some basic information about Taiwan. We visited a museum that illustrated the rise of the Democratic Progressive Party through newspaper articles and exhibits.  The trip leaders also made us familiar with the story of Chilin Foundation founder Mr. I-Shiung Lin, whose mother and twin daughters were murdered in 1980.  Mr. Lin's wife and their daughter Judy's family joined us in Ilan and served to remind us of the Foundation's mission throughout the rest of the trip.

During these first few days, we also tried to drill everyone's names into our heads.  I worked hard at distinguishing the two sets of brothers on the trip, building solidarity among my few fellow east coasters, and remembering which person was teaching English in Japan versus who was studying in dental school.  Every night after dinner in Ilan, a few of us would stay up talking and getting to know each other. I quickly discovered that beyond age and geographical differences, I actually shared a lot with many of the other Tsunah-ites: while a lot of us had visited Taiwan many times in the past and strongly identified with being Taiwanese American, many of us still did not know that much about Taiwan's political or historical situation and were eager to learn. 

Though our schedule for the next few days was exhausting ¡V we were forced to get out of bed at 7 am every morning, a time that not many young people are usually awake to see ¡V the activities were, for the most part, worthwhile.  We gradually increased our knowledge of Taiwanese culture and geography, hiking through Taroko National Park and saying ¡§Ni hao¡¨ to a bunch of elementary school kids on a class trip, singing aboriginal songs with poet Sakinu in Taitung and bargaining in Taiwanese with street vendors at a night market in Ken-ding.  As someone whose previous trips to Taiwan had primarily centered around Taipei and the surrounding area, I relished the chance to see other parts of the island.

I also got closer to the other participants, learning much more about each of them than their names and college majors.  There was Jerry, the photographer; Doreen, the girl with the Tennessee accent; our translator Frances who spoke English, Mandarin and Taiwanese fluently.  We ate every meal together, whether it was a lunchbox on the bus or an aboriginal buffet, and every night, we slept in hotel rooms with three other same-sex members of the group.  Beyond scheduled activities, we spent every hour of our day in each other's company: playing cards late at night, collaborating on crossword puzzles on the bus, experimenting with hotel laundry machines.

Although seeing the many beautiful landscapes and tourist sites and bonding was rewarding, the moment that I actually realized the purpose of our trip actually occurred on the bus.  On one of our last nights of the tour, as we drove up the west coast of the island, and most people tried to sleep or listened to music, Judy came forward and began speaking about her experiences.  She told us about how she had been in the house when her twin sisters and her grandmother were killed and how she had been stabbed and severely wounded.  When her father was imprisoned, she was taken to the US, eventually heading to New York City where she went to graduate school and met her husband.  People slowly began to wake up and listen to her inspiring story, amazed that someone who had experienced such adversity during her childhood now spoke perfect English and had established a life for herself. 

As Judy spoke, I began to realize how many obstacles the Taiwanese people have had to overcome in their long struggle for independence.  It occurred to me that I had always taken Taiwan for granted ¡V I had not realized the significance of the present administration's election or even of the fact that my parents and relatives insisted on speaking to each other in Taiwanese.  This trip helped me to understand the great efforts that lay behind Taiwan's current situation and increased my appreciation of the geography, culture and people of the place that my family calls home.

On the layover in San Francisco on my trip back to New Jersey, a girl who looked about my age started talking to me in baggage claim. She remarked that she was coming back from a long trip to Asia, and I responded that I was too. 

¡§Oh yeah?  So are you Chinese?¡¨ she inquired.

¡§No, actually¡KI'm Taiwanese,¡¨ I responded.  The words never made me prouder.