2007 Tour Essay

Essay by Teresa Yeh


He reminds me of my father. It was the first thought that ran through my head when the door opened to the Tsunah Office in Taipei on December 22, 2007. In truth, Mr. Lin and my father share very few physical similarities – not in the curve of their brows or the shapes of their chins. Yet, there was something in Mr. Lin’s carriage, in the weathered creases of his face, in his strong silence that rang of my own father.

I carried this moment, this moment of seeing my father in another man, with me throughout the tour. It resonated with me because over the years, Taiwan had become for me a thing of the past. In college, it was a humanitarian cause to rally behind, an academic study of democratization and economics.

However, as I’ve gotten older and settled more firmly into my life, into a life away from my parent’s home, Taiwan had begun to drift farther and farther away. My professional work shifted from Cross-Strait relations to US domestic policies. The only moments I spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese were when I called my parents.

Participating in the Tsunah Culture Tour and seeing Mr. Lin shoved Taiwan firmly back into my field of vision. It reminded me in more ways than one that Taiwan is anything but a relic of the past. I knew vaguely of Mr. Lin’s story, but to suddenly see him opening the door for me that December morning was stunning. I couldn’t help but think to myself, he is my father’s age. I learned later that his daughter is merely ten years my senior. My father lived in a time, lived through a time, where dissension was stifled so violently.

Intellectually, I knew that Taiwan’s history of martial law, repression, and oppression was not so far in the past. I knew that Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election occurred in 1996. I knew that the Kaohsiung incident occurred in 1979, and that my parents lived the majority of their lives under martial law. And yet, I knew these things only intellectually.

It wasn’t until December 22, 2007 that I truly grasped the climate in which my parents grew up in. This was an unexpected result of participating in the Tsunah Culture Tour. Yes, I had expected to learn more about the culture and history of my parent’s homeland. Yes, I had expected to visit and experience some of the great sights in Taiwan. All those things happened. But sometimes, it’s the unexpected things that spark the most growth.

Although my parents were in the States while I was on the tour, I somehow grew closer to them. I felt closer to them, not simply because I was visiting the schools they studied at or walking through the night markets they strolled through. It was because I had a glimpse of what their lives were like underneath the surface. It gave me a greater appreciation of their struggles and their strength, and of the perseverance of the Taiwanese people as a whole.

*****

Participating in the Tsunah Culture Tour and meeting the Lin family did more than serve as a window into my parent’s world. It also allowed me to create a window in which to understand Taiwan through my own eyes and experiences.

In the past, the idea of Taiwan came hand in hand with my parents. It was always something they understood and experienced. I could only know of it peripherally, could only experience it secondhand.

I felt this profoundly seven years ago, in 2001, while attending a vigil in the United States commemorating the victims of 2-28. The following poem arose in response:

The Art of Remembering

My parents can taste
the sacrifices of the 30,000 massacred.
They see the old woman
selling cigarettes on the street,
her hair dusty white like chimney ash.
In 1947, the uniformed men
pounding her to the ground
saw her as I do in vague shadows.

I cannot see the red
coursing through Taipei, to smear
the pale petals of a vendor’s spilled orchids.
Instead, I can only stare
at white flowers framing the speaker
who conducts the vigil today in a tangled tongue
understood only by those who
know the language of pain.
Thousands echo, one mouth: DoNotForget
How to remember what I do not know?

I still remember my frustration over how living in the United States had prevented me from truly grasping certain aspects of Taiwan’s history and culture. I was surrounded by so much pain, sorrow, and remembrance. And yet, I was not completely a part of it, not completely a part of the mourning. Not the way my parents were.

I never expected to answer my own question – How to remember what I do not know. To an extent, I still don’t completely know the answer to that question. In many ways, Taiwan’s history, and my parent’s past, is still something that I will never truly understand.

But perhaps that’s okay. This tour has taught me that memory comes in many forms. I will never understand 2-28 the way my parents do, much in the same way they will never understand it the way their parents did. Instead I have developed my own understanding of Taiwan, of 2-28, based on my own experiences.

In a way, the Lin family’s story has come to represent 2-28 for me. It serves as a bridge between my world and the world of 1947. Too much time has passed, too much distance has grown, for me to be able to see the old woman selling cigarettes in 1947. But I can see Mr. Lin and remember how he reminds me of my own father. In this way, memory and understanding are created. I feel connected to Taiwan and its history because I’ve had the opportunity to experience it and see it for myself. Memory. It’s transferred from one individual to another, sometimes in the most insignificant of ways.

This February 28, I was fortunate enough to still be in Taiwan to experience it. I joined thousands marching through the streets of Taiwan. I watched people wave flags from windows and from standing atop parked taxi cabs. I remember the sight of a packed stadium with flags fluttering from each hand. I felt the pulse and echo of that stadium’s voices in my chest. I felt a part of those tears because I was crying too. That’s a memory that I have built for myself. One that my parents, being in the States, could not share but rather had to watch on television and hear my accounts of. The Tsunah Tour and this march is how I will remember 2-28. This is how I remember what I do not know.

 

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Last updated: 08/07/2009