by sam lai
How younger generations see Asian American identity through older generations
While I have been fortunate to have visited Taiwan several times with my family, I took those vacations for granted as a child. My older sister, brother, and I lived comfortably with our Taiwanese parents in Los Angeles, but at times Ma and Ba needed a change of scenery. They wanted to go back to Taiwan not because they felt sick of Southern California suburban life in the same way their children did, but more that they have always felt at home in Taiwan. Once a year, during either summer or winter breaks, we would fly to Taipei to stay with wàipó and wàigōng, my maternal grandparents. My siblings and I welcomed these trips with a different kind of anticipation than my parents did.
Born and raised in America, we never thought of Taiwan as a place we belonged to, and perhaps we saw it more as tourists than as locals no matter how familiar we grew with the surroundings. Young and materialistic, I would buy as many trinkets as I could stuff into my suitcase. I came to see Taiwan as a shopping spree, having more skill in spending money than in speaking with my grandparents.
I have not been to Taiwan in over two years, and I say this not to complain but to highlight a moment in my life which I am still trying to understand. The last time I went to Taiwan was October 2009. My wàigōng had passed away. Since my sister and brother had to study for midterms at the time, only I could be there for the funeral, and for a day at most because I had school. Unable to join in the hymns because I could not read the Chinese lyrics, I sat feeling only numbness. I knew I should have felt loss, a grief I saw when my mother and grandma held each other as the funeral staff pushed the casket into the cremation chamber. Regret more than any kind of anguish haunts me when I think of my grandfather.
Not until I came to Berkeley did I start coming to terms with my grandfather’s death and what my family means to me. Away from home, I could step back and reflect on how my parents identify as Taiwanese compared to the way I see myself as Asian American. From my classes, I heard about the generation gap, a broad term that generally describes the conflict in ideologies between older generations and younger ones. The most common perception of the generation gap involves immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children, but taking into account the fluidity of Asian American identity, nationality alone does not influence interpersonal relationships within families. Rather, the beliefs and ideologies that individuals absorb from living in the United States and other countries gives a transnational perspective on the generation gap.
For 1.5 generations like freshman Bonita Choi, the emphasis on being educated came not just from parental pressure, but also an overarching pressure for recent immigrants to assimilate. Born in Korea and raised in Vancouver, Bonita remembers her mother talking to other Korean moms, overhearing how their children felt afraid to go to school because they did not understand English.
“My parents went to university in Korea, and when we first immigrated, we lived in a bad part of Vancouver,” Bonita commented.
Knowing the struggles of her parents and other Korean immigrants to adapt and integrate, Bonita said, “I agree with them about the value of education, [so] I always felt like I had to go to school.”
A major point of struggle between the older generations and their descendants sparks from the desire to conform to Anglo-American rules but also to preserve ethnic background. For younger API generations, knowing one’s history can be limited by a number of factors: geographic barriers, a lack of fluency in a particular language, and the very validity of memory. All of those aspects became clear to me when I took a beginning Mandarin class in community college a year after wàigōng’s funeral.
Speaking conversational Mandarin came to me gradually, but on paper, the traditional characters turned me into a bungling monolingual. For hours on end, I would practice by writing the characters over and over again until they covered an entire page. From this routine, I gained a literacy at the same level as my young cousins’ in Taipei, with whom I exchanged two letters before lapsing back into English-only once I started going to Berkeley. The brief correspondence between my cousins and I unlocked a door that had been closed for a long time, providing an emotional contact made possible only through a common language.
From my own experiences, the generation gap relates more to the absences and silences that result from a lack of communication and understanding. Younger generations may struggle to comprehend the demands of older generations, but each side should take the time to tell their stories because the further they move away from a specific point in time of their lives, the less accurate the account.
A few months ago over winter break, I dug out some old videotapes taken by my father, dating back to my parents’ early marriage in the 80s. I felt bored at home, and finding footage that preceded even my older sister’s existence piqued my curiosity: what kind of life did my parents have when they first came to the United States, as newlyweds and recent immigrants? A thrill of joy seized upon me when I caught a glimpse of wàigōng in one of the videos, and I called over my parents to watch with me. My father left the room not long after, but my mother stayed, transfixed by the moving image of her father on the TV. Simply from her eyes, I knew she missed him, and always will. That moment brought home the fragile opportunity that the generation gap presents: in the face of loss, older and younger generations can unite in finding the missing pieces.
The author at 3 months with her maternal grandfather (Photo courtesy of Sam Lai)
In Taiwan, fidgeting in front of the camera with waigong (Photo courtesy of Sam Lai)