Lost teas / April 2018 (Issue 39)


by Grace Loh Prasad

Every March, I install myself at the Kabuki Theatre in Japantown during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. It's a good opportunity to see films that will never make it to the local multiplex. It's also an educational experience for me, a way in which I try to fill the gaps in my own memory and understanding about my native culture and history.

I was born in Taiwan thirty-two years ago, but I've spent most of my life in the States. Though I've visited Taiwan many times, it still feels foreign to me, an alternate universe that does not intersect with my American life. When I'm here, Taiwan ceases to exist for me, except when I enter the realm of film. There is something magical about that immersive process, something that transcends the narrative content of the film and makes me feel as if I've made a true connection, even though I know it's an illusion, a dream from which I'll eventually wake. It has to do with language: While I'm used to hearing Taiwanese in Taiwan, it feels strange to hear it when I'm in the States. Though Taiwanese is my first language, I haven't spoken it since I was five, and the sound of it transports me to another world, another way of being I can barely remember.

It plays like the music of dreams, a sweet melody from childhood that is clear and whole and comforting, but fades so quickly upon waking that you are surprised by the loss of what seemed so immediate and familiar. A symphony is reduced to a few haunting notes, from which you try in vain to recreate the whole. This failure brings a feeling of shock and anguish, like realising you can't quite conjure up the face of a loved one. There is a blank where there ought to be something meaningful, and—you imagine—unforgettable. There is something there, you are convinced of it, but you cannot quite grasp it, and before long, you distance yourself from it, give up, as if those memories were someone else's and not your own.


March 9, 2000. It's nine days before the presidential election in Taiwan, and each of the three major candidates has around twenty-five percent support, according to The Taipei Times. One in four voters remains undecided, though I know who I would vote for … I show up at opening night of the film festival sporting my bian mao, a funky knit cap worn by supporters of opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian. I hope that a fellow Taiwanese American will recognise it and strike up a conversation, but no one does. As I settle into my seat, the lights dim and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo begins to perform. The drumming is fast and hypnotic, each beat chipping away at the external world until I forget my surroundings and go inward, into the music. All thoughts recede except one: I think of my cousins, wishing they were here with me instead of on their way to Taiwan to attend their grandfather's funeral. And then it hits me: If all my "American" cousins are in Taiwan, that means I'm completely alone here. If China invades Taiwan to prevent Chen from being elected (because of his pro-independence views), then my entire family—including my parents—is at risk. The ocean between us—a minor obstacle before—suddenly seems unfathomable, as though I am contemplating its vastness for the first time. I'm conscious again of the theatre, of being one among hundreds of people. In a way they're a "surrogate" family, these other Asian Americans gathered for the film festival. But tonight, they're no better than strangers. They offer me no comfort at all.


A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1990) depicts the hardships of a Taiwanese family from the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 to the arrival of the Nationalists (Kuomintang) and Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The three elder brothers run a drinking establishment where they regularly indulge in gambling, fistfights and women of the night. But the character I identified with was Wen-ching, the youngest brother who is as quiet and gentle as his brothers are rowdy. Born deaf and mute, Wen-ching "talks" through gestures and by writing on a notepad. Though he's able to communicate, he can't engage in a truly equal dialogue. He remains a witness and outsider, able to understand but not speak.

The climax of the film is a riot scene based on the infamous 2-2-8 Incident. On February 28, 1947, a woman selling cigarettes without a permit was harassed by Kuomintang police officers, and a bystander was killed in the confrontation. Hundreds of Taiwanese unleashed their pent-up anger by rioting and attacking mainlanders, recent arrivals from China whom they associated with the corrupt KMT regime. In the scene, Wen-ching and his best friend are about to board a train for Taipei when they get separated in the raging crowd. Wen-ching boards the train alone and is stopped by a couple of hoodlums looking for mainlanders to beat up. They ask him where he's from, and he stands paralysed, eyes wide, mouth open, unable to answer. They stare at each other for a long moment, and as the thugs move in on him, Wen-ching chokes out the words: "Goa Tai-oan lang! (I am Taiwanese!)" The words sound awkward and slurred, for he has never pronounced them before. But they are magic words, and they save his life.


March 11, 2000. I complain to my writing group that the election I care about the most is the one I can't vote in. No matter who gets elected in the US, my life won't change dramatically. But the candidates in Taiwan have radically different positions, and the safety and freedom of my relatives depends on the election's outcome. Jackie says I should write an opinion piece, but I've never done this before, and the election is only a week away. Will I find my voice in time?

March 13, 2000. I struggle with the essay. I'm afraid to write, but I have to write … silence was the curse of my parents' generation. Taiwan was under martial law; speaking out about politics could get you arrested or killed. That's why my parents came to the States—to give me the voice they did not have. Was their sacrifice worth it? I lost my native tongue, but I gained freedom of speech. Now Taiwan is democratic, and its future depends on having the courage to speak: I am not Chinese. I am Taiwanese!


First Person Plural (Deann Borshay Liem, United States, 2000) is an autobiographical documentary about a Korean orphan adopted by an American family in the 1950s. Cha Jung-hee is a frightened little nine-year-old girl when she arrives in the US, unable to speak a word of English. Within months, she is transformed by the love and attention of her adoptive family. She gets over her shyness, begins talking and laughing and gradually grows into her new identity as Deann Borshay, daughter of Arnold and Alveen Borshay of Fremont, California. She accepts her new life. She assimilates. She forgets Korea.

Over a decade later, in her mid-twenties, Deann begins to have flashbacks in which her Korean father tries to speak to her. Anxious to make a connection to the past, she looks through her old childhood photos—the ones that accompanied the adoption papers. A discrepancy leads her to write to the adoption agency, and a few weeks later she receives a letter that changes her life forever. She finds out that her mother, brother and three sisters are all alive—and that she was not really an orphan at all. This revelation is the beginning of a painful journey for Deann—both physical and psychological.

Deann makes several trips to Korea to be reunited with her family there—what ought to be a happy occasion—but she is overcome with tears. Why is it that, in addition to feeling enriched by her Korean family, she also feels bereaved?

I cried nonstop during the screening, stirred by an indefinable grief. Later, I realised that I felt Deann's sadness so deeply because it was my own. Why is it that thinking about Taiwan sometimes makes me feel sad, when I've made so much progress in getting to know my relatives and the culture there? Because in opening my eyes to this other existence—finding this other side of myself—I am forced to acknowledge what has been lost: a family, a language, a way of life, an identity. Deann and I are mourning the same thing: the unlived life, the person who might have been, if things had turned out differently.


March 14, 2000. At 5:00, I finally submit the opinion piece. It's not perfect, but it's the best I can do in the time that I have. I meet Peggy for sushi and then we go to the film festival. She says "good for you" when I tell her about the essay, though I know she's not as worried about the election because most of her relatives live here. I thought I'd feel relieved after submitting the essay, but I don't. I have a knot in my stomach the entire evening.


I've noticed a pattern in some recent Taiwanese films—including Murmur of Youth (Lin Cheng-sheng, Taiwan, 1997) and Jam (Chen Yi-wen, Taiwan, 1998)—involving the symbolic function of the Taiwanese language. In a story with otherwise Mandarin-speaking characters, there is often one Taiwanese speaker with what could be called an archetypal role.

The Taiwanese speaker is usually a plainspoken old man or woman with a peasant-like appearance—rugged, sun-beaten and lacking in refined manners and pretensions. In contrast, the Mandarin speakers are sophisticated urban types who speak in euphemisms and put on airs. The interaction between these characters is predictable in that the Taiwanese speaker will perceive something that is not immediately apparent to the other characters. He or she will comment on the events unfolding in the film in a way that seems ignorant at first, but is later demonstrated to have some wisdom. In other words, the Taiwanese speaker is the first to see the emperor's new clothes—to reveal a "hidden" truth that's in plain sight but unacknowledged.

The unacknowledged or unspoken truth is a theme found in countless narratives worldwide, but I believe there's a specific meaning for Taiwanese audiences. The ultimate unspoken truth—a consensus reached without discussion, that's never explicitly stated but instinctively understood by all—is that Taiwan is independent from China. Any movie whose plot can be summed up as "failing to see what's right under your nose" is a movie about Taiwan's dilemma—getting China and the rest of the world to recognise the reality of two separate states.


March 15, 2000. I check voice mail at lunchtime, and there's a message from the op-ed editor of the Chicago Tribune. She wants to run my piece in tomorrow's paper! I call her to discuss details, then sign and fax back the contract. Next I call Shelly, my good friend in Chicago, who assures me that the Tribune is the "good" paper and promises to send me extra copies.

March 16, 2000. The article's up! I email friends and family with a link to the Tribune webpage, and within minutes my inbox fills with congratulatory messages. But my euphoria doesn't last long. I read that in a last-ditch attempt to influence Taiwan's election, Chinese Premier Zhu Rong-ji shouted in a press conference that China was "ready to shed blood to defend the territorial sovereignty of the motherland." A conflict had been hinted at before, but this was the most violent threat yet, meant to frighten the Taiwanese into not voting for Chen, the candidate most likely to seek an independent future for Taiwan. All day I feel jittery and restless, and angry that the rest of the world seems to be able to shrug this off; the article wasn't even on the front page. Does anyone else realise that Taiwan and China have never been closer to war? Have people forgotten that the US is obliged to defend Taiwan if China attacks? I'm scared for my family but there's nothing I can do. I email my dad and ask: Are you afraid? No, he says, they've been making these threats all my life. This is no different.


In Connection by Fate (Wan Jen, Taiwan, 1998), Ah-de, a former activist now working as a taxi driver, gives a ride to Mah-le, a young aboriginal Taiwanese on the run for murdering his cruel employer. Mah-le is apprehended and executed for his crime, but Ah-de continues to see his ghost everywhere. In Chinese legend, a dead person's spirit wanders the earth for seven days, not resting until he is satisfied that his family is properly mourning and making offerings. The ghosts that are most feared are those who are hungry, whose graves have been neglected or who died far from home. The word for ghost, gui, sounds like the verb "to go home"; thus a wandering ghost is one who is homeless.

Ah-de is also haunted by memories of his young son, who died in an accident years earlier, and the wordless visits of his estranged wife. His life is drained of meaning; when he's not driving his taxi on rain-soaked highways, he practises the calligraphy for his own epitaph. His existential despair is a sort of living death, until his encounter with Mah-le inspires him to take action and to value his life again.

Ah-de personifies Taiwan's ambivalence about its current political situation, a topic so sensitive it can only be treated allegorically. To do nothing—by maintaining the status quo—is to die a slow death. To take action—by voting for change, even if it's risky—is the only way out of this perpetual limbo, the only way to return the wandering ghost to his grave. There is no easy resolution here, only the certainty of stagnation if a society's collective hopes are never allowed to be expressed.


March 17, 2000. I spend hours surfing the websites of the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and The Taipei Times for last-minute election news. The Taipei Times reported that 100,000 people attended a rally in Taipei for KMT candidate Lien Chan, while more than 400,000 supporters packed into a sports stadium in his hometown of Tainan to cheer opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian. I could spend the whole night trolling for news online, but Jun and Cara invite me over for dinner, providing a welcome distraction. When I get home at midnight, I collapse on the sofa, dizzy from an excess of wine and speculation. The polls are closed by now; I cast my vote in the Tribune.

The dream I have is astonishing in its clarity, and I feel as though I'm waking up in a changed world. I lie in bed and replay it again and again: I am standing in a field with mountains behind me, looking at a brilliant sunset. I see a castle in the clouds, a small city actually, with trees and houses and street lamps. I feel a profound sense of peace and happiness, but I wonder if it's just an illusion—it seems too good to be true. My instinct tells me to find someone else, another pair of eyes to confirm what I've seen. A woman from my past appears—a former journalist and news anchor. I ask her: Do you see what I see? She nods and says yes. I rush to tell my parents the good news: that I have seen a sovereign Taiwan. They smile knowingly and say: We were expecting it all along.



On March 18, 2000, the people of Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian as their next president, ending over 50 years of Kuomintang rule and ushering in a new era for Taiwan's democracy.




An Election That Matters

Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2000


The election I care about the most is the one I cannot vote in. As an American I ought to be complaining about the demise of Bill Bradley and John McCain, ending the only real challenge to politics-as-usual.

Truth is, I hardly paid attention to Super Tuesday. Instead, I've been riveted by an election half a world away in the country where I was born and where the majority of my family lives. Saturday, the people of Taiwan will elect their next president—a decision that could mean freedom or isolation.

The election is a showdown between three candidates: the Kuomintang's Lien Chan, independent candidate James Soong and the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian. How I see it, a vote for Lien is a vote for the status quo—KMT corruption and cronyism. A vote for Soong, who broke ranks with the KMT, is a vote for mainland influence and money politics. A vote for Chen—of the pro-independence DPP, Taiwan's main opposition party—is a vote for change, progress and self-determination. It is also a vote that some say will bring Taiwan and China closer to war.

This puts the U.S. in a complicated position. On one hand, the U.S. has a military obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion and a moral obligation to support the self-determination of the Taiwanese people. On the other hand, the U.S. has an economic interest in staying friendly with China, which it cannot do if it sides with Taiwan in a military confrontation.

What's at stake is the big, fat lottery prize of normalised trade relations with China. The U.S. wants non-escalation. China wants to be appeased. But what do the people of Taiwan want?

The answer is far from certain. Polls conducted in the last few months have shown a close race with each candidate hovering at around 25 percent support. The remaining quarter of Taiwan's electorate remains undecided.

I know which candidate I would vote for but it's a moot point. If China were to invade Taiwan on the basis of the election's outcome, virtually my entire family—including my parents—would be at risk. I do not regret becoming an American citizen and I would never renounce my citizenship and all the privileges it affords me. But just once I wish I could trade places, so that I could cast a vote that would really make a difference.


Note: This essay was published in the August 2001 issue of Hedgebrook Journal, guest edited by Kathleen Alcala. This is a limited-circulation print publication for friends and alumna of Hedgebrook.

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