Years from now when someone asks me about Taipei, Taiwan, I’ll probably say something like, “mopeds and food on every street corner.” Hey, it’s what I remember most. I saw a lot of Taipei through taxi windows as we went from place to place eating everything we could along the way.
Lots of food stands. Lots. Food is cheap, readily available and in my honest opinion – really really good. On the flip side though, everything else is pretty much the same as Japan – expensive. It’s probably because there are so many Japanese people in Taipei, there for tourism and business. In fact quite often I would speak Japanese instead of English.
Picture that, Taiwanese and an American speaking Japanese to communicate. I guess Japanese is useful outside of Japan after all!
From 1895 to 1945 Japanese was taught in elementary school and as a result many locals can still speak Japanese. For me, this was the most unexpected and at the same time most gratifying discovery. You see I feel connected to Japanese speakers in Taiwan. I too learned the language. I too represent the complicated twists of power between populations, cultures and generations. This is just a textbook friendly, sugarcoated way of saying ‘the outcome of war.’ I too listened to elders in my family speak of first-hand experiences of violence during WWII. Albeit on a different island, our story is the same.
I said mopeds and food is what I’ll remember about my trip to Taiwan but I may be mistaken. In time, I think I’ll come to realize this trip was more than a whirlwind gourmet tour of Taipei. It was another window to my own identity.
My brother and I grew up with Japanese names in a predominantly Asian community in Hawaii, USA. Our Japanese American mother raised us. Our family gave us ‘Otoshidama’ every year and we ate Osechi. Grandma watched NHK, rolled the best sushi, kept a garden and told us when it was time to go ‘nene.’ When people asked, “Kenji, what are you?” I would say without any hesitation I’m Japanese.
Fast forward to the present. I live in Japan, study the language and even use it to communicate with people in Taiwan. I’m more Japanese than ever!
Yet when people here ask I’ve started to hesitate. When I introduce myself confusion, doubt and questions are quick to ensue.
“Yeah, but what’s your real name?” “What? That’s a Japanese name.” “You’re not Japanese…are you?” Common responses I get from Japanese people, usually with a look of disbelief mixed with curiosity, when I say, “Hi, I’m Kenji.” I assure myself their intention isn’t ill-hearted. Yet I wonder if they think about how by asking that question they reveal a lot about themselves, their country and ultimately our roots.
Why do people think I’m lying when I introduce myself? Why is my sincerity doubted? Why do I still have to…
After years and years of going through this I still haven’t found any answers I am satisfied with.
For now I take comfort in my latest discovery. I know others like myself whose families not only reflect history but create it as well by defining new identities, are happily going about their days living the island life. After all, we’re all in the same ocean, right!?
Thanks Taipei, Taiwan.
My fluency will never overpower what the eyes see so my mission is to live a story that will echo for generations.
– Kenji D. Lee