In Taiwan, it seems as if my identity changes as quickly as the weather. In the morning, a cab driver will start speaking to me in the full-fledged Taiwanese dialect, and in the afternoon, the waitress who brings me coffee will pick up on a slight accent and ask when I returned to Taiwan. She will use the phrase “returned to” because ethnicity here runs deeper than place of birth, and my features are Taiwanese enough to make the assumption that while I am of this country, I was not born here. My expat friends in Taiwan, on the other hand, see me as an American. I am like a chameleon, shifting and changing colors. Who I am is in the eye of the beholder and they will treat me accordingly.
On paper, I am both Taiwanese and American. I have passports from both countries. I can speak both languages. My parents were born and raised in Tainan, Taiwan. I was born in Los Angeles and have spent the majority of my life in the States.
But papers are moot and I believe identity is something humans seek in order to find a sense of belonging. And a sense of belonging is precisely what I have been searching for these last three years as I’ve wandered the world. Identity, of course, is fluid, yet people insist on it because it gives them context. It’s especially interesting because Taiwan itself struggles with its own identity as a nation-state attached to mainland China and has constantly struggled to define itself for that matter.
Part of my ancestry has coevolved with the plants, animals, and water systems of this island.
I find myself coming back to Taiwan often, gravitating toward the tropical geography, the deep green elephant ears, and the misty, cascading waterfalls. Taiwan draws me in because it is my ancestral homeland, and often I think of the generations before me who fell in love here and created entire lives and families on this island nation. I have indigenous Taiwanese heritage as well and lately have been exploring the natural side of this island, conscious that a significant part of my ancestry has coevolved with the plants, animals, and water systems of this island.
But there are moments when I feel unhinged, unable to feel completely at ease. In the city, people are constantly asking about my background: where I was born, where I spent the majority of my life, and why I am able to speak both Chinese and English and understand Taiwanese.
The truth is that my values are not Taiwanese nor are they American. This has been a source of great loneliness in my life. According to many dictionaries, culture is defined by a life held by a collective. By that definition, I struggle with assimilating into just one culture because I have spent a significant part of my adult life on the road, shifting from city to city and country to country.
So I retreat into nature, where there is no need to introduce myself and where the birds don’t care where I come from. It is in nature where I tend to find people of all different backgrounds with whom I feel a psychic and soulful kinship. That has made all the difference in mitigating my issues of feeling a lack of belonging.
In Taiwan, I found a home in the remote indigenous village called Smangus (four hours up the mountains from the city of Hsinchu), where my friends brought me into the insular tribe and showed me the uses of many different trees. I found kindred spirits in another tribe, called the Taromak, for three weeks, where my host Lily Wen took me into the forest and taught me about the edible properties of many plants. I had sought out these villages in an attempt to learn about traditional plant uses and indigenous societies and was welcomed in with open arms.
These are people who value the physical sense of place rather than their national identities. People who see the soil that they stand on as the foundation of society, not the constitution on which their government is founded. People who live close to nature, who do not see a separation between themselves and the trees. Most of these people are farmers or people of indigenous heritage, but not exclusively. Their food comes from the seeds that they sow. They live simple lives. They look like everyone else, but you can identify them by how they look at plants. A relationship with nature is our common ground. And it is with these people that I feel like I belong.
A relationship with nature is our common ground.
I am falling in love with Taiwan more and more. I feel at home among the vines and monkeys and on the black-sand beaches. I’ve met people who can read the trees and waterways of this stunning subtropical island. Trees are indicators of the history of the land—whether or not it has been deforested or if it’s an old-growth forest. Waterways are the apex of traditional societies; certain sections of rivers used to be used as refrigerators, bathing stations, and, of course, fishing grounds.
Hearing the stories of these landmarks keeps me grounded wherever I am, simply because nature is nondiscriminatory toward whom she accepts. I’ve come to realize that nations and governments do not give us our identities. It is our values that shape us—not our passports.