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Insights from a Chinese-American: Journey to My Roots in Taipei

Just like many American-born Chinese, I grew up in the United States with little awareness of my cultural roots. I was born in Taiwan, but my parents immigrated to the United States when I was three years old. They immigrated to America in search of a better life, a higher standard of living, and a promising future for later generations. We started out in the small state of New Hampshire and later moved to sunny California during my middle school years. The transition was tough, but I quickly managed to adapt to the new environment and make friends. Throughout my youth I noticed a common thread that ties Asian American people together—a bond that is developed through cultural understanding and similar value systems. More specifically, I noticed how my family customs, educational environment, and experiences abroad influenced the creation of my Chinese-American identity.

My parents hold traditional Chinese values, which have influenced me tremendously throughout my childhood. At the tender age of five my parents encouraged me to play piano. I naturally developed the talent, which led me to perform in numerous recitals, and enter various competitions. I still remember playing "Fur Elise" at my first piano recital at the age of six. This successful performance was the beginning of my fifteen year piano stint. While living in California, home to a plethora of Asian-American immigrants, I soon realized that many Chinese parents also encouraged their children to learn piano. It was their way of cultivating an appreciation for music in their children.

My parents also encouraged me to speak Mandarin Chinese at home so that I wouldn't forget my native tongue. However, once I walked outside the door my language switched to English, because all my friends spoke English and I sometimes felt uncomfortable speaking Chinese in the American environment. Furthermore, I also felt uncomfortable associating with Taiwanese people that didn't speak English well (also known as "fresh off the boat" or FOB). I think this is a widespread dilemma among American-born Chinese; the inherent embarrassment of our native language and heritage, due to pressures from American society and meager awareness of our own culture's significance.

After graduating from high school, I attended college at the University of California, Davis and double majored in Communication and Organizational Studies. At this university, an amazing 40% of the student body population consisted of Asian-Americans. During this time I volunteered and took an active leadership role in many Asian-American organizations. Among the 300-plus organizations on campus, many consisted of multicultural clubs or ethnic sororities and fraternities. Through my involvement in extracurricular activities, I saw first-hand the prevalence of racial discrimination, ethnic segregation, and violence due to a lack of cultural understanding. This propelled me on a journey to discover my Taiwanese roots and to learn about other cultures through study-abroad experiences. For my senior year in college I spent half a year in London interning at a British marketing firm while completing my degree requirements. I also traveled across Europe and experienced the diverse cultures that each country boasted. It was great meeting people from across the world and especially connecting with other Chinese-Americans who happened to cross paths with me. Throughout my adventures in Europe, I realized that language is integral to understanding a culture-a powerful tool that changes the way people think and therefore act towards others. I loved learning about European cultures, but I also felt a lack of understanding regarding my own Chinese heritage. These experiences motivated me to take a hiatus to my home country after graduation.

In the beginning when I arrived in Taipei, the environment seemed completely foreign since I had not visited in many years. This modern city is famous for its vibrant nightlife, delectable food, bustling streets, shopping paradise, and cultural festivities. After visiting relatives all across Taiwan, I started taking intensive Chinese language classes at National Taiwan University, the nation's top-ranked school. Although I had previously taken Chinese classes in the United States, my language education was rather limited, because of the English-speaking environment. However, moving to Taiwan allowed me to become completely immersed in the Chinese-speaking world. In Taipei, my ability to speak, listen, read, write and type Chinese improved significantly because I practiced daily. As my language skills improved, so did my attitude towards Taiwanese culture. At the university I met foreign students whose Chinese skills were better than mine, which inspired me to work harder in my native language. Today I am determined to reach the newspaper-reading level, in order to maximize my bilingual language skills, and to develop a career in the Asia. Taipei is a city rich in history and traditions—I cherish the opportunity to reconnect with my birthplace and define what it really means to be a proud Chinese-American.

Ever since I came back to Taiwan, I have gained a deeper understanding of myself, my language, family, ancestors, culture, and homeland. Instead of feeling ashamed or confused about my Taiwanese roots because of my American upbringing, I now deeply appreciate the magnificent culture that my country has to offer. I also realize that my family and heritage are my strength. Thus, I highly encourage Asian-Americans to explore their own roots because getting in touch with my native country has been a uniquely rewarding and life-changing experience. We need to understand our past, in order to appreciate our present, and create the ideal path for our future.

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