“I knew it! That explains why you don’t sound American,” my discussion partner said with a satisfied smile after I told her I had been living in Taiwan for almost my entire life. After much prying on her part, I explained to her the almost complete story of my life (which is so long that I should have written down the details of our conversation for a documentary in the future, just in case).
Born in California, I moved back to Taiwan when I was little, where my family is originally from. My parents never told me why we moved back, but from snippets of conversations I have gathered, it was something related to their career planning. Growing up, fitting into the community as a welcomed member has always been my biggest struggle. Although I am ethnically Taiwanese and physically lived in Taiwan, upon learning about my childhood my peers often responded with cynicism and scoffed at my “American-ness.” Then, when I traveled back and attended school in the U.S., my classmates saw me as an intruder. I was confused about where I belonged and who I wished to identify myself as. I still am confused, more frequently than I want to admit.
As my discussion partner turned back to her work, I felt a surge of emotion that I couldn’t name. Perhaps it was the pent-up annoyance that has been plaguing me for so long or just the stress from adjusting to an environment and constantly needing to introduce myself to new people. I fell into a swirl of thoughts, emerging with questions lingering on the edge of my mind: Why was I expected to explain my entire life to people I’d just met? Maybe if I was fair-skinned and had a lighter hair color, would people still assume that I do not belong? Am I not “American” enough?
As much as Berkeley portrays its community as being one of the most inclusive in the nation, and though people commonly see it as a school with a huge Asian population, racism and discrimination of all kinds are still prevalent. Asians, especially international students, are still labeled as “immigrants” who “speak broken English.” I have never held a conversation with a Cal student that didn’t include lines such as “You have a slight accent but it’s fairly close to how Americans sound!,” “When are you going back?” and “That’s not how Americans say it.” As socially aware as I would assume Cal students to be, people love asking me questions resembling the following (all based on true events): “Do they have Starbucks in Asia or any coffee shops at all?,” “Wow, you know this song? It’s in English” and my personal favorite, “Do you know who Trump is?”
My identity as a first-generation Taiwanese-American has become something I so desperately seek to hide. I elude every topic that might lead to discussing where I come from and why I am where I am now. And I am more than ashamed for that, for being ashamed of my own identity and family. I still don’t know how to sound American enough, and truthfully, I might never find out. For now, I can only cross my fingers that my next discussion partner is less strict on the definition of how an American should act.