I remember when I was younger, there was often a mild buzz in the background of my life about the identity crisis of second generation Asian kids: not American but not Chinese/Korean/whatever. I sometimes pictured a collective of floating East Asian youth wandering around: a lost island community with straight, black hair bobbing over the rest of America. Though, to my parents' credit, I think I grew up relatively immune to this confusion. From a young age I was told I was "Chinese American." It was a special identity. American AND Chinese. So simple. Looking back, I embraced it without even knowing.
Nevertheless, the first return of second generation-ers to their parents' home country and their reaction to the experience is seen as part of the coming of age process. As a ten year old my perception was that it was the gold standard procedure to finally sorting out this lost identity. You went. You hung out in the motherland. You ate a lot of food and maybe had your accent made fun of. Whether you finally felt accepted or suddenly realized you really were American, or both, you came back with a renewed sense of self. Since I never really struggled with my own Chinese identity within the context of being American and over the years have come to a pretty comfortable spot, I actually didn't really anticipate much change on that front when I went to Taiwan. Instead, I looked forward to hanging out with my grandmother and stuffing my face at every possible turn.
However it was in a mildly confused state that I found myself the fourth day of my trip. I was standing in the middle of the nurses' station in the inpatient ward of the pediatrics department of National Taiwan University Hospital. I was jet-lagged and onto my third bubble-tea of the day. This weird mix of Chinese and English-hospital-lingo-with-a-Mandarin-accent surrounded me. I didn't know where my resident had gone (whoops). I don't know how long I stood there, but suddenly I was mesmerized and I imagined myself just blending into the wall and watching.
All the women had charms hanging off their cell phones. Exclamations of surprise were distinctly Chinese: "eH!?" People signed off their notes with red stamps. I eavesdropped on every conversation - ALL OF IT WAS IN CHINESE! I felt this wave of comfort of wash over me. The presence of such "cultural ticks" filling every turn with its ordinariness was like I finally had my own club. These people would like my black eggs. When they watch tv, they might eat dried plums instead of potato chips. They take their shoes off when they get home.
But in addition to this immense sense of belonging, some part of me felt off-kilter. Hence my confusion. Why did I feel so weird? Were the pearls in milk tea really alien eyes like my friend, Val, insisted? Had consuming too many pearls finally caught up with me? I haven't resolved that question, but what I did realize: I felt weird because I was no longer different. Suddenly all the little things that I identified as making me different in the States weren't special, they were normal. Did that no longer make me special?
As I explored this thought process I realized that when I was in the States I didn't just identify as a queer, activist, radical, woman of color, I identified as "other/not-mainstream." My feeling of discomfort stemmed from suddenly feeling a little less other and thus suddenly feeling like I had maybe lost a little bit of myself.