My Search for Cultural Identity

Months after I was born, I moved to the little island of Taiwan to live with my grandparents. There, I was lovingly raised by all my grandparents, traveling regularly from my mom’s side of the family in Taipei to my dad’s side of the family in Taichung. When I was of age to go to school, I went to preschool and kindergarten in a small elementary school in Taichung. There, we wore dual colored uniforms and were taught everything from how to read Chinese to how to fold our socks. Everyday, I would wake up before the sun was out to hike with my grandfather, then walk to school with my grandmother, and come home to platters of traditional Asian cuisine.

When I was six years old, my world completely changed. My grandfather suddenly was diagnosed with a terminal illness and became sick very quickly. I moved to the United States to reunite with my parents. In the matter of a couple of days, I completely left my life in Taiwan to live in the America with my parents, who I have never lived with alone before.

Moving to America meant completely starting over. Leaving behind everything I had ever known and moving on was terrifying, but exciting.


Basically, I moved to a foreign country on the actual other side of the world. The time difference between New Jersey and Taiwan is 12 hours. Not only was my sense of time completely turned upside down, my entire life was literally flipped upside down.

Driving home from the airport (after 16 hours on the plane), I was introduced to the brisk air of the night, new smells, my new home. Everything was different here. Life was completely different, and for little six year old me, it was weird. Somehow though, I adjusted pretty well; I overcame the jet lag and embraced living in this new living situation with different people… little did I know it was just the beginning.

Moving to America was a big change for me, but up until the last day of summer I had no idea what was coming. I had never heard English before and I really was not mentally prepare or even actually aware of the challenges that my language and cultural barrier would bring. The first day of first grade in America was one of the strangest days of my life. It was a wake up call, symbolizing the first day of the rest of my life as an American. On the walk to school, my mom warned me that when people say the word “actually”, they are not saying “ashley” and I should not respond. I remember having no idea what she was saying but nodding along anyways because I was so excited to meet new people and start my new life.

I have no idea why I didn’t see it coming. The night before the first day of school, my parents spent at least half an hour formatting a piece of paper with pictures of different actions and objects for me to bring to school. They printed out the paper, complete with a picture of a toilet, an apple, water, etc, so that I could communicate to my teachers by pointing to the respective picture on the card. They taught me how to use the card, but I did not care. My excitement level was too high, blinding me from the reality of my language barrier.

I came to the first day of school excited and left confused and upset. I missed my old life, my old friends, my old customs and language.

Thankfully, being the kid that I was, I quickly moved on because that’s what children do. Children forgive and forget. I made some new friends, attended ESL classes, and for the most part, I assimilated to American culture. There was still a part of me that never forgot that Chinese was my first language and always will be though. My parents enrolled me in Chinese school that held classes from 1-5 pm every Sunday… it was also an hour away from where I lived. I gladly attended Chinese school every week and happily completed Chinese homework and did not complain about the long commute. I loved Chinese school, it felt more like home, like Taiwan. People there spoke Chinese and I could understand without struggle. I still loved my culture, but I was also slowly trying to become the American kid I needed to be to fit in at school.

There is a distinct memory that remains clear in my mind that I cannot forgive myself for to this day. When I was in first grade, my parents made me bento boxes for lunch to bring to school, filling my lunchbox with my favorite traditional Chinese foods. I would eat these treats as much as possible, whenever I could. I used to get so excited to see what delicious food my parents had packed me for lunch. One day, my parents packed me what I remember as some kind of dumplings. Dumplings were one of my favorites, but their smell can be pungent. One of my classmates felt the need to comment on the grossness of my lunch. I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to be mean, because now I realize that children tend to repel anything unfamiliar. I still loved the dumplings, but that was the day I started doubting myself and being ashamed of my culture.

After third grade, I no longer had to attend ESL classes and I was proud of it. I was proud I fit in perfectly with the other kids who grew up in America. By that time, I had already forgotten a lot of Chinese. My parents would speak to me in Chinese and I would reply in English—a habit I had developed because I was trying to better my English. But one day, what used to be me trying to learn English turned into me not knowing how to speak Chinese. When I called my grandparents to wish them a Chinese New Year, I found myself speaking broken Chinese and struggling to find Chinese vocabulary I learned in Kindergarten.

Somehow, I was not concerned. I was actually proud to lose my roots. I became obsessed with fitting in at my American school and becoming as “normal” as possible. When I was in fourth grade, my friends from school rode their bikes past my house on a Sunday morning. They asked me to come out and play. I was dressed in my Chinese school uniform and ready to leave for Chinese school. I told them I couldn’t come because I had to go learn Chinese. I’m fairly certain what they said next completely annihilated whatever pride I had left of my Taiwanese heritage. When I told them that I had to study and that I have to go to Chinese school instead of coming out to play and riding bikes around the neighborhood (like we did pretty much every other day), one of my friends chuckled and said “your house is like a prison”. This one phrase started a decade of disagreement between my parents and I. I was not only ashamed of my culture and my language, I was angry at my parents for preventing me from building the social life and status I had worked so hard for. As a child, all I wanted was to be like all my friends and all my classmates. Sure, they had issues of their own, but was blind sighted. I hated my parents for forcing me to do hours of Chinese homework, math textbooks, khanacademy while my friends were out having fun.

I’m not exactly sure when this happened, but somehow I finally woke up. I realized that my parents only wanted the best for us. They wanted us to be successful in school and they wanted us to remember our roots. I no longer wish that they were more lenient and I no longer want to fit in in the way that I had wanted so badly before. Because of my teenage angst, my background, and therefore my desire to be just like everyone else, I missed so many opportunities. I think I finally realized how amazing my parents really were. Up until then, I thought I had it hard. They had forced me to move to a foreign country when I was completely unaware of American culture and customs. It was hard, but after years of disagreeing with my parents’ rules, I finally recognized that my parent’s had it harder. They moved to the United States after their undergraduate studies for higher education. Not only did they have to learn English after 20 something years of knowing only Chinese, they had to come here on their own. What they’ve built for themselves and for my sister and I from nearly nothing is actually incredible. They are amazing and inspire me everyday.

I’m grateful for my journey and my realization. I’m proud of finally embracing my culture, but in my search for identity, a lot of damage was already done. A couple years ago, I quit Chinese school and I stopped playing piano. I started doing different extracurriculars that and strayed from cultural activities I used to participate in all the time. I’ve pretty much lost most of my Chinese reading and writing abilities. While I can still (kind of) talk to my parents and relatives in Chinese, I wish I could understand more and communicate more effectively. I wish speaking my first language could be natural, as it once was.

It’s been a long time coming and I would truly never be who I am before if things had gone any differently. While I realize the cultural potential I never took the time to appreciate and develop was definitely a missed opportunity, I try to live without regret and focus on the present and the future. Today, I can proudly say that I am Taiwanese and I will forever be Taiwanese in my heart. However, I can also say that I am American. Chinese was my first language but English is now my main language. I’m not proud of everything I’ve been through and I’m ashamed of my previous fixation with rejecting my native culture to assimilate into American society but I’m deeply proud of my American Taiwanese identity and of all the lessons I have learned.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed my story! 🙂


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