Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On democracy and oyster omelettes

A few weeks ago, my family ate at an Asian restaurant in Cupertino and chowed down on several Taiwanese comfort food dishes: bean thread noodles, oyster omelettes (also known as oyster pancakes) and steamed dumplings. The next day, I met up with a few fellow second-generation Taiwanese Americans in San Francisco and we reflected on what it was like to grow up as an Asian American in the Midwest and West Coast. 

There is a powerful connection between food and memory. Every time I eat Taiwanese food, I feel compelled to call my mom. So, feeling nostalgic, I called my parents in Ohio and we talked about my weekend of Taiwanese culture and the recent presidential election in Taiwan. My parents had been rooting for Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's first female presidential candidate. Our relatives in Taiwan, including my spunky 96-year-old grandmother had voted, while my parents followed election news on satellite TV. "We lost. It was close," my dad said. Both my parents cried. 

It was ironic that our conversation took place the weekend before Martin Luther King Day. I remember the first time I heard the word "We shall overcome" was as a child growing up in Cleveland. With heavy Taiwanese accents, my parents and their friends sang the words as they marched down Euclid Avenue to Public Square. They wore matching t-shirts and hoisted homemade signs that said "Democracy on Taiwan!" I have vivid memories of our family gathered in a basement with other Taiwanese families silkscreening dozens of those t-shirts. We hosted a party where all of us rounded our dining room table in an assembly line, folding, sealing and stamping letters to Congress petitioning support of Taiwan.

While I understood my parents' disappointment with the election results, I couldn't comprehend why they were so emotional about it. After all these years, there is still a language barrier between us when it comes to discussing emotions and complex topics. So I turned to a few of my Taiwanese American friends to get their perspective. 

Each of them reminded me that our parents grew up during World War II when Taiwan was under Japanese and then Chinese Kuomingtang (KMT) rule. Many of our parents, including my own, have bitter memories about the KMT, in particular. "The KMT seized property that belonged to my father's side of the family," my friend Vicki said. "My maternal grandfather was imprisoned for six months. My mother still gets emotional when she talks about it."

After growing up under martial law for many years, our parents dreamed of the day Taiwan would one day be independent. Many of them came to the United States for graduate and professional school opportunities. And then they stayed. By now, they have lived more years here than in Taiwan. They are U.S. citizens; they pay taxes, they vote, they serve jury duty (my dad raved about it!).

In the past decade, I've enjoyed a wonderful closeness to my parents, mostly because of my two kids. Where my mom and dad once were typical Tiger Parents with me, they are complete softies with the boys. My parents spent a lot of time caring for my boys when they were babies and I was at work, and as a result, I swear my older son's first word was "chocolate".

So even though I feel closer then ever to my parents, there is still a cultural gap between us. As a teenager, it frustrated me. As a middle-aged mom, it saddens me. I wish I could understand what they are going through. I can't help but wonder if my parents are giving up the dream of an independent motherland - and perhaps more than that. Is it about getting older? Is it about thinking my aging grandmother may have voted in her last presidential election? 

I wish I knew.


HapaMama said...

I also remember singing "We Shall Overcome"... at a Taiwanese youth camp. Taiwanese elections are definitely an emotional subject, especially with the current state of politics. Funny how food is such a trigger for so many Asian Americans. It's the language our parents spoke.

jude said...

i think that food is one of the closest connections we had, as Taiwanese American kids growing up in the Midwest, to our heritage. it's ironic that, as a kid, i wanted almost nothing to do with taiwanese home cooked food and now I crave and make it myself.

my sister and i constantly talk about how we can understand our parents better, especially now as we get older and have more perspective on life. we remind ourselves to uphold the language, the cultural practices and support their political views which only brings us closer to them and strangely, helps us to know ourselves better as that is at the core of who we are.

Lisa said...

HapaMama and Jude, thanks for your comments. What are your favorite Taiwanese foods?

jude said...

I'd have to say, Beef Noodle Soup or GBM as my sister and i like to call it. You know, for Goo Ba Mee. I also love any kind of dumpling and Yu Bung (glutinous rice with meat, shiitake and cilantro-i could do without the dried shrimp but my mom says its for flavoring! yuck.)

JULIA said...

Wow...looks like we're from the same area, Lisa! I came across your blog via stumbling upon the entry call poster for the upcoming exhibit that you're curating. Really enjoyed your Taiwanese food post - makes me nostalgic for Taiwan! Do you ever go back to Taiwan to visit? The food there is unbeatable...nothing compares to it, even the new batch of Taiwanese restaurants cropping up in the South Bay!

Lisa said...

Julia, I haven't been to Taiwan for five years. I am hoping to visit again soon! Thanks for checking out my blog and sharing a comment!