A version of this piece was originally published on TaiwaneseAmerican.org in November 2011.
What does the next generation of Taiwanese Americans look like? All I have to do is take a look at my kids for some clues. Like my sons, a growing number of third-generation Taiwanese Americans are mixed-race.
I started HapaMama in 2008 after many conversations with friends – many of them Gen X Taiwanese Americans like myself—and realizing that we had many similar experiences of navigating cross-cultural relationships and raising children in a multicultural environment. In case you’re not familiar with the term, “hapa” stems from the Native Hawaiian term hapa haole, which literally means half-white. Today, mixed-race Taiwanese run a diverse range of ethnic blends; there are White, Latino, Black Hapa children, as well as families that have adopted kids.
While passing on culture and identity can be challenging for any second generation Taiwanese Americans, being in a multiracial or multiethnic family brings additional twists. Some may lament the rising intermarriage rates, but in certain ways, cross-cultural relationships help make us really aware of our Taiwanese-ness, as it is constantly juxtaposed against what is not, from minor everyday peccadillos, such as whether or not to wear shoes in the house to major lifestyle decisions, such as educational philosophy, and eventually, how to care for aging parents.
Thanksgiving, as any major holiday, presents interesting food and cross-cultural exchanges. Having spent my early childhood in the Midwest, I always thought our family celebrated the holiday in a typical American fashion. Like many first generation Taiwanese Americans, my parents were among the wave of immigrants who came to the United States as graduate students after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. They landed in South Dakota, then moved to Michigan. There were no 99 Ranch Markets back in those days, and they had to adapt to what was available at Kroger or Meyer’s.
My husband and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving 17 years ago, just a few weeks after our honeymoon. If I made a film about our early holiday experiences, it could be titled, My Big Fat WASP-y Thanksgiving. There were some learning moments. As in my family, I took a small portion of each dish – to look polite, right?— expecting to refill my plate later during the meal. However, as I sat there with an empty plate and a grumbling stomach, I noticed that the serving dishes were scattered all over the long, rectangular table, and no one else was reaching for seconds.
The tables are often turned, as I find myself explaining to people what “Taiwanese” is: the history, the language, the food (No, it’s not pad thai.) It’s not always easy to explain to adults, much less elementary school aged children. As my own kids grow older, I find it increasingly important to share what I know of Taiwanese culture. I don’t speak, read or write Mandarin or Taiwanese fluently, and I have a hard time remembering the right term for my third oldest uncle on my mother’s side. We tried Chinese school for a while, but after several years of begging, pleading and threatening over bo po mo fo, we decided that was not for us.
I try to work in cultural literacy into our daily lives, teaching my kids about the differences in Asian and Western mores and communication styles. We take advantage of living in the Bay Area by attending events at the Taiwanese American Community Center. And of course, we partake in Taiwanese food.
They say you are what you eat, and food is one of the ways that we can pass on those ties. This Thanksgiving, we will serve sweet potatoes and sticky rice yu beng along with turkey and stuffing. The sweet potato is a history lesson that goes down easily, thanks to its own spoonful of sugary goodness. The yam-pineapple-marshmallow casserole is simultaneously very American, and oddly appropriate for a family of Taiwanese immigrants. We will remind our children that the island’s early settlers survived on the hardy orange tuber when rice was scarce and expensive.
As the third-generation of Taiwanese Americans grows up, they will need more than anecdotes about yams to develop their own identities. We will continue to figure things out as we go along. There isn’t really an instruction book for raising mixed-race kids. Then again, there wasn’t really an instruction book for moving to a new country and raising your family there. But we will figure it out. After all, that’s what our parents did before us.