Between Two Worlds

ruin-541153_1920As a second-generation American who’s bilingual in English and Mandarin and barely conversational in Taiwanese, I’m not that far removed from Taiwan, my parents’ home country. However, my sense of conscious connection to Taiwan is just now emerging.

It began after my therapist, who has been treating me for complex-PTSD since April, asked me a question: “Do you know much about your parents’ history?”  While I had a shadowy knowledge of their familial histories, I had to admit to knowing very little that helped me understand them, even though my parents are both living and we communicate regularly. He encouraged me to consider Philippians 1:9: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” Oftentimes, he said, gaining the right knowledge and insight enables our love for people to abound in places where it currently falters.

So I prayed for greater insight. And as I was praying, I was struck by the realization that I knew virtually nothing about Taiwan’s history. I was a history major in college and now frequently teach on the importance of historical literacy, so I found both my ignorance and even previous lack of self-awareness about my ignorance in this area to be rich with irony. Wasting no time, I started researching.

ForbiddenNationI wanted to know about more recent history first – the history that affected my parents and grandparents – so I began by learning about the Japanese colonial rule that started in 1895 and lasted until 1945. I learned about how Japan inserted Japanese nationalism into the school curriculum, operated a strict system of ethnic apartheid, and attempted to eradicate Taiwanese culture in order to create a race of dutiful, second-class Japanese citizens, even as it introduced agricultural, industrial, and economic advancements into the country. I also learned that during those 5 decades, there were 19 major uprisings that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and just as many arrests and imprisonments.

I met my maternal grandparents, who were born into Japanese occupation, in 1982, the first and last time my parents took my brother and me to Taiwan to meet our relatives. My parents had made a strategic choice to teach my brother and me Mandarin instead of Taiwanese, thinking that it would serve us better in the future; but it meant that I wasn’t able to communicate with my grandparents, who spoke only Taiwanese and Japanese. While I had picked up a fair amount of Taiwanese from hearing my parents speak it to each other at home, I had never attempted to speak it and, as a result, was utterly tongue-tied when my grandmother asked me what I wanted to drink. Unable to produce the Taiwanese word I needed, I answered “apple juice” in Mandarin. She smiled and shrugged, offered me some other beverage that I happily accepted, and that was the last time I ever interacted with her.

Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan ended in 1945 with the defeat of Japan in World War II. Taiwan was handed over—as a spoil of war—to the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party. The period of transition following Japan’s surrender was turbulent. On October 15, 1945, American transport ships brought 12,000 KMT troops to Keelung. But they were mostly very young, undisciplined, unkempt, and illiterate. Instead of treating the local population on the island as a liberated people, they treated them with hostility as enemy collaborators.[1] They looted businesses and seized property, goods, and assets. My own grandparents had a significant portion of their land and assets seized by KMT operatives. Allan Shackleton, a New Zealander assigned to Taiwan as an Industrial Rehabilitation Officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, was an eyewitness to the conditions in Taiwan after World War II. In Formosa Calling, he described the following:

Opinions differ as to the exact number of police organizations working independently on the Island. Many of the Government Departments have their own police, some of which operate secretly and some openly, but all are armed. I had knowledge of four; viz., military, civil, court police and customs police, but it appears that each of these can have several sub-divisions, all working independently but having no definite line of division between the various responsibilities. All are able to arrest the ordinary citizen—and the Formosans soon found that if they wished to keep out of jail they had to keep on paying “squeeze” to several of the various kinds, because as fast as one kind of police was satisfied another kind would come and make accusations.[2]

Before long, as you can imagine, public resentment ran high. Tensions peaked in February of 1947. After a series of violent events took place on the streets, General Chen Yi, who had been appointed governor of Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek, declared martial law on February 28th, 1947. Unfortunately, military patrols started firing indiscriminately at anyone they saw as they drove through Taipei, which incited a full-on insurrection. A week later, at Chen’s request, 13,000 troops from China landed on the island and began a brutal campaign of shooting, bayoneting, and raping among the civilian population. All who were considered leaders of Taiwanese society – businessmen, lawyers, teachers, newspaper editors – were rounded up.  Many of them were publicly tortured, mutilated, and executed. At the conclusion of this orgy of violence, at least 28,000 people had been killed. Thousands more were arrested and detained over the ensuing months. This entire event is now known as the Two-Two-Eight incident, named after the date when hostilities erupted. Martial law was re-established in 1949 and lasted until 1987. My dad emigrated to the United States in 1969, my mother in 1971.

I had a chance to tell my parents recently that I’ve been learning about the history of their country. At first, my mom laughed and said, “Oh, it’s too complicated.” But when she realized I was engaged in a serious exercise, she told me quite a few things I had never heard before, including how she was almost killed in an air raid when she was a little over a year old. “What?!” I exclaimed.

Toward the end of World War II, the United States launched a massive series of air raids against the Japanese over Taiwan. Many Taiwanese families had resorted to creating makeshift shelters in the ground where they could hide during the raids. One day, my mom and her siblings were at my great great grandfather’s house when one of the bombing runs began. Everyone ran to the shelter, but in the panic, my mom, who wasn’t old enough to walk yet, was left in one of the rooms of the house. Once the others were all crowded into the shelter, her oldest sister realized that my mom wasn’t with them, and she ran back out to grab her, making it back to the shelter with her just before a bomb detonated in that room. I have to admit, it’s a little strange to consider the fact that my very existence might have been prevented as a result of the military action of my own country, the United States.

The Two-Two-Eight Incident happened on the heels of World War II, when many people in the country were still trying to recover from having all their property, assets, and belongings destroyed during the U.S. bombing raids. My mom explains that the whole country experienced a long period of anxiety-ridden subsistence living. Two of my older cousins went clam digging at a nearby lake every day, and that would be their food for the day. The sociopolitical climate was so volatile, she tells me, that her father, my grandfather, was a nervous wreck any time either of her older brothers had to go out and run an errand. There were regular air raid drills at school.

The only hope for anything beyond a physical-survival-oriented life was to get an education, and opportunities for that were few and far between. It cost money that most people didn’t have. And for those that could afford it, the competition was fierce. My dad’s 2 older sisters both worked 16-hour days, 7 days a week, in order to pay for his middle-school education. Neither of them ever got past elementary school. It was an even more select group that made it all the way through college and got to apply for graduate studies in the United States after the U.S. passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed previously existing restrictions to immigration from Asia. “So the Taiwanese people who are here in the U.S. really aren’t representative of Taiwanese people at large,” I said, stating the obvious to my mom. She chuckled and said, “Oh, heavens no. We were just lucky.”

My therapist was right. This newfound insight into the history of my people and my ancestors has proven to be incredibly healing, and that has enabled my love to abound more and more. For the first time in my life, my parents – the way they are – make sense to me. As a result, my life is making sense in new ways.

[1] Manthorpe, Jonathan. (2005). Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
[2] Shackleton, Allan J. (1998). Formosa Calling: An Eyewitness Account of the February 28th, 1947 Incident. Manchester, United Kingdom: Camphor Press Ltd.

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