He approached me on the MRT, the train system in Taipei. It was my first summer back after a year of college in the U.S., and I was completing an internship in the city I’d lived in for most of my life.
My internship was at the same station as my high school, and it was comforting to soak in the familiarity of an old routine. But the turnstiles had now all been renovated, and new barriers had been erected on the platforms.
The multilingual train announcements followed the same script, but had been updated to sound more upbeat.
Everything was just slightly off beat, like the way the ticking never quite matches up with the blinking of a turn signal light.
I didn’t realise how desperate I was for some sense of belonging until that summer day.
A white man stood next to me, but I paid him no mind though I could feel him glancing at me.
Like in most major cities, you don’t talk to strangers on public transportation here.
Besides, Taipei had become a hub of tourist traffic in recent years; I was accustomed to the way white Western tourists adapted to being the minority for the first time.
‘Do you speak English?’
Born in Washington State to Taiwanese immigrants, I’m a dual citizen of both Taiwan and the U.S. We relocated several times, to New Jersey, Taichung, Brisbane, and then Taipei. At one point my birth father worked in London, so I would split my time between the crashing thunderstorms of Taipei and the perennial drizzles of London. Thirteen years after leaving America, I started college in Connecticut.
The moment I landed at JFK, I regretted the decision to return. I wasn’t American anymore, not really.
‘Do you speak English?’
My head snapped up. There was no greeting, no valiant albeit awkward attempt at ‘nihao’. Just a sudden question in American English, an assumption that I spoke the language disguised as a question.
It was rude and Americentric of him, of course, but I jumped at the opportunity to speak English, to feel some sort of comraderie again. I told myself he was probably a lost tourist who needed help.
‘Yeah, I do.’ I replied.
‘Oh, wow. Your accent is really good.’
‘Thanks. I’m from New Jersey.’
My first few days at college, I learned quickly that I couldn’t say I was from New Jersey.
What started as a way to fit in became a head-on collision into a neon sign that said ‘FOREIGNER’. I knew nothing about New Jersey apart from some hazy memories and basic research I’d done in my quest to become more ‘authentically American’.
When pushed for details about my supposed home state, my cover was blown, my lie exposed.
For the most part, though, I seemed American. Well, apart from the whole Asian-Americans-As-Perpetual-Foreigners thing.
Despite my actual hybrid Australian-British-American accent, I could now speak with a perfectly manicured American accent, cultivated from cinematic classics such as High School Musical and The Devil Wears Prada.
I observed how locals behaved and casually followed suit, a trick learned from relocating so frequently.
Turns out you can only learn so much watching Meryl Streep boss people around.
I was much more Taiwanese than even I had thought. Sure, I’d expected to struggle a bit with college-level writing after nine years of Taiwanese public school, but I spoke English at home and in London.
I didn’t expect to have Chinglish tumble out or to struggle with American idioms. On top of that were the words I didn’t realise were particular to British English.
I was so foreign even my English was the wrong kind.
I told myself that maybe he, too, missed the familiarity of speaking English freely, of knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it. We made small talk, chatting about cultural differences between the U.S. and Taiwan.
‘You’re really pretty, by the way.’
My heart stopped.
‘You seem like an outdoors kind of girl.’
I flashed the brief, tight-lipped smile familiar to too many women. ‘I do?’
‘Yeah, you have a kind of healthy, golden glow.’
The train pulled up at my stop. I got off. So did he.
‘Your skin has a nice, warm tan to it.’
I didn’t know what else to say except thanks and keep my eyes forward and my pace brisk. I knew about pickup artists who came specifically to Asia.
I wasn’t American to him. Just a chunk of Asian meat.
Guilt replaced the fear when he finally left. Sure, it was horrible to be fetishised, but I’d thrown other people under the bus by emphasising my Americanness and hiding my Taiwaneseness.
It took being so blatantly otherised in order for me to really register how deeply I’d been socialised to believe the myth of American exceptionalism despite having lived outside of the U.S. for most of my life.
I routinely ignored strangers yelling at me in Asian languages in America, yet responded amicably to this laowai, this a-tok-á, instead of rejecting his Americentrism.
I’d felt proud to prove that I was American, that I was different from everyone else here, these Taiwanese, these foreigners who had called me an a-tok-á.
Looking back, I can see why. I’d always favoured my Americanness, even when I didn’t truly identify as such.
I’ve felt the negative effects of American exceptionalism as a Taiwanese woman, yet I’ve also reaped the benefits of being an American citizen.
From ‘deciding’ to be solely American in middle school to this encounter on the MRT, my attempts to highlight my Americanness in favour of my other identities merely fuel American exceptionalism and deflect xenophobia to others rather than challenge it.
Embracing the ambiguity and messiness of my identities can be a way to start dismantling the myth of American exceptionalism both in others and in myself.
I was blessed with an international upbringing, one that questions the rigidity of borders between cultures and identities, one that showcases the beauty and ugliness and singularity and universality of different societies.
There’s no need to choose, because there’s no particular part of my identity that is inherently more valuable than another. Not the Taiwanese part, nor the Australian part, and certainly not the American part.
There’s no need to choose. I can simply be, in all my complexity.
And you can, too, dear reader. We live in an age where feminist rhetoric isn’t enough, especially not when it tends to elevate the most privileged among us, overlooking the most vulnerable.
We are all chaotic combinations of privileges and oppressions.
I’m a queer neuroatypical Taiwanese woman; I was scared of this white male stranger when he began chatting me up and walking in the same direction as I did.
That fear is totally legitimate and valid and understandable. But I failed to see that being American also put me in a safer position to challenge his Americentrism.
Yes, finding the balance between keeping yourself safe and standing up for others is hard.
Yes, it’s scary to put yourself on the line when you’re also part of a marginalised identity.
But we need to step up for one another, and that means being vulnerable and afraid at times in order to stand for what’s right.
So stay open to adjusting your internal compass as you embark on one of the most personal journeys you’ll ever have. Consider the context of the situation at hand and the power dynamics at play.
Lean into the messiness, the tangled web of clashing colours that constitute your being. They might not be pretty, but they’re uniquely you.
Besides, pretty is overrated anyway.