Under the Phoenix Tree ///
This project is named after the beautiful delonix regis, also known in Chinese as the phoenix tree or 鳳凰樹. It blooms bright red flowers all over Taiwan at the start of the summer and end of the school year.
As a child, I cared very little about the idea of family history. “Asian”, “Chinese”, and “Taiwanese” were linguistic and cultural labels that separated me from being a true American. Rather, I consciously distanced myself from them because I wanted to assert my individuality in a sea of stereotypes. Growing up in a household where the cultures converged and collided was not only a source of joy and excitement, but of tension and confusion. I am too American, mentally and behaviorally, to ever belong in Taiwan, yet I am too “Asian,” physically and culturally, to fully call myself American. Having one foot in each world was to exist in the in-between; to inhabit the space between two cultures is to belong to neither. It was easier to simply ignore this other half.
But by doing so, I had gradually distanced my life away from the lives of my family. Half of my extended family lives in America while the other half lives in Taiwan. The physical distance and language barriers have made it difficult throughout the years to maintain strong ties and before video chatting it was rare to see one another. Conversations were brief and shallow; they rarely stretched past “how are you” and “work hard in school.” Taiwan was a peripherally detail, just a name of a place where my parents were from. I had visited a few times in the past, but never to understand the country in a historical and personal sense, but as a formality.
As I began to grow older and confront questions surrounding identity, I realized that I was missing a piece. During the month of June 2015 I returned to Taiwan because I wanted to learn about the second half of my culture I had disregarded while growing up in America. That perhaps, by learning about the stories of my family, I could find some answers to questions I had about my own identity. But before I could answer my own questions, I was curious about the lives of my parents: their birthplace, their walks to school, their joys, their sorrows, and their lives before they became a mother and father.
The story goes as follows: My grandparents are from Sichuan and Hunan, China and arrived in Taiwan with the Kuomintang in 1949. One settled in Tainan, the south, and the other settled in Hualien, the east. On both sides, they had six and five children. My parents were born and raised in Taiwan and moved to the United States in the 1980s, where they met in college. I was born and raised in New Jersey with my sister and a whole host of cousins.
I found piles of old negatives from my mother and father’s family archives tracing their childhood to young adulthood in the countryside of Taiwan. They were striking symbols of the passage of time, they served not only as nostalgic reminders of the past but were evidence of a life lived. These old negatives breached the vast distances of place and time that had previously separated my life from theirs. The photographs in this book trace my journey back to the country of my parents and the beginning of an understanding of what it means to be the daughter of immigrants.