On New Year’s Day in 2019, in a parking lot of a strip mall in Atlanta, a crowd composed mostly of Taiwanese Americans gathered to observe the annual raising of the Taiwanese flag. Stark against a gray-white sky, the vermilion red and royal blue colors fluttered in wind and light rain as they ascended the flagpole. Two dozen or so aging men in garrison caps and orange vests stood at attention as a choir sang the national anthem of Taiwan, which in its first line, invokes the philosophical principles of Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party, commonly known as the KMT.
It’s a curious event to behold, if only because the KMT, once defined by its belief in Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China, saw the end of its near-century-long rule in 2000 and lost majority rule once again in 2016. Earlier this year, in January, the KMT lost Taiwan’s presidential election yet again, a crushing defeat in a race that had come to represent the future of the country’s national identity. In fact, the party no longer opposes eventual independence at all. And while the ceremony at hand would likely seem outdated even to many Taiwanese in present Taiwan—a relic as strange and as fraught as a Civil War reenactment—it wasn’t taking place in Taiwan, but rather in Georgia, squarely in the American South. The flag-raising is organized annually by John Yen, a tall lively Taiwanese-American immigrant who has, for the past six years, served as president of a loosely organized Taiwanese-American group that its members refer to as the Juancun Association.
The rain picked up as the choir moved on to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the energy of the event grew restless, the variable attention spans of those gathered shifting according to each generation’s relative attachment to its culture of origin. Small children chased each other, cackling in the rain; disgruntled teenagers in logoed hoodies tapped distractedly on their phones; and the elders of the crowd stayed resolute, keeping their eyes on the quickly dampening flag. Eventually, the rain picked up, cutting the ceremony short, and the onlookers were hurried into a nearby building for cover.
As I watched the crowd disperse, I felt opposing emotions rise within me: a sense of admiration for immigrants who remain dedicated to preserving their culture, even as they cultivate life in the United States, and a sharp pang of sadness as I understood that it is inevitable that parts of our cultural identities will disappear.
It was my parents who led me to the flag-raising. They are longtime members of the choir that performed at the event, traveling around Atlanta to sing Taiwanese anthems for various functions, and I have eagerly attended countless flag-raisings and other gatherings adjacent to this particular community over the past five or six years, feeling a deep, if abstract, empathy for its members and for its values.
None of this would be remarkable except that nobody in my family has a direct relationship with Taiwan. When they retired to Georgia from Tennessee, my parents, who emigrated from Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, wanted to find a Chinese-speaking community to join but felt that they did not connect with the members of organizations comprising mainland Chinese immigrants.
They told me that the culture of post-Revolution China was simply too different from the culture they remembered of their homeland; what I suspect they left unsaid is that observing what has changed about China since they left inevitably reminds them of what they lost and what forced them to leave. Instead, they said they felt more comfortable with this Taiwanese-American community and proceeded to embed themselves as best they could.
If I cannot speak to the exact chemistry between my very Chinese parents and Taiwan, I can tell you intimately of their reticence in regards to China, where they were persecuted for being capitalists, their homes raided, their belongings destroyed or stolen. After they came to the States, they spoke of the past and the unbearable trauma of their homeland as little as they could possibly manage. I am the only American-born member of the family, and growing up, I felt like I embodied a gaping hole, that there was some fundamental piece of me missing, lost before I could ever understand what it even was.
And yet during my childhood, every four years, my family enthusiastically gathered in front of the television to observe the democratic Taiwanese elections, to track polls and analyze candidates. I tried to fill the gap of what I did not know of my Chinese identity by studying Chinese at the University of North Carolina and attempting to make friends with what few Chinese Americans were around in that part of the Southeast. My first job offer out of school was a junior reporting assignment at Xinhua in Beijing, but my parents warned me away from it. “You must never return to China,” my mother admonished. And yet ever since I left college, as I moved from North Carolina to D.C. and finally to New York, my father and I have hung matching Taiwanese flags from the tops of our respective bookshelves.
Part of the reason, perhaps, that my parents feel particularly comfortable easing into this Taiwanese-American community has to do with the unique extraction of its members, who, like my parents, feel that their Chinese identity is culturally distinct. For my parents, the distinction has to do with growing up before the Cultural Revolution. For their Taiwanese counterparts, it is an unerring devotion to the KMT party and its original values, born of the fact that, for all intents and purposes, they are the KMT. Or, more specifically, they are the children of the KMT military families who fled to Taiwan after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, at the hands of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China, in 1949.
Their families were supposed to remain only until the KMT returned to war on the mainland to reclaim China—instead, their hastily built villages, known as Juancun, became a permanent home. Over the decades, segregated from the rest of Taiwan, the structures fostered a Chinese identity in stasis, which is why those who grew up in the Juancun now resolutely identify as Chinese, despite having grown up in Taiwan and eventually leaving for the United States. It is also why they are vehemently anti-independence, even as the political ideology of China, Taiwan, and the party itself continues to evolve.
“The difference is, we love China,” John Yen, the president of the Juancun Association, who organized the flag-raising, told me when I asked him if he might explain what made his community distinct from other Taiwanese Americans, or from Chinese Americans of the mainland.
“The number-one thing about people who grew up in the Juancun is an acceptance of all kinds of people,” he said. Because the Juancun members had originally come from all over China, and had their own distinct dialects and cultures, multiculturalism and tolerance were the rule. Before Mandarin became the lingua franca of China, the people of the Juancun villages had already adopted the common language so that they might communicate with each other.
He organized the Juancun Association in Atlanta with these values in mind, going so far as to reject funding from outside organizations, though he might easily apply for assistance from say, the Taiwanese Embassy. He feared that accepting money from outside organizations would make prospective members wary of the group’s political influences. “It’s just a couple friends,” he said. “You take a hundred dollars, this time, next time you give a hundred dollars. Easy”
He said he wanted to stay apolitical, and I raised an eyebrow, given how deeply entrenched the Juancun community’s identity was in the politics of the KMT party and in the belief in Chinese nationalism. But he chastened me, emphasizing that it was more important for the group to reflect the spirit of the Juancun villages he grew up in, where anyone might feel accepted.
He asserted that he felt politics only served to divide people. And it’s with this eye toward inclusion that he’s grown his organization quickly in the past few years. Yen estimated that today there are around three hundred members, and that about two hundred are active participants who attend his monthly walks—not only Juancun members, but increasingly Mainland Chinese, like my parents, Taiwanese Americans, and non-Chinese, too.
I asked whether his children or the children of the Juancun members were interested in participating in the events he organized or carrying on the values of the community, and he laughed as he said no. Surely he had to be concerned that there wasn’t any direct lineage to pass his culture on to?
“They already don’t care, they’re American!” he said, laughing. Then he paused for a moment, in reflection. “I just want for them to know they are Chinese,” he said.
But what does it mean to be Chinese? The question looped in my head as I spent more time with Yen and with other members of Atlanta’s Juancun community, who often invoked their pride in being Chinese. I began to realize that the question dogged me, not because Yen and his cohort were vague about the answer, but because I have been asking the same question since I was a child growing up without a clear answer in the notably non-Chinese regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
It is strange now, in retrospect, to think of my predicament—growing up disconnected from my own history and identity—against the backdrop of the American South, where the struggle of leaving behind the past is fraught and similarly wrapped up in identity. I, too, knew what it was like to long desperately for a past that couldn’t be mine, and I knew that attempting to abandon that longing only made my grief greater and, at times, more delusional. Yet I had no claim to Southern longing either, as much as I could sympathize with it and try to assimilate by putting on an unconvincing accent and drinking sweet tea. And so I felt the losses grow exponentially within me until I eventually thought of myself as a person who was primarily defined by the things she wasn’t.
But as a child, I simply felt the alienation in my body. In an environment where race relations and culture seem to break so neatly into black and white, there was little room to understand what it meant to be anything but those. I knew I was not Chinese, but I wasn’t Southern either, though I badly wanted to be both, to belong to something that came before me, even if it was opaque, even if it was troubling.
The longer I spent with members, I began to see that in some deep unconscious way, this is what drew me to the Juancun community, and perhaps what drew my parents to them, too. Chinese people who were not Chinese, in any easy definition of the term, who seemed defined entirely by what they had lost. It intrigued me that they had made a home in the South, a place that represented an additional loss I had not been able to bring myself to continually bear, dreaming every day of New York City, until I could and finally did leave. I wanted to know how, unlike me, they could stand to stay.
Among the members of the Juancun community, I found myself intrigued by Sabrina Mao, who speaks in an English inflected with a deep Georgia drawl and appeared at nearly all the Juancun-related events I attended, dancing at a New Year’s Eve ball, sitting in solemn reflection at the flag-raising. Her house is cozy with religious bric-a-brac: a framed scroll of the Beatitudes rendered in inky Chinese calligraphy, her collection of ceramic angels cluttering the mantel. I was curious to hear about her devotion to the community, and I wanted to ask her if she felt a sense of disappointment, knowing that the culture of the Juancun community would most likely disappear with her generation.
So I was surprised and a little bit bewildered when she instead mostly wanted to speak about her involvement in the Catholic community. She told me that she had grown up in a Juancun village in Taiwan before moving to the United States at the age of twenty to attend the University of New Hampshire. She never returned to Taiwan.
But by the time she retired from BellSouth, a telecommunications company in Atlanta, she began to feel as though she’d never really served “her people”—by which she meant the Chinese community—and became drawn toward organizing on behalf of Chinese-speaking Catholics in the area. She started by inviting English-speaking priests to celebrate Eucharist for local Chinese Catholics, translating into Mandarin on their behalf. Now, decades later, she is helping to manage an entire Chinese Catholic church that she had a large part in building.
When we finally got around to talking about the Juancun community, she expressed a fondness for Yen and his work as president of the Juancun Association. She also expressed a certain frustration, recalling that when Yen was elected, she told him that she didn’t feel that the association did anything. Impatience lingered in her voice. “I told him, it’s meaningless to me, unless you have a purpose.”
I drove out to the Flight School of Gwinnett, where I planned to visit Mark Lee, a twenty-eight-year-old whom I’d met at a New Year’s Eve function attended by many Juancun members. He had drawn my attention at that party, many months ago, because he was much closer to my age than anyone else in the room, the youngest person there by a few decades. That night, he told me he’d even lived in a Juancun. While I assumed that he might have different viewpoints from those seated around him at the table, when I’d asked him if he identified as Taiwanese, he shook his head, told me that of course he was Chinese, and, like the older generation, didn’t wish to elaborate any further.
Outside, heat waved upon the pavement of a small airfield where planes periodically taxied, took off, and returned. Lee had only arrived in the States about six months earlier, to earn his pilot’s license at the flight school. That day, he was practicing for an exam that required him to wear a hood as he flew only according to his instrument panel. I wandered outside with him and watched as he checked the Cessna’s propeller.
Lee told me that his grandfather came to Taiwan with the Juancun generation. His father eventually became a pilot in the KMT air force. But when I asked him if it was his father’s influence that inspired him to fly planes, he vigorously shook his head—he wanted to fly airliners, there was no relationship. He popped into the cabin of the plane with his flight instructor, and I wandered back inside to watch from the porch of the school.
As Lee taxied down the runway, I kept trying to connect the dots between his air force heritage and his current interest in piloting. It felt so obvious to me that one set the stage for the other. How could Lee be so resistant to admitting it? But as his plane took off and became a pinprick in the sky, I pondered my own insistence that Lee draw a line between his past and his present and wondered how my own childhood anxieties fueled the line of questioning.
Perhaps it was Lee’s ease with losing the thread that was profound. I thought about Mao’s insistence on purpose beyond preservation and Yen’s insouciance when it came to the future of his association, and I saw for the first time that their lives all shared the urgency of letting go of what came before in order to forge on in the present moment. The past is palpable in their lives, in their hopes for the future, not because of some shrewd determination, but rather the steady faith that we all come from somewhere, from someone.
It wasn’t until later that I let go of my own narrative of a missing past. I was home for Christmas with my family, and over a game of mahjong my father grew restless and distracted. He announced that he couldn’t bear to play so long as the Taiwanese elections were being reported. And I felt my excitement grow, too, as I asked him about the latest polls, who was projected to win. I cannot begin to explain our enduring fascination with Taiwanese politics, cannot tell you an origin story or a reason why. All I know is that this is one way that my Chinese family loves and belongs to one another.
My final meeting with Yen was at one of his walks last spring. He was wearing camouflage shorts and a bright red button-down shirt, stringing up signs with the logos of restaurants that had donated food for after the walk. It would be another hour or so before the first attendees would arrive, and we spoke meanderingly about how he’d been since I last saw him, his plans for the future.
Lately, he told me, he’d been working with a few members of the association to gear up for the 2020 American elections. “In Taiwan,” he said, “we had a bad reputation for not participating in local politics, in local government.” He wanted to use his organizational base in the coming year to get out the vote among his members and their larger networks. “We didn’t do it in Taiwan, but we can do it here.” As we walked in the woods he mused that the landscape there looked remarkably similar to that where he grew up.
“You know, I’ve been doing this a long time,” Yen said. “I used to organize trips through the mountains on Youth Day.” He spoke about how perhaps this is why he gravitated toward organizing this hike, a part of his past brought forward. Just a group of people, regardless of identity or homeland, traveling along a path together.
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