How I Learned About My Roots

japanese empire

Although I was born in Japan to a Taiwanese-Japanese family that very originally came from southern China, it wasn’t until I was about 26 or 27 years old that I began to fully learn about my roots. A big reason was a lot of the history involved is really complicated in the first place, and that was compounded by the fact that my Mandarin and Japanese language abilities were/are not that advanced (so I didn’t really have a way to learn about it). Thankfully, others before me have memorialized similar experiences in book form (in English! yay), and it’s always more fun to hear/read about someone else’s problems! Funny how it took reading English biographies of strangers to understand my own family history:

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah
How a family’s choice to live where is more or less determined by outside events, namely geopolitical and cultural upheaval, and how it affects different members of the same family — everyone in my nuclear family grew up in a different place; it’s a bit of a wonder any of us got along because our individual sets of experiences were so different.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang
A century of China’s history in the context of three generations within the same family — my family history was not so epic, but each generation led such a different life than the one before it.

Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr
The KuoMinTang (KMT) takeover of Japanese-colony Taiwan drastically changed the direction of the island’s development — how my dad grew up in a different country than his parents, even though they were in the same exact location for both generations.

A Taste of Freedom by Peng Ming-Min
The autobiography of a Taiwanese man educated in colonial Japan, persecuted for sedition under Mandarin KMT regime, clandestinely escaped house arrest and sought refuge in Sweden, and settled in North America as a pioneer in international air law — funny, I identify most with Taiwanese intelligentsia in their 80s and 90s because of the Taiwanese-Japanese-English language/education factor (but sadly I lack the formal education and influential power).

I read a great many more books, but these four were probably the most enlightening of the bunch. Some of the stories may seem larger-than-life, but I know they’re fully true because many elements have been true for my family as well. Oddly, rather comforting while I was reading them because for once I didn’t feel so out of place — until I realized they all took place decades before I was born. So maybe I’m not so much ‘weird’ as I am a time traveler. Or maybe I’m both.

One thought on “How I Learned About My Roots

  1. stefan bathory

    I think I’ll read Falling Leaves, by Adeline Yen Mah. Your description of her book describes my family’s experience exactly. Your time-traveler description is also very appropriate as I’ve recently realized that language can become insular and isolated within an individual/family/small group when geopolitical or cultural transitions occur. I really respect and admire your introspection.

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