On returning to the motherland
Albert processes guilt, family, and sacrifices incurred in decolonizing one's mind; plus, an extraordinary imperialism syllabus
Michelle’s post last week about moving to Taiwan struck a chord. We’ve received a flood of messages from readers around the world who have struggled with similar issues: marriages where one partner has to move for the other, parents who disapprove of children moving “back” to their home country. We’re gathering some of these messages for next week’s newsletter; if you’re interested in sharing your reactions or impressions, please write us at email@example.com. Let us know if you’d like to be anonymous or identified by your first or full name, and feel free to provide a link to your social media or other work.
For his reflection this week, Albert draws upon some material for a piece that he wrote for The News Lens, a wonderful bilingual publication on Taiwan. Many thanks to Nicholas Haggerty for encouraging us to write and publishing them. We also want to give a shout-out to our terrific editor Daniel Levin Becker, who worked through these particularly challenging pieces with generosity.
How to follow Michelle’s beautiful and vulnerable piece from last week? I feel like I shouldn’t even try. As she said, I’m a pretty private person, and writing in a confessional mode doesn’t come naturally to me. I feel nauseous even now trying to string together some words. (I asked her to ghostwrite this for money or, failing that, shoot me; she declined both propositions.) Anyway, here goes.
Michelle said so much about the fights we had around the decision to move to France: the excruciating loop, the deep resentment. All of that is real, almost too much so. But she didn’t talk much about the guilt and shame the counterpart of the “trailing spouse” feels. (I tried to find a term for the non-trailing spouse, but Google gave me nothing. Trailer spouse? Leading spouse? Selfish, terrible spouse?) For instance, she mentioned our fight where the word dominating slipped out of her mouth to describe how she would have thrived had we stayed in the states. I disarmed the argument by calling her a tech bro—works every time, really—but deep down I know she’s right.
When I first met Michelle, I was blown away to see her advocacy in action. At an annual gala of Centro Legal de la Raza, the nonprofit that brought her to the Bay Area, I heard undocumented families speak about how the organization had helped them stay together. When she started clerking for a judge and working on the case of a mentally disabled person whom police had coerced into a confession, I sat next to her as she read and re-read the transcripts of the police interrogation, well into the night. The judge’s dissent eventually led to a rehearing and release from prison. This was a person making real change in the world—unlike me. Sure, we can talk all we want about the liberating effects of education, but she was able use her words to literally free somebody from jail.
She didn’t mention this last week, but by devoting herself to public service Michelle built a fascinating and eclectic circle of friends—elite, yes, but united by a critical distance from their own ambition. One weekend we’d see a friend at the ACLU who was working to get Mohamedou Ould Slahi out of Guantanamo Bay; the next we’d talk with a blind Iranian-American state senator who would eventually become lieutenant governor of Washington State. I don’t say this to brag about Michelle—well, not only to brag—but rather to observe that before we came to France she spent her entire career making intentional choices about the communities she wanted to be part of. And these decisions weren’t easy ones: for instance, becoming a teacher and later declining an offer from a corporate law firm hurt her relationship with her parents, whose approval she has always sought but who balked at her choices. For my part, I’m the child of a professor; I grew up in a university setting and I was privileged to be able to stay on a fairly narrow academic path. When people ask me how I became an academic, I usually say it was lack of imagination.
So when Michelle agreed to move with me to France, I was happy, of course—but I also felt an immediate sense of guilt at the prospect of interrupting a promising career, a painstakingly defined trajectory. At first, I rationalized: she had power and agency; she had chosen to move; I hadn’t pressured her into it. But weeks turned to months turned to years, and the guilt deepened. I saw the psychic and physical labor being away from the U.S. exacted as she stayed up late to participate in remote events or took exhausting trips to stay connected with the communities she cared about. In two years, she flew from Paris to Arkansas three times. She flew to North Carolina to see her grandma I don’t remember how many times. All the while she cared for her students, remaining the sort of professor they would come see in her office to have a cry and a hug. It seemed to me like she was trying to have two careers, one in the U.S. and one in France. It seemed like she was trying to prove to people, or to herself, that she had lost nothing, abandoned nobody.
When your partner moves for your career and winds up unhappy, you begin to question everything. I began to wonder whether my decision to move us here was driven by some unpurged, unconscious misogyny or anti-feminism. Had I just assumed that her following me was the logical, natural thing to do? For all the feminist historians and writers I had read, why hadn’t I insisted that we consider the possible repercussions of leaving the U.S.? Why hadn’t my parents, or hers? If our genders were flipped, would our families have consented so easily to the arrangement? Michelle’s brother was the only one who spoke up on her behalf, worrying aloud about how it would affect her career. And sure enough, when her friends’ careers began to skyrocket, my guilt deepened. “How long will we be here?” she asked. “Will any nonprofits hire a fifty-year-old who’s been out of the country for fifteen years?” She wept when she asked these questions, and I started to suspect that we’d jumped into this move without really thinking it through.
At the same time, she saw up close what my work meant to me. I loved being in a classroom, encountering students who challenged and broadened my worldview. I loved talking to colleagues who were embarking on new projects related to the history of democracy or colonialism or slavery and who had so much to teach me. I loved living in Europe, which is literally my area of study—I was closer to the archives I wanted to consult, which renewed my love for research. Indeed, one irony in our marital struggle was that in spite of herself Michelle developed a deeper respect for the sheer amount of work college professors do, especially those with heavy course loads—and, by extension, for me. It seems obvious to say that mutual respect is foundational to a relationship; the paradox was that in this case ours deepened even as the resentment grew. Another irony was that her sense of uncertainty about her future enabled her to empathize with and nurture students who felt lost: that her loneliness was part of what made her a remarkable teacher.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether Michelle’s sense of dislocation is particular to Asian Americans, who have grown up in a country that puts such a premium on belonging. I’ve never yearned to feel seen in the way she does. I could happily spend weeks alone, poring over archival documents and taking the occasional walk; I’ve always assumed belonging was achieved through reading. I don’t mind feeling alone. Maybe those of us from small proud countries like Taiwan, who go abroad but always plan to eventually return, know there’s an end date to our loneliness. In the meantime, we don’t expect to be embraced.
In any case, after we recommitted, as Michelle described last week, it seemed we had come to an understanding. We arrived somewhere, not just an impasse. With our brilliant colleague Hannah Taieb, we started teaching in a prison in Paris, and it felt like maybe Michelle could find ways of working with marginalized communities here as well. At one point she said, “Perhaps France is a good compromise between the United States and East Asia.” Maybe, I understood, we could envision building our lives here.
And then, around the same time, my mother got sick. I won’t go into the details, but it was more mental than physical. She’s barely left her house in three years. Last March, when governments across the world started issuing stay-at-home orders, Michelle and I joked that this would make her feel a bit more “normal”: now we were all agoraphobes. In my quarantine-fueled flights of fancy, I thought perhaps my mother, like the Taiwanese government, had gained the gift of prophecy, seen the pandemic coming, and decided to hide out in order to pave a path for the rest of us.
In the fall of 2019, a student in my class on medical history gave a presentation on melancholy. Plato, she explained, connected melancholy with a heightened state of spiritual awareness, a “divine gift”; Aristotle suggested that all great philosophers, poets, and artists were melancholic. Christian thinkers later extended this motif, arguing that religious melancholics, touched by the divine, could predict the future.
Looking at the depressed winged figure in Dürer’s Melencolia woodcut, I pictured my mother with her head in her hand, predicting the shooting comet. I remembered that a graduate school teacher of mine, the great intellectual historian Martin Jay, drew a connection between melancholia and apocalyptic thinking, both of which feature, as he writes, “deep and painful dejection, withdrawal of interest in the everyday world, diminished capacity to love, paralysis of the will, and most important of all, radical lowering of self-esteem accompanied by fantasies of punishment for assumed moral transgressions.”
If there’s a generation that embodies both apocalyptic and melancholic thinking, it’s my mother’s. She is what they call gōa-séng-lâng in Taiwanese, or waishengren in Mandarin: literally, “person from outside the province.” The term is technically obsolete, reflecting a moment when Taiwan had political institutions that designated it as a “province” of China. But the key part of the term is wai: outsider, stranger. The two million Chinese waishengren who emigrated to Taiwan after World War II were initially welcomed as victors who had come to reclaim the island from the occupying Japanese; four years later, they were losers who had been defeated by the Chinese Communist Party. More than half a million of these refugees were veterans of brutal wars, and among them was my mother’s father, a foot soldier in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army who arrived in Taiwan with one arm, the other having been blown off during the war.
My mother’s parents came from Hubei province—my grandmother was born outside of Wuhan, the city now synonymous with COVID-19—but the refugees came from all over China. Michelle’s grandmother, for instance, came from Beijing to Taiwan in 1948, with one suitcase in tow; the rest of her family couldn’t get out. Her deepest regret, as we’ve written elsewhere, was that she couldn’t take care of her aging mother, whom she never saw again.
Our grandparents’ generation didn’t just think about the apocalypse; they saw it. They watched the old world being wiped away. As for the island where they settled, they either knew little about it or considered it the boondocks; for many Chinese refugees, Taiwan was a cultural backwater full of “mountain people” and traitorous collaborators with the Japanese. The Nationalist government made it clear that their stay was not to be permanent, that they would eventually return to reconquer China, and they lived amid manifestations of this mindset of temporariness. One of my father’s friends remembers growing up in the 1950s in a city filled with ungrounded electrical wires. Michelle’s father recalls that he grew up thinking he had to be prepared to leave at any moment.
As it started to become clear that the dreams of return were just dreams, the meaning of waishengren also changed. For my parents’ generation, the name symbolized power—it was the coterie around Chiang Kai-shek, who dominated the halls of political influence and enforced martial law on a population they suspected of being loyal to Japan. The outsiders had become insiders, and they governed through terror and oppression, hunting their political opponents. Many Taiwanese elites—lawyers, doctors, and other Japanese-educated intellectuals—were dragged from their homes and executed. Leftists, many of whom had toiled underground during the years of Japanese colonization, were branded as Communist spies and thrown into unmarked graves.
The Chinese Nationalist government, viewing the locals as pro-Japan collaborators, tried in turn to eradicate Taiwanese culture. Children like my father were slapped or fined if they were caught speaking Taiwanese in school. Activists who fought for freedom of speech spent decades in jail; those who traveled abroad to argue passionately for democratization were mysteriously assassinated when they came home. Political oppression permeated the everyday. My father’s high school friend was shipped off to Green Island, Taiwan’s equivalent of Robben Island, for having books by Marx in his dorm room. To this day, my father can’t hide his resentment when he says the word waishengren. “Why did you marry one, then?” I once asked him. He paused. “Your mother isn’t one of those ‘high-class’ waishengren,” he told me. “She didn’t view us with contempt.”
I understand now what he meant. There were “high-class” waishengren who ran the country violently, but the majority—like my mother’s family—were poor and powerless. The Nationalist government allotted housing to military veterans by rank, and while generals lived in luxurious Japanese-style houses with private gardens, foot soldiers like my grandpa were shuffled into juancun, or “military dependents’ villages,” popularly referred to as “bamboo fences” because their boundaries were demarcated with the cheapest, flimsiest materials available. In the late 1950s, a deadly series of typhoons hit the island, washing away the bamboo, mud, and straw buildings and leaving many people homeless and destitute; only then did the government start to raise funds to build walls made of concrete and brick. (You can see this class difference in the masterful film A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang, my favorite filmmaker from Taiwan.)
These communal juancun are now places of public memory. In 2019 Michelle and I took our students on a two-week tour of Taiwan, and our tour guide took us to one that the government had designated a cultural heritage site. At a communal table surrounding a “northeastern hot pot funnel,” the guide explained that food in the juancun was a hodgepodge of flavors because refugees from all over China brought their distinctive cooking—Shandongese, Sichuanese, Hunanese, Shanghainese—to collective pots. Later, the students toured some of the buildings, which had been renovated, sanitized, and outfitted with military kitsch that made it clear how the Nationalist government had envisioned these everyday living spaces as sites of potential military mobilization, readying the population for their eventual re-conquest of China.
Later that week, I went to see my mother. Thinking I could cheer her up, I showed her pictures of our students dressed in military garb, posing for pictures at the juancun. She winced. “Why did you show your students these places?” she said. “There’s nothing good to be nostalgic about there.”
The Nationalist government assigned my maternal grandparents housing in Yuli, an area it had labeled “backward” and “hyper-endemic” with disease. My grandfather, the one-armed ex-soldier refugee, was always sick and became bedridden the year my mother entered high school. I sometimes have visions of my teenage mother tending to his bedsores, tilting his body to change the sheets. That fastidiousness continued into my childhood: whenever my brother and I came home from college, she would tell us she had brought the bedsheets up to the roof to get some sun, since it gets so damp and moldy in humid Taiwan. In retrospect, the first time I noticed something wasn’t right with her was when I visited and she told me she hadn’t taken the sheets up yet.
When my mother stopped leaving her house, one of my cousins suggested that maybe she was a germaphobe, and something clicked for me. The fear of mold and damp, the exhortations to put on mosquito spray, the appeals to constant vigilance toward cockroaches and ants: it wasn’t just Taiwanese culture the Chinese Nationalists wanted to destroy, but the environment as well. When Japan ceded Taiwan in 1945, the island was riddled with disease. A sixth of the population had malaria. The following year, a smallpox outbreak hit Taipei. Then came cholera. Parasitic worms found new hosts; more than 70 percent of children in my parents’ generation were infected with some type of “soil-transmitted intestinal nematode.” In some counties, infection rates ran as high as 99 percent.
From the 1950s on, the Nationalist government waged massive public campaigns against endemic diseases. Most spectacularly, it tackled malaria. With the backing of the Rockefeller Foundation and other international health organizations, it tested the efficacy of DDT throughout the country. Planes dropped it from the sky; military troops fanned out over the countryside to spray indoor surfaces. One historian estimates that this spraying directly affected five to six million people per year between 1954 and 1957. The government tended to go easy on “non-malarious” large cities, instead focusing its efforts on “hyper-endemic” rural regions like Yuli, where my mother and father lived.
Growing up, my mother would spray her bed with DDT; only when she was a teenager was she told that it was extremely dangerous and she should stop using it. A 2018 study concluded that women born in hyper-endemic areas between 1951 and 1957 have higher rates of breast cancer. My mother, born in 1951, would be diagnosed with it six decades later.
When I was a child, my mother was always reluctant to bring me to the traditional markets—now known, infamously, as “wet markets”—where chickens were slaughtered on the spot. She constantly warned me of the dangers of the Taiwanese environment; one of my harshest scoldings came when she discovered that I had bought fried chicken from a street vendor. The food and oil were so dirty, she yelled.
At the time, I thought her disgust was a remnant of her waishengren mentality, a sign that she had never truly loved anything Taiwanese. Only later, when I studied to become a historian, would I understand that this image of a diseased Taiwan has a centuries-old lineage: the Qing state saw it as a “land of miasma”; the Japanese called it an island of head-hunting savages, plague, and fever. Heinous as they were, the KMT government’s modernizing policies, which attempted to erase and destroy languages and practices it considered dangerous, were not without historical precedent.
It took still longer for me to realize that this view of Taiwan—as dirty, devoid of history and culture, destined to a marginal irrelevance—profoundly shaped my own education. In school I was taught only Chinese history; we barely learned anything about the history of Taiwan, its colonization by the Portuguese and the Dutch, its relations with China in the 1800s, the thirteen indigenous tribes at the root of its long history. We were also subjected to intrusive public health interventions each year, including the dreaded parasite test, where the homeroom teacher passed out a piece of cellophane with a blue bullseye on it, which we were to take home, tape to our butts, and bring back two days later covered in feces. I asked my mother once why we had to do this. “There are many parasites that can invisibly work their way into your body,” she told me.
Last summer, for a reading group some students and I organized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I reread Notes from a Native Son and found in it a familiar evocation of melancholy. James Baldwin writes that his father’s belief in the apocalypse led him to a life of bitterness and anger, rendering him unable to create a loving connection with his son. “Once this disease is contracted,” he writes, reflecting on his own fear of going places, “one can never be really carefree again.”
When was the last time my mother felt carefree? Perhaps she never did. Perhaps she was born with a variation of that disease. Around the time she stopped leaving the house, I read about epigenetic trauma, the idea that trauma can be passed down between generations: how cruel to think that, just as my grandfather was struck down by immobility and confined to his house, the same fate awaited her. I panicked, imagining a disease encoded in her DNA, suddenly activated after a lifetime of dormancy. What if I had inherited these damaged genes? What if I had already passed them on to my daughter? What if they’re just there, waiting to kick in?
But there’s a tonal shift toward the end of Baldwin’s essay, one I’d never noticed before, and it seems to me a way to reject this reading of my mother’s life. “The fight begins in the heart,” he reminds us, “and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.” I think of the times my mother fought actively against despair—like all the years it took her to overcome the hatred of Japan she had inherited from her father, a struggle she revealed to me the first time over a bowl of soba noodles the first time we ever visited Japan. Or like the way she devoted herself, after she retired, to the causes of indigenous peoples in Taiwan. She once told me it was only by working directly with them that she was able to let go of her childhood prejudices.
“It was necessary,” Baldwin writes, “to hold on to the things that mattered.” I think of all the times my father and my mother taught me what mattered. How my mother told me about the first trip she took to Taipei “as a country girl,” clutching a live chicken on her lap and throwing up because of the rocky bus ride. (She said this to comfort me; I often throw up on rocky car rides. We are made of the same body, she told me.) How she prepared me for my first school dance by teaching me how to move my feet and swing to the music, and how when I asked where she had learned this she told me of her college years, when she wore bellbottoms and went to secret dance parties and danced to American pop songs. How she pressured my father to study in the U.S. because she wanted to learn to speak English, and how years later my father, even though he had tenure at a prestigious university in the U.S., decided to give it all up and come back to Taiwan because he was an idealist who wanted to contribute to his country’s development. How, even though my mother wanted to stay, she supported his decision, because she ultimately agreed that they could make a greater change in Taiwan.
In my magical thinking, I imagine my mother’s self-confinement not as an act of apocalyptic withdrawal but as one of civic engagement: she saw the virus coming, saw that asymptomatic carriers could spread it far and wide, so she stayed home. But I know there’s a more practical explanation too: after a lifetime of rule-breaking, of decolonizing her mind, she’s tired. She’s taking a rest, preparing for the next fight.
When Michelle and my mother first met, I was surprised by the instant connection they forged. Initially I chalked it up to similar personalities; they recognized each other’s propensity towards self-interrogation, their mutually fierce commitment towards justice. But only recently have I realized that they’ve been walking parallel paths, coming to terms with geographical displacement and the sacrifices incurred when you work to decolonize your mind. My mother saw—perhaps, once more, clairvoyantly—the difficulties Michelle would encounter on her own journey.
To be clear, we’re not going back to Taiwan solely for my mother, who has never asked for or expected caretaking from either of us; to be clear, I have no illusions that my presence in Taiwan will magically change anything. I was offered a chance to do research full-time at an institute I admire, and I’m excited to have time to pursue work I’m passionate about. Like so many people, though, I think the pandemic has reoriented my thinking, bringing the intimate bonds of family closer to mind.
The wonderful Nick Haggerty asked me recently to write a piece for the International News Lens, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to meditate more extensively on my feelings of homesickness. As I write in that piece, the first time I felt it intensely was in 2014, as I tried from abroad to follow the Sunflower Movement, the PPT message boards, the livestreams of the occupation of the legislature. That year, the year she would be diagnosed with breast cancer, my mother put on a black T-shirt and a yellow armband and joined hundreds of thousands of ostensibly “anti-Chinese” activists, crossing ethnic lines, shedding her identity as a waishengren, proclaiming herself Taiwanese. Like Taiwan itself, she was in the process of becoming something, and I felt like I was being left behind.
So here we go again. Sorry, love. But you’re not the trailing spouse; we’re walking side by side. We are made of the same heart and will hold on to the things that matter.
Link for the week
We’re overjoyed to see dear friend and historian Radhika Natarajan’s extraordinary “Imperialism: A Syllabus” on Public Books, which she co-authored with John Munro. This innovative, ambitious, and far-reaching public syllabus will serve as a touchstone for scholars and students for years to come.
“No syllabus is neutral,” they write. Theirs “emphasizes approaches to empire that are anti-colonial.” They explain:
Opposition to imperialism unites the struggles of our times. From classrooms to city streets, it has never been more essential to engage with the continuing history of imperialism. The urgency of our imperial moment is at once fierce and everywhere to behold: in Indigenous struggles for sovereignty, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movements, opposition to heteropatriarchy, resistance against violent anti-Asian racism, global Black Lives Matter. While some would argue that empires are relics of the past, imperialism continues to shape our contemporary world. […]
Today, struggles for decolonization occur within education, as well as in ongoing contestations for land, rights, and sovereignty. These struggles remind us that although we live in a world of nation-states, imperial relations continue to shape the operation of power. To recognize empire is to break the hold of the nation-state on our political imaginaries and take a necessary step toward a more just world.
Book Club on Paradise Lost: May 27th, 2:45 PM ET
We loved talking about Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun with you. For our next book club: the first two books of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Um … we know, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! But we’re excited to puzzle through it with you. As always, email firstname.lastname@example.org for a Zoom link.
Thank you for sharing about your mom's formative experiences. Do you have a link to the study about hyper-endemic area residents having a higher incidence of developing breast cancer? I'm curious about it because I definitely noticed when it seemed like all of my mom's friends got breast cancer and it just seemed inevitable.