These Losers are Going Places
Michelle on the trials of marriage, status anxieties in and beyond the West, and discovering your heritage through your partner
Here’s the big news: we’re moving to Taiwan this summer. It’s been an agonizing decision. We haven’t told many people, in part because we don’t know how to talk about it. The short of it is that Albert has some personal reasons for going back and also got a research position in Taipei.
How am I feeling about it?
When Albert and I started dating in 2012, he told me he loved Taiwan and dreamed of returning one day. I’m pretty sure I cried. My life was in the U.S., I said; I couldn’t imagine leaving. Two years later, when he got a job here in France, I was reluctant to give up my family, my friends, my bar license, our community life in the Bay Area. I was embedded in a network of lawyer-activists in migrant communities and also had begun the most fulfilling professional experience in my life, teaching at San Quentin Prison through the Prison University Project. Most of my loved ones lived in California, and I knew I’d miss them terribly.
Moving for his career nearly broke our marriage. For several years, we were stuck in a loop: I’d tell him I was unhappy, he’d say he would’ve given up academia for me, and I’d reply, “Who do you think I am? I would never ask you to give up what you love.” As all but the most privileged academics know, the process of applying and getting rejected for jobs is debilitating, soul-killing, and you don’t give up a shot at a tenure-track position. So we stayed in France. I was lucky enough that the university gave me a job, treated me with respect, and helped me to grow. My colleagues and students were wonderful, constantly inspiring me. And I knew living abroad was a privilege that many dream of. Still, I’d never envisioned myself in academia, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what my career would have been like in the U.S.
Marriage is something nobody teaches you to do. You can go to school for all sorts of things, but not for marriage. And if you’ve had parents who aren’t the greatest models for couplehood, it feels impossible not to replicate corrosive patterns. Every marriage has its wedge issues, and all told we’re lucky to have just one—the question of where to live—but that tension is real. It can manifest as the kind of resentment that twists and deepens until suddenly you’re both crying uncontrollably and hearing yourselves ask out loud whether it’s going to last. That happened to us in 2018.
At the time, a friend told me that the best thing for marriage, or for any friendship, is to realize that you have permission to leave, and to give the other person permission too. So we did. We talked about whether it was over; we gave each other the option to end it. I wondered to myself why I couldn’t have it all—why couldn’t I live where I wanted, keep the friends I had, pursue the ambitions that I’d dreamed about? And then I decided: in meeting and being loved by Albert, I had already won the lottery. We could have married the wrong person, but we hadn’t. So we recommitted. We wrote new vows. We started over.
As with most fights, this wasn’t so much about him, or even about us, as it was about my own hang-ups, my own FOMO. I saw photos of literary writers hanging out in Brooklyn; I read interviews with friends in the states who were ascending the ranks at nonprofits I admired, places I might have worked had I stayed. They were experts now; they spoke with the confidence and moral authority I used to have, I noticed myself thinking, when I’d worked directly with disenfranchised communities. They had found what I want most in life: purpose. Surely, if I were back there, I too would be dominating. (During one argument I said this out loud, and Albert was aghast at my word choice: “Who are you, a tech bro?” Happily, this is now a joke in our household.)
I realize now how American it was of me, this reluctance to move abroad. Of course, some of it really was professional: my ego and self-worth really were rooted in my ability to connect with and help people in the U.S.; it meant so much to me to be able to build trust with communities other than “my own,” whether Latino immigrants in Oakland, Black families in Arkansas, or homeless people in Boston—and as I had feared, most of that did go out the window in France, where I didn’t know the references or have the language. But as we prepare to move again, I’ve been thinking about the deeper things exposed by that reluctance: my status anxiety, my American insularity, a lack of global consciousness, as well as fear and discomfort at the prospect of being inarticulate and unseen. I’ve been taking measure of the kind of invisible psychic labor I’ve been performing since I was a child: how to disrupt the uncertain look of a shopkeeper with a friendly greeting in English, how to make references to Seinfeld, The Simpsons, sports. (Okay, not sports.) How to put people at ease by signaling that I’m not a foreigner, that I’m one of them.
My generation of middle-class Asian Americans grew up with the sense that there was a clear path toward assimilation in the U.S., one that mimicked the larger assumptions of colonialism—namely, that the way upward went from East to West, from insecurity to prosperity, from the margins to the center. I’ve heard a number of successful Asian-American professionals who have mobile jobs dismiss the idea of moving to Asia: “I’m so American, I could never live there.” When I hear this, I recognize not only a younger version of myself, but also, more acutely, the sense of striving, the desire for vindication, the need to preserve continuity between my parents’ journey and my own—as well as the sincere love for communities within the US. I recognize a defensive kind of insecurity that converts itself into affirmative loyalty: I don’t know much about Asia and I’m tired of people asking me about it, so I’m going to double down on being here. I can move in and out. I can pass as American. I am American. And I still have so much to prove.
In French, there’s no equivalent of “Asian-American,” not even any real consciousness of that term and how it works in English. While living here I’ve been asked repeatedly where I’m from; when I say Les Etats-Unis, my interlocutor usually persists until I give them what they want: Taiwan (or, just as often, non, pas Chinoise). Most Asian Americans have stories like this, of course. But here’s the thing: in France, I’ve found myself wanting these strangers to know I speak English perfectly, that I’m educated, that I’m not from Asia. And then I catch myself, disgusted: who cares whether I speak English? Am I just being classist? What’s wrong with being from Asia? Do I think they’d treat me better if they knew I was from the US—and if that’s true, wouldn’t that make them terrible people? Whom exactly am I trying to prove myself to?
Moving to Taiwan adds a new wrinkle: I’m supposedly going home. But it’s my parents’ home, not mine, and perhaps not even that—my mother nearly lunged at me once when I told a stranger who asked that she was from Taiwan. “I’ve lived in the U.S. for forty years!” she shouted at me. “Why don’t you see that?” I trembled, taken aback. Why was she so angry? Wasn’t she proud of Taiwan? She should be proud of it, shouldn’t she? Only years later, living in France, did I finally begin to grasp why she had reacted that way.
Back in November, when Albert and I were beginning to contemplate the move to Taiwan, we were listening to the podcast Time to Say Goodbye, hosted by three thoughtful East Asian Americans around our age. In the episode in question, they related a conversation in which Jay Kang’s dad described those who go back to Asia as losers. Then they began to dissect the notion. They approached it analytically, without the loaded anxiety a person going back might feel. They asked each other, “Would you consider moving to Asia?” Only one person seemed open.
Hearing them discuss this, my heart sank. Albert’s did too. It was a Sunday morning and our baby was just learning to walk, and we watched her dully as we tried to identify what had made us feel so bad. Was that what people in the U.S., especially Asians and Asian Americans, thought? Were we preparing to become losers?
For Albert, who grew up in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. with the hope of returning, the question stung. It confirmed his suspicion of the contempt Asians in America felt for his homeland, crystallized it in a childish insult. Taiwan, for him, stirs feelings of love and pride, tenderness and homesickness. He remembers annual pilgrimages from Hsinchu to his ancestral lands, tomb-sweeping on the mountains in the East, stories told by relatives old enough that their native tongue is Japanese. It also stung as a reminder of anxieties related to academia, which for all its talk tends to unthinkingly replicate global hierarchies. (Even though research institutes and other colleges across Asia are top-notch, the “best” institutions are in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s hard to move to one of them from a position in Asia.) The discussion put a fine point on this idea of what he would be losing by returning—that he would be taking himself out of the game, off the map.
When I was growing up, the immigrants who went back were the ones who couldn’t hack it: the ones who lost their job, the ones who never managed to unthicken their accent. The ones who were unwanted. Having spent my life learning how to assimilate, I was terrified of wasting that psychic labor, of losing that progress I’d made in the U.S. No wonder my parents balked at the idea of my returning to Taiwan—they’d spent their lives moving from East to West. Why go back?
There is a path, though, whereby returning is not a loss, whereby global hierarchies don’t hold the sway they did for my parents. It brings me great joy to see how far ahead of me today’s Gen-Z Asian Americans are in embracing it. I’ve been electrified by that openness and curiosity in my students, and it’s inspired me to think about a version of my sense of self where I don’t have to be articulate and native, where I can learn new cultures and manifest solidarity by making myself vulnerable. It’s put me in mind of the idea of pilgrimage: leaving a familiar place, but with a purpose. That’s what my parents did: like all immigrants, they were pilgrims. They came to the U.S. so that their children could have a better life. And children, in turn, are supposed to “make their sacrifices worthwhile,” to use the line everyone repeats. But what does that mean? What makes sacrifices worthwhile? Can’t we define success in a way that allows for parents to become rooted and secure enough for their children to become pilgrims again, to continue the journey, to not stagnate?
“In marriage you get everything you bargain for,” a wise friend told me once, and I know exactly what she meant: I wouldn’t have loved Albert the same way if he didn’t have a scholarly soul and a passion for history and such an intense love for Taiwan—even if those are in large part the things that have created obstacles in our marriage. People have asked whether I fell in love with him because he was from Taiwan: was I subconsciously trying to please my parents? Had I been looking for a fellow Asian?
No, no, I’d always said. After all, the things that brought us together were decidedly non-Asian things: our mutual interest in African-American history and activism, writers like Marilynne Robinson and W.G. Sebald, liberation theology. When we first got together, we didn’t really discuss Asian America, which he didn’t know much about, or Taiwan, which I didn’t know much about.
But of course I was deluding myself when I claimed that his heritage had nothing to do with our falling in love. Like all forms of denial, I didn’t want to deal with the implications of having had blindspots. Because, if I admitted that his East Asian-ness interested me, I would also have to admit this: until I’d met Albert, I had tended to look past people like him and, by extension, the region of the world in which he originated.
So Albert’s pro-Taiwan evangelism has also been slowly working on me for the last decade. Taiwan has emerged as the center for progressive change in Asia. It is a pioneer in LGBTQ activism and was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. It has a woman president and a legislature that is 42% female. It has made significant strides in indigenous activism. As China becomes increasingly belligerent and authoritarian, it remains democratic and vibrant.
In the past year, I’ve reached out to contacts in Taiwan, and have been startled and delighted by how easy it is to tap into networks whose work I find meaningful. I hope to immerse myself in movements to improve conditions of migrant workers from Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. I’m interested in how Taiwan has offered refuge for émigrés from Hong Kong and Myanmar displaced by authoritarian crackdowns. I plan to join the movement that is fighting to abolish the death penalty. I want to explore faith traditions and spirituality more. I’m excited to have time now to do so, and I know this is possible because of what I’ve learned by seeing Taiwan through Albert’s eyes.
Observing Albert’s love for Taiwan has also been illuminating. Though it occasionally borders on the hagiographic (which he admits), it goes something like this: Here’s a country that’s been bullied and colonized by five regimes, that has resisted and flourished, and whose battle for democracy has been hard-won. His love is a political expression, too, inseparable as it is from his desire to resist the Chinese government’s propaganda that Taiwanese democracy is a failure, his desire to promote Taiwan’s struggle for international recognition, and so on. But above all it expresses something beautiful: loyalty. He has never forgotten home. I am reminded of the basic truth that remembrance of the places and people who raised us can provide an anchor and even joy.
It’s been difficult but also cleansing to acknowledge how much I’ve distanced myself from Asian men, Asians who reminded me of my parents, Asia itself. I’m looking forward to closing that distance, both literally and in my heart. I’ve begun putting post-its bearing Chinese characters up on the wall, relearning the words my grandma taught me as a child, the poems she made me memorize. I picture my baby daughter walking the streets where my parents walked, speaking languages that I grew up hearing. I’ve been thinking so much, learning so much, and it doesn’t feel at all like loss.
At a diversity training a few years ago, I bonded with a colleague from Ghana when she said she was actually happy when people asked her where she was from. “That’s a microaggression?” she said. “I love any excuse to talk about Ghana, and where it is, and the great people there.”
It was the same thing Albert says about Taiwan.
In next week’s newsletter, Albert will reflect on the move to Taiwan.
Thank you for all the kind responses about last week’s post! Also, we mentioned that we assign Nick Estes’s work in our class. Our reader Catherine Chou alerted us to Nick Estes’s downplaying of the atrocities in Xinjiang. We had no idea! What a disappointment.
This interview with Nikhil Pal Singh captures so much of our dissatisfaction with the "massively unbalanced" poles of "tremendous sensitivity to microaggression and a dullness to macro-aggression”:
…[W]e have been largely inured or habituated to what I would call the macro-aggressions we are now subjected to: extreme wealth polarization, declining living standards, declining life expectancy, heavy surveillance, substantial erosions of our capacities to ensure collective flourishing … Meanwhile, we’ve become more and more sensitized to the microscopic and frankly minor forms of abuse that are given watchful attention. The upsurge of trainings around sexual harassment or around white privilege are examples of these controlling tendencies and administrative approaches, and I don’t think they can attain the goals that they set (i.e., social justice), because they suffer from an elite skew.
We’re sort of caught between a type of progressive conformism on the one hand, one that speaks a language of inclusion and diversity, and on the other hand, a reckless right-wing vision of freedom, understood as the impunity to do whatever you want under terms of protected wealth and status, damn the consequences.
In The Atlantic, Joshua Coleman has an incisive piece on how inequality is driving an increasing amount of “intensive parenting” in the United States:
Today's parents have withdrawn from friends and organizational memberships for many reasons—the norm of intensive parenting is just one of them. (And it’s worth noting that not everyone has the resources to parent intensively, though it’s become a highly valued strategy across classes.) Policies and practices around work and family life have failed to keep pace with changes in women’s economic roles. More and more, households depend upon the incomes of two earners, leaving limited time for activities beyond work. American parents are working longer and harder than ever with less and less to show for it. Given these harsh realities, it’s not surprising that in a report by the Council on Contemporary Families, the University of Texas at Austin sociologist Jennifer Glass and colleagues found that American parents were ranked least happy among the 22 OECD countries they studied.
In the spirit of this piece, we give a hearty shout-out to TaiwaneseAmerican.org and our heroes Ho Chie Tsai and Leona Chen for organizing the Taiwanese American Cultural Festival the past weekend. Their work, along with Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF) and Taiwanese American Next Generation, had a life-changing impact on Michelle, who wishes she’d met them earlier in her life.
Also in the spirit of this piece: we share the remarkable “Pariah Manifesto, or the Moral Significance of the Taiwanese Tragedy,” penned by Wu Rwei-Ren. Written in 2014, these powerful lines still apply today:
Caught between empires, the weak have tried to resist: those with a state ally with each other to find their way out, and those without one, or without one recognized by the sovereign state system, are left isolated and humiliated. Caught between empires, the nationalism of different types of the weak is growing and prospering. The slaves are still rebelling, and the Reason is yet to complete itself, but the rulers of empires are busy declaring the end of history—this is the world-historical origin of contemporary Taiwanese tragedy.
Awhile back we shared a Taiwanese popcorn chicken recipe, but we didn’t expect anyone to actually try it. Quite hilariously, our reader Carol Steiker sent back a picture of her culinary feat:
Also, we recently joined a Taiwanese cooking group on Facebook that has already fostered a wonderful community. Nick Yeh shared his recipe for Albert’s favorite childhood dish, Taiwanese braised pork rice. (Sorry, vegetarians and vegans!)
Book Club on Paradise Lost: May 27th, 2:45 PM ET
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 email@example.com for a Zoom link.