More Than Just Books


A few weeks ago, the island of Taiwan was brimming with student protests over the country’s recent trade pact with the People’s Republic of China. After the ruling party, Kuomintang (KMT), had passed a Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China without any review from the Democratic Progressive Party, the opposing party. Promised to bring more life to the stagnant Taiwanese economy, the trade pact was feared to give even more control of Taiwan to China. Students were enraged over the KMT’s blatant dismissal of the public’s request for clause-by-clause review of the already controversial bill. Earlier this year, from March 18 to April 10, Taiwanese students took their protests to not only the streets of Taipei but into the chamber of the Legislative Yuan and Executive Yuan. I was talking to my American friend about the difference between Occupy Wall Street and the recent student protests in Taiwan, nicknamed the Sunflower Movement after a florist had donated 1000 sunflowers to the cause. He predicted that the Sunflower Movement would gain more success because the students had a specific goal—a call for new legislation that would monitor the China-Taiwan agreement process and to postpone the enforcement of the trade agreement until the legislation is enacted.

And for a while, that future seemed very likely. My friends would return from protests, and praise and inspiration would just spill out of their mouths. In the beginning, the protests were peaceful and strong. The professors at my university would encourage their students to join in. As a foreign exchange student, I couldn’t take part. My exchange program sent clear and direct emails warning me of possible deportation if I got involved, but that didn’t stop a lot of people from joining in on the singing, the chanting, the occupation of the governmental buildings, etc.

Being so close to the action, which was only a few bus stops away, was intoxicating. Protests in the US seem too far off and distant for me to feel connected because the country is huge and even events in the next state seem light years away. Here in Taiwan, however, I was so close to the action—my friends littered my newsfeed on Facebook with updates about the protests, every conversation mentioned some news, the university’s campus was covered in flyers and sunflower decorations in support for the students.

Despite the abrupt surge of violence during the latter part of the Sunflower Movement, the protest suddenly came to an anticlimactic halt. The adrenaline from the protests was languishing just as midterm season came around. Students came back to homes and directed their energy back to their studies. Just like that, the protests were over. A lot of my friends went out of their way to detach themselves from the protests. They viewed them as dumb and useless, and they were particularly smug after the protests had quelled down.

But the protests were anything but dumb or useless. Even though the outcome was not at all ideal, it was still incredibly inspiring to feel the power of the students. I felt so close to change, even though I as an American would not directly be affected by this protest. People from all walks of life took the students seriously because they were organized and driven in their desires to right the wrongs the Taiwanese government had done in order to pass the Cross-Strait Agreement. The weeks of protests and the students’ clamor for change were enough to force negotiations between the student leaders and the President. Although seemingly fruitless, the negotiations signaled that students are a force to be reckoned with and are more than just their school textbooks. These students have ambition and drive outside of academics, and they are the future of Taiwan.

Photo Credit: Aljazeera America

Pilipino Connection


One day on a family trip to an apple orchard in Pennsylvania, my mom saw an Asian lady, who she assumed was a Pilipina. After exchanging a few words in English, my mom switched to Tagalog. She immediately flushed with embarrassment when she realized that the woman she thought she had a connection with was Cambodian instead. The conversation dwindled down with some awkward small talk before my mom caught up with the rest of the family, who was giggling at her understandable fumble. I am my mother’s daughter, and I repeat the same mistakes. My college, like my hometown, has very small minority population, so when I see someone who resembles a Pilipino, I go through all the emotions—shock, happiness, anxiety, etc. My Pilipino radar is usually spot-on, making the likelihood of the birth of a new friendship even higher. Even if we come from different spectrums of life, we still have our Pilipino background as common ground.

Just being under the impression that there’s a Pilipino nearby -- even for just a few seconds and even if the person doesn’t turn out to be Pilipino -- makes me feel at home. The Pilipino community is unlike any other. The knowing look that one gives to a stranger who is possibly Pilipino is one that we take with pride. Even if the assumption is wrong, in those moments prior to complete embarrassment on my mom’s part, she felt connected to a complete stranger.

It is not limited to just Pilipinos. At my university, most of my friends are Asian American. There’s nary an Asian that I do not know, but it’s not because I am exclusive. I feel like it’s easier to bond with them because there’s already a commonality among our cultures. Being a minority is something that makes you stand out, and seeing that little spot of color in a minority-less community makes you feel a little more grounded.

I am currently studying abroad in Taiwan, and when I see a foreigner, Pilipino or not, I automatically try to maintain eye contact with them in the hopes that they will see me and understand. One day, at Raohe Night Market, I saw a fried Oreos booth. As I passed by, I said something in English to one of my friends, and as I looked up, I locked eyes with the American running the booth. He looked at me, and I swear in that second, we were connected. All that was exchanged between us was a "hey." But we had this unspoken understanding that actually said, “I know what you’re going through.”

In that apple orchard in Pennsylvania, I think my mom craved some familiarity in those moments before she found out the woman she struck up conversation with was actually Cambodian. It is exhilarating when you find someone who you can relate with, even the smallest connection. It feels like home. Like my mom and the American gentleman running the fried Oreos booth, I’m craving a piece of home.

Photo Credit: Taiwanease

Little Manila, Taipei, Taiwan


I was on the MRT in Taipei on my way to a rock concert when I overheard a few words in Tagalog. Since I’ve arrived in Taiwan, I’ve been swathed in Chinese conversation. Being a long way from home, the familiar accents piqued my homesickness. I slowly worked up the courage to approach these three Pilipino women and as soon as I greeted them, the women started beaming. They introduced themselves, and after a bit of small talk, I asked them: “Do you miss the Philippines?” One of the women bit her lip, looked up at the ceiling on the train and murmured a quiet yes before she quickly changed the topic.

“Do you go to church?” she asked me.

Normally, it would seem a bit brash to hear such a question from a stranger, but it was one of the most Pilipino things I had heard in awhile! I nodded vehemently and said that I would try to go to the one in Little Manila. The women smiled and gave me directions. Soon I was at my stop, so I told the women that I’d see them at church as I scurried out of the MRT.

My first excursion to Little Manila was my first time traveling around Taipei alone. Within an hour, I was overwhelmed by the rain; my phone’s GPS was going haywire. As I was just about to give up, I saw a sign that was unmistakably Pilipino, and in that moment, I swear my heart dropped.

Little Manila is true to its name. With four stores and a church scattered on the corner of two streets, Little Manila was under- and overwhelming at the same time. Having been away from anything remotely Pilipino, I was craving some comfort food. I inched into an empty restaurant and spotted an elderly woman pop out from the kitchen at the back of the restaurant. As I ordered tocino and rice, I kept staring at her with teary eyes, wondering if she was real. She noticed my obvious homesickness and smiled. She chatted with me as I ate, and we discussed our respective homes, our families, the Philippines, etc.

As I was leaving, she told me to come back on Sunday.

“I’m now your lola,” she said, and I beamed back at her, trying not to look like an idiot.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end up seeing those Pilipinas from the MRT when I went to church, but I hope to cross paths with them again soon. According to the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, there are over 90,000 Pilipinos working in Taiwan; they are the third largest minority group in Taiwan. Most Pilipinos, like the ones I met on the MRT, work in factories. With so many overseas Pilipino workers in Taiwan, you would think there would be a larger Little Manila. The impression that I received from the neighborhood was that the Pilipino residents were trying to make do with what they had. The women in the MRT and the lola in the restaurant both spoke about the Philippines with great nostalgia, a little sigh of longing in their voice.

Perhaps the women feel the same as me. As tiny as Little Manila was, it’s big enough to fit the small, homesick hole in my heart.

Being Pilipino in Taiwan


A few months ago, as my family and I were planning my study abroad trip to Taiwan, my dad quietly asked me if I could go to another country, a “safer” country. The half-joking request boggled my mind at the time because I had never gotten the impression that Taiwan was a dangerous country. I kept his question in the back of my brain, and did not contemplate switching my study abroad destination. I’d always liked Taiwan and, besides, I was already too deep into the application process. After letting the question brew in my head for awhile, I realized that he wasn’t worried that I would be stabbed to death and left on the streets in a foreign country. He was more worried that I wouldn’t fit in. Sometimes I look very Pilipino. I know that not all Pilipinos look alike; but I have the stereotypical nose, the big eyes, and the tan skin. Sometimes, my stunningly good looks throw people off, as people guess that I'm anywhere from Chinese to Malaysian. My dad probably fretted over my Pilipino side coming out and assumed that I would stick out like a sore thumb. In fact, a few days ago, he sent me a text briefly warning me of potential racism:

“If ever, don’t let it affect you. Be careful.”

However, despite the advantages of my dual looks, I have had a bad experience with racism in the past, so my dad's concern was quite understandable.

Now that I’m settled in at my university in Taiwan, I can assure my dad that he need not worry. I don’t stick out as much as my two white friends who tower at least a good foot above everyone else. In fact, the only moments where it’s obvious that I’m a foreigner is when I am speaking, because my Chinese is laced with American tones. When I go to places with my friends, I’m lumped with my Taiwanese friends. The waiters and waitresses welcome us with “ni hao,” while my white friends are greeted with “hello.” The most I get to a strange look or reaction from the local population is when I’m standing on the bus and people get the chance to give me a good look-over. Or so I assume.

Ironically, when I was in the Philippines, there was no doubt about it that I was American. My demeanor made it obvious that I was a foreigner. I could do as the locals do, but the way I held myself made me stick out. Once, while I was in a market helping my cousin buy flip flops, a schoolgirl passed by and gave me a look that was dripping with disdain. I'm not quite sure of what she was thought, so one can only assume. To this day, I still can’t find the words to express the difference between me and the locals. While I thought I was blending in, I must’ve seemed like a piece of cauliflower in a field of broccoli.

There are many factors we need to take into account when comparing my experience in the Philippines to my experience in Taiwan. For example, the locations that I frequented in the Philippines and those that I explore here in Taiwan. But those factors aside, I felt more like a foreigner in the Philippines than I do in Taiwan. In Taiwan, there may be a little confusion as to my ethnicity when you first look at me, but for the most part I blend in.

Still, you never know. Perhaps it is obvious that I’m Pilipino, but my foreigner status protects me like a shield from any racism I might incur. Or maybe my dad, wracked with worry over his first-born traveling to a foreign country alone for five months, was just overly concerned. The constant repeats of failing to fit in possibly heightened my dad’s dread of my departure.

Being Pilipino in Taiwan isn’t a problem. I think the problem is the fact that we fear that there is one.

Credit: Pam Wang