My roots in Taiwan’s fertile soil are both shallow and deep.

I was born there, in an industrial city in its south, and grew up playing on dusty streets in sunshine so intense it prickles the skin. Yet I never really looked like I belonged.

small11

Though it’s where my heart calls home, I am not its citizen.

When I left to go to college in America, it was with the unsettling knowledge that I could never go home again for the long term without a stack of official documentation supporting a visa. I’ve had one wonderful chance to do so, from fall 2012-summer 2013, thanks to a research grant. More may follow.

Shallow roots. I’m sown on rocky ground legally speaking, and I could have withered away.

But other roots grow strong and deep. In Taiwan, nature starts to devour the city if left to itself long enough.

historic Tainan

historic Tainan

It grasps onto foreign bodies and incorporates them into itself with tropical ferocity. It hasn’t let me go.

This blog’s title takes its inspiration from the book From Far Formosa: Its Island, Its People and Missions, by George Leslie Mackay, first published in 1895.

Mackay, a Canadian Presbyterian missionary to northern Taiwan, arrived in 1871 and remained there until his death in 1901. When living in Taipei last year, I attended one of those churches he planted in Taiwanese soil as he trekked around the country wearing a ridiculous pith helmet and an impractically large beard.

Mackay on the march

Over a century separates Mackay’s years from my childhood, but I grew up in and around the Taiwanese organization he helped to found – The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. My parents have been partners with various bodies in the organization for over 30 years. The Church celebrates a wide range of Taiwanese identities, and I maintain my membership in it.

Good ground in which to be planted.

Mackay’s From Far Formosa offers me a jumping off point for writing about my own experiences of the island and its people.

Of being a Third Culture Kid and a missionary kid, especially now that I am far from home.

And of being a scholar, one who studies Chinese literature and religions, out of the conviction that we’re all listening to and telling stories to help us figure out this wide, green world we’ve been planted in.

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7 thoughts on “From Far Formosa

  1. Hi Katherine, I’m also a Catherine, and a graduate student in history. My parents are from Taiwan and this Christmas, I went back to visit my extended family there for the first time in four years. I paid a visit to the Anping Tree House in Tainan, too! Despite my physical distance from Taiwan, and the fact that I’ve never lived there, I always felt a lot of love for the island, its culture, and its future. It’s only now, with a couple of years of training in historical scholarship that I can see that my Taiwan was an imagined one all along, one that I made up to fulfil my sometimes contradictory desires for connection, freedom, and self-determination. Knowing that there are so many people who also love and cherish Taiwan, though, gives me hope that there is still a bright future to be imagined for it. Good luck with your dissertation! I’m in the process of writing my own, and as you say, it’s not an easy task :)

    • Hi Catherine!
      I was at Anping Tree house just two Saturdays ago (I’ll post about this soon) and it’s really an amazing place, isn’t it?
      I often wonder about our imagined and well-loved Taiwans – especially about whether there’s something intrinsically different about the place itself that inspires these feelings that I feel I rarely come across in other nationalisms I encounter. If you get a chance, next time you’re in Taiwan try to get to the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan county. There’s a lot of careful handling of Taiwan’s conflicted, confusing historical facts that I think makes room for people to better understand the different Taiwans people have imagined over its history. The paragraph that greets visitors at the start of the permanent exhibition may speak to your desire for connection, because I know it does to mine:
      who are the taiwanese?

      Text reads:
      People from all parts of the world who once visited Taiwan used different languages to name this island and its inhabitants. But how do those who live there regard themselves? Taiwan is composed of different ethnic groups with disparate languages and cultures. Thus the term “Taiwanese” is a form of self affirmation impossible to define with a particular language or ethnicity. All those who identify with and are concerned about Taiwan, who love and accept Taiwan, and who wish to live together in this land can declare with a loud voice “I am a Taiwanese.”

      -Katherine

      • Hi Katherine, thanks for your reply! This past January was actually my first visit to Tainan, even though it’s my mother’s ancestral hometown. I’ve always loved that quote from the National Museum of Taiwan History; it’s helped to broaden my own understanding of what a Taiwanese identity can consist of.

        A couple days ago, there was an interesting article published on the Foreign Policy website (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/02/12/the_taiwan_in_my_mind_a_mainland_chinese_view). The author, who grew up in China, recounts that his teachers and textbooks always told him that Taiwan was an inviolable part of China – and he believed this, even though Taiwan seemed remote and unreal to him. The opening paragraphs have a lot to say about the uses and abuses of history and which narratives get privileged and why. I found the ending rather ambiguous and dispiriting, though. The author visits Taiwan as an adult, getting the chance to replace the highly politicized and abstract image in his mind with ‘reality’. The sense of kinship he ends up feeling with the Taiwanese people leads him to conclude that political arguments about independence and unification are trivial. Does he mean that mainlanders should back down on this issue, because whatever the political situation, we are still brothers? Or that the people of Taiwan should relinquish their nationhood, because we are all (supposedly) Chinese? Very different implications!

      • What a way to leave readers hanging! The article does a great job of troubling the narrative he grew up with, but little to handle the realities of the situation.

        I admit, reading the first half of the article was actually really difficult for me. I’m happy to hear that attitudes among some Chinese are shifting, but the idea of impassioned speeches by elementary schoolers about the inviolability of Taiwan to the Chinese nation makes me a little ill.

  2. Your story sounds really interesting. Especially in terms of you’re identity, where you come from, and the places you relate to….
    …and I really love your final sentence too :-)

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