Another 3 and it will have been 50 years apart between the times when these two pictures were taken – me at the age of five in a formal family portrait with mum and dad, my older sister and two older brothers in a local photographer's studio in Fengshan, Taiwan, and me alone on the day when I collected my MEd at Clare College, Cambridge. The distance between the two photos is more than geographic; it widens with each passing year, with each passing month, week, day and hour….
The Taiwanese talk about filial piety and the Taiwanese believe in this concept. To the Taiwanese, social fabric is cemented and toughened by this unquestionably simple belief: children respect their patents, obey their wishes, please them and look after them when they reach old age. At school, we studied "Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars" to reenforce such expectations: the seventy-year-old Laizi dresses in colourful rags and acts as a playful and sometimes clumsy child to amuse his elderly parents; Magistrate Yu follows the doctor's instruction to taste the faeces of his ailing father to ascertain the nature of his ailment; and many other stories depicting acts of filial devotion. As children, we were expected to accept these tales as historical facts, to model our behaviour on these examples if not to emulate them, and be cautioned for deviation from such behavioural template. There was no room for critical scrutiny in moral inculcation.
I wish I could say that books, books and more books that's what keeps us apart. The truth of the matter is that the books are only a convenient excuse, just like many others that I used to use as excuses to get out of the house: "Could I go and ask so and so what the homework was?" In one respect, the distance between the two photographs has never been any greater or any less regardless of the number of books or academic qualifications that I've collected over the years. The emotional disconnectedness has always been there – in that somewhat puzzled gaze into the camera lens as if I were transfixed by a fain glow in the distance behind the cameraman's hunched back…. I was the last arrival of the family, yet it became also apparent that I had the least affinity with not only the extended family of my maternal side (I knew next to nothing about my paternal relatives as my father was orphaned young and followed Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist army to Taiwan) but also my own siblings. As the youngest, I was excluded from all major family decisions. My prime duty was to do well at school. I learned to be self-sufficient. Maybe I also learned to be self-centred.
Naturally, with each passing year, family circumstances changed, too. We found ourselves pulled to different directions, sometimes by the acts of others but mostly by actions of our own. Filial piety strained to hold the family unit together. Not being the oldest – or even one of the older children – meant I was relatively exempt from certain responsibilities: I had no younger siblings to look after; I was not expected to be the first to get a job or get married; I was expected only to follow examples and to accept the consequences of whatever decisions that were made by my parents, then later with discussions with my older siblings. I did none of those. My parents were happy to support me as long as I remain focused on my studies. None of my siblings had gone beyond high school, and I had the good fortune to find emotional refuge and intellectual fulfilment in scholarly pursuits. I stumbled my way to university. Friends meant more to me than family, I learned. Friends were made based on connections, intellectual or emotional. Being on the opposite end of the island meant I was physically and emotionally detached from home. Like a kite that rides on the rising warm air, I was lifted higher and higher, drifted further and further by a warming sense of freedom. The only attachment was the thin string of which I was not able to cut off until much, much later.
Looking back to these two images prompts me to reexamine circumstances that have filled the void between them. Maybe I am as what is described as being the most selfish person in the family. I accept that charge to certain degrees. However, if being selfish is the necessary evil in the pursuit of self-fulfilment, then it is a brand I must also learn to endure and carry, maybe with a tinge of reluctant sadness, like the aching tooth that you cannot help but keep probing at night.
In reflection, the gaping chasm was an inevitable consequence of my discovery of a new world through English. Instead of a means to an end, I fell in love with the world that lay within this new language. I stopped learning it to pass exams; I started to live it: its vocabulary, the way that many words can derive from their base or root words by adding prefixes, suffixes or both; the sound of the language, the phonetics of consonants and vowels and how they combine to form syllables to create rhythmic patterns, even the more challenging aspects of grammar: tense, case, number and gender that were absent in Chinese. Ultimately, however, it was the new way of perceiving the world around me through my new language that delighted me the most. I caught a glimpse of such a new world with a cultural terrain so alien from the moral habitat that I had inherited from an upbringing and schooling almost exclusively dominated by Confucius thinking. Always convinced that I grew up in a cultural desert, I was starved of nourishment and longing for cultural stimulations – the Mormons, the Eagles, ABBA, Human League, then Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Herman Hesse, James Ivory's England when I went away to university.
Instead of angst, obligation, guilt and regret, I learned that genuine selfhood is the basis from which a world can be truly lived with emotional connectedness. English opens a new world and many other worlds into which I must traverse and explore on my own. Turning my back on my own cultural heritage was not a difficult one. By embracing an alien culture, I found myself.
Fifty years' gap. It's impossible to assemble all the family members together again for another portrait. There's that and the gaps will always be keenly felt like the missing teeth in your mouth. Maybe that somewhat vacant gaze has always had its secret focus in a land far far away that calls across the many seas, over many mountain peaks and under some of the most brilliant stars….
One thing is for sure, I would never have been able to embark on that solitary flight across the Silver River without the unquestionably simple belief of parental devotion, even if deep down my parents always knew that their beloved child would never return to the nest. They, like me, were looking at that same unnamed place beyond the cameraman's hunched back under that blackening cover without me realising.