Inevitably, the only way out of this Taiwanese v Chinese binary was by adopting a new identity of a faraway culture. Whilst most of my contemporaries were drawn to the new democracy of the United States Of America, I found inspiration from the sepia landscape of the mirror-like lakes and chameleonesque hills of Wordsworth and the genteel societies of Forster.
Emerging from the “cultural desert” of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan to arrive in the capital city of Taipei, my studies gave me the legitimacy to acquire an air of superiority as a member of the intellectual elite reserved for those who read English at universities. Like many before me, English Literature graduates were expected to earn tenures in the English departments of the Taiwanese academia or to enter the diplomatic offices via the Ivy League campuses in the United States. Such aspiration quickly gave way to my sensibility for everything “English” – or British – so much so my closest friends at university joked that not only I was born in the wrong era, I was born in the wrong country. I belonged to the world of Howards End.
Desiring to refashion myself as culturally English and intellectually Western, I retreated to my social cocoon with a hardback Oxford English-Chinese/Chinese-English Dictionary for Advanced Learners and a radio capable of receiving BBC World Service as my sole linguistic diet. I adopted selective deafness and blindness to all music and films American. Only the cut-glass British of Kristine Scott Thomas and the BBC English of Martin Lewis could pass my auditory filter. Refusing to speak in an American accent in all my English Conversation classes given by American teachers, I hesitate to guess what they must have thought of me, or indeed, what my classmates must have thought of my extraordinary behaviour.
Still, my mind was set for Britain. England was Castle Howard and Cambridge. After one year as a Teaching Assistant at my old university, teaching English Speaking and Listening in the only British English on campus, I was ready for my transformation. Two sleeping tablets later, I found the plane touched down at London Heathrow. Normally a fan of the culinary treats of the Cathy Pacific, on my flight to the UK, I only woke up once to find a shimmering disc of golden lights of Moscow beneath my feet. With many empty seats, the 747 jumbo jet glided through the night sky like a black cat stalking a star, purring softly.
The air was not the only thing that was cold on that September morning. Instead of heading for my luggage, I was escorted by the airport security to have a medical check-up, including an X-ray. Alone and struggling with the accent that was alarmingly unfamiliar to my ear, I wondered whether the whole study-abroad dream was but a self-indulgent fantasy that turned out to be a never-ending nightmare. Unprepared for the chilling reception on a morning that seemed more like the depth of a darkest night, I sat waiting for my fate – a sense of helplessness and abandonment that was more akin to the solitary struggle of Pi.
Completely blinkered by the golden glow of Merchant Ivory, I was utterly bewildered by the Britain absent from the film trailers. Nobody had warned me about the side streets off the Forsterian atlas of the English Home Counties and Mrs Dalloway’s route through Westminster Borough. Nor did anybody tip me off about the soul-destroying sense of hopelessness.
Eschewing my Taiwanese/Chinese identity in pursuit for a British one, I was stuck in an identity limbo. I became an alien to my own people and to those who were strangers to me.