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Erasing Taiwan, My Birth Country

New America Media, Commentary, Kay Hsin-Lien Leventhal Posted: Nov 19, 2008

Editor's note: NAM's Kay Leventhal was born in Taiwan, but she was forced to rewrite her own history when applying for a visa at the Chinese Embassy.

When Beijing's chief cross-strait negotiator Chen Yunlin met with Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou, the news portrayed their brief exchange as a great symbol of change. They opened talks about direct flights between the two regions and suddenly, there were new hopes. Yet, a recent experience I had was a sober reminder that China's recent friendliness to Taiwan was based solely on its economic interests. Politically, China and Taiwan are still a million miles apart.

In early October I went to the Chinese embassy in San Francisco to get visas for my 8-year-old daughter, Lea, and me to travel to China. The trip had been postponed twice before and this time I promised her and my mother, who lives in China, it would happen. It was Lea's first trip to China and her first visit with her Chinese grandma in over three years. We were going to stay for 11 days in Shanghai, where my mom lives from May to November.

I pass the Chinese Embassy every morning on my way to work. There is always a long waiting line snaking along the sidewalk and signs from Fa Long Kong displaying horrific pictures of its members being abused by the Chinese government. From time to time, a few Fa Long Kong members are there exercising or sitting silently. Their calm dignity always seemed otherworldly to me.

Two weeks prior to my trip, I joined that long line to submit our visa applications. I was surrounded by the bittersweet sound of Beijing Mandarin, a clear indication that I was about to enter official Chinese territory, a place where non-Chinese standards and world views have to be abandoned. But I wasn't prepared for what I was about to encounter.

I only had to wait 40 minutes and was sent to a window where a young, rather plain-looking clerk looked up and waited for me in silence. I smiled and tried to act friendly and obedient. I handed her all my documents and noticed my heartbeat had picked up a little, as if I had done something wrong and was nervous about being caught. Then the clerk placed the visa application in front of me and pointed to the "Place of Birth" section with her pen. I had written Taipei, Taiwan. I looked at her, puzzled. She looked straight at me and said in an official voice, "Taiwan is not a country, what you wrote here was wrong."

She pushed the paper under the window and demanded an immediate correction. I stared at Taipei, Taiwan, and my mind went blank for two seconds. What did she mean, "wrong"? This is how I had answered such questions all my life, and this is exactly how it is written in my U.S. passport. I added China after Taiwan. I figured, OK, Taiwan is a province of China, not a country. This should satisfy her. I handed the paper back and waited as my heartbeat doubled. The plain-looking, young Chinese clerk glanced at what I did and I could see from the way her eyes moved that she was not satisfied.

"Taiwan is not a country. China is," she said. "You have to cross it out. Taiwan is not a country." For some reason, the image of my six-grader math teacher came to mind. Her meanness had nearly demolished my self-esteem. The clerk pushed the paper back out again and I was ready to have a good argument with her. Instead, I took several deep breaths and said to myself, "You have to go to China. You can't postpone the trip again. Your daughter hasn't seen her Chinese grandma in over three years,and you can't do that to your 80-year-old ma." So, I did it. I crossed Taiwan out for the first time ever, and the place of my birth read: Taipei, China. It looked so ridiculous to me that my legs and hands began to shake slightly.

Growing up in Taiwan as the daughter of a general who had served the Chinese National Party directly under Chung Kai Shiek and a mother who grew up in the heartland of China, we were always referred to as the big "why shen ren" - the people who came from the outer providence." We didn't belong there. We were only temporarily residing in Taiwan, for our leader, Chung Kai Shiek had repeatedly declared (and brainwashed us) that we would one day defeat China and get our motherland back. Of course, when I finally visited my motherland, local people called me Taiwanese. I was not one of them, either. When I flew back to San Francisco, the customs officer greeted me warmly and said, "Welcome home!"

The plain-looking, righteous young Chinese clerk was pleased with my final correction. I was to go back to pick up the visa in one week. I felt like a traitor, yet I can't exactly describe what had I betrayed. Was it the political ideology I'd grown up on? Or was it the patriotism I inherited from my dad that was already long outdated?

"This is such a crazy world we live in," I told Lea, recounting the incident a few days later. "But are you Chinese or Taiwanese, Ma?" Lea asked. I gave it some thought and said, "Well, legally, I am an American citizen, but ethnically, I am Chinese who was born in Taiwan and now living in the United States." That was the best answer I could come up with. "And exactly which country do you feel you most belong to?" she pressed on. I shrugged and said, "I am a world citizen. I don't belong to any country."

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