Same Frames, Different Lens 

Ew, Asians. And just like that, they got up and fled, as if we carried life-threatening diseases.

Views of the mountains in Yilan County, Taiwan
Views of the mountains in Yilan County, Taiwan

By Jolene Chao

"Ew" was a word I used to describe the uninvited cockroaches that would invade my room. Or maybe the word I used to describe the smell drifting out of the dumpster in my elementary school's parking lot. So when it was used to describe me, I saw myself differently.

I was 5 years old on the day my grandparents took my little brother and me to a nearby park. It was supposed to be a relaxing time, full of innocent fun. My brother and I had just slid to the bottom of the slide. And that's when it happened. Sitting at the bottom were three Caucasian girls. Right when they saw us, their faces puckered up and two, very simple, but very cruel words came out of their mouths. "Ew, Asians." And just like that, they got up and fled, as if we carried life-threatening diseases. 

"Ew, Asians. And just like that, they got up and fled, as if we carried life-threatening diseases."

From that day on, I began to question my culture. Was being Asian-American a sin? Had I done something wrong by just existing? I lost what little pride I had in being Asian. I tried my best to mask my Asian culture by completely assimilating into American culture. For a while it worked, and I was happy. That is until we started taking annual trips to Taiwan - my family's home country. It proved everything that I had previously thought about my culture had been wrong.

It was definitely not love at first sight, to say the least. Right after I stepped off the plane, I knew I would hate Taiwan. The cramped space, the noisy motorcycles, the crowded and bumpy public transport buses, the blaring of the singing garbage trucks, the bizarre and seemingly-suspicious street food. They were all things I was not used to. Not to mention the foul sewer smell that made me want to vomit. I missed my spacious, sanitary America. Every time we were in public, I would flaunt my "Americanness" by purposely speaking English loud enough for everyone around me to hear. It was like this every year we went back, until I had a change of heart. 

Lu Rou Fan (Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl)
Lu Rou Fan (Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl)

Kindness changed my attitude. The repeated acts of compassion and welcoming gestures from the Taiwanese became hard to ignore. It started with my observations of people graciously giving up their seats to the elderly on the metros and buses. From there, I noticed that everywhere I went, I would be welcomed by the cheerful voices of employees. It was also very easy to establish a personal relationship with whomever I interacted with. With big smiles, they never hesitated to strike up a conversation and get to know me, even when I told them I was a foreigner with my broken Chinese.

Gradually, my heart softened and I began to love and embrace all that was Taiwan. The cramped spaces became an excuse to get even closer to the people of Taiwan. The motorcycle culture became an object of fascination. The public transport buses became a convenient and enjoyable way to explore and travel. The tune of the garbage trucks became music to my ears. The delicious street food became something I yearned for. As for the foul sewer smell, it's still foul, but it only reminds me I'm in the place I love most. 

Jolene Chao eating dinner at Wu Wha Ma, a popular restaurant for flour foods (i.e. dumplings, scallion pancakes and baozi)
Jolene Chao eating dinner at Wu Wha Ma, a popular restaurant for flour foods (i.e. dumplings, scallion pancakes and baozi)

I saw myself differently once again. I found a new pride in being a Taiwanese-American. I began to indulge in Taiwanese movies, dramas, and music, as well as the food culture. I no longer felt ashamed of my cultural identity, and I felt so free.

It's been about 14 years since the incident at the park. Yet, every second from that moment is still etched into my mind. I don't choose to remember it out of anger. Rather, I choose not to forget it as a way to preserve the liberation I felt when I finally decided to embrace my Asian identity.

Photos by Jolene Chao

Jolene Chao is a freshman journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin.