“You’re not Taiwanese on the inside. Come on, Jennifer, you’re totally American,” my fully-from-Taiwan friend accused.
Sighing, I shoved my chin into my palm to cloak my frown behind my knuckles. I drummed my frustration into the table, wondering how to continue this conversation. A conversation that I’ve navigated my entire life.
“Are you truly Taiwanese? Are you sure? You look so American.”
Thing is, I look nothing like Hollywood’s version of the stereotypical “All American.” Unlike my peach-skinned half-sister, I have tawny brown skin that puzzles many Angelenos I meet. “Where are you from? No, really … like where are your parents from?” they question. They guess every ethnicity except the one that comprises half of me — Taiwanese.
My appearance confuses everyone, Taiwanese and Americans alike. And it’s not just because of my skin tone. It’s also because I’m fat, and I’ve been so to varying degrees my entire life.
Despite my terracotta skin and black hair, my body’s rounded shape makes me look decidedly un-Asian to casual observers. Stereotypical “Asians” are supposed to be skinny and curveless. I’m definitely not that.
On a Tuesday afternoon, I entered the Chen family tree as the first American “hunxue er” (mixed blood child). “Hunxue er” like me were rare in the ’80s, especially in Kaohsiung, in the southern part of Taiwan, where I grew up. In a sea of straight black hair and light brown skin on thin bodies, my plump body, topped with wavy hair and slightly larger-than-average eyes caused me to stick out.
I grew up in a house full of cousin-siblings. Try as I might, I didn’t fit in. My cousins followed directions meticulously, ate their vegetables compliantly and stayed thin no matter what they consumed. Mark, my older cousin, routinely inhaled entire cans of Pringles and multiple Snickers bars with zero consequences. I, on the other hand, disobeyed adults, rejected punishments, refused to ingest vegetables and gained weight no matter what diet my mom forced me on.
“Jenny-ah,” she’d warn me while pinching my belly or arm during family dinners. “Look at your cousins! They can eat whatever they want. They don’t ever get fat. You, no. You have to be careful. You have the type of body that gets fat even if you just drink water. You can’t keep getting fatter and fatter.”
“In Taiwan, my body set me apart. In the U.S., my Taiwanese upbringing isolated me.”
In my experience, fat Taiwanese weren’t (and still aren’t) really visible. The ones who are become caricatures and the butt of jokes on evening variety shows.
My elementary school, by conducting public weight-check days, inadvertently created an annual fat-shame-Jenn day. Large, snickering crowds of curious kids gathered, their faces smashed against the glass windows of the nurse’s office, heads piled on top of one another, just to hear my weight. I stepped on the scale and held my breath, making eye contact strictly with the concrete floor, trying my best to shut out the growing volume of murmurs and snickers.
“OK, number 42, you weigh….65 kilos!” The nurse announced. A short silence followed her words before chatter burst around me.
“Wow! You’re the fattest in our class!” I heard someone shout. “You’re not just a regular elephant. You’re an AMERICAN elephant!” I squeezed my eyes shut, but that did not numb the ripping sensation clawing at my heart — I am not like everyone else.
Arriving at Oberlin College, at the outset, seemed like paradise. For the first time in my life, my appearance matched the diversity around me. Surrounded by a variety of body shapes, sizes, genders and skin colors, I started to feel hopeful. At long last, my time to belong had arrived.
Except Ohio is nothing like Taiwan. It snowed. The dining hall served a strange food called “chicken fried steak.” Oberlin’s buildings stood less than five stories tall. The college town had a general store, not karaoke boxes or night markets. On top of that, I didn’t understand half the cultural references people made. Who is Urkel and what is a “Full House”?
I began clutching at all things Taiwanese — I downloaded Jay Chou and A-mei songs off Limewire, singers I had scorned in high school because they weren’t American. I boiled instant noodles and guzzled boba, things I didn’t really enjoy while living in Taiwan.
Once again, I felt alienated from my surroundings and my peers. In Taiwan, my body set me apart. In the U.S., my Taiwanese upbringing isolated me.
“Where’s home for you?” a good friend of mine asked recently.
I scrunched my nose and pondered her question. Where and when do I feel the most at home?
The reality hit me while I mulled her question over. My cousins in Taiwan, unlike my parents, never made my body size a problem. They never, ever taunted me for my size or demanded that I lose weight. My co-worker-turned-sister of 11 years in America understands me when I say “I’m not from here,” and she explains the cultural context I sometimes lack a full grasp of in conversations.
Belonging existed my whole life, in small moments of acceptance.
“I think my home is with people like you, you know?” I finally responded.
In recent years, I’ve begun to showcase my differences as opposed to hiding them. I began to wear bikinis on photoshoots and to display my back rolls. When my 8-year-old nephew asked me, “Gugu (auntie), why are you so fat?” I responded that I’m fat because not all bodies are thin, even Asian ones.
So, when my fully-from-Taiwan friend jabbed at me for being totally American, I replied with, “Yes. You’re right. I’m both ‘wai guo ren’ and Taiwanese. I’m not like you. I’m from here and not from here. I don’t look like other Taiwanese people, but I’m not just American. Does that make sense?”
I release my hidden frown from behind my clenched fist and breathe a sigh of relief while she nods in understanding. I’m a half-white Taiwanese American who happens to be fat, and for the first time, I’m demanding that you accept all of me.