THEY SAY by Lillian Tsay

They say you are American because you were born on American soil. Thanks to jus soli—the right of anyone born in a state’s territory to obtain citizenshipyou feel free to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Your father, who is not an American, once said, “The land of the free, the home of the brave. Those are great lyrics compared to our anthem! Three Principles of the People is the foundation of our party. We use it to establish the Republic and advance to the total harmony.

You have the privilege of lining up in the “resident” aisle at the airport, which is usually faster. While your foreign friends are anxious of not getting allotted their working visas, you do not need to worry about getting kicked out of the country. You can vote for the election that may affect the world.

If it should ever be needed, you will not have to apply for asylum.

You should be grateful.


They say you are Chinese because you are Chinese. You are always Chinese. You have Chinese blood and speak and write Chinese, so you are Chinese.

You should be grateful that you belong to this civilization of five-thousand years.

They say you are Taiwanese because your parents are Taiwanese. You are Taiwanese because Taiwan is your home. Because you share the same history, speak the same language. You are fine with these statements.

Many online forms will only provide the option “Taiwan (Province of China)” when you scroll down the bar of nationality. Sometimes they just show “Taiwan (China)” to remind you that only less than twenty countries in the world have diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Sometimes you just leave the form blank.

A Taiwanese once visited New York City and wanted to buy a postcard at the United Nations Headquarters. He was kicked out of the building because they did not consider his Taiwanese passport as valid ID. The guard told him he should carry his Mainland Transit Permit to get in. This person had never been to China, so he didn’t have the desired ID. He should not have the boldness to buy a postcard in a forbidden zone.

Whenever stories like this come up, they tell you, “Rest assured, you have your American passport. You don’t need to go through this.”


They say you are a “fob” (fresh off the boat) because, like other fobs, you came to this country almost a stranger. You have an English legal name but also have a Chinese accent. You have an American passport but haven’t lived here long enough to call yourself Asian-American. Someone once nicely told you, “You’re actually not a fob. You just act like one.”

Sometimes you think they are right. When your American colleagues talk about nostalgic high school memories, such as reading The Catcher in the Rye, you have nothing to say. You spent high school studying classical Chinese poetry, world history (which included some very basic American history), and advanced algebra.

And you’ve never watched the show Fresh off the Boat.


They say you are a gaijin. An alien. Or a gaikokujin. A foreigner. Your Taiwanese grandparents were granted Japanese citizenship in wartime conditions, but that was long ago. Things are different now. Conditions have changed.

They say there are advantages to being a gaijin. That you can wield the alien card like armor. For instance, gaijin are forgiven for making mistakes when using honorifics.

But you are not exactly a gaijin. For instance, you wouldn’t immediately be given the English menu in a restaurant. If the conversation is short enough, the server may not even notice that you are a foreigner.

Once you visited a place called Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, not far from the place where the nuclear disaster occurred in 2011 after the disastrous tsunami. After visiting the major historical sites, you went to a local candle store for souvenirs. While paying, you noticed the TV drama poster in the back of the room. It depicted the celebrated samurai called Saigō Takamori. He was one of the founding fathers of the modernized Japan, and his army annihilated the rebels of Aizu in a civil war a hundred years ago. Although you are a gaijin, you studied the history of Japan. You have a particular fondness for underdogs’ stories.

In your usual tone in Japanese, you asked the white-haired owner why she put up that poster. The woman replied, “Well, Saigō himself was later persecuted by the government, too. Poor guy.” She then asked where you were from. When you replied, “Taiwan,” her eyes opened wide, and she asked again, “Taiwan? You are a foreigner, from Taiwan?” Clearly, she was assuming the answer of another prefecture or big cities such as Tokyo or Osaka.


When you visited Manzanar in Californiathe largest concentration camp to incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWIIyou discovered the term Kibei: born in America, educated in Japan, and then returned to America. Though you are not ethnic Japanese, this term categorizes you well.

You first visited the dormitories and the cafeteria to imagine how your life would have been living in those camps. You learned of the “No-No Boys” who answered “no” to the two following questions in the loyalty questionnaire:

Q27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?

Q28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?

In the cafeteria (where all the internees once dined together) the only visitors besides you were a white mother and her son. You did not catch the son’s questions but overheard the mother answer, “But they were being Americans.” And you wondered what being American meant. Were you being American?

Before you left, you took pictures of the Manzanar monument tower, a white obelisk memorial with three big characters that mean “the tower to comfort souls.” On its back, the inscription reads “August 1943, erected by the Manzanar Japanese.” What were they thinking when they carved down the characters “Japanese” the very identity that put them behind the bars? You stood in front of the memorial took a deep breath and snapped the picture. The bleak mountains stood behind, constituting a picture that resonated with both the past and the present.


The photo of the monument has become a reminder of the countless names you’d seen in the museum and the nameless men and women who left of their belongings here but never came back to retrieve them. Rather than conceal your identity to become fully recognized as another, you will ignore what they say this is your place, and you will remain here as long as you like.

Photo by hjl, used and adapted under CC.