June 14th, 2016

Green Island (by Shawna Yang Ryan)

I’m going to put it on the table right now: this book—a novel (fiction!)—taught me more about my family and cultural heritage than any history class or textbook ever did.

The plot leans heavily on a historical event and period of time that is never mentioned in American history classes. It is hard to learn history when it has been wiped from the history books. In fact, I don’t remember any mention of Taiwan in my history books before college. I never knew the details of the 228 Massacre until reading this book, despite whisperings of it at family dinners in my youth. I would like to blame the lack of Wikipedia at the time on not following up on what everyone meant by “2-2-8”, but I have to admit I was not the most intellectually curious child.

Me, deep in thought.

When I finally finished this book, I was compelled to talk to my dad about it. I was told first-hand stories about what my own family did in Taiwan to stay safe and what it looks like to live in a country without free speech. A big reason this event is hardly mentioned, even in the Taiwanese community, is because talking about it was forbidden for decades. But even characters in the book that dared to speak about it in America (an entire ocean away from Taiwan) got a good beating for the violation. I guess I don’t blame the Taiwanese community here then. This book taught me that the cultural divide between me and my parents is comprised of more than just a difference of generational age, food, and language. The fact that I could not fathom such suppression of speech about a historic event (what’s done is done, right? WRONG) was very telling; I was privileged to grow up in a culture of American free speech while my own family never had such basic rights. It’s not about speaking English fluently or simply not having enough filial piety in the American culture. It’s about what I have, their sacrifices in the immigration process that lets me have it, and what they didn’t have.

I also learned that my family and all our family friends represent many sides of the conflict embodied by the 228 Massacre. My grandfather’s family emigrated from China to Taiwan to get the hell away from Mao’s red army (of military and citizens alike). Many of these folks that ran from China to Taiwan (my mom’s family) were of the party that kind of abused the folks that were already there (my dad’s family), the people that identify themselves are true Taiwanese people (though they themselves immigrated from China a couple hundred years prior and committed similar atrocities to the natives there…probably the real true Taiwanese folks). It’s interesting to recall the political discussions (read: fights) my family got into in over dinners. It’s also interesting to hear which family friends came from which group.

The ultimate question I asked my dad: “How are you friends with people that identify with a socio-political group that has done so many horrible things to people you personally know?” His answer was simply that people are people, all doing the best they can. “It’s war. There is no right or wrong. You are simply at a place and time and you are swept up with one side or another. You usually don’t even get to choose the side.” It sounded true, but surprisingly forgiving for the atrocities described in the book. Perhaps this was a moment to learn that as an American, I have been privileged to not live through a war on the home front, which tends to complicate things. All the more, I now know that I come from a culture that is a lot more adaptive than I originally thought, given the historical, uh, diversity of my family and family friends.

I learned a bit from this book—historical references, cultural details described, even details on what it is like to immigrate to America in the 80's. The real gold is in the conversations that have revealed things about my family I would have never known otherwise. I’m sure not everyone will have the same experience from this book, but there must be other books out there like this that help people understand their own families in a deeper way. These books are gold.