The air was that of a stagnant summer, stifling hot and stubbornly unmoving. The dirt road that snaked through the idyllic Taiwanese countryside had rattled the old, blue pickup truck for over an hour before it had shuddered to a stop. Stepping out onto the muddy riverbank, I anticipated the surprise that my eccentric uncle had promised. There it sat: a Styrofoam boat, assembled out of scraps of discarded cups, packing material and blocks. “I made it myself,” he proclaimed proudly, boarding the boat. I followed with trepidation, but it astonishingly supported both his weight and mine with ease. “How?” I asked. He turned to me, his eyes twinkling, and said “Beauty lies in the balance.”
Growing up, I was always fearful of being too ‘American’ in front of my traditional family, or too ‘Taiwanese’ in front of my peers. Whenever I saw my relatives, they would always tease me about being an ‘ABC’ - American-born Chinese - the appearance of an Asian, with none of the cultural heritage. I could not follow the New Year’s traditions since they conflicted with the school calendar. I couldn’t avoid it either, because at the same time, my lunches of radish soup and stir-fried eggplant fascinated my classmates. As a child, I felt as if I had to categorize myself as either Taiwanese or American. Like a trapeze artist, I was swaying over two sides of the same line.
It wasn’t until I learned about the “American Dream” that I gained insight into my definition of self. As I took note of its tenets, I realized my parents were its embodiment. My mother and my father both grew up in abject poverty. My mother’s family ate little but rice every night for fifteen years to pay for her school fees, while my father wrote his assignments faintly since pencil lead was too expensive. The American Dream, for them, was a channel that personified egalitarianism and the possibility of prosperity, in which they could better their circumstances by virtue of sheer effort. I understood then that my identity was not a question of culture, rather, it was a question of character. I could define myself by my own parameters on my own terms. Part of my identity, I decided, was my heritage, one of a purposeful stride toward my potential. Every time I return to Taiwan, back to the family farm and its ramshackle sheds, it serves not only as a proud reminder of the distances one can go with hard work, but also as an anchor to one’s beginnings.
For me, the American Dream has been a philosophy I first inherited and then self-actualized. While my parents took it at face value, I tailored it to fit my own specifications. Instead of cultural labels, my identity pays homage to the optimism and ambition of the American Dream. I adopted a philosophy of diligence and commitment to the future from my parents, while still being rooted in my experiences and relishing the simple pleasures of Styrofoam boats.
After all, beauty lies in the balance.
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