September 17, 2019

"Passages": In Celebration of Outer Space

In Taiwan, the Hsinchu Science Park is the dream of an “Asia Silicon Valley” -- a passage of information from the West to East and back again -- and a fantasy of Western power.

I was born in Silicon Valley, California to Taiwanese parents in 1997, the same year that local residents in Hsinchu County discovered that the dumping of electronic waste into rivers by U.S and Taiwanese corporations was making some sick. Like many wealthier Asian immigrants, my parents sought the greater opportunity and prestige that American higher education could offer. They hadn’t planned on staying, and to this day, my grandmother worries that I have forgotten where “home” is.

During humid Taiwanese summers, I watched my grandmother fry pork and stir giant pots of squash soup. “We’re returning to America soon,” I would declare, peering impatiently over her shoulder and into the steam rising from the pan. She would correct me loudly with a regretful smile,“You mean you’re going to America.” Alone, my mother would admonish us: “Stop talking about returning to America in front of your grandparents. It makes them sad.”

In Chinese, two different words describe the movement, the exchange, in marriage. When a man marries, he receives a wife. When a woman marries, she is married off. In a sense, she is taken and leaves her family to belong to his. There is both violence and liberation, access and limitation, in any “passage.” In a passage between two lovers, two countries, two Silicon Valleys; there is a departure and an arrival that happens all at once. There is a taking, a giving, and often, a reluctant release - a sense of loss that is both a theft and a bold escape.

The night before we leave, my grandfather pulls me aside and tells me to be good for my parents and brave for my health. “You’re a Chang,” he says. “你姓張.” And when he says it, it feels slightly powerful. But in America, when my teacher runs through the names on the roster, pronouncing the English translation that is made easier to fit in their mouths, it does not feel so special, not quite mine. At times, it’s difficult to fill in the blanks, to envision the lineage to which I belong, and the ancestors that some say watch over me.

My grandfather spun gold from straw, and I feel his magic in my bones. Maybe, to an extent, the way that we carry ourselves, commit ourselves, and hold our heads up is passed down in this way. My father gave me his appetite. And my mother, her fear. For this, I both run away and run farther, more desperately than I should; I am always almost home.

In immigrating for an American Dream, my parents pass down the memory of leaving home and making another home, such that my body carries the remembrance and tangled roots of two homes. The theme of this year’s East Portland Arts & Literary Festival -- fondly dubbed 3PALF, for short -- is “PASSAGES,” and I’ve been thinking about what it means to belong in the pathway between multiple homes - to be seen as alien in your own home(s) and to have home be(come) alien to you. Like my grandmother, here, they too insist that we are just passing through, and the humor is not lost on me. So how do you orient yourself when family, friends, and home are both familiar and safe, fragile and foreign, and every time you try to “return” you feel as if you have misplaced who-knows-what who-knows-where?

And yet, these days, I am proud to say that I am only passing through; I am finding a home in these passageways. Growing up, I was never much of a science fiction enthusiast. Recently, however, I am inspired by artists and speculative fiction writers -- like Franny Choi, Janelle Monae, Jamila Woods, and Japanese Breakfast -- who explore the extraterrestrial and nonhuman to imagine radical identities, relationships, and communities. Revealing and identifying themselves as aliens and cyborgs, they illuminate how the alienation from one place paradoxically enables the freedom to belong to everywhere and anywhere all at once.

We reside in different worlds and dimensions, each carrying our own worn suitcases of jumbled keepsakes. Disheartened by this world, we reach to the history, wisdom, and language of another planet to which we are acquainted, connecting worlds that may have never collided without us. Out of a web of passages and flight patterns, we spin our own universes.

I like to think that this year’s 3PALF will be such a collision of worlds - a celebration of such universes and realms, seen and unseen, that we create collectively and individually. Forging new passages and embarking through them together is a radical movement through time and space, between generations, communities, cultures, and histories.

So, as Jamila Woods entreats in one of my favorite songs, “Stellar”:

Please, “meet me in outer space.”