The Electronic Cigarette: I have a New Toy

**Comment: Today in 2016, the e-cig is now known as “Vapor” or “Vaporizer”. Within a very short amount of time the Vaping community/industry has grown exponentially. Studies have shown that e-cig’s or vapes are not as harmless as distributors claim. The process of heating up vape juice produces carcinogens, although at lesser amounts compared to tobacco.**

[February 20, 2015]

My earliest, distinct memory of my existence, whatever that means, is this: my dad was making me chase him, and he had something I wanted but could not get. Perhaps he had a volleyball in his hands. I found out later that after playing volleyball with his colleagues or classmates, he decided to film me with a video camera. He was walking backwards, and his child, two or three years old, was exasperated. No matter how much I wailed and cried for attention, he just kept walking backwards. I remember the grass beneath my feet. It was a nice day, the sky was clear. People were wearing shorts. Not sure which city, but I was in Taiwan.

The next memory was of me on a plane. There were coloring books that kept me very busy. I only remember my mom’s presence, but somehow after we landed, my grandma on my dad’s side was there. There was a house, with big spiraling stairs. There was a book about a woman and a tiger in the house and I got terribly spooked out by the illustration. All of a sudden, a baby arrived in the house who became my brother. My mom asked me about what name to call him. Later I found out that little Vicky had gone to preschool in that city, but I had no memory from that. All of this took place in Atlanta, Georgia. I was three or four. Our plan to stay in the US did not work out, I’m not sure why. We moved back to Taiwan a couple months after my brother was born.

Growing up in Tainan County, the rural neighbor of Tainan City, was somewhat idyllic.  In Taiwan, there is a North-South-East divide. While the majority of Northern residents support the KMT, the majority of the South are DPP. Growing up in south Taiwan, I grew accustomed to a lifestyle that made it difficult for me to transition to Chicago years later. Everything came intuitively to me: how to cross streets, talk to cashiers, zig-zag through traffic on my aunt’s moped, find all the outdoor basketball courts nearby, scope out potentially gay people. I like biking through the fields, whether rice, guava, pineapple, bamboo, or some unidentified-strange-green-little-thing sprouting out from the ground. I like running at the elementary school, when the semester hasn’t started. After experiencing Chicago, I have grown to love some sun scorching on my skin during those runs.

Tainan is a historical city. A Dutch and Spanish colony in the 1600’s, Taiwan was named “Formosa” by Portuguese sailors who bypassed the island in 1544. Until the 16th century, Taiwan was inhabited by people known as Taiwanese aborigines today. Research has suggested that their ancestors have been on the island about 8000 years before the Dutch and Spanish arrived. (Shepherd) In 1624, the Dutch East India Company established a trading stronghold called “Fort Zeelandia” in an area now known as Anping in Tainan City. (Oosterhoff) Han Chinese laborers mostly from Fujian province were imported by the Company for tasks such as gold and sulfur mining. Conflict arose between the Aboriginal tribes, Europeans, and Chinese. The current name of Fort Zeelandia is Anping Fort. I have been to the historical site several times; I live only a thirty minute car ride away from it. Tainan is my hometown, but not where I was born.

Unlike my brother, “I was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Taiwan”. I’ve used this phrase countless times when people ask. Tension between China and Taiwan in the 90’s led to my grandparents’ (on my dad’s side) decision that my brother and I become US citizens. My mom would fly out of Taiwan when she is seven months pregnant, meet a distant relative, give birth at a hospital, and land a US passport for the babies. Everything went as planned, and in fact so smoothly that they did it twice, in two different cities. When I asked her why, she said that it was easier to travel as a “tourist” before 9/11, and that she was so skinny that she would just put big jacket on and walk right through security with a another essence pulsing in her belly.

What happened during the 90’s was a result of series of historical events. After several different rulers, (Spanish, Dutch, Ming Dynasty, French, Qing Dynasty), Taiwan was annexed as a province by Qing dynasty government in 1885, only to be ceded in full sovereignty to Japan after Qing Dynasty was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). (Shepherd) Taiwanese (ethnically Chinese and Aborigines) were classified as second and third class citizens by the new government. Opposition to Japanese colonial rule was common; guerrilla fighting occurred regularly until 1905, and about 14,000 Taiwanese died in these uprisings. After a decade of suppression, the Japanese authorities then launched several violent attacks against aboriginal communities who have since then retreated to the mountainous regions and East coast of Taiwan. (Tierney)

When I was younger, my grandpa would tell me stories such as the one about him being fluent in Japanese and interesting observations he made as a young child during Japanese rule. In 1935, the Japanese started an assimilation project in Taiwan. People were taught to see themselves as Japanese, while Taiwanese languages, art, literature, religion and other cultural related facets were outlawed. During World War II, thousands of Taiwanese served in the Japanese military. Industrial centers controlled by the Japanese such as Kaoshiung City, a forty-minute car ride from Tainan, were heavily bombed by Allied forces, including the US.  (Tierney) During wartime, 2000 Taiwanese women became sexual slaves for Japanese troops. Another story of my grandpa’s was the one about a wall, not far from where he now lives. Naked women would get shoved into walls with openings that allowed soldiers to walk by on the other side and touch their breasts. When my grandmother heard him telling me that story, she yelled at him for talking nonsense to a kid.

After World War II, most Japanese were repatriated to Japan. The government of Republic of China (ROC) escaped to Taiwan, defeated by the Chinese Communists in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). ROC then installed itself as government of the island, claimed to be the capital of China and vowed to reclaim mainland.  Upheaval and unrest was common, as Taiwan (known as ROC internationally) went through events such as the 228 incident which led to a period of Martial Law, losing its UN seat to the PRC (1972), Beijing declaring its “Taiwan policy” from “armed liberation” to “peaceful unification” while refusing to renounce possible use of force against Taiwan when necessary (1978), and losing US diplomatic recognition and military alliance to Beijing (1979). (Taiwan Timeline)

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, population who viewed themselves as “Taiwanese” rose and a movement for eventual independence began. (Ng) In 1996, the first direct presidential election took place, and Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first elected president. Before the election, the PRC launched missiles into the Taiwan Strait as warnings against independence. It was around this period of time when my grandparents sent my mom overseas to give birth to me. I was born on August 8th, 1990, around 12pm PST. It made sense to my grandparents then, since they could afford it. They are still the decision makers in the family.

My grandparents on my dad’s side are the most insistent, hard-headed, bossy, and outspoken people I have ever met. My grandpa came from an impoverished farmer family and worked his way up to become a doctor. He married my grandmother, a politician’s daughter whose family became broke after a failed campaign and what she ate growing up was “rice and peas”.  She would eventually become the first woman from her district to go to college. The two are well-known in a small rural town called Hengchun in Pingtung City at the southernmost tip of Taiwan where they opened a clinic. He has won multiple city and national awards for his “excellent and generous practice”. She has been active in various local women’s groups and social clubs. I remember going to one of her dance practices when I was young. The two are always together, and they hold power in local politics. He, at age 80 now, still contributes regularly in the national newspaper with critiques about the government. He is still the city’s official coroner. She, in her late 70’s, regulates politics and decisions (almost tyrannically, but softer these days) within the family. When my mother wanted to paint the inside of our house yellow, my grandmother insisted on white.

My grandparents are interesting characters in my life. I have purposely distanced myself from them since middle school, for reasons that were not very clear to me back then. In Radicals on the Road, the author describes moments of tension in between members of the Anti-Imperialist Delegation to Socialist Asia led by Cleaver and Scheer. Asian American members were perceived as outsiders while others experienced unbalanced gender dynamics among the group. Later, some members of the delegation decided to come forth with criticism of Cleaver, while others did not. Although my grandfather was not a leader of social movements or delegations, his voice matters the most in the family. He has won numerous awards for his “dedication”, “commitment”, “literature”, and “activism” while my grandmother has always cooked, washed clothes, drove him around, and managed finances. As a child, I observed the countless times when they yelled and belittled my mother, who has no power to respond. They also fought with each other, verbally and physically. I never liked them for those things. However, I have long given up on the desire to analyze their relationship, nor the unequal public and private attention paid to their accomplishments. My cynicism probably will never come out to the light. He will be remembered as a great doctor, husband, father, and grandfather.

Fast forwarding to August 2008, I landed in Chicago after my eighteenth birthday. Although it wasn’t my first time in the US, I hadn’t yet experienced being in the Midwest nor lived on my own. Without familiarity and intuition to guide me, I had to un-learn then re-learn. Examples include learning how stop signs work, how to talk to cashiers at Jewel, how to navigate through social interactions in which individuality reigns. Homesickness is real; I miss the heat and humidity every day. Even when it’s summer here in Chicago, the air is dry and it doesn’t smell like the ocean.

I had never experienced being perceived “Asian” before, and it wasn’t long after I landed that someone told me to “go get some tea because you’re Asian” and that I “speak great English”. Growing up, I had always thought myself as “Taiwanese” like most people around me. Especially in Taiwan’s political context, calling oneself “Taiwanese” has value and meaning attached to it. That identity became irrelevant as I found out that most people don’t know what Taiwan is; people asked me to cook Thai food while others asked me if there’s running water in China. Every return to the US from Taiwan is painful; not only is it hard to leave home once again, but to get asked “How was Thailand” or “How was China” makes me feel invisible. In activist circles, being “Asian” doesn’t get you points- people think you’re communities are rich, racist, and unaware of political dynamics within cities you live in. Here, I become “Asian” with no background, history, nationality, or root.

In Fall of 2010, I came out. But I always, always knew. In kindergarten I remember walking on the family’s couch in the living room, pretending to “walk down the aisle” with more than one women. We walk hand-in-hand, while I stare down at my perfect tuxedo. If I counted right, I was in the closet for about twelve years (since I had consciousness for what being “gay” means). At Wheaton College, the nation’s most LGBTQ unfriendly campus, I started to date women. Everything felt so “explicit” and “wrong”, which made it more “fun” and “racy”. I got called into the Dean’s office several times for reports of homosexuality, alcohol, cigarettes, premarital sex, and chapel-skipping. I lost on-campus housing privilege because during a particular situation I was forced to disclose my sexual orientation to the Dean. I agreed to go to counseling for it in exchange for the continuation of my education at Wheaton.

I had my first encounter with activism at Wheaton College, where I was student liaison for OneWheaton, an LGBTQ alumni group of Wheaton College. I negotiated with the school’s Dean everyday, urging her for the creation of a new LGBTQ student support group on campus. I cried every day in her office. Eventually my voice went through, and a group was created. However, as my emotional stability was on the decline, I quietly withdrew from Wheaton College halfway through my senior year. I wanted to continue to show up at the support group, but the Dean told me no. “Sorry, it is only for current students.”

My first experience with activism really shaped my outlook on activism in general. It has since been a challenge to be “passionate” about any type of work and/or school. Wheaton College has took away so much of my dignity. I left Wheaton with desolation and despair. I was down at the very bottom of an endless pit. I wrote this poem called Dirt during that period of time.

I’ve come far

Gone tough, rough

strong like earth’s

solid ground

but dirt

under my nails

dirt, white and gray

for what it’s worth-

smears my face

in negligence and pain

suffering, until a new gain

tomorrow morning

when the sun rises

again

February 16, 2012

Thankfully, the internet was a good resource where I posted my poems online and found more people to date. I eventually started hanging out with new friends in Chicago, and two of the people I dated recommended that I transfer to UIC.

In Exiled Memory: History, Identity, and Remembering in Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian Diaspora, Um describes the “panethnic identity” that binds Southeast Asians together through histories, memories, ideas of belonging, and resistance. The author discusses power that is inherent in “history” and contradictions that exist in memories. For diasporas, “while nostalgia..may be rooted in the inability to let go of an idealized past, it is also a longing that is nurtured by the alienation of the present.” (Um 836)

Although I have come to accept the weather and its mysterious patterns here in Chicago, from time to time I crave the intensity of the sun in Taiwan, cloudless skies, and sweat like waterfall dripping from head to toe. Often I slip into moments where I feel like I’m watching everything and everyone go by me, but I’m not included in the scene. When that happens I feel like I’m watching a movie. I’m in the space, but I don’t belong. I don’t try to work towards belonging, but also experience the hurt that comes with not belonging. Frequently I get physical pain from the stress of figuring out who and what I am- migraines and backaches that last for days.

I am not a survivor of war- I cannot relate to the kind of nostalgia experienced by Southeast Asian diaspora. For the past seven years I have been engaging in a different nostalgic experience, which often leads to feelings of displacement wherever I’m at. Similar to Um’s description of the “diaspora”, I have experienced turbulence and confusion from Tainan to Wheaton College, from Chicago to Taiwan. Now when I do get to go “home” to Tainan, I experience isolation that does not occur regularly in Chicago. When I used to smoke cigarettes, I insert all of my unsaid feelings and emotions into those temporary but meaningful puffs; I had established some kind of relationship with my cigarettes. When I am alone I feel like I communicate with them, as if talking to spirits who are able to fit my hopes, dreams, desolation, longings, pain, joy all into wispy smoke that floats towards the sky.

Recently I have made some progress in my emotional and physical stability. Nowadays, I am used to being called a “Sir” wherever I go in Chicago. I stopped using the women’s bathroom because one time someone warned me that I was in the wrong restroom. I date women, and I look like a man. I use the word man because, for reasons that I’m not sure of, I pass as a man in most public spaces. A short one, but a man nonetheless. I am afforded male privilege when I am walking down the street; people leave me alone and don’t harass me. At the same time, being gendered as a man has led to confrontations with officials and businesses when I present my ID. With a name like “Victoria” and “Vicky” which does not “match” my “look”, I have learned how to argue my way through while asking for a school transcript, getting a visa, going through TSA at the airport, or buying a drink. I utilize my acting and persuasion skills at airports. From experience, when I speak in a higher pitch voice, smile, look the officers right in their eyes, explain that I play soccer and the coach requires all members on the team to cut their hair short, and thank them profusely, I get to go through Immigration ultimately.

A milestone in my life was when I quit tobacco in during Spring of 2014. I switched to electronic cigarette which still gives me asthma but theoretically less carcinogen. When that switch occurred, I also lost that ritual that felt saving at different moments. I don’t regret the switch, but I miss the spirit.

Although I will not go back to cigarettes, I hope to trace my steps back to spaces where I have been deeply hurt: Chicago, Wheaton College, Morrison Academy, my grandparents, the house I grew up in. I want to make peace with them, then move-on towards something new.

I hope to live a productive life, whatever productive means. Even if it is sitting at a park and smoking my electronic cigarette. I hope that I can embrace endings. I hope to remember that I always start new, too.

 

WORKS CITED

Ng, Franklin. The Taiwanese Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Oosterhoff, J.L. “Zeelandia, a Dutch Colonial City on Formosa (1624-1662).” Colonial Cities: Essays on Urbanism in a Colonial Context, 1985, 51-62.

Shepherd, John Robert. Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier, 1600-1800. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

“Taiwan Timeline.” BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/asia_pacific/2000/taiwan_elections2000/1945_1949.stm.

Tierney, Robert Thomas. Tropics of Savagery the Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Um, Khatharya. “Exiled Memory: History, Identity, and Remembering in Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian Diaspora.” 2012, 831-848

Wu, Judy Tzu. Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.

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