Bicultural identity: taking the middle road between Belgium and Taiwan

Jade Liu (24) is Belgian born but not raised. Although her mother is Belgian, her father is originally from Taiwan. The Sino-Belgian household eventually had a huge influence on how Jade formed her personality, what she studied, where she lived and even who she dates. As she tells her story about her cultural identity and all the quirks that come with growing up ‘mixed’, the concept of culture and its often artificial borders start to fade.

‘As a child, I was already very early on aware of the mixed culture at home. My parents are definitely not your average Taiwanese man and Belgian woman, though. I believe we made our own unique culture at home which incorporate elements from both sides. Of course, we used to participate in events like Chinese new year but my father would not hand out the typical red envelopes’, says Jade. Sometimes when visiting her family in Taiwan, Jade would see some really traditional festivities and wonder about it. ‘All things considered, my father didn’t really teach us that much about Chinese culture. I used to wish I knew more about the local culture and customs because it sometimes led to awkward situations. My behavior in general would sometimes be just straight up too Western. One time, I attended a Taiwanese funeral to represent my family and I didn’t know I was supposed to bring a small money contribution’, Jade adds. No one ever explained to her how those traditions worked.

‘I spent those crucial first three childhood years in Taiwan. In those years, you develop your most early version of your personal identity’

Jade in Sanxia, the neighborhood where she spent her early childhood years.

‘Even though I grew up mostly in Belgium and didn’t have that much Chinese tradition in me, I still feel more Taiwanese than Belgian. I think this is because I spent those crucial first three childhood years in Taiwan. In those years, you develop your most early version of your personal identity. I’d say I feel about 60% Taiwanese and 40% Belgian’, Jade states. Sometimes her mother and she would walk the streets of Taipei and kids would point at her and scream: ‘Look, an American!’. ‘It would always slightly offend me. I would react to my mother: ‘what are they talking about? I’m Taiwanese!’. Sure, I might look more pale and stuff but I definitely identify as Asian and Taiwanese’, she explains. Sometimes people think she’s just Belgian or even a Latina mix. According to Jade this can really warp how people perceive her, ‘It can sometimes be bothersome because an important part of your identity is simply not transmitted to others.  I can totally understand how frustrated transgenders feel, for example. They too have an identity that is not really visible and misunderstood, but so essential to them.’ Her sister has had the opposite experience. ‘She grew up almost exclusively in Belgium but her looks have more Asian features than me. People will call her ‘Chinese’ and it confuses her because she feels almost completely Belgian. Some teachers in high school would even assume she is not a native Dutch speaker, I think she did suffer a bit from experiences like these.’

Building a life in Leuven

‘I met my boyfriend Hao through my parents. My dad is from Taiwan and met my mom there. He moved to Belgium about twenty years ago to be with her. He worked in Leuven and befriended a Taiwanese family living here. Hao was born in that family’, says Jade. The Chinese community in Leuven at that time was pretty small, the Taiwanese diaspora was even smaller. ‘We moved back to Taiwan for a while when I was born. I lived there until I was about three years old, in the district Sanxia, close to Taipei. We stayed there with my dad’s family. I participated in some early summer school activities there as a toddler but started kindergarten back in Hoegaarden, Belgium’, she explains. Fast forward to the age of 18 and Jade started her sinology studies in Leuven. Jade fondly remembers how she eventually met Hao, ‘My father always mentioned this Taiwanese restaurant in Leuven called Tsing’s. I found that the food was really tasty and authentic so I started hanging out there often. One of my school assignments at that time required us to direct an amateur movie starring Chinese native speakers. Naturally, I went looking for suitable people at Tsing’s. I had seen Hao there a few times and thought he was very handsome and I knew my father told me he was already working and establishing himself in life. We added each other on social media after the project and things started rolling from that moment on.’ A few weeks later, she was already attending Christmas festivities with his family. ‘It was a really smooth match. We don’t really celebrate Christmas in Taiwan by the way. There’s a strong local mix between Buddhism and Taoism, with a focus on traditions’, Jade adds.

‘A few weeks later, I was already attending Christmas festivities with him and his family’

Jade and Hao in their new flat.

A duo of cats roaming Jade and Hao’s flat are called Didi and Gege, a nod to the Mandarin words for younger and older brother. ‘Ever since I was a kid, I have always been an animal lover. Some people say liking dogs or cats is something you get from your parents. I do have to admit my father always had many dogs, even though my mother didn’t. We had some cats at home when I was young and I always knew I wanted my own dog and cats when I moved into my own place. We adopted two cats when we moved to the new flat and shortly after I went looking for a dog to add to the family. I noticed in the animal shelter that older dogs never got adopted. They don’t really differ from younger ones, except that they are just a bit more low-energy and take some more time to rest’, says Jade. She claims that people are afraid that older dogs are more likely to get sick and won’t live long but if you take good care of them, they’ll be just fine. ‘We suspect Balou’s a crossbreed between a Siberian Husky and an Alaskan Malamute. Ever since we got him, a large part of our household and most of my social media is about taking care of him. It’s worth it though, he’s just too cute’, says Jade while petting the impressive looking canine animal.

Balou, the Husky might look intimidating to some but is very gentle.

Studying the Chinese language and characters

‘As a child in Taiwan, I spoke both Mandarin and Dutch fluently but mostly lost those Mandarin basics while growing up back in Belgium. At home we spoke about 70% Dutch, 20% English and maybe 10% Mandarin. I really wanted to learn to write and speak Mandarin because it’s such a useful skill in the world today. I was also very eager to learn more about Chinese culture and history. In high school, Asia was barely present in history courses, which is really sad’, Jade states. According to her, the sinology department at the KU Leuven is extremely hands-on but it can still be a struggle to learn there, ‘I think people here are really shy in language classes. Flemish people can be really rough on others when it comes to language. A freshly immigrated person who is trying his best to speak a broken Dutch will be looked down upon. In Taiwan, I feel like people are more encouraging and kind to foreigners who attempt to speak Mandarin. You can feel this attitude in class, people often don’t really dare to speak out a lot.’

‘How many times did I see a sinology student order food in a Chinese restaurant in Dutch? Really surprising.’

The names of the cats Gege and Didi are nods to the Mandarin words for big and small brother.

Jade feels like the sinology department didn’t push pupils hard enough to encourage interaction with native speakers, ‘Only towards the end of the studies, things got a bit more involved. How many times did I see a sinology student order food at Tsing’s in Dutch? Really surprising. Many people with a Chinese cultural background often kind of fill into the sinology studies because they think it will be easy for them. Unfortunately, even for mixed children, learning Mandarin can be difficult and requires a lot of dedication to master. Grammar is pretty simple in Mandarin but truly getting the speaking tones down is quite a challenge. I find writing characters to be really fun and once you click with the basics it’s not that hard to learn more of them. The studies are not only about the language, there’s also history courses, cultural topics, economics, Chinese literature, etc. I would really recommend these studies because learning Chinese on the side in a language school will never really make you a proficient speaker.’ Jade asserts that three years of sinology will really elevate your Mandarin to a practical level and people with this degree really often go to work in Taiwan and China.

Jade on studying and working abroad: ‘Usually, sinology students will apply for a scholarship to study in China. Getting a scholarship to study in Taiwan is a little bit more difficult, but thankfully more people are interested in China. Since I have the Belgian as well as the Taiwanese nationality, I couldn’t apply for a scholarship. But on the upside, I don’t need a special working permit to earn some money on the side there.’ She spent a year working and traveling in Taiwan as an English teacher and waiter where she had to make daily use of her Mandarin. ‘I remember that after a few months, I was able to fluently explain what we had on the menu in Mandarin. It was a great year which really reinforced my Taiwanese identity perception. At the same time, I became more aware of my Western heritage as well’, Jade says.

Taiwan, progressive nation of the east

Jade quickly finds a way to describe her home country to people who never heard of it, ‘Taiwan is a fitting mix between Chinese, Japanese and Western culture. The Chinese have always been there. My family moved from the mainland to Taiwan during the reign of the Qing dynasty. Shortly after, the Japanese occupied Taiwan for about half a century. They influenced the Taiwanese people on so many levels, even mentally. People behave more orderly and disciplined than on the mainland, which I recognize in Japanese mentality. Skipping a queue for the public bus will definitely get you snubbed by the locals, while chaotic public transport is pretty normal in China. The Japanese also put a lot of infrastructure into place. People remember the Japanese occupation with feelings of hate but also some appreciation.’ The Americans also left their mark on Taiwan. Baseball is a big thing in Taiwan now and you can see American chain stores everywhere. Jade things that this is why people say Taiwan is a good first country to visit in Asia as a Westerner because the culture shock is so low, ‘Hopefully soon, Taiwan will also be the first country in Asia where gay couples can get married. In a recent referendum, a lot of people still voted against it but as usual, a lot of disinformation was being spread around. The government is currently working on filling it into a new separate law from heterosexual marriage. It’s definitely a sign that Taiwan still often does the exact opposite of China.’

‘I could probably walk naked through the street at night and people would cover their eyes instead of harassing me.’

Why would anyone from Belgium visit Taiwan though? Jade lists some interesting features of the island nation, ‘Even though there is a lot of Americanization, Taiwan has really pretty and traditional Chinese cultural places to visit. The country is also extremely safe, I have never felt unsafe during my stay. I could probably walk naked through the street at night and people would cover their eyes instead of harassing me. People are hospitable and will make an extra effort to bring you back on the right track if you’re lost. The nature is just amazing as well. Taiwan is an island with mountain ranges in the center, long beaches and lush tropical forests and canyons in the east. The temperature levels can get quite high and the humidity can wear you down but it’s worth it. Taipei is a great city too with many things to visit and eat. One of my favorite dishes would be Taiwanese soup dumplings, called xiao long bao. Most of the food is not expensive but still delicious and fresh!’

Big brother China

Jade shares some of her experiences with China, ‘I have never visited mainland China but I did have an overlay in Beijing. The check in procedure there was extremely confusing and the airport staff was hassling me a bit about getting my tickets for the transfer. I was being directed to all kinds of different departments and no one could really help me. My luggage was checked multiple times and I almost missed my flight in the end! I’m probably never going back to Beijing again because of this experience.’ In her mind, Taiwan and China are two separate countries but they are both ethnically Chinese. ‘Both regions had quite a different development and I don’t think a ‘one country, two systems’ mechanism, like the one implemented in Hong Kong, would work for a Taiwanese integration into China. Even though Taiwan is economically very close to China, Taiwanese people do have a different mentality about so many things. We have our own president, miss Tsai Ing-wen, who always strongly opposes too-far-reaching influences from China’, Jade states.

Of course I would like Belgium to recognize Taiwan but it wouldn’t really make a difference for the situation.

But how does it feel to live in a country that doesn’t even recognize Taiwan? Currently only seventeen countries officially recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan). The list is comprised mostly of South American countries and Oceanic micro nations with a strong historical tradition of independence or revolution such as Belize or Paraguay. Interestingly enough, the Vatican city is also included in the list as the only European entity to recognize Taiwan. Jade has a neutral stance on the subject, ‘People usually don’t even know where Taiwan is or confuse it with Thailand so would they really care anyway? Of course I would like Belgium to recognize Taiwan but it wouldn’t really make a difference for the situation. We are really proud of what we built in our country, for example the healthcare is probably the best one in Asia, so people don’t really care what Belgium or China says about Taiwan. I want to stress that even though Chinese tourists are a bit annoying, even in Taiwan, there is absolutely no bad blood between Taiwanese and Chinese people. The democratic party of president Tsai Ing-wen pushes back to China but the Kuomintang like to promote more integration.’ The Kuomintang is the nationalist party of Taiwan, they are the remnants of the previous Chinese government who fled to Taiwan after Mao cemented his power in 1949.

The Leuven connection

‘When I was sixteen years old, I got one of my first student jobs at imec in Leuven, working in the kitchen. The year after I did some cleaning in the area where they develop micro-chips, an essential task to ensure production value stays optimized. At the end of high school, I worked as a job student for imec in an administrative function. A job which I kept doing throughout my university years. After graduating and spending that year in Taiwan, I did occasional administration and promotional work for imec Taiwan as well’, Jade explains. imec has a close partnership with the largest semiconductor producer in the world, TSMC, which is based in Taiwan. Jade adds, ‘Belgium and Taiwan actually have a deep technological and educational exchange going on. A lot of Taiwanese students started working and doing research at imec and the KU Leuven recently. One of the people spearheading this exchange is professor Frank Kao from the National Cheng Kung university in Tainun, Taiwan. Coincidentally, he is also a friend of our family.’

Currently, Jade has a position at imec in internal communication and event organizing. ‘Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to a convention in San Diego, California, to represent imec at a meeting. The work is versatile and never gets boring, I am really happy’, she adds. Jade claims her Chinese language background is not essential for the job, but definitely an occasional strength to possess. ‘In October we received a visit from Li Keqiang, the Chinese minister of foreign affairs. My understanding of Mandarin was a useful asset at that time to help organize the whole event in a more sufficient way for both parties. imec is even one of the first places where I started experimenting with my usage of Mandarin again. I used to join the Taiwanese employees on their lunch time as much as possible to practice my interaction with them. But don’t get me wrong, imec is not a Taiwanese outpost or anything like that. All nationalities are well represented within the company and there are definitely more Chinese than Taiwanese workers’, she says.

‘In the West, we often see ourselves as the best cultural norm. Other cultures are regarded as exotic or strange.’

I let my personality make a decision on the spot and this often makes you reconsider later if you couldn’t have reacted differently.

‘I would love to go back to work and live in Taiwan. Staying in tech is not really my main goal either. I miss teaching English class back there. People were really interested to pick up the language and the class atmosphere was great. If I find another opportunity there, I would seriously consider it’, she says. Jade concludes with some pondering on cultural identity: ‘In the West, we often see ourselves as the best cultural norm. Other cultures are regarded as exotic or strange. In Taiwan, Chinese culture was just considered as an option A. Other cultures were just other options out there. This mentality of taking the middle road in cultural debate still speaks strongly to me. I think my own cultural identity will always be kind of a struggle. Sometimes I don’t know how to react to certain situations; should I respond in a Western or more Asian way? I let my personality make a decision on the spot and this often makes you reconsider later if you couldn’t have reacted differently. You have to let your personality and identity blossom together and in this process, some chaos and uncertainties are to be expected. I got used to this process and embraced it.’


Text: Jeremy Van der Haegen

Photos: © Jeremy Van der Haegen

Timeline source & Photos: Wikipedia commons (CC01)