As an English-speaking Canadian-American of Taiwanese background, I have lived in Chinese diaspora communities for the majority of my life. My experience travelling to Taiwan on the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, a two-month opportunity granted to me by the Canadian Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, was one of pseudo-familiarity; a complex array of interwoven tensions between tacit knowledge and completely foreign customs. Examining how memory is mediated through various instances of tracemaking, my experiences in “returning” to my parents’ country of origin for the first time demonstrate that materiality plays a key role in how my various identifications shifted within and across time and space. This leads to a broader area of inquiry: in what ways might we consider the significance of materiality in relation to the growing multiplicity of hyphenation within the nation-state system? Exploring the semiotics of memory-objects, history and current transborder political discourse, my experiences open a broader connection between materiality and the intersubjective, contextual nature of identity construction.
As something that exists across temporalities and contexts, materiality can physically demonstrate the tensions and contradictions between lived experiences and conflicting, overarching national narratives.
In my own transnational journey the semiotics of traces reveal themselves through the everyday objects, places and self-tracked data that I encountered. In taking an autoethnographic approach to examining the moments associated with these interactions, I will demonstrate how these examples of lived experience exemplify the disjuncture in my relationship with the nation-states I officially subscribe to.
Defining notions of home
Disembarking the airplane at Taoyuan airport, I felt a mix of apprehension, excitement and deeply rooted exhaustion. Lethargic from a twelve-hour journey spent in United Airline’s economy class, it had just hit me that this would be my first time returning to my parents’ birthplace since I had been a year old. With my parents graduating with their Masters and Ph.D from a university in Texas, we had moved between states until finally settling in Richmond Hill, Ontario before I turned five. A “suburban Chinatown” community located on the outskirts of Toronto (Canada), the municipality sits a twenty-minute drive away from the North America’s largest Chinese shopping complex. This mish-mashed Chinese-Canadian diaspora community—arguably a facsimile, a cultural reproduction of other places and times—felt more tangible and three-dimensional than the seemingly flat, fragmented places described to myself and my siblings in nostalgic anecdotes over the dinner table. (Appadurai 1990, 44) Back then, my ties to my relatives consisted of memories of my mother or father speaking in Taiwanese on the phone late at night, a phone card clutched in their hands, conversing with faceless strangers on the other side of the world that existed on a vastly different timescale than my own.
With time, my detached relationship with my parents’ birthplace eventually transformed into a deeply-rooted curiosity. In moving to New York City and attending The New School for my graduate degree, that strong curiosity transformed into a desire to understand and reconcile the discontinuities in my own personal narrative and nested—often conflicting—set of identifications. Upon winning the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, my study plan described my desire to immerse myself in Taiwanese culture, its language, and be able to understand the ideologies, social norms and values that come from experiencing daily life in the country first-hand. As Bhabha notes while describing Bakhtin’s Journey: “it is Goethe’s vision of the microscopic, elementary, perhaps random tolling of everyday life in Italy that reveals the profound history of its locality (Lokalität) the spatialization of historical time, ‘a creative humanization of this locality, which transforms a part of terrestrial space into a place of historical life for people’.” (Bhabha 295)
Looking back, travelling to my parents’ country of origin for the first time was an investigation into traces meant to challenge my notions of home, and thereby redefine my understanding of “return.”
Traces and the disjuncture between lived experience and national narratives
Through language, we are able to express differentiation, polarities, and the notion of the “other.” It is the way in which we frame our understanding of the world: its actors, timescales, and limitations. These shifts are mediated through the different forms of materiality we encounter as we travel above and beyond nation-state borders. Recognizing the notion that culture is not static or exclusively siloed, current discourse surrounding semiotics similarly operates on a more fluid system as signs, as well as traces, constantly shift in meaning in today’s geopolitical landscape.
A trace, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a mark or line left by something that has passed.” This can reference an object, gesture, or other indication of the existence or passing of something. In reference to Ida Fink’s story Traces, Hirsch notes the importance of the photograph as a “trace of a trace” that differs from the marks left by oral or written testimony. (Hirsch 2012, 110) As a form that arguably “materializes” memory, “[t]he notion of trace, or index, describes a material, physical, and thus extremely potent connection between image and referent.” (Hirsch 2012, 223) Building on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, the form a sign takes—its signifier—can be classified as one of three types: an icon (strong connection between the sign and signified, and usually physically resembles what is being represented), an index (connection between sign and signified, with evidence of the thing being signified), or a symbol (no natural resemblance between signifier and signified as its meanings are culturally learned). (Deledalle 2000, ix) Traces can traverse these categories based on their individual interpretations and metaphoricity. As an example, Hirsch identifies a photograph of footprints as simultaneously an index and icon. (Hirsch 2012, 223)
Through my experiences centered around Taiwan, I have defined three different kinds of traces that have impacted my understanding of home, return and identity: objects, places, and object-places.
By exploring the signifiers within these three interconnected categories of traces encountered in my “return” to my parents’ homeland, I reveal how materiality plays a role in transgenerational, transnational memory transfer in ways that oral storytelling alone was unable to convey through my personal experiences.
Object-places: unintentional self-tracking and geotagging as a tracemaking practice
From the day I arrived at Taoyuan Airport, I had accidentally kept the satellite tracking on my smartphone active. As a result, every location I visited as well as the videos and images I had taken at each place were recorded.
In this sense, I define data and self-tracking information as a form of object-place: traces that sit between tangible objects and places, contained within a virtual third space accessible through these objects-as-interfaces. Upon discovering this source of information, I both admonished myself for my carelessness and revelled in my ability to reminisce about my experiences. With little regret, I could once again trace the pathways I took by bicycle to Da’an Park (大安森林公園) every morning to learn Tai-chi from my aunt’s friend Grant, one of the teachers in her award-winning troupe.
I could follow my route to the stall I purchased breakfast from every morning on my way to the university, and the times I took the high-speed train to the countryside to meet my relatives for the first time. I was able to recall information I thought I had forgotten: the names of the restaurants I had visited, the neighbourhood tours my aunt took, along with the locations of my favourite food carts in each of the night markets I visited.
With international travel changing my relationship with my spatial surroundings, digital forms of tracemaking play a significant role in developing my understanding of materiality as it relates to identity.
Through a digital map, I was able to recount this journey on a personal level. The tacit knowledge I had acquired in my two months there could be proven through this form of materiality, its icons and indices acting as a conduit for remembrance, reflection and nostalgia.
Object-places, prosthesis and their implications for memory mediation
Neff and Natus posit that through this form of reflection, self-tracking data thus “becomes a ‘prosthetic of feeling,’ something to help us sense our bodies or the world around us.” (Neff and Natus 2016, 75) This sense of prosthetic extension can also be seen in Landsberg’s description of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, noting that the museum “provides a terrain on which to begin to imagine the political utility of ‘prosthetic memories.’” (Landsberg 2004, 129) With “object survivors” playing a key role at the museum, Landsberg posits that “there is a simultaneous negotiation with the object (and the other that it represents) and with a person’s own archive of experiences; the concept of knowing is displaced by a relating to.” For these reasons, the museum can be seen as what Landsberg calls a transferential space that instills “prosthetic memories” to which viewers have an experiential relationship. As a result, “we are simultaneously giving over our bodies to these mute objects. We take on their memories and become their prostheses.” (Landsberg 2004, 136) In both of these cases, the extension of memory through prosthesis demonstrates the effects to which forms of mediation can shape how we read and interpret traces.
On a personal level, these forms of prosthetic remembrance greatly contribute to filling in gaps to recreate spatial and temporal continuity.
Recreating spatial and temporal continuity. Mapping and tracking are ways to detail movement and routes from a beginning to a defined endpoint. For this reason, digital tracemaking – as a way of making these patterns of movement visible – allows us to redefine, reillustrate and reinterpret our preexisting notions of home versus places of transition. As Parkin notes, “may not the notion of ‘home’ and of ‘origin’ refer to many places and not one fixed locus, in a way perhaps similar to the undeniably contestable and yet fluid boundaries of ethnicity and even nationality?” (Parkin 1999, 309) In order for this to be possible, Parkin underlines the need for continuity over temporal and physical space in order to create links between transient populations. (Parkin 1999, 309) With our devices and bodies representing this spatial and temporal continuity, digital tracemaking both intentionally and accidentally supplements gaps in our knowledge and memory to re-visualize these relationships. As Neff and Natus note regarding self-tracking: “Whether we intentionally self-track, or are tracked with or without our consent, our personal data—often of the most intimate and private nature—connects us to wider social systems.” (Neff and Natus 2016, 37) These connections play a key role in defining our ties, the communities we subscribe to, and how we identify ourselves.
Everyday objects: traces of transition that shape recall and memory recollection
In relation to object-places, objects in and of themselves can be inscripted, layered, and relayered with meaning across time and space. In my own life, the rice cooker has been one such continuous presence that has had an impact on me from when I was young. Originally developed by the Japanese and primarily manufactured in 1960 by the steel company Tatung, the mass-produced all-purpose cooker was known to have revolutionized life for Taiwanese housewives. (Tatung 2014) As a popular item for students to bring with them when studying abroad, my mom had brought a bright yellow one over from Taiwan during her graduate school days in Texas. When her first one stopped working, she purchased another one in Chinatown. Having been constantly packed and re-packed along with our belongings as we travelled from Texas, Maryland and Montana, today both of them can be found on the kitchen counter of my parents’ house in Richmond Hill. Inscribed with too much sentiment and nostalgia to throw away, the two appliances sit alongside one another on the kitchen counter. Throughout university I wrote the two older appliances off as antiques that were no longer in production; relics of another time and place that was more relevant to my parents’ ideas of home.
Shopping with my aunt in the heart of Taipei in July of 2016, the two of us stopped at a small electronics shop a few blocks away from the SOGO department stores. As we walked inside, I was surprised to come face-to-face with a row of colorful Tatung rice cookers that were the spitting image of the ones my mom had carried with her all the way to Canada. As my aunt continued onwards to the counter at the back and opened the plastic bag she had carried with her, I realized that she had actually brought her own rice cooker in for repairs. In that moment, I considered how “citizenship is a process of material articulation” (Keshavarz 2016, 167)—not only through official legal means, but in the social poetics of everyday interaction that demonstrate how societal values trickle down into the micro-interactions of daily living. (Herzfeld 1997, 25) Through both their use and the emotional sentiments attached to them, these everyday objects rely on established collective memories for interpretation.
In that moment, the rice cooker became more than an index associated with convenience. On a personal level, it became apparent as a network of relations: a metaphor for industrialization, a representation of Taiwanese values influenced by Japanese worldviews, and a sign of home that one brings to another country as one travels abroad.
The pervasive longevity of the design—long surpassed by its Japanese counterparts—demonstrates how the form of such a personal, yet mass-produced appliance could be “inscribed with narrative and sentiment, which may later re-articulate the shifting boundaries of a socio-cultural identity.” (Parkin 1999, 313)
Materialized spirituality: beliefs and religious objects
In comparison to the understated, yet pervasive presence of everyday objects, religious objects were a common spectacle both inside and outside of personal homes during my time in Taiwan. Since the seventh month of the Lunar calendar is designated as Ghost Month, businesses and households were especially elaborate with their rituals, burning paper money for ghosts to spend and setting out offerings for them to eat. (Everington 2015)
After expressing my desire to visit Jiufen to my aunt, we had decided to visit the site together on my day off. With Ghost Month falling in the month of August, I was surprised by the number of superstitions and faux pas I was unaware of that came into effect. Arriving at our meeting point, she immediately took us back to her home. Unfortunately I had chosen to wear black, and Jiufen was located in the mountains — “a place full of spirits,” she explained. As a practicing Buddhist, my aunt’s nervousness at breaking these taboos was evident as she began frantically searching through drawers and boxes for a talisman that would help ward them off and stop the spirits from following us home. After asking my uncle about the talisman’s whereabouts, eventually I was handed a small brass token to carry in my bag. “Just in case,” my aunt voiced in relief.
In this respect, objects—as material traces of the past—have their signifiers reconstituted and reinterpreted with shifting contexts. As portable interfaces, these objects mediate interactions, experiences, and perceptions in ways we might not otherwise predict. Through these mediated experiences, we can realize the degrees of separation—of DuBois’ ideas of double consciousness—that evidence themselves in these interactions and interpretations of symbols across cultures.
As I held the chesspiece-like object, I became unusually conscious of my differences: my agnosticism, my ignorance of customs, and my understanding and framing of the world that was so visibly un-Taiwanese.
As Rothberg describes, double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk can be seen as “the fact that minorities are both ‘gifted with second sight’ by virtue of their inside/outside position vis-à-vis dominant culture and are plagued with a lack of ‘true self-consciousness’ because they are ‘always looking at [their selves] through the eyes of others.’” (Rothberg 2009, 130) Through this one artifact, I recognized that I was not yet a part of this network of collective memory; of these resulting social-cultural relations. As a result, these rituals and meaningful gestures, representative of practices and beliefs, were something that I could not, and probably would not, be able to replicate.
Places: inscribing and re-inscribing localities and infrastructures with meaning
With the religious token at the bottom of my bag, my aunt and I eventually reached our destination after taking a combination of buses and trains. As a famous landmark and tourist location, it felt like entering into a twilight zone; an in-between space of suspension that did not feel quite like reality. Originally a small village, Jiufen’s infrastructure was developed by the Japanese during the occupation to support a gold rush, and prisoners of war were made to work within the mines during World War II. The remnants of Japanese building, development and sentiments is evident in the architecture, city planning and culture. Overrun by Korean and Japanese tourists, I had wanted to visit simply because of an article I had read on Tofugu about the city’s role as the inspiration behind the movie Spirited Away. (Koichi 2013) What I did not realize, however, was that my aunt had lived in the city when she had first started working as a teacher at Jiufen Elementary School almost twenty years ago. As the two of us weaved through the town’s narrow alleyways, tunnels and stone stairways, my aunt began pointing out traces of her own pathways. On the left was an alleyway that she used to cut through on her lunch breaks. On the right was the stairwell that led to the school’s front gates. She remarked on buildings that had not been there before, and on how crowded the town was compared to the past. In between, she would weave in anecdotes of my father’s childhood, my grandfather’s ability to speak Japanese, and her own aspirations as a young woman. Abu-Lughod notes how, in reference to her father’s relationship with Palestine, “he inserted his memories of Palestine directly into the present, into a living history. My father’s insertion of memory into the historical present made possible a different knowledge and identification for his children as well.” (Abu-Lughod 2007, 79) Through the visceral accounts of her father’s recounts and ongoing materiality beyond his passing, the author demonstrates the strong link between places as a form of trace, and the inscription of memory onto and across these spaces.
My journey to Jiufen with my aunt—while different—similarly demonstrated the multilayered inscription of memory and signs on both individual and collective scales. In a way, my aunt’s animated recount had activated a different lens and temporality through which I could view the town, its meaning for my own family and the sentiments that came along with it.
After returning to Taipei later that evening, I realized that this idea of alternate perspectives was something that I would continue to muse about in the weeks to come, to provide an intimate understanding of the “disjunctive forms of representation that signify a people a nation, or a national culture.” (Bhabha 1990, 292)
My conclusion from this investigation as it stands is that it is impossible to truly reconcile the multiplicity of hyphenation in the modern nation-state system. In revising collective notions of home and placemaking through my exploration of material interactions however, my key takeaway is how this inability to resolve the complexities of transnational relationships and identifications actually opens rather than closes opportunity spaces.
By analyzing examples of these three categories of traces that I encountered in my “return” to my parents’ homeland, I learned how the semiotics of materiality plays a role in transgenerational, transnational memory transfer in ways that oral storytelling alone cannot convey.
As Astrid Erll posits, “We must try to understand the different ways in which people handle time, and this refers not only to their ‘working through the past’, but also includes their understanding of the present and visions for the future.” (Erll 2011, 5) Whether this understanding is developed across individuals, generations and/or cultures, this need plays a crucial role in moving away from collective understandings of memory as being bound by the limitations of the nation-state system. Matching with today’s world of global flows, a transcultural approach to memory studies “would then imply a specific curiosity – an attentiveness to the border-transcending dimensions of remembering and forgetting.” (Erll 2011, 15)
The traces that we leave, however, would then require shared, universal channels of transmission and understanding in order to be interpreted. The dissonance between identifying and recognizing these signifiers became apparent in the time I spent in my parents’ homeland. In relation to his “return” for the first time, author and poet David Mura came to the revelation that “[w]hile in Japan I came to realize a simple fact: I was not Japanese, I was Japanese-American. And I realized how absolutely central my Japanese-American identity is to my work as a writer.” (Mura 1991, 375)
In a similar fashion, the cultural dissonances and alternate perspectives I experienced during my summer in Taiwan revealed how I was not Taiwanese, but a Canadian-American of Taiwanese descent.
With global trends towards retaining cultural identities affected immigration policies and practices from the 1980s onwards, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms website states that multiculturalism “ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging.” In this respect, “[a]ttention to the transnational and multidirectional commemorative practices of migrants [...] open up our historical imagination and the notions of citizenship it underpins” which creates more space, but also more potential for conflict, to occur across interpretations. (Assmann and Schwarz 2013, 61) Hyphenated identities bridge the markers we choose to adopt throughout the temporalities that we traverse. However, they also suspend oneself in a space of discomfort, negotiation, and uncertainty. As a result, “[t]here needs to be a third option, one that allows Asian Americans to express their own hybridity.” (Mura 1991, 382)
In opening these spaces for inquiry, I ask the following: How can we transform individual and national memory into a multi-directional, transcultural work in progress?
In this respect, the Merriam-Webster dictionary notes that a trace can also be defined as “a course or path that one follows.” It is with hope that together, on both a personal and planetary scale, we can carve simultaneously converging and diverging pathways through time that use the learnings of the past to aspire for better, more inclusive futures for all.
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