The Gen x Place: The Inked Brush

Volume 3

Welcome to the third and final week of The Gen x Place collaboration! This week The Gen cofounder Hansen Tsui is taking us on a journey across continents, from his childhood in Taiwan to his adolescence in Canada to his adult life in London, a lifetime of rich though sometimes conflicting cultures. As his geographic distance from Taiwan grew, but his fond memories and connection to this country intensified, he reflects on how to accept the changes in a place and within oneself, a building process that we must shape ourselves.

This is the last in a series of three dispatches the Place will be releasing alongside The Gen in addition to our regular Friday newsletter. We want to say a huge THANK YOU to The Gen founders Teo Mechetiuc and Hansen Tsui for being incredible partners in this collaboration. Do follow The Gen’s newsletter and their Instagram for more stories like this, and be sure to get involved if stories like this resonate for you. In case you missed it, you can find the rest of The Gen x Place collaboration pieces at the end of this email.

The Gen is a global community which aims to bring people of cross-cultural backgrounds together to connect over shared experiences stemming from intercultural upbringings. The Gen hosts community workshops and roundtables, provides resources to learn for intergenerational cross-cultural experiences, and runs a crowd-source blog in the form of a newsletter.

Inked brushes and beef noodle soup

Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my hometown Taipei consist of me sitting beside my grandfather by the massive table in his apartment learning how to write Chinese calligraphy.  His table was mostly filled with books, grid calligraphy paper, an inkstone, and a brush stand with all different sized brushes you can think of. I still recall the feeling of the inked brush in my hands as I press it onto the paper as I took the first strokes of writing my name in Chinese calligraphy with him -- not too softly because you want your strokes on the paper to show strength, but not too firm either as to rip apart the already delicate paper.  An early lesson in duality. 

After each visit to my grandfather’s home, I would walk down the concrete stairs of his first floor apartment with my mom and sister, onto the alleyway filled with plant pots put outside by the ground floor inhabitants.  Towards the main road, parked motorcycles dominated the remaining sidewalk real estate, and every other corner consisted of shops selling the signature Taiwanese dish; beef noodle soup, otherwise known to me as bowls of heaven, filling the streets with the strong aroma of star anise and Chinese cooking wine.  On evenings, the same streets are visited by garbage collecting trucks playing Beethoven’s Für Elise, a renowned Taiwanese community reminder to put out their garbage, a nightly cadence. 

An old alleyway in Taipei, overlooking Taipei 101 and the financial district.

Our early memories are the foundation for the life that builds as you grow up. You layer the memories of your childhood with memories from your teenage years, and so on. For many people this happens in a single place and that foundation is fortified, constructing a deep connection in which that place and the self grow together. But for me, Taipei and I only grew together until I was nine years old.  That’s when me, my mom, and my sister moved to Canada. 

In Vancouver, the construction of place began again. Vancouver had undisturbed views of the sky that were uncommon to Taipei where tall and compact buildings with power cords divide the blue sky as you lift your head up.  Topography was hillier, streets were wider and greener, standalone houses took precedence over tall apartment buildings, and garbage trucks playing Für Elise were now ice cream trucks playing a tinkling melody.  Alleyways of motorcycles and beef noodle soups were replaced with SUVs and shopping squares (with plenty of room to park) filled with Little Caesars and Panago’s. The aromas of star anise and Chinese cooking wine were now gone, instead the smells of cheese and garlic.  

My early foundations formed by my Taiwanese upbringing and my new life in Canada often clashed.  To me, Canadians found happiness in (school)work-life balance and individualism, whereas from my experiences, the Taiwanese believed that satisfaction was found in hard work and sacrifice that led to success. It became confusing when I tried to form a sense of self while living in between one culture at home with my family and another at school where I received the majority of my social influences. This confusion occasionally manifested itself into disagreements with my family that left me wondering why my family brought me to this new country for a ‘better life’, just for them to reject elements that made the West so attractive to the East. Which pieces of Taiwan was I to keep and stay true to, and which ones was I free to modify? 

North of Taipei.

I’ve been back to Taipei roughly twice per year since we moved  -- even more frequently as I get older and my cravings for Taipei intensifies. Each time, from the moment I land at Taoyuan airport I draw on my earliest memories in search of familiarity, only to find an evolved city that doesn't quite match my blurry recollections and who I’ve grown to be. My grandfather’s house in district Banqiao has now been supplied with a metro station that made visiting trips at least 30 minutes shorter (not including time saved fighting for parking space), the tallest building in the world between 2004-2009 (Taipei 101) was erected in the now bulked-up financial district, and the corner restaurant that never failed to relieve us on nights my mother did not feel like cooking, was no longer in operation.  The relatively recent increase in international diversity is apparent by an air of nonchalance exuded by passersby with more and more white people walking about in central parts of Taipei. For me and my regular if not relatively infrequent visits, it all seemingly happened overnight.  Sometimes, it felt that this time warp left me behind.  

Three years ago, at a busy corner breakfast shop in the Neihou district where I spent my earliest years, I walked up to the lady at the counter to order my favourite Taiwanese breakfast combo: egg pancakes (dan bing), peanut butter on thick toast with no crust, and an iced milk tea on the side. While I knew my order, I reflexively ordered the way I would in North America and Europe. The server let out a quiet sigh and quickly wrote down my order, then waved me aside so other customers could get their turns.  

This breakfast shop was like any other in Taiwan, equipped with a long counter in the front for takeaway orders, small tables with a sauce tray for the classic soy/hot sauce pairing and cylindrical shaped holders for chopsticks.  Breakfast places like this are usually a mix of indoor and outdoor dining with a spinning fan blaring throughout the premises to keep the temperature cool (customers must be creative with their plastic chopstick wrappers so they don’t fly away in the wind). Operations at such establishments are usually run in a quintessential Taiwanese style, which is to put simply, organised chaos. Any step out of line threatens to disrupt this balance.

A few moments later, her manager came out and started asking her why there was a break in the assembly line of orders to the chef as the customer queue started growing.  She tried her best to keep quiet but I could hear her saying to her manager: “This guy over here didn’t order on the piece of paper so everything got messed up.” My aunt later told me that the entire country of Taiwan orders their breakfast by marking the items on a paper menu and handing said piece of paper to a server. My simple transgression felt that it didn’t just make life a little harder for this waitress, but like I screwed up the entire country’s breakfast workflow.

She didn’t have to point me out to her manager; the way I conducted myself just by standing at the corner waiting for my egg pancakes gave me away as an outsider already and I felt the attention from other customers, like they detected an intruder. 

The feeling of being an outsider intensified last year when my grandfather, the same grandfather who taught me Chinese calligraphy, passed away.  At the time of the funeral, foreigners were banned from entering Taiwan due to COVID, and unfortunately my passport has expired.  The moment I heard of the passing, I started navigating through the Taiwanese UK Consulate website for guidance on my passport renewal.  I wasn’t getting anywhere as the English translations did not make much sense to me, and switching to the Chinese version went nowhere either as the depth of the vocabulary was incomprehensible for somebody with a 9-year-old Chinese education.  What nearly pushed me over the edge was that, at one point, after having flipped through forms after forms, there was one in particular that caught my eye with the title “Alien Residency Permit.” Alien, I thought. That surely can’t be applicable to me… can it? 

Frustrated and flustered, I picked up the phone and called the Taiwanese UK consulate.  The back and forth conversations took about four hours, running into complication after complication as she guided me in Chinese through the website at half speed, explaining regulations and restrictions on males renewing their passports passed their draft age for the military.  In the end, I was not able to review my expired passport in time.  Not only was I unable to attend the funeral, I felt rejected by my own country. 

It is moments like this when I wonder: Does the place that I hold so dear in my heart still hold me dear to its heart as well? 

At 27-years-old, as a kid of immigrant and “Third Culture Kid,” having been born in one place, grew up in between a few places, and now having ‘settled’ in another place, I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I may not always be afforded the default conveniences of many like a simple renewal of a passport (which never seemed like a priority, because who knew a pandemic was coming), or a complete and deep connection with a single place that is only possible through time. It does not have to mean I am less Taiwanese or less Canadian, or really less of anything.  Perhaps it’s about expansion as a way of reframing.  And though value and memory misalignments often greet me like an old friend at most unexpected moments, I am slowly finding ways to gracefully greet them back, to accept coexistence, to find balance, like learning to press the inked brush with just the right amount of softness and firm on calligraphy paper, all over again.

What I’ve also learned after all this time is that as time goes on, not only will the people you know change, the physical places that you once knew will change and odds are the cultures that were once yours to keep will also get updated. My new perspective is that the construction of the memory layers did not stop every time I left, it simply paused. And each time I set foot back in Taipei, the construction recommences once more to help me build the most up to date picture of a place that I hold dear to my heart.  For me, accepting this narrative - disjointed, perhaps, but mine nonetheless - might be enough for now.

This weekend I’m making beef noodle soup here in my London flat, a place that I’m putting pen to paper as I reflect back on memories and the feelings of reverse culture shock.  Every single time I make this bowl of heaven, with help from the aromas of star anise and Chinese cooking wine, I’m transported back to my hometown Taipei where I learned my first language, where my foundational beliefs began to root, where my first definition of home was established, and where I first learned to balance duality.

-Hansen was born in Taipei, spent some time in Bangkok where his father worked, moved to Vancouver at the age of 10, then Montreal for university.  He’s currently in London, UK working for a healthcare tech startup. Outside of The Gen, in his spare time (what’s that?), he enjoys learning about AI and data ethics, and not opposed to an occasional boogie.

-All photographs in this post taken by @tsuibergsveryown, a Taiwanese photographer (and Hansen’s sister) who has recently relocated back to Vancouver after a few stints in Toronto and Bangkok

In case you missed it…

Volume 1: The Drawbridge

Volume 2: The Other