Standing on Both Legs: Travel and the Development of a Bilingual-Bicultural Identity

Written by Michael Rau //

Someone like me finds writing on travel and justice frustratingly difficult. The difficulty lies not in having nothing to say. Rather, travel is so embedded in who I am that anything I write on travel and justice seems to distill down to an autobiography. So, on this topic, I find writing about myself unavoidable. Whether such an exposition has been worth the reader’s while is left for each reader to determine. But allow me to explain—however bashfully and apologetically.

You see, I was born and raised in Taiwan. My father is white-American, my mother Taiwanese-Chinese. The one linguistic rule they imposed at home was “English with dad, Chinese with mom.” Going to a local Chinese-speaking church but attending American school meant I became a “bicultural-bilingual.”[i] When I speak to locals in Chinese, I invariably notice a synapse crack with surprise; someone with my face should not be able to speak Chinese so well, without an accent. Those who are of brash temperament quickly blurt out, “Why is your Chinese so good?” Those more reserved usually dance around with a few other questions before attempting to quench their curiosity: “So…what are you?” This need to categorize can be summed up well by my mother’s question to my siblings and me: “If the US and Taiwan both formed a basketball team and decided to play against each other, which team would you join?” We decided to form a third team.

With the arrival of middle school and a new Chinese teacher, I got to officially begin studying Chinese for the next three years. Those years of foundation-setting were invaluable. Without them, I would not have continued studying Chinese independently with my mother for two years in high school, the four years of which took place in the US. Without them, I would not have tested out of my college’s language requirement via the Chinese SAT subject test. Without them, I would not have found myself inquiring of my professor as a graduating college senior whether I should pursue seminary studies in Chicagoland, work full-time with college students at a university organization, or study Chinese philosophy in Taiwan. Her response was, “Without question, go back to Taiwan. You will be ‘re-centered.’”

I took memorable and important trips in college. I learned much from Palestinian Christians loving their enemies, Lakota brothers and sisters fighting to preserve their language and culture against genocidal destruction, and black folks marching against brutal policing. Yet these wanderings highlighted my own sense of “cultural homelessness.”[ii] Who am I and to whom do I belong? So I took my professor’s suggestion to “re-center” myself by returning to Taiwan. To date, it has been the most difficult journey, but understandably so.

Before leaving the US to return to Taiwan, I clearly organized my thoughts in my journal:

I’ve come to realize that my reluctance to learn a language in college was really my attempt to find my base. Chinese language and culture has always been central to my experience of life. It is one of my “bases” from which I engage the world. This is why I applied to study Chinese philosophy at National Taiwan University from Chinese professors. Many people regularly remind me of how difficult the Chinese language is, ask me how long I have studied Chinese in the past, are concerned for my wellbeing and wonder why I don’t just stay in the US. My answer is that I have always lived in two worlds: Chinese/Taiwanese and Euro-American. Yet, most of my life has been built on one English-speaking, American-centric base. Metaphorically speaking, I have been standing on one leg my whole life and have always been insecure about showing the atrophied state of my other leg.

Yet this has always produced a certain anxiety in me, as if something is missing. I want to stand on two legs once again. Not because there is something inherently shameful about disability, but because this is a disability perpetuated by polarized worlds that threaten to split the ground from under me and force me to choose to favor one leg over the other. This is not biological. This is imperialistically pathological.

I can only recover from this atrophy through physical therapy, and a rigorous bout of it, at that. Hence my decision to accept my admittance to National Taiwan University to study Chinese philosophy from Chinese instructors, using only Chinese.

The discipline required for and frustration prevalent while overcoming my linguistic and cultural atrophy has often felt physically painful. At times, it appears to have increased my existential vertigo. This is not unprecedented. Pavlenko notes that two-thirds of bilingual respondents to a survey responded very “enthusiastically” when asked about whether they felt like different people when using different languages.[iii] Conversely, despite sharing the same language as white Americans, WEB Dubois famously noted that black Americans live with a “double consciousness” of how to navigate white and black worlds differently.

Are those exposed to cultural and linguistic multiplicity doomed to a life of confusion? It appears not. Sears draws on international schools and their obvious cultural and linguistic diversity to make this point. [iv] Gathering research from an international school with “globally mobile children and young people,” Sears finds that narratives are central to the formation and maintenance of identity. The children interviewed often emphasized the moves they experienced as central to their identity. Even people who moved just once indicated a need to tell a story about how they got from whence they came to where they are now (84). The parents of these children found it essential to highlight these stories in chronological order rather than telling them randomly, as it provided a framework for understanding their and their children’s stories. Furthermore, “members of a family subscribed to a mutually agreed factual chronicle of what their shared experiences of moving had been” (83). The emphasis on story was not limited to just the attendees of this international school; indeed, the school’s president explicitly located the heart and soul of the international school in “story.” It was the primary mechanism through which such diverse peoples can be brought together.

Travel, especially at a young age, exposes someone to the complexities of the world. It forces us to tell stories to explain how we got to where we are. But perhaps such maddening experiences make us better storytellers. Beyond narrating our individual stories, perhaps we are left better equipped to paint the vibrant backdrop into which others are generously invited to live. Perhaps the always-present vertigo teaches us to be more empathetic listeners and questioners.

Just last week, I found myself engaging with a multicultural couple. The father was Korean American, the mother Taiwanese-New Zealander. Their children were going to an American school in Taiwan. I asked them which cultures and languages they hoped their children would inherit. Perhaps justice in my case simply means opening spaces for others to speak. Perhaps justice in my case simply means playing tag in the park with their beautiful children after dinner. Perhaps justice in my case simply means welcoming those who have traveled from afar to a place I still call home. Perhaps justice in my case simply means creating a home together with my international neighbors, wherever they may be from originally.

Perhaps we are all merely sojourners in this world and travel painfully spotlights the inalterable transience of this life. Perhaps travel clears the myopic haze which would otherwise characterize our faulty appraisal of ourselves. Whatever the case, there are still miles to go before we sleep.

[i] In contrast to “monocultural-bilingual.” Ringberg, Torsten V., David Luna, Markus Reihlen, and Laura A. Peracchio. “Bicultural-Bilinguals: The Effect of Cultural Frame Switching on Translation Equivalence.” International Journal of Cross Cultural Management 10, no. 1 (April 1, 2010): 77–92. doi:10.1177/1470595809359585.
[ii] Vivero, Veronica Navarrete, and Sharon Rae Jenkins. “Existential Hazards of the Multicultural Individual: Defining and Understanding ‘Cultural Homelessness.’” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 5, no. 1 (February 1999): 6–26. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.5.1.6.
[iii] Pavlenko, Aneta. “Bilingual Selves.” In Bilingual Minds: Emotional Experience, Expression, and Representation, edited by Aneta Pavlenko. Clevedon, England ; Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters, 2006.
[iv] Sears, Coreen. “Integrating Multiple Identities: Narrative in the Formation and Maintenance of the Self in International School Students.” Journal of Research in International Education 10, no. 1 (April 1, 2011): 71–86. doi:10.1177/1475240911399262.


Travel - Rau

Michael Rau received his MA in Chinese philosophy at National Taiwan University and is now continuing his PhD studies. Friends who have visited him have found his touristy suggestions strictly limited to different dining options.


One response to “Standing on Both Legs: Travel and the Development of a Bilingual-Bicultural Identity”

  1. Widening Horizons – Streetside Conversations Avatar

    […]  Michael Rau explains the way travel is embedded in his identity as a multicultural individual. […]


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