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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

How to make history when you can’t even read it

A Tufts education can mean many things, so don’t let a single version of it define you.


Justin Hong is pictured with his family at a DPP rally in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Jan. 7.

What’s in a name? I was never taught Taiwanese, but I’ve known how to write my family name, 洪, since my mom taught it to me for a second grade art project. A few years later I finally learned what it meant: flood. Beyond that, I had never engaged with my family’s history. That changed this year.

I remember it like it was yesterday. My grandfather, through my father’s translation, rambled on about Taiwanese politics noting how embarrassing it was that the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist political party in Taiwan, came to the island in 1949, but still identified as Chinese while it only took three generations for his family to call themselves Americans. As he finished speaking, there was a sinking feeling in my stomach — he was talking about me. The worst part was that it was true.

In that moment I was yanked back to 10th grade English. On the first day of school, my seat partner turned to me and asked me the all-too-familiar question: Where are you from? I told him that I was Taiwanese. He said I was mistaken; Taiwan was not a country, so I had to be Chinese. I remember fighting with him about it that first day. I nearly landed myself in detention because of it, but eventually, I gave up because my heart wasn’t in the fight. Frankly, it didn’t matter what anyone called me in the grand scheme of things, but more importantly, I didn’t care. I had only ever identified as an American, so why would I fight some kid over this?

When I was young, I considered myself lucky that my parents gave me a ‘normal‘ name. What I meant was that I felt lucky to have an American one. I didn’t even know that I had a Chinese name, Hong Dun-en, until this January. In leaving a Los Angeles suburb that’s over 71% white, to attend Tufts, a primarily white institution, I never expected that I would connect with my family and a country a world away while I was here.

Still reeling from the stinging pain of my grandfather’s comment, I resolved that this semester I would do what I could to make up for the first two decades of my life. Pacing around my shoebox of a room, I scoured the internet and Tisch Library’s archives for even the smallest crumbs of information I could find. The offhand mentions of relatives in indices, quotes in newspapers from before I was born and old photos my mother shared with me only whetted my insatiable appetite for more. Like any child of diaspora, I turned to food and music too. I’m lucky to have found myself in the sticky residue of the tsai tao kui still caked onto my kitchen counter, in the discarded shells of Taiwanese edamame I share with my friends and in the nostalgic melody of the only mandopop song that I know — butchering the pronunciation along the way. It isn’t much, but it’s certainly a start.

One evening, I stared in horror at my computer screen as I uncovered the crown jewel of my family’s accomplishments. It turns out that my great-uncle was one of the founders of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, the first formal opposition party to the KMT and one founded on Taiwanese identity. I’d known that my grandfather was elected to the National Assembly alongside DPP President-elect Lai Ching-te, but I had no idea that a living relative of mine founded the party. My grandfather’s palpable frustration suddenly made sense. It was an embarrassment that the identity he had fought so hard for was one that I rejected out of sheer ignorance.

This journey of self-discovery hasn’t been easy — but nothing worthwhile ever is. My whole life I’ve been surrounded by the nasal vowels and the piercing jabs characteristic of Taiwanese, but I’ve never once been able to understand it. I’ve always envied the close relationship my friends have with their grandparents. I’ve never had that, but we’ll get there one day. My grandfather’s gentle tapping on my shoulder as he shoves a handful of books about Taiwanese political history, in English, into my hands is all the proof I need. There might never be a day when I can understand dinner table conversations at my grandparents’ house, and I’ll regret it for as long as I live. Still, I take solace in knowing that the incessant longing for connection won’t be how my story ends.

When I think about my time here, one word comes to mind: unexpected. For the longest time, I felt like I didn’t belong here. This semester, that’s all been washed away. My story isn’t a conventional Tufts story, and it’s only now that I can finally reconcile that difference. Thank you, to those of you that made that possible. I couldn’t have done it without you.