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The first time I went to Taiwan, I was four years old. We drove up to my grandfather’s house in the bed of a delivery truck, and when it stopped to unload us onto the gravel drive, my mother grasped arms with people I had never seen. As the strangers drew us into the house, my mother pointed to a cluster of oddly-dressed children playing jacks and told me they were my cousins. To them, she said, “She does not speak Taiwanese.”
They murmured among themselves and stared at me. “I be-hiau kong Taiwan-oue.” “She does not speak Taiwanese.”
And then they began jeering: “You do not speak Taiwanese! You do not speak Taiwanese!”
I watched them all, silent.
I think and have always thought American thoughts, in English. Whether my assimilation, my immersion in American culture gave me an edge in school or gave me a little extra facility with the English language, I will never know. For me, most of all, being American has meant feeling free to be an individual. It was for this reason above all that my parents came to this country, and I both inherited their unwillingness to be bounded by other people’s expectations and took advantage of the American respect for individualism. My career trajectory—literature major, opera singer, physician, writer, could only have developed here.
I do see the cost of assimilation. My lack of ability in my parents’ language seems sometimes tragic, and I could not easily rectify it if I tried. Taiwanese has never been the official language of Taiwan, an island subject to foreign rule and foreign languages—now Mandarin Chinese, at one time Japanese—for the duration of its history. Finding courses or even teaching materials in the language is extremely difficult.
Yet, despite it all—my assimilation, my lack of fluency in Taiwanese, the American lens through which I view life—when I wrote my first novel, The Third Son, I set it in Taiwan. First novels can take a long time and that meant, for me, eleven years of thinking, reading, and writing about the people and the landscapes my parents grew up with. My second novel will be set there, as well. There is a core part of my psyche that will not be silenced or melded into the blandness of suburban America, a part of me with roots in an island and a culture on the other side of the Earth.
Perhaps it was this part of me that welled up inside, when I was four, watching the circle of children jeering at me. It welled up, and I took a deep breath of the air that smelled of must and traces of burnt sandalwood.
“Wa e-hiau kong Taiwan-we!” I shouted for the first time in my life. “I can speak Taiwanese!”
The children’s eyes widened. “She can speak Taiwanese!”
They jumped up and down all around me on the dark floor, waving their arms, dropping their jacks on the wooden floor.
“You can speak Taiwanese! You can speak Taiwanese!”
My mother bent down to me, laughing. “I didn’t know you could say that!”
It was all I could say. But it was more than I’d thought I had in me and, with my cousins, I cheered.
* * *
In the middle of a terrifying air raid in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo, the least-favored son of a Taiwanese politician, runs through a peach forest for cover. It’s there that he stumbles upon Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.
Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history—as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another—and the fast-changing American West of the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Third Son is a richly textured story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself from both.
In Saburo, debut author Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character who is determined to fight for everything he needs and wants, from food to education to his first love. A sparkling and moving story, it will have readers cheering for a young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds himself on the frontier of America’s space program.