“I want…this,” I say, circling a smear of characters on a laminated menu. Seated in front of me, my friend and fellow “American transplant in Taiwan with Taiwanese heritage”–or if you prefer–”Taiwanese American,” Daniel Tang, weaves his own order into a string of foreign eloquence. The waitress, a middle aged woman with rolled up sleeves and a greased apron, nods, accepting both submissions. In this fleeting moment, the buzzing mosquitoes suspend mid-flight and the millennial swirl outside on the streets of Taipei’s Ximending slows to a mid-step halt. I realize Daniel and I have achieved something many Americans can’t: we pass as local.
On the rare occasion I’m not stricken with a plague of tonal errors, I get to puff up my chest, sit a little straighter, and enjoy the brief phenomenon of being undercover, in a sense. For the part of my identity that is Taiwanese, it’s validation in its finest form, and I soak it up like the tofu I’m dabbing in a pool of sweet and savory soy sauce.
However, for Daniel, going “undercover” in Taiwan is more of a honed craft than a happy coincidence. It’s a skill that’s salient to his career. “I can trick the average person,” he offers, “but I still have trouble with some casting directors.”
Daniel is an actor.
Tang is a part of the growing phenomenon of Asian Americans returning to Asia to pursue entertainment. Like many of these young Asian Americans, he’s weary of Hollywood’s overall lack of opportunity and advancement for Asian faces. According to the University of Southern California’s 2016 Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD), only 5.1% of all speaking characters on screen were Asian. It’s similar studies like this that helped Tang make a case for his hesitant parents.
There are also advantages to being Asian American in the Asian market. Citing exposure to different cultures and the privilege from higher socioeconomic backgrounds as key benefits, Tang says Asian Americans do contribute to entertainment in Asia: “When Asian Americans come back to Asia, we’re able to transform and lead the industry.”
At first glance, no one would have ever guessed that Tang was actually a native Ohioan. His pale skin, slightly permed hair, and slim fit apparel look more Kpop than anything made in the States. Raised in the City of Seven Hills in the middle of America, he remembers a different life and a much different self. One that involved strict but open-minded parents that let him dabble in the arts, a supportive Asian church community, and of course, ill-fitted polo’s.
As a premed student at Northwestern University, Tang says it didn’t take him long to realize that medicine wasn’t for him: “Doctors are heroes, but not everyone can do it.” The experience, albeit brief, was valuable. In shadowing medical professionals, Tang says it was the first time he witnessed passion. “I knew that’s what I wanted, and I wasn’t going to find it in medicine,” he explains.
Not much later, Tang discovered Kpop, a revelation that would send his life veering down an alternate and unpaved path. “As someone who’s from the Midwest without much connection to Asia, discovering Big Bang and Girls Generation opened my eyes. There was actually an entertainment industry halfway across the world that had people that looked like me. People who were producing work that was competitive at an international level. I began thinking that this could be a possibility for me.”
He began exploring his options in the Asia sphere. “I went from Kpop to Jpop, from Japanese dramas to Korean dramas, until I finally got to Taiwan, and thought, well, I’m Taiwanese. Why not? I took several classes in film and acting, but ended up short of a minor.” So in the Spring of 2013, Tang graduated with a BA in Economics, a certificate in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and a plan to move to Taipei, Taiwan.
Once a leader in producing idol dramas and big pop stars during the turn of the century (anyone still remember Meteor Garden?), Taiwan’s entertainment industry now faces powerful competition from South Korea and China, both of which quickly entered the market after witnessing Taiwan’s success. Tang says this competition, backed by financial investors at the state level, created films and TV shows with production quality that surpassed that of those made in Taiwan. “China spent a lot of money bringing over the best cinematographers, lighting and sound, and equipment from Hollywood. Within a few years, they caught up to the international acceptable level of quality. When your economy is doing well, and you have disposable income, culture thrives.”
When asked if Taiwan would ever rise in the media industry again, Tang says that even with Taiwan’s competitive edge, it still needs a significant financial infusion to revamp the industry: “Because of it’s complicated history, Taiwan has Dutch, British, Portuguese, American, Japanese, Korean and Chinese influence – especially with China and all its subcultures. Taiwan takes all of this and meshes it together into its culture and creates really interesting things. If a lot of Taiwanese media companies budgeted together and collaborated with China, it’s possible.”
It’s easy to get swept up with demanding producers and chaotic sets, but when Tang gets a rare moment to pause and review the reel of his journey through Taiwanese entertainment, he realizes it has given him deep insight into the duality of his identity. “It’s a unique category – ‘Asian’ American.”
I couldn’t agree more. Even though the words Asian American appear in syntactic camaraderie, the two can feel distant and even conflicting at times. Tang continues, “In America, we’re easily distinguishable as Asian via appearance. However, for my first year in Taiwan, I realized how clearly everyone, including myself, identified me as American. Am I becoming less American and more Taiwanese? Yes and no.
“I do find myself adapting, reconciling two different and often conflicting voices. Would I call it sacrificing? In terms of pain, yes, it’s an ongoing struggle. I have a much harder time finding suitable roles and fully convincing the audience that I’m the character and not me.”
But Tang sees both sides of the dizzying story of identity and is able to compromise: “The beauty of adapting and learning both styles of communication is that you become more capable of interacting correctly with the proper audience.” This revelation is a press-play that sends me back to my seat in Ximending. I slap a mosquito on my leg as the soles outside strike pavement. Our audience today is not only our waiter and everyone else crammed into the dense Ximending area – it’s also ourselves.
Since coming to Taiwan, Tang has starred in numerous commercials. He sees these as important stepping stones and hopes to one-day land a leading role in an idol drama.
(Feature photo of Daniel Tang, provided by Daniel Tang)