This is my second and most favorite tattoo. However, I can’t take credit for having thought up the idea though. It actually came from a close college friend of mine. Ramon and I had been on the phone one night and somehow the subject of me being made in Taiwan came up. I recall the snicker he made as he suggested the idea of getting that tattooed on the back of my neck. I instantly loved his idea. It was so clever because it wasn’t only true, but it also poked fun at the cheeky stereotype that all products sold in the U.S. (and around the world for that matter) are not actually American-made, but rather “made in Taiwan,” which of course has always stirred a lot of cultural controversy throughout the years. So after we got off the phone that night, I quickly jumped to my computer, fooled around with a few designs, and then the very next day sought out Medusa Tattoo on St. Marks Place in New York City (which has long since closed down), where some guy named Fizz couldn’t have been happier to tag me. So really I owe this fantastic tattoo to my friend Ramon. However the ultimate thanks goes to my parents.
Interestingly enough that while my tattoo did capture a particular stereotype about American culture, it also allowed me to consider what it meant for me to be an “American.” As the very product of an American father and a Chinese mother, my tattoo opened the door for me to explore not only the richness of my own history, but that of American history as well. As it goes, my parents met right after the Vietnam War, which incidentally was a very weighty time in American history. My father was a United States naval officer who served one tour during the war. After the war ended, he was stationed in Taipei, Taiwan for two years, during which time he met my mother.
The context of my parents’ story is actually quite romantic. After all the turmoil of the Vietnam War, a drunken sailor stumbling into a downtown bar to meet his beautiful china doll, who seems to be the only one who can calm his war-torn soul, is a very recognizable theme. As the story goes, my father recalls having met my mother in a downtown Taipei teahouse. These teahouses were popular bar-like hangouts for young soldiers and sailors looking to unwind, and where they could probably get more than just a cup of tea if they so desired. At the same turn, the barmaids were also these young Chinese girls probably seeking, as well, something more from the eyes of these drunken foreigners. Each girl I’m sure could only hope to be engaged by the end of their drinks so that they could hitch a free ride back to the U.S., enabling them to escape the strict demands imposed by their own families and culture. The well-known scene of the infamous “hookers” hanging around the men in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is probably a good illustration of similar situations. These girls WERE probably rather “horny”—both sexually and figuratively as they probably plotted their own strategies to hook those men who could then take them back to a new, more exciting home. I am not, however, accusing my mother of such shenanigans—because I like to believe my mother and father truly fell in love after they met—but at the same time, I can’t neglect acknowledging the opportunistic nature that was developing around them, and hopefully, maybe, perhaps unbeknownst to them. But regardless, the elements were ripe for such encounters, and my parents’ meeting certainly is not immune to these kinds of assumptions.
So as my dad remembers, he was pretty drunk the night he met my mother while he flirted with all the other “mama-sans” until finally he got around to meeting her. Family lore says the moment my mother saw my dad, she flung herself into his lap and exclaimed, “Baby, I’m yours!” (Although when I ask either of them to confirm that, both have recently come down with a sudden case of amnesia brought on by what I’m sure is embarrassment. However I know I didn’t make it up because I heard it somewhere.) My father says my mother was the only girl in the place who could speak English. My grandfather, who was an academic, had insisted she learn. My father recalls the relief he felt finally being able to hold a decent conversation with such a pretty, young girl. I’m certain that probably would've brought relief to anyone for that matter who had been gone from the States for so long.
My father would then visit my mother at the teahouse daily, getting to know her better while enjoying her attention. They continued to meet until the night my grandmother forbade my mother to continue working at that “filthy” place because no good daughter of hers would ever stoop to such a level. After that, my mom and dad didn’t see each other for a couple of months. That is, until my mother picked up a job as a cashier at the PX or military storefront. Soon, my father bumped into her again and that’s when they started dating regularly and the rest is history.
Variations in their story really only happen with how each of my parents actually tell it. My father is usually quite elementary, coolly stating the facts of this or that. However in some moments, I always sense a slight hint of shame and embarrassment when he describes his behavior during those times. Seemingly, the military men were all the same—arrogant drunk bastards who loved to charm all those smitten Asian angels. These guys were all young and virile, and with pockets full cash, knew exactly how to have a good time in those dark alley ways. However I don’t blame my father for how he lived his life then. It was a very confusing time for everyone, and his coping mechanisms of booze and broads wasn’t unusual for any young male during that time and under those circumstances.
My mother, on the other hand, suddenly takes on a very nostalgic tone as she harkens back to her playful youth. Whenever I ask her how they met, I always catch her dreamingly drifting back, always recalling in that same wistful tone, “They were all such handsome GIs.” She tells her version of their story quite bashfully, which is often how I reason why my drunk, obnoxious father was probably so drawn to her. My mother was his “coy mistress” to his “officer and a gentlemen” which made for a classic tale of pursuant love.
So after a rather tumultuous one-year courtship, apparently my parents would break up several times before finally marrying in 1974, I was finally born just about nine months later, fat and happy in a naval hospital in downtown Taipei, Taiwan—and hence, my tattoo.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have this tattoo that not only tells the story of my parents, but it also tells the story of a very influential era as well. When I begin to explain my tattoo all I really have to say to folks are keywords like Navy, Vietnam, Mom, Chinese, and instantly, people nod knowingly and don’t need me to explain anymore. Folks know the history of this very unpopular war, the massive cultural shifts both in the East and West, the protests conducted, the music discovered, the movies made etc, etc. It was a rich time in American history, and luckily, in a small way, I was a part of it.
But I think what really finally makes this tattoo, though, is how it takes a stereotype and really stretches its meaning. On occasion, I’ve run into people who comment on getting a similar tattoo, saying they’d like to get: made in fill-in-the-blank. But personally I don’t think it has the same effect, and I think these folks are really missing the point. This tattoo also captures an element of American culture that we’ve all come to know and love. Who hasn’t succumbed to that evident “harrumph” when turning over a product and seeing the words: Made in Taiwan. We’ve all mumbled “I knew it” while taking a mental note of that very fact. I recall one of the funnier moments in the movie Armageddon was when the Russian Cosmonaut shouted about how all the parts of the ship may be European components, but that they were all still “made in Taiwan!” With these three little words, one can infer with fun a flurry of cultural inferences that are certainly a very American phenomenon. Sometimes I like to amuse myself and say I’m like an “import,” that exotic product introduced into the West, but at the same time, I can also be an “export” or that U.S. product outsourced to the East. And oh yes, how very American is that.
I know I’m certainly lucky to have such an interesting quality about myself, but like I said before, it’s all thanks to my parents who after all made me and did it in Taiwan. So I like to suggest that the next time you should turn over a product and see those three very telling words, instead of maybe feeling a bit disenchanted about the whole thing, try feeling a bit proud because though it’s made in Taiwan, it’s still awfully American.