The Last Generation of NDR
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The last generation of Nei Di Ren (people from the hinterland) refers to a group of people who were born between 1937 and 1950 in mainland China or Hong Kong, grew up in Taiwan, and now reside in the United States. We are a minority among minorities. Fifty years from now, when Chinese historians study this period, they will find that we, the Nei Di Ren, are a unique group of people. Caught between Eastern and Western cultures, juggling ideas that are imported as well as homespun, and facing the transition from the old to the new world order, we have held on to our Chinese heritage, the bad along with the good, while eagerly embracing western civilization. We are the last generation of Nei Di Ren who, gradually, will be gone with the wind.
We were born into a chaotic time marked by continuous warfare. The older among us were born during the Sino-Japan war, the younger during the civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist army and Mao Tze-Tung's People's Liberation Army. Many were born in Sichuan province and have names like Yu-Sheng (born in Yu, AKA Chong-Qing, capital of The Republic of China during the Second World War), Rong-Sheng (born in Rong, AKA Cheng-Du, capital of Sichuan), or Jia-Ling (after the poetically beautiful river flowing through Sichuan). Although we were born during war time, most of us were too young to remember the hardship of the refugee years. We followed our parents to Taiwan and became "inlanders" to the natives. We did not choose this path, but, looking back, we know it was the first significant break in our lives. If we had not escaped to Taiwan, I believe at least one third of us would have perished under Mao Tze-Tung's communist regime. And if we did manage to stay alive, our children would have had a very different life ahead of them. In short, we are a lucky group of people who were snatched away from the tiger's mouth at the last minute.
We spent our childhood in Taiwan; some in the northern cities, and others in the southern fields. We have worn the clumsy wooden clogs, gone barefooted, played cops and robbers, and slept on the Ta-Ta-Mi (an old Japanese style straw mat). Although we were short on material possessions, we never went hungry. Many of us grew up in "Juan Cun" (literally spouse village), a compound of state provided housing for the dependents of government and military personnel. Many criticized us for never learning to speak Taiwanese and not being "Taiwanese" enough after spending our formative years on the island. However, this was not our fault. The government at that time was trying to establish Mandarin as the official language on the island. We had no opportunity to speak Taiwanese at school and could not learn it from our parents at home since they themselves did not speak it. It is unreasonable to place the blame on us.
We are perhaps the most studious group of people in the history of China. Starting from elementary school, middle school, high school, college, to graduate school, we had to pass examinations after examinations to advance ourselves. Each of us had to "conquer the five gates and slay the six guards" (legendary feat of Guan Yu, a heroic figure during the period of the Three Kingdoms around 220AD). We are true veterans of the "academic advancement" battles. After college, most of us went on to seek advanced degrees abroad. Many chose the fields of science and engineering. The reason was simple: it was easier to find a job in those fields in the US after graduation. However, all of those choices that seemed so correct at the time planted the seeds of insecurity and limitation during our professional careers and throughout our lives. The United States is not the land of our birth, and Taiwan but a distant memory. Too often we are made to feel like some forlorn traveler listening to the blowing of the political winds in a lone boat picked out by the moonlight. In Taiwan, first we were called Nei Di Ren; later, we were addressed as Wai Sheng Ren (people from other provinces) to differentiate us from the provincial Taiwanese. Yet when we go to China, we are treated as Taiwanese. In the US, we are the first generation immigrants. We are children of Chinese parents, and parents of American children. It seems all our lives, no matter where we reside, we are destined to be transients instead of settlers.
In terms of political beliefs, we rejected the "white terror" perpetrated by Chiang Kai-Shek's government. Nor could we identify with the "red terror" that is the communist one party dictatorship practiced in China. We love Taiwan more than we love China, but we are not the "New Taiwanese" who deny their Chinese heritage. We are Chinese Americans who are proud of the Chinese blood that courses through our veins.
Before the age of 40, we aspired to be liberalists with a conscience. After the age of 40, many of us chose to vote the Democrat ticket because it is the party for the underdogs, even though we identified more closely in ideology and action with the Republicans. A few of us became politically impassioned during the Diaoyu Tai Movement. But most of us view political movements with the detachment of a bystander. We have witnessed two absurd political farces in our lives: one is the so called Cultural Revolution instigated by Mao Tze-Tung and his cult followers that decimated a generation of Chinese scholars and almost ran the country into the ground; the other is the on going saga of Lee Deng-Hui, ex-president of the Republic of China and ex-chairman of the Nationalist party, turning against his own party and bringing it to the brink of destruction. It is no wonder that we can not bring ourselves to have faith in politicians.
Girls of our generation wore plenty of petticoats over full skirts, danced the jitterbug, listened to Connie Francis, and dreamed of James Dean. There were no taxis then. On a date, we either walked if it is not too far, or took a rickshaw if it is some distance away. At that time, the canal along Xin Sheng South Road flowed in the open air. I often think the young of today view the relationship between men and women with too much casualness and directness. Once at a party in Taipei with a group of colleagues from a famous literature magazine, the subject of the transcendental stage of the men/women relationship was brought up. I quoted Yuan Chen's poem: "Taking a path among the many beautiful flowers, I cannot bring myself to look at any. Although I make the excuse of some ascetic pursuit, it is really because I have known you." One well known poet who happens to be very handsome took exception. He recited another Chinese classic poem: "Only If I die in the arms of a beautiful woman will my soul go to the underworld as a happy Casanova." I still cannot decide if he was joking. Generally I believe ours is the last generation of the true romantics who are hopelessly out of fashion and can no longer keep up with the time.
We have obligations to our parents to keep them in their old age; we also have obligations to our children to give them the best of what we possess. When we get old, we do not expect to become a burden to our children. We are the last "sandwich" generation. We wish our children could understand and identify with Chinese culture more. But after twelve years of weekend Chinese school, we are just happy that they could recognize simple names such as "Wang Da Zhong" and "Li Xiao Ming". We are the last among the 1.2 billion Chinese who are more or less adequate in both Chinese and English.
We were born too late and missed the period of great unrest and great opportunity - the northern expedition aimed at subduing the war lords, the eight year battle against the Japanese invasion, and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. We were born too early and missed the period of Taiwan's miraculous economic growth from the 1970's to the 1980's. To some degree, we try to be true to Confucius's belief that a man must expand his resoluteness because he accepts the challenges and realizes his burden will be heavy and his path long. We are not the greatest generation of Chinese; we are simply the last generation of Nei Di Ren.