Taiwanese-Canadian writer rediscovers her roots in Taiwan’s nature

TAIPEI (The China Post) — As the Chinese New Year approaches, many who have emigrated abroad use the time to reconnect with their roots during the long holiday.

Jessica Lee, author of “Two Trees Make a Forest” is one such second-generation immigrant, whose family moved from Taiwan to Canada before she was born.

Speaking with The China Post, Lee explained that she had spent most of her childhood in Canada and never really asked questions about her family, until later in adulthood when her grandfather developed Alzeheimer’s disease.

As the illness progressed, he began to lose certain language abilities, and was later only left with Mandarin, leaving a gap in communication between him and his granddaughter.

Lee and her grandfather when she was little. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee)

After her grandfather’s passing, Lee’s mother stumbled on a sealed letter written by him during his last few days, documenting his former life while in the air force in Taiwan, including his experience during the wars and meeting Lee’s grandmother.

However, as the disease had taken a toll on him, the writing was inconsistent at times, which led Lee to decide in setting out to finish her grandfather’s story, hoping that it would help reconnect her to something more and give more definition to her identity.

Deeming the letter an invitation to “reopen the folder of trying to tell their story,” Lee began composing the “Two Trees Make a Forest” which would later be a hybrid work that reads like a memoir doused in nature and travel writing of Taiwan. 

Lee’s grandparents sit at the stairs in their home. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee)

According to Lee, the book mainly focuses on topics such as migration and what “home” means, in particular to those who move through different places and aren’t entirely sure where they belong. 

“I think, for me, writing the book was actually the process of figuring out how I identified in relation to Taiwan and what my relationship was,” Lee said.

Through writing the book, Lee began a re-introduction to Taiwan, combining her grandparents’ and parent’s versions of Taiwan with her own.

“The book was really an exercise in saying, we can find a sort of sense of belonging, that is plural, and that includes many places,” Lee added. 

It was through this process that Lee came to realize that in getting to know the land, the language and creating memories, she also saw a path into a kind of belonging.   

It was through this process that Lee came to realize that in getting to know the land, the language and creating memories, she also saw a path into a kind of belonging.   (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee)

Lee believes she shouldn’t be defined as merely Canadian, British or Taiwanese; instead, she stands firm that she doesn’t have to choose and supports the idea that everyone can have multiple layers to their identities.

Lee also revealed that she didn’t want to just write about family in her book, and instead, scaled it up to include how family stories tie into larger political and historical events, which in this case is the backdrop of Taiwan.

Language also played a big part in her story, and Lee traveled to Taiwan in 2017 and stayed for three months to do her research while later returning to Berlin, Germany where she was staying at the time to finish her book.

Lee traveled to Taiwan in 2017 and stayed for three months to do her research. (Photo courtesy Jessica Lee)

To Lee, in getting to know the language, one can see oneself as more “plural.” Drawing an example from her mother, Lee said that sometimes when she speaks in Mandarian, a dimension may get lost in between; therefore, Lee believes fluency in the language is integral to holding on to as much as she could.

When asked about what Taiwan means to her now, Lee feels it’s about Taiwan’s layers, complexity and nature.  

“It’s about getting out into the mountains, getting out into nature, being able to sort of see the big skies and you know, the light of the mountains across the horizon. It’s magical.”

When asked about what Taiwan means to her now, Lee feels it’s about Taiwan’s layers, complexity and nature. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee)

To her, Taiwan is very multicultural with layers and more complexity than most would think. In this way, she hopes that one day if she were to introduce Taiwan to her kids, she would bring them to explore Taiwan personally.

she hopes that one day if she were to introduce Taiwan to her kids, she would bring them to explore Taiwan personally.(Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee)

“There’s so many languages, there’s such a sort of wealth of community, that’s really special […]There’s no simple answer to what Taiwan is, and you sort of have to go and just embrace that complexity.”

“Two Trees Make a Forest” will soon be translated into a Chinese version, which is set to release in February 2022. 

“Two Trees Make a Forest” will soon be translated into a Chinese version, which is set to release in February 2022. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee)