After Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, KEFF, a Taiwanese American artist, started thinking he might never be perceived as “American enough,” despite his U.S. passport, living in the country for nearly two decades and English being his first language. He endured several racist incidents, including verbal harassment and anti-Asian slurs, and soon began contemplating what life could look like somewhere else.
When an opportunity arose to make a film in Taiwan in summer 2019, he took it.
“I’ve tried being American, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to work out,” KEFF, 30, told NBC Asian America. “Why don’t I try being Taiwanese?”
His film, “Taipei Suicide Story,” was selected for the Cannes Film Festival last year.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Asian immigration to the U.S. surged. Many came for job opportunities, higher education and to make a better life for their children, and they often became naturalized citizens.
But today, many Asian Americans — most of them of East Asian descent — are moving “back” to Asia, citing better job opportunities abroad and the desire to experience life in Asia, as well as anti-Asian racism and other social problems at home. While it’s a trend that began before Covid-19, the United States' mishandling of the pandemic and the ability to work remotely gave young people more motivation to do so.
Compared to Covid-19 concerns and personal factors, “the visibility of the anti-Asian hate and violence came much slower,” Lok Siu, associate professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said.
According to Siu, concern about anti-Asian hate didn’t become mainstream until late last year or the beginning of this year, and many Asian Americans decided to move last summer. These moves are most likely temporary.
For Clara Park, a rising junior at Yale University, the pandemic and the switch to virtual learning spurred her decision to take a gap year and move to South Korea.
“I hated online classes when I was taking them in the spring,” Park said.
Now she works as a production intern on “Times,” a time travel drama.
But her responsibilities extend beyond her job. As the only person in her immediate family in Korea, she has the added duty to “act as a representative” at extended family gatherings, such as birthdays or traditional grave visitations.
After more than six months there, she’s reconsidering her post-graduation plans. Before, she didn’t think she could plant roots in Korea due to language barriers, but now, doing so not only feels feasible but desirable.
For others, moving to Asia was less of a choice. In late January 2020, Noniko Hsu, a professional flutist who has been performing on cruise ships since graduating from the University of Michigan, was ready to start a new contract. But a couple of days before she planned to fly out from Taiwan to meet her ship, she received an email telling crew members from Asia not to come due to Covid-19.
“We are not able to sign on any Taiwanese residents if they have been in Thailand in the past 15 days,” the email read. She wrote back to clarify that Taiwanese people are from Taiwan, not Thailand, but she never received a response. So Hsu watched the pandemic progress while working a job as an events coordinator for a hotel in Kaohsiung.
On top of the expected language and cultural differences, many find that relocating to Asia raises questions about immigration, privacy and their future careers. Some renounced or never pursued citizenship in these countries to avoid mandatory military service. Others have little to no connection to the countries they’re now in. While some feel lucky to escape the pandemic, many also grapple with the privilege that allows them to be in Asia in the first place.
Melody Chen is a student taking a gap year to enroll in engineering classes in Chinese and apply for Taiwanese citizenship. In addition to avoiding Covid-19 and wanting to improve her Chinese, she wanted to experience life in Taiwan for a couple of months to see if it was somewhere she’d “want to consider living in the future.”
“I just feel so disillusioned with the idea of America,” Chen said. “People can go bankrupt with a medical bill — that does not feel like an American dream.”
But she acknowledged this decision comes with risks of transmitting Covid-19 to the local population, something people were quick to remind her about when she posted a video to TikTok documenting her journey to Taiwan.
Until recently, places like Taiwan and Singapore remained largely unaffected by Covid-19, making them desirable locations to escape the pandemic. Some Asian Americans have opted to continue work or study at U.S.-based companies and universities, despite the 13- to 16-hour time difference. In their free time, they attended concerts, went clubbing and ate indoors at restaurants earlier in the year while much of the U.S. was in lockdown.
But the motivation to avoid Covid-19 restrictions has been complicated by the surges in cases in several Asian countries this spring, which may drive some to return home as the U.S. reopens thanks to vaccine availability. While some moved abroad during the pandemic, Siu said only a fraction of the Asian American community is able to do so.
It wasn’t every Asian American who can have access to that kind of mobility,” she said. Those who did so represent an upwardly mobile, “elite population of transnationals who have the privilege of being mobile across these different spaces, and the ability to move rapidly and respond to situations like this.”
This kind of mobility isn’t exclusive to Asian Americans. At the beginning of the pandemic, Asians who had means were also moving to the U.S., and many Americans who lived in urban hotspots, such as New York City, moved out to less densely populated areas, where they had more space to quarantine.
Annabelle Pan, 21, recognized her privilege in having a U.S. passport, and the ease it gave her in entering Singapore in January. After working in a lab tracking the coronavirus in wastewater in the U.S. last fall, she’s transitioning to a six-month research project in Singapore interviewing Chinese migrant workers about their healthcare experiences.
“On paper it looks like I’m doing something service-oriented which I do want it to be,” Pan said from her quarantine hotel room. “But this was for my own mental health to a huge degree.”
She said she’s grateful for the institutional support she’s received, something she said wasn’t available to her own mother when she immigrated to the U.S. about 25 years ago.
For many, living in their parent's country of origin has offered new insights. Sunny Huang extended her 2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Taiwan to continue working with children in the indigenous community. She said experiencing “a bit of where they came from” has given her an appreciation for “the practical decisions” her parents made to survive in the U.S. which involved leaving their community and traditions behind.
“In the U.S.,” she said, we don't get to see how much they lose.”
Beyond familial insights, many are finding that the United States looks different from the country they left. Covid-19, mass shootings, and the continued rise in anti-Asian hate crimes make the prospect of returning complicated.
Helen Li, 24, who had been working in Asia before the pandemic, went on a trip to Nepal in February last year. She planned on staying for three weeks, but after borders closed, she was faced with the choice of returning to the U.S. or sheltering in place. She chose Nepal, where she’s been working remotely ever since, and her time there has changed her perspective on happiness and her Asian American identity.
“A lot of times I've defined my identity as producing something — like the more of this you do, the better you are,” Li said. After living in Nepal, she’s found joy in slowing down and in activities like making soy milk from scratch — something she used to do with her father but stopped doing because her time was “more valuable in other places.”
Due to Covid-19 visa restrictions, Li might be forced to move back to the U.S. in the next couple of months, and she’s afraid of burning out from an unrelenting news cycle and the culture of productivity.
In the long term, it remains to be seen what the big picture implications of these moves might be. Factors such as one's ability to speak the local language, the economy, and the pandemic all impact the lessons the individuals will take from their time in Asia.
“I wonder if that's going to make a — hopefully positive — impact for Asian American folks,” said Wen Liu, an assistant research fellow at the InAcademia Sinica institute of Ethnology, Taiwan, who herself moved from New York to Taiwan last year. Given racism and the pressure to assimilate that many grow up with, she hopes that Asian Americans who have spent unexpected time in Asia can find a “different way of relating to Asian culture that's not so static or so — in a way — shameful.”