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College Juniors Debut “Crystal Bridges,” Zine on LGBTQ Life in Taiwan

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College Juniors Debut “Crystal Bridges,” Zine on LGBTQ Life in Taiwan

LGBTQ posters, banners, and art left at 288 Peace Memorial Park, where Taipei’s first pride parade was held.

LGBTQ posters, banners, and art left at 288 Peace Memorial Park, where Taipei’s first pride parade was held.

Courtesy of Jenn Lin

LGBTQ posters, banners, and art left at 288 Peace Memorial Park, where Taipei’s first pride parade was held.

Courtesy of Jenn Lin

Courtesy of Jenn Lin

LGBTQ posters, banners, and art left at 288 Peace Memorial Park, where Taipei’s first pride parade was held.

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After months of work, College juniors Jenn Lin and Sheng Kao unveiled their new zine, Crystal Bridges, on Monday at a release party held in the Multicultural Resource Center. After being awarded an Oberlin Shansi In-Asia grant this year, the pair traveled to Taipei during Winter Term to document LGBTQ life in Taiwan and interview civilians and activists.

Foregoing a traditional print format, Lin and Kao released their zine, a self-published, handmade magazine, on WordPress for free to facilitate accessibility. The digital format allows for not only typed interviews and visual art, but also audio, videos, and links for further reading. 

For Ted Samuel, deputy director of Shansi, “the whole idea of making a zine was something that really excited me.” 

As deputy director, Samuel is involved in Shansi’s fellowship and grants program. The In-Asia grant that Kao and Lin received awards students up to $1,500 for summer or Winter Term projects in either a non-governmental organization or self-guided study in any East, Southeast, or South Asian country. Shansi also has a visiting scholars program, where young lecturers from partner universities and NGOs from Shansi’s partner sites come to Oberlin for a semester to audit classes. 

Lin is a Creative Writing and Art History major with a concentration in Book Studies, while Kao is a Biology major who also studies Creative Writing. Despite their diverging academic interests, their shared Taiwanese heritage and interest in LGBTQ activism naturally led both of them to collaborate on Crystal Bridges. 

“We wanted to go back because we’re both Taiwanese-American and we hadn’t been back in so long,” Lin said. “We had been reading the news and it came out that there was a referendum happening toward same-sex marriage and Taiwan. And so we were really interested in investigating what was happening there.” 

The aforementioned referendum was in November 2018, in which questions about supporting same-sex marriage were presented to voters. Despite the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which brought a new wave of young political activists to the forefront and led to same-sex marriage being legalized in Taiwan in May 2017, the referendum results overwhelmingly opposed same-sex marriage and were regarded as a political tragedy by activists and allies alike. 

“With this context in mind, we tried to set out asking questions that would provoke reflection, on our parts and on our interviewees’ parts, concerning Taiwan’s current and future political situation,” they write in the zine.

Samuel attested to the value of personal connections to student projects. 

“While we do definitely put a large value on [the] feasibility of the project and the academic and artistic values of them, we do not discount personal connections at all,” Samuel said. “In fact, we encourage that, I would say … Given the referendum that happened over the fall, we understood that if we’re going to have a project on queer activism, now is really a good time to do that.” 

The zine’s title is a combination of Crystal Boys, a 1983 Taiwanese novel by Pai Hsien-yung about a gay student named A-Qing, and a reference to Shansi’s and the zine’s goal of “creating bridges between communities abroad and here in Oberlin,” according to Lin. Lin and Kao even visited various parks named in the novel during their trip, strengthening the significance of the novel to their project, which was both political and personal. 

The zine takes a more unidirectional approach, according to Kao, and brings snapshots of LGBTQ life in Taiwan for Oberlin students to learn from and engage in. It lacks the traditional thesis, evidence, and conclusion of a research project because it is meant to inform outside readers. 

“I think it’s important to walk in open-minded because we obviously didn’t grow up in those contexts,” Lin said. “I think it’d be harmful to impose our own biases and opinions onto a community.”

Michelle Tyson, a College first-year, attested to the informative nature of the zine. 

“I was not familiar at all about the scene for LGBTQ youth in Taiwan before this event,” she said. “I really enjoyed hearing about Sheng and Jenn’s travels in Taiwan and how their identities and language abilities affected their experience. It gave me broader ideas about what a study abroad trip could mean for me beyond academics.”

While the entire trip offered new experiences and insights, Kao cites one interview as particularly poignant. By chance, Lin and Kao came across an unassuming market stall owned by a young gay man. After conducting an interview, they asked him, “What do you want people to know about Taiwan?” He expressed his hopes for the future of the country, believing that despite the challenges, Taiwan could progress together with the LGBTQ community. Kao recalls that his simple wish, to be able to marry his boyfriend, was both empowering and touching.

Lin also spoke about the Tongzhi hotline. In Chinese, “tongzhi” translates to “comrade,” but in contemporary Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is also used to refer to people in the LGBTQ community. On the hotline’s website, there are pages for not only lesbian and gay bars, but also more accessible safe spaces such as bookstores and cafes. Kao and Lin have links on the Crystal Bridges zine to some of these spaces that they visited, including FEMbooks and Halfway Coffee. The hotline features over-the-phone counseling for individuals, families, couples, and elders who identify as queer. Lin and Kao went to several of their youth planning group meetings, where most of their interviews took place. 

Samuel and Returned Shansi Fellow, Louise Edwards, OC ’16, spoke about how Shansi fulfills its mission of “deepening mutual respect and understanding through exchange between Asia and the United States,” according to Shansi’s website. 

“Shansi is not a one-way street. It’s not just sending Oberlin students to other countries. They really do build connections, and these connections do last generations,” Samuel explained.

Edwards credited the networking possibilities that Shansi brings on a global scale. 

“Whether it’s the students that I made connections with when I was teaching in China, or the staff here that I made connections with, as well as other past Shansi fellows, I feel like Shansi has really given me this huge network of people for me to not only be friends with but also make professional connections with,” Edwards said.

For Lin and Kao, having the opportunity to visit Taiwan with Shansi’s In-Asia grant enabled them to overcome their hesitancy to engage with its culture and language. 

“I think like a lot of Asian Americans feel a certain way about their language skills — there’s always a struggle to connect with your culture with or without language,” Kao said. “I realize that having that Chinese skill is super important to connect with a new culture. As difficult as it may be to realize that. I really understood it this time because I was in Taiwan without my parents.” She went on to say that having a language in common made it easier to interview their Taiwanese subjects, put them at ease, and connect with them.

Lin also praised Shansi’s In-Asia Grant Program. 

“Shansi has the opportunity to not only make really great global connections but also to explore identity yourself,” she said. She added that although one of the greatest challenges was overcoming her insecurity with her fluency in Chinese, the experience built her language skills and allowed her to see Taiwan in a fresh new way.

“There’s a lot of value in traveling and growing as a person from those experiences, specifically as members of an Asian diaspora,” Lin added.

Kao and Lin’s zine, Crystal Bridges, is now available to the public, at this link: https://crystalbridgeszine.wordpress.com/?ref=spelling.  

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