If one’s love of country can be measured in terms of struggle to gain citizenship, then TC Locke should be counted among Taiwan’s most ardent supporters. The Florida native and current member of acclaimed blues band The Muddy Basin Ramblers came to Taiwan in 1989 as an exchange student at Tunghai University in Taichung and immediately fell in love with the place. But his first few years in Taiwan after finishing university in the United States were anything but easy. He worked at many low-wage jobs, eking out a living on earnings of NT$15,000 a month and often living on instant noodles and tea eggs to survive.
“I felt my future lay here,” he says, but admits that “things were pretty desperate for quite a few years though.” His situation became so dire that eventually he sought work in China as a quality control inspector in a factory. And while he enjoyed the people in China, he hated the work conditions and the authoritarian control of the Chinese government. Although desperately wanting to return to Taiwan, he was deterred by regulations that required foreigners to have a work visa if they wished to stay in Taiwan for any length of time.
“I missed Taiwan so much I decided, screw it, I’m going to emigrate,” he recalls, understanding that this step meant abandoning his U.S. citizenship. Since the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) at that time was unable to process such documents, Locke headed to Hong Kong, where he found that renouncing his U.S. citizenship was “remarkably easy.” He merely needed to sign a few forms and answer a few questions at the U.S. Consulate-General, before turning in his passport. As he walked out of the building immediately afterwards, though, he says he thought to himself, “Oh my God, what have I just done?”
He was now a stateless person living in Hong Kong, and getting back to Taiwan without a passport suddenly seemed an almost insurmountable challenge. While working through the red tape, he managed to survive by selling his book collection on the street to buy food and for a time drawing shoes for a catalog to earn cash. Eventually, though, he got his ROC passport and was able to return to Taiwan – but that led to yet another challenge. As he was then in his early twenties, he needed to serve in the ROC military.
Locke, who has described his experience in the military in several books, remembers one moment in particular: his first day at basic training when the new inductees were brought into the mess hall. Every action – including moving the bench back, sitting down, moving the bench back in, and so on – was supposed to await the appropriate command. The left-handed Locke reflexively moved his chopsticks from the right side of his bowl to the left. The outraged drill sergeant responded with the common insult in Taiwan’s military: “Are you from America?”
Reflecting on his decision to take Taiwan citizenship, Locke says: “I wouldn’t want to be a guest my whole life. I want to be a part of it.”
“What did I gain? I gained my whole life.”