The Expat: Yu Sheng Liao

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Age: 39
Born: Taiwan
Lives: Villa Devoto
Education: Law at UBA
Profession: Translator, marketeer at Chinabox, editor of U-Like It magazine
Book: A warrior genre like Star Wars but in Chinese
Film: Interstellar
Gadget: My iPad

Given that his parents didn’t want him to go through compulsory military service in Taiwan, Yu Sheng Liao arrived in Buenos Aires as a child. Now a translator, editor and marketeer specializing in food and wine, he enjoys the best of both the Asian and Argentine worlds.

Yu Sheng says: “My parents brought me to Argentina and I’ve now lived here for more than 30 years. What happened is that they took me on a kind of holiday. Between them my parents have five siblings, with each one living outside of Taiwan, which is where I was born, so we went to Japan, Washington then Paraguay where my uncle was living. We stayed there for a bit until they realized that Argentina was very close by and another of my uncles was there so that’s where we went next. This was at the start of the 1980s.

“Taiwan has obligatory military service so a lot of people don’t want their children to go through it – kids are sent to an island for training and parents are always scared of a potential war with China. So sons are often sent abroad to live, and they can only do so until a certain age, at which point military service becomes a reality. I was about seven when I left. But our situation was atypical as we left with the intention of visiting relatives but as it was improvised, we ended up staying.”

Early days
While the young boy assumed he was on holiday, reality hit home when he started primary school without any Spanish language. No matter, however, as he was soon bumped up a grade.

He says: “It was weird in the beginning as I didn’t speak any Spanish. It was hard for me but in the end, almost all my education took place in Argentina. I remember that I started in second grade but I didn’t do third grade as they sent me straight up to fourth – and I’ve been here ever since.

“The first images that I recall was that Argentina was very green and very spacious, very peaceful – nothing like it is now – and I remember the first democratic elections. We lived near Congreso at that time and people were really happy as Alfonsín won and democracy returned – those images of people celebrating are ones that stay with me. And 9 de Julio Avenue – without the Metrobus of today, of course – would close from Callao to the Obelisk for Carnival.”

Taiwanese customs
With Taiwanese parents, logic dictates that customs from the motherland are retained. However, Yu Sheng insists he has the best of both worlds.

“At home, for example, I’m very Taiwanese but outside of home I’m not! I don’t drink much mate but I am very good at the protocol of serving it! In our family we still retain a lot of Chinese customs such as eating early, getting together on Sundays, we go out together, we’re very respectful and the eldest son lives at home. There’s a number of millenary customs that maintains our culture.

“That said, there are some customs that bother me, such as everyone having to arrive at eight on the dot for dinner. Arrive at 8.02 and there’s a huge scandal! Or if friends of my parents invite them to dinner, that invitation extends to all of us and we all have to go, even my sister who is married and me at nearly 40. It’s a question of culture.

“In addition, I read, write and speak Chinese and Taiwanese – I was a legal translator for a long time in both those languages. Even today I find it more practical to read in Chinese rather than in Spanish. In a globalized world, a harmony between cultures is beneficial rather than diminishing.

“But I think I’m a bit of an isolated case. There are two sides: on one hand there’s a Taiwanese community that’s very closed while on the other, some people have lived here for a really long time, have nothing to do with the community and don’t speak Chinese. I’m an intermediary case, a perfect fusion really, as I conserve the best of both worlds! Though my DNA sometimes demands that I eat rice!

“Once I turned 21, I started to visit Taiwan and I’ve been a few times now. As I can adapt well and speak the language, no one realised I hadn’t been in the country for more than 15 years! Although I wasn’t very up to date with information and news. The first thing that struck me was that I’d never seen so many Asians together in one place! Wow! I was just one more person there! I don’t have very many friends there now and the ones I do have are people who’ve left Argentina to return.

“Obviously I have Asian roots and DNA so if I go to Taiwan I find the food situation to be a lot easier. To eat good Chinese food in Argentina means I have to go out and try to find the ingredients then cook them. There, I can just go out to eat. It’s a question of comfort.”

Having studied law at UBA and worked as a legal translator, Yu Sheng also studied journalism, working with NGOs such as Unicef and Amnesty International. While his first journalism job was for free newspaper Metro, he then turned his hand to gastronomy and worked for food critic Fernando Vidal Buzzi as well as for La Nación and Barzón among others. Calling himself a bad asador but a very good diner, he now runs his own lifestyle publication U-Like It.

Life and style
“For the past three years I’ve also been co-publishing Hay Que Ir, given that my speciality is food and wine. Also related to that field, I teach gastronomic criticism at Gato Dumas catering school as well as run a marketing division called Chinabox – the slogan is ‘we do your trabajo chino or painstaking work’. We have a good time doing it. I love the work I do and thanks to my Chinese DNA, I’m a total workaholic!”

Saying that, Yu Sheng admits that his days are rarely formed of 24 hours. “I’ve always got a lot of work on, from marketing to journalism and covering events. The magazine has a small staff so we all pitch in – some days we don’t have lunch until 5pm and we certainly don’t have time to grow old! We don’t know when we’ll go on holiday, and my being Chinese means I don’t take vacations although my body sometimes asks for it. A regular day would have a lot of activity, a lot of food, lots of friends and I’d have a lot of fun.”

Over the years, Yu Sheng has lived in various porteño neighbourhoods and currently resides in Villa Devoto. “I’ve lived in Monte Grande, Flores, Villa Crespo, Almagro… though we are now settled in Devoto. But I’ve also lived in Mendoza, which makes me mendochino! I lived there and adapted to there: having tea at the sailing club, going for walks. We had some friends there so we went to visit them and ended up staying. That said, I am very much a porteño but if I go to the interior of the country, the tone and accent from the province starts to come through after a day or two.”

As for his social life, Yu Sheng says he has few Asian friends. “I’ve travelled quite a lot and made friends along the way, in the US, Madrid or Paris. It might not be a constant friendship but I speak to my friends and keep in touch. We all need friends, and good ones at that.”

Buenos Aires Herald, November 29, 2014

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