While it is a stretch applying the Prodigal Son tale to Hsieh, it is instructive, because while her parents left the homeland, Hsieh chose to return for good in late 2002, and because of this, she found herself embraced. Taiwan wanted to re-find what was lost, and it became Hsieh’s promised land.
“Taiwan was just opportunity. I was like, ‘Wow! there is so much I can do here.’ The fact that I was [a volunteer] in the emergency room and then I was doing commercials: I made that jump. I never thought that would happen. I would never… if I was somewhere else in the US,” Hsieh says. “I had no idea Taiwan had this much. I had no idea we had snow in the mountains. I had no idea the best surfing was down south. It was a shock and I loved it.”
Swimming against the tide
From the 1960s onward, many of Taiwan’s brightest and best-educated have been leaving. It was the dream of countless generations to become Americans, Hsieh’s parents among them.
US-born, raised and educated, Hsieh never worked a day in the US: Her first job was in Taiwan after volunteering in India. So perhaps she is an example of a new type of remigration, stubbornly at odds with her parents’ American dream.
“In college I was always the rebel of the group. I was always the one who was trying to get people to basically steal our lobby chairs and do races down the hallway. I was always the one who was looking for adventure.”
Hsieh often does things unexpected, even unbecoming. You can see it in Fun Taiwan, with the goofy smiles and laughs, and the slapstick of her operating heavy machinery or the cumbersome motorbikes, tourist trains and other vehicles she uses to take audiences around Taiwan.
Change and body image
But Taiwanese accept things about her that perhaps they would not in others. This gives her a particular ability, as a model and a TV personality, to shift the foundations of what is considered appropriate or beautiful in a woman.
Hsieh has just returned from a running trip hosted by Tourism Australia to the Gold Coast, locally known as the “glitter strip” for its Las Vegas-style casinos and hotels strung along some of the country’s most pristine white beaches. She is sporting a new fringe and her skin glows a healthy bronze. She is wearing legging bottoms and sporty pumps.
At 33, Hsieh says she is “comfortable” with how she looks. This may come as a surprise to her fans, but there is a deeper message about someone like Hsieh struggling with Taiwan’s ideals of behavior and beauty. Sporting a tan, being outdoorsy are notions of beauty that are slowly infiltrating Taiwan’s fashion-conscious youth, while in the process inching the axis of the national psyche a little westward.
“When I first arrived, I thought I had to be pale and skinny to succeed, but that didn’t work out for me. When I started to be myself and not try and conform to any standard, I realized that I was so much healthier and happier as a tanned, outdoor-loving, athletic [woman],” she says.
Perhaps in 10 years, today’s common fears of allowing even a ray of sun to fall on porcelain skin, or exercise leading to masculine and muscular calves, will sound antiquated.
“I want to encourage women to be in touch with their feminine side: [to be] comfortable in your body in your own way. I want to show that this is me: I’ve finally gotten to where I’m comfortable.”