I was rooting through a collection of old poems, notes, and statements I wrote once. Never meant to be read aloud, but as I read one particular musing I thought there was no better way than to introduce myself and share why I stand proudly with the Democrats, young and young at heart, here in Nebraska.
How do I explain to you, my friends, this feeling of liminality? This limbo, this vacuum and thunderous quiet. A foreigner in my homeland, a tourist in my motherland.
How do I express what my Ilha Formosa is to me? What can I say to explain that I am fully Taiwanese, and yet not Taiwanese at all? How can I explain the pain of seeing my embattled mother country shunned by the world? Our proud people reduced to 'Chinese Taipei' by the Olympic announcer?
How do I express the anger felt when I wore my bright orange cap, the outline of my beloved Taiwan emblazoned across the front, only to have my classmates ask why I had a pickle on my hat. How then can I make you understand my joy for having found a home with you? An identity that so long eluded me, an emptiness clawing at the insides, you're alone, you don't belong, you will never be one of them.
With tears in my eyes and love in my heart for my motherland; with a clenched fist and fire in my belly for my fatherland. I will say in song and word and deed a simple truth. That the diaspora has given us a home wherever we may fight for justice and comfort for others, wherever we may help to shelter those who suffer as our people suffer, because our very existence is an act of defiance.
My father was a missionary in Taiwan in the early 90s, my mother was his translator, a job she was supremely qualified for having control of eight different languages and dialects. When the sun set on the mission, it set on a newly wed couple. I was four when my family moved back to America. A little house at the bottom of the hill on Iowa Avenue in Orange City, Iowa. Sioux County, Congressman Steve King's district. From a young age I experienced all the difficulties of an immigrant child, despite having been born in the small city of Canton, Ohio. Speculation on our chances of acclimation ran rampant in the small township. In spite of this speculation we achieved a degree of normalcy. My brother and I quickly picking up the language of the land under the skilled linguistic tutelage of my mother and father, both employed at the small Christian liberal arts college in the town. It was an immense sense of pride we took in winning the weekly spelling bees, reading the largest thickest books in the library, and completing a full read through of the bible in the sixth grade. "We survived, we made it." or so we thought.
Too young to truly understand the socio-political mechanics shifting in the world around us, we grew up oblivious to the growing distaste for outsiders, for us "others". The response to the attacks by Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001 would later roar in our ears like a constant reminder that outsiders were not welcome, that we were a threat, and that we could never love our country in the same way as our neighbors. Our neighbors who lived in fear. A constant fear of the unknown, the unseen enemy, and the foreign. They clutched their bibles and denounced the teachings of Islam as evil, even barbaric. They looked to the west and saw the sun rising on a red China, incensed that a foreign nation with a foreign way of life and thinking could dare challenge their status in the world. China Boy, some called me. "Hi Jackie Chan. Do you know Bruce Lee? Can you teach me kung fu?"
I isolated myself, I didn't belong. These people were not my people. My faith abandoned me. How could they not see the ugliness they wore like a badge of pride. I dissociated from everything I was raised in that small town to believe in. The xenophobia, the homophobia, the blind unquestioning belief in a system that shunned outsiders and left us emotionally and spiritually destitute. Eventually the burden of this existence was too great to bare and my family broke in two. My father ended up moving to Kearney. And upon my graduation I joined him here, eager to leave the town I felt had rejected me.
What I found was a community with much of the same dynamics, but I was prepared for it. I found friends I could relate to. Wonderful people like Will Flatness, Joshua Cleveland, and many others. Steadfast friends who understood my struggle with this liminal state of being. For a time I found respite, I could continue living in relative comfort with the comradery of my friends. Then on April 30, 2015 a man I had revered since I first learned of him from my father, a senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, declared his intent to run for the highest office in the nation.
Immediately I was grasped by a sense of urgency. This was what I was missing, every value I was raised to believe in on full display. Without a dogmatic call, this little old man from the Northeastern reaches of our great nation was calling on us all to rise up and take care of our neighbors, leave this failed endless crusade in Eurasia, and welcome the wondering and broken foreigner into our fold. I got involved. I knocked doors, made impassioned pleas to my peers, protested racial injustice, and at the behest of my good friend, David Cannon, I went to a meeting that would change my life.
"I move to suspend the rules and seat all in attendance as delegates." Those were the first words I heard from a man I would soon grow to trust and admire and count as one of my greatest friends and mentors, John Turek of Gibbon Nebraska. As the outgoing chair of the Buffalo County Democrats, John welcomed me and others into this space. This space I had feared. This "Establishment" space where the Democrats would select their puppets to suppress the will of the people. I found something very different. I found a room full of progressive farmers, retired teachers, laborers, healthcare providers, mothers and fathers. With shaky legs I rose to address the small gathered mass. "I am asking you to send me to the State Convention as a delegate for Bernie Sanders because I am sick of living in a country where my generation cannot remember a time we were not at war." I cannot remember the rest of my words, a fevered dream and distant memory now. I found affirmation in my existence, and was selected to go to the state convention.
At this convention, though I knew all too little going in, I met a number of people I grew to respect. I met and heard the words of Frank LaMere, Jane Kleeb, Ron Kaminsky, and Maureen Monahan. I attended my first caucus meeting with the Nebraska Young Democrats. Though I was too overwhelmed to speak or really take part, it was where I first saw the faces of some of the people I now consider fast friends and mentors. Brandon Langlois, Grady Wiedeman and Lauren Williams, though I didn't know their names yet. How could I ever be worthy of these people's time? People who were as young as me, yet so driven and dedicated. The convention proceeded. Through long grueling hours debating whether the gentleman from Holdrege should be allowed to give a concession speech and the language of a platform resolution regarding consolidated agricultural corporations (I believe I first heard the wonderful Judy Vohland speak at this particular committee meeting). I left the convention as a member of the State Central Committee. At the first meeting I attended I was wandering in the hallways during caucus meetings with, what I must assume, was a very lost and confused look on my face, when a wizened man stopped me. He was Frank LaMere, and he welcomed me to join him at the Native Caucus. It was here I first learned of the plight of Whiteclay and the ongoing attempts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in Standing Rock. Because of Frank, I would later make a trip up to Standing Rock myself with Will Flatness and Jennifer Green in late November of 2016. We knew things would be difficult now. Donald Trump had somehow won the electoral college majority earlier that month, and though I was bitter from my beloved candidate's loss at the National Convention in July, I was even more bitter that once again this country wore it's ugliness and elected this disaster of a president. We brought water, blankets, and coats. Money donated from some of our county party's members went to the tribes or was used to secure more water. We ferried the sick and injured protesters to the tribal hospital several miles down the road from the encampment, which was watched night and day by the militarized police, and their armored vehicles and fog lights.
I knew after this trip that I would never be able to go back to the life I knew before. Their fight was my fight, all the people who were forced to live in this state of liminality were forced to walk a path of struggle, never allowed to live the truth they embodied in their very existence. LGBT+ people, shunned by their very own families and communities. Black Americans, here because of a greed that forced them to live in a foreign world where they would be demonized and oppressed. Native people, who had their way of life and very existence warred upon by European colonizers for hundreds of years. Trans people that society wished would quietly slip into non-existence. Immigrants seeking a better life, used as a scapegoat and targeted for political expedience, caged and deported, families torn apart. I don't live the lives of these people, but in every group I see a small part of the liminal diasporic experience I had lived every waking moment of my life since the age of four.
When the phone rang, I answered, and on a cool spring day in 2017 it was from one Dunixi Guereca, the president of the Nebraska Young Democrats. I had been essentially appointed to the presidency of the UNK Young Democrats, a dying chapter with no active membership. The Young Democrats wanted someone from the third congressional district to come as a delegate to the YDA National Convention in Dallas, TX. I jumped at the opportunity, not knowing what I was getting myself into, though by this point that would be an easy summation of my entire life in the realm of politics. I got the chance to meet and build friendships with some of the incredible people I had admired since the state convention in 2016. Grady and Lauren, and a couple new faces, those of Hannah Wroblewski and Mina Davis.
Half a year later I got a call from Samantha Bauman, who was running to be the President of the Nebraska Young Democrats, asking me to run to be the chair of the third congressional district. I knew from my brief stint as the president of the UNK Young Democrats that the district had no active chapters, that it was weak, and that I would have to start from scratch. I accepted the offer though, I wanted to build this organization that had welcomed me in. I wanted to create a space out here in the great agricultural expanse of Nebraska, in a district larger than England, where young progressive democrats could feel welcomed, empowered, and make an impact. In the midst of my time as a staffer on a legislative campaign, I set out to found the Buffalo County Young Democrats, a group that has become a core part of my life and identity, along with fellow young progressives like Justin Simmons, who has served as a guiding hand in the formation and growth of the organization. It would bring in future leaders in our party and country. Wonderful and passionate leaders like Haley Mazour, Dane Schmitt, and Abby McKeag.
We continue this struggle, all of us together now in the common cause for justice and acceptance in this world, but knowing that even in this liminal space of unbeing, we have a home in each other and a family we can lean and rely on. I have never felt more accepted and at home than when I am in a space with my comrades. We have come to understand that we are the political revolution the senator from Vermont set out to create those years ago. We will continue to fight to ensure all people are respected and welcome, that all people are afforded the chance to live a happy and healthy life, and that everyone can find the place where they belong in this terrifying and wonderful world.
I am Caleb Rohrer, I am young, I am bi-sexual, I am Taiwanese, I am American, I am a Democrat, and I am a progressive. I am a human, and I found my home in the heart of America with this crazy group of dreamers called the Young Democrats.