By Lee-Sean Huang, leesean
The United Nations made me lie.
The UN hired me to work on an internal design and technology project. I was to help build a tool that would make it easier for diplomats from around the world to share their insights and experiences with their colleagues across far-flung offices and outputs. That would in turn help them to better negotiate and de-escalate potentially volatile geopolitical situations.
But back to the lie. It was their form’s fault — the United Nation’s human resources digital database. Somehow, the reality of my identity just couldn’t fit into the neat fiction of their bureaucratic multiple choice dropdown menu.
Name? Date of Birth? Citizenship?
Those questions were easy. I was applying as a United States citizen, which gives me the legal right to work at headquarters in New York City. But I was born in Taiwan and therefore, I am a dual citizen. That’s where things got a little tricky.
Country of birth?
I had to choose from a dropdown list of the countries of the world. Well, not all of the countries of the world: Taiwan wasn’t on the list. I searched under “Republic of China,” which is the official name of the government that rules Taiwan. But nope, nothing.
They had an option for “stateless,” but that’s not me. I am privileged to have two nationalities, not none. And I certainly wasn’t going to choose “People’s Republic of China.” That would be the “other China,” the one with over one billion people, and the China that keeps the Republic of China, AKA Taiwan, outside of the UN.
According to the bureaucratic database, we Taiwanese don’t exist.
Even though my US passport states that I was born in Taiwan, I answered “United States,” and submitted my official application. I had come this far, and I didn’t want to rock the boat with any questions of how to answer that question. Luckily, nobody ever mentioned anything about it. I’m sure they had bigger priorities to tackle.
At one point, we had to temporarily stop work because Russia invaded Ukraine and the office became preoccupied dealing with the diplomatic crisis. It put my work as a designer in perspective: we were building tools to help end wars and save lives. Certainly in tough international conflicts like this, there are no multiple choice answers.
One day shortly after the start of the new year, I got to shake hands with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, as he made his rounds to greet the staff. It made me wonder why the international community accepts two Koreas and two Sudans, but not two Chinas. I was only there on a temporary contract, but the moment when we shook hands, I felt like I belonged. Even if geopolitics and bureaucratic rigidity forced me to lie to get there.
Lee-Sean Huang is a designer, educator, and storyteller. He was born on the island of Taiwan and now lives on the island of Manhattan. He is a cofounder of Foossa, a consultancy that designs conversations for transformation. His work has appeared in publications including the Huffington Post, Fast Company, and Good Magazine. Learn more: http://www.foossa.com/leesean-huang