In recent months, Taiwan has increasingly been the focus of Western news media — particularly in the wake of the Laguna Woods shooting, concerns over Biden’s gaffe, speculation over increasing tensions with China in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and most recently, the potential repercussions of Pelosi's planned visit to Taiwan. However, often missing from these narratives are the perspectives of Taiwanese Americans.
According to the Pew Research Center, the estimated number of Taiwanese Americans in the country in 2019 numbered anywhere between 195,000 to 697,000 — the large margin owing to the fact that the U.S. Census does not have a separate category for Taiwanese Americans, as well as the fact that, for some, identity is not a straightforward issue. Nevertheless, Taiwanese Americans represent a sizable portion of Asian Americans in the United States. While the media might often portray Taiwan as a pawn in a geopolitical strategy with China, for many of these Americans, the conversations around Taiwan remain overly centered on China and frustratingly devoid of nuance or understanding of Taiwan’s history, people and situation.
So we decided to set up a roundtable discussion with several Taiwanese American thinkers, writers and journalists to get their perspectives on how Taiwan has been represented in the media, what they wish people understood about Taiwan and how these issues have impacted their own communities both here in America and abroad. (Please note, this discussion took place before recent news around Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan, so that was not part of our conversation.)
Editor’s note: this conversation includes the terms “benshengren” / “bensheng” and “waishengren” / “waisheng.” The former commonly refers to the population of Taiwanese who existed in Taiwan before the influx of Nationalist/Kuomintang (KMT) troops that began to occur in the mid 1940s (though sometimes excluding the indigenous Austronesian Taiwanese who are often marginalized in Taiwanese society), while the latter refers to those who came with that influx or shortly after.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On Taiwanese and Taiwanese American representation in the Western media:
Annie Wang, co-host of Hearts in Taiwan podcast:
Even though Taiwan is represented in the media, I’d say that many people don’t even realize Taiwan is being represented in the media. For those who identify as Taiwanese American, they are not necessarily known as being Taiwanese American because the spaces they occupy are not ones where they are talking about their cultural, ethnic and/or political identity.
Angela Yu, co-host of Hearts in Taiwan podcast and software engineer in San Francisco Bay Area:
Many successful Taiwanese Americans are not recognized by the mainstream as Taiwanese because they haven’t been very “heritage-forward” in their professional lives. I’ve only been noticing how frequently prominent Asians have family from Taiwan because I’ve been looking at their bios over the past year. It should be recognized that many of us had more privilege than other immigrant populations because the American immigration policies in 1965+ favored highly educated immigrants from Taiwan, so we have a higher frequency of high achievement in the second generation because the first generation arrived with a middle-class head start.
Andy Liu, associate professor of history at Villanova University:
My understanding is that Taiwanese migration to the United States peaked from the 1960s to the 1980s, with many — not all — coming on skilled visas for STEM fields or business. Now, their second-generation children are in the middle of their professional lives. It's interesting just how many are now pursuing so-called "impractical" professions — not just Jeremy Lin and Andrew Yang but a lot of writers too, fiction and nonfiction. So I actually think there's plenty of Taiwanese American representation now, especially by second-generation native English speakers, but they're in specialized corners of media, for those looking to seek them out. It's not very mainstream, for sure, but the John Oliver segment last fall indicates there may be more in the near future.
Albert Wu, associate research fellow at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica:
I’ve been surprised by how good the reporting has been around the Laguna Woods shooting after the initial confusion of the identity surrounding the shooter was cleared up. From the start, the L.A. Times produced good reporting both about the victims and the perpetrator. And then the New York Times — the New York Times! — produced a good piece about how the shooting reflected bensheng-waisheng tensions. I think a lot of this reflects how second-generation Taiwanese Americans have inhabited the media landscape and are bringing their sensibilities to bear on the reporting. I’m reminded, for instance, of the excellent piece that Josie Huang produced for LAist about reactions to the shooting. Of course, I’m the target audience for these types of stories and actively looking for them, so who knows how “mainstream” these stories have become.
Another aspect that is shaping this emergence of good reporting has been the recent exodus of reporters from China to Taiwan because of geopolitical tensions. In many stories on the shooting, for instance, I noticed bylines from reporters who have now spent some time in Taiwan. More reporters at major news outlets are attuned to some of the local complexities in Taiwan and are bringing those to bear on Taiwanese American stories.
Esther Tseng, freelance food, drinks and culture writer:
Coming from a very independence-motivated, politically active and vocal set of parents, I think that I have a rare POV in that I’m surprised when the general American public is interested in learning about Taiwan’s history or when a story is written about us at all. I was surprised at how well the Laguna Woods shooting was covered, including how Taiwanese American identity has evolved.
Generally, however, I have to say that as a direct consequence of the educational preference our parents had been given to immigrate, I have read and been inspired by (and been surprised by) the many second-generation Taiwanese American essays that have risen out of the Laguna Woods tragedy. I do feel we’re well represented, but that’s not to say the “general public” couldn’t always stand to learn more about us.
[The Laguna Woods shooting] was two of my worlds colliding in a jarring and immeasurably painful way.
On the Laguna Woods shooting and how it affected them and their communities:
I initially thought it was an anti-Asian attack and then was very surprised when I found out about the shooter’s background. I have never been in a position where the nuance of someone’s identity was so relevant for me. I’ve always felt like the conversations around Taiwanese and Chinese identity have been isolated within just our communities. This is the first time I’ve heard of a situation like this shooting where complexities of Taiwanese and Chinese identity were thrust onto the mainstream media stage and it further solidified my drive to have more open and honest conversations about identity and the complexities that underpin them.
Jessica Drun, Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub:
For me, it was two of my worlds colliding in a jarring and immeasurably painful way. I have always identified as Taiwanese American, but in professional settings, I’ve oftentimes felt as though I needed to suppress certain elements of that identity to be taken seriously as a foreign policy analyst looking at Taiwan politics and cross-Strait and U.S.-Taiwan relations.
When it was announced that the shooting was politically motivated, I began to receive requests to contextualize the geopolitical backdrop. I needed to work through the shared grief of the Taiwanese American community, but also wanted to make sure our voices and stories were told and heard — and that they were not painted in broad strokes that miss the nuances and complexities of our shared histories. It was a mentally and emotionally trying few days and I remember crying, then pulling myself together as best I could between phone calls.
I have extended relatives in Orange County who used to go to that church, and while I had assumed, like many here, it was a white shooter, I think there was this possibility in the back of my mind it was politically motivated. But I still found myself incredulous when I found out it was! That the conflict between identities came overseas and enmeshed with our gun culture. At the same time, when I learned more about the shooter and the discrimination he experienced at the hands of benshengren, I was first in disbelief, but then remembered my own benshengren parents’ bias against waishengren, which has even affected at least one of my romantic relationships. Yes, they experienced the White Terror, but all waishengren and the generations to follow were not the ones who directly oppressed them. It made me do some self-introspection to examine how much of that bigotry I have internalized. I, too, am very much interested in a more fluid definition of Taiwanese American identity and am encouraged to hear this has become the case more and more.
Chieh-Ting Yeh, co-founder of Ketagalan Media and advisor of Global Taiwan Institute:
I grew up in a Taiwanese church in New York with roots from the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT). My mom’s side of the family has been part of the PCT for at least four generations; Pastor Billy Chang, the pastor who hit the shooter with a chair, was my cousin’s wife’s pastor when she was little. I know many people who retired and moved to Laguna Woods; I’ve even officiated a wedding there. So the shooting (and potential massacre) is very close to me personally.
A lot of my friends assumed it was a pro-unification/pro-China, politically and ethnically motivated crime; before that was clear, I actually cautioned them to not jump to conclusions — but when we did find out, I didn’t feel surprised. At the very extreme end of Chinese nationalism, there is a lot of glorification of violence and war, such as calling for rounding up “separatists” in Taiwan. I think political polarization, driven by toxic identity politics and fanned by social media algorithms, is a problem everywhere. However, the shooting is a first to me because it mashed a conflict from Taiwan with the method of American style mass shootings, two issues that had until now lived in two very separate boxes in my mind.
Catherine Chou, assistant professor of history at Grinnell College:
I grew up in a Taiwanese-speaking church in Southern California. My parents and their closest friends are activists for an internationally recognized Taiwanese nation (“green” Taiwanese, in the color-coded parlance). I’ve also been involved in gun safety advocacy for a few years now. I believe that the Irvine shooting cannot be divorced from the general context of gun violence in the United States and Republican promotion of a “guns everywhere” culture. Saying this out loud, though, exposes the fissures between different Taiwanese and Taiwanese American constituencies. There is a perception — especially strong among green Taiwanese in Taiwan, and green first-generation and 1.5 immigrants to the United States, younger and older — that all Republicans are “friendlier” to Taiwan than all Democrats. This perception has arguably led the community to become more amenable to right-wing stances on a variety of issues unrelated to Taiwan. I worry that the information diet of some of my fellow green Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans can prevent them from accurately understanding the majority opinion in the United States on a host of issues. (Of course, other Asian American communities also include strong Republican elements, so this is a phenomenon that is not exclusive in any way to Taiwanese Americans.)
Michelle Kuo, author of Reading with Patrick and visiting professor at National Taiwan University in law:
For me, the shooting hit close to home; my parents, aunts and uncles were friends with the victim’s family and live near Irvine. I think Jessica’s point here — that people co-existed in Taiwan with “shared histories” — is an important one. Albert and I both come from “mixed” marriage families, where one parent is benshengren, the other from a waisheng family. For both of us, the family is a microcosm of Taiwan, representing its diverse range of experiences and political opinions. On his mother’s side, the waisheng uncles grew up dirt-poor in a rural area and struggled for much of their lives for economic stability and a sense of belonging. Albert passionately supports Taiwanese sovereignty — but his first thought upon learning about the shooter’s identity was, “That could have been an uncle of mine.” For those who know Taiwanese history, this seemingly contradictory response is not a contradiction at all.
I think the confusion has to do, fundamentally, with the fact that Taiwanese [and Taiwanese American] identity is still being shaped. ... How do we come up with a neat little “standard” phrase to describe who the Taiwanese people are, while doing justice to all the nuance and dynamism within the Taiwanese identity?
On Taiwanese American identity, its complexities, and the confusion around the Laguna Woods shooter’s identity:
Major media were not equipped to accurately identify the shooter’s ethnic identity. I knew something was off when some reports said he came from mainland China and some reports said he spoke Taiwanese to congregation members. I am grateful to English-language Taiwanese media like New Bloom Magazine for publishing the nuance of David Chou’s background with multilingual cited sources within a couple of days. This is why it’s so important to have “own voices” represented in media covering any community.
We also need to expand our understanding of Taiwanese identity. Many people still refer to Chou as Taiwanese simply because he was born and lived in Taiwan, but that defies his own self-identification as Chinese. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my own identity journey, it’s that much of identity is self-determined, so we need to listen to and affirm people’s self-expressed identity.
With neither the police nor the media (who took the police at their word) having the knowledge of the history of Taiwan, reading the shooter’s passport and identifying him as coming from China is somewhat of a natural mistake to make. But upon learning his age, only those who know Taiwan’s history knew it didn’t seem likely he had emigrated from the mainland to Taiwan. As it was all unfolding, learning that it was a political motivation led to feelings such as, “Of course it was that.”
The thing I’m not so sure about is calling him Taiwanese just because he was born and raised in Taiwan, despite the fact that he himself identified as Chinese. Obviously, his mindset was stuck in an older time, but I tend to be more in the camp of letting people self-identify however they want — whichever way it goes.
I think the confusion has to do, fundamentally, with the fact that Taiwanese identity (and in conjunction, Taiwanese American identity) is still being shaped. The narrative through which we explain what Taiwanese/TA identity means to the rest of the world is still also being shaped. For the media in the United States, there had to be a very quick backgrounder sentence on where this hatred for “Taiwanese” people came from, especially for someone who is also from Taiwan. How do we come up with a neat little “standard” phrase to describe who the Taiwanese people are, while doing justice to all the nuance and dynamism within the Taiwanese identity?
In Taiwan, “Taiwanese” had been used in the last century primarily to refer only to pre-1949 “bensheng” people, as the opposite of “Chinese” that the post-1949 “waisheng” regime claimed as the mainstream. In the most extreme sense, “Taiwanese” excluded Austronesian indigenous peoples and the Hakka people. This ethnolinguistic aspect of that identity conveniently overlapped with the political aspect of fighting against the KMT authoritarian regime.
Newer generations of Taiwanese people, as well as those of us who grew up in America and embraced the ideals of inclusivity and civic identity, have gradually redefined “Taiwanese” to include anyone who shares in a slice of common experiences with other people from Taiwan. As a Taiwanese/Taiwanese American, this is the version of Taiwanese identity I am advocating for.
The Laguna Woods murderer, however, violently dragged the progress of Taiwanese identity back to the old conflict of the last century and forced all of us to revisit HIS version of Chinese and Taiwanese identities.
James Lin, assistant professor of international studies at University of Washington:
“Taiwanese American” as a category can be identified with and interpreted in different ways, both from personal choice and as social ascription. For some, Taiwan is a place of origin (i.e., I was born there or my parents were born there). For others it’s an ethnic identification (i.e., equating benshengren with Taiwanese). In some cases Taiwanese American becomes a self chosen identity (i.e., I may come from a waishengren background and may have been born in the United States, but I choose to identify as a Taiwanese American). It’s also not necessarily an exclusionary identity, as some Taiwanese Americans may also identify as both Taiwanese American and Chinese American. And these categorizations and meanings often change drastically with different generations and in diasporic spaces, depending on when they immigrated to the United States, where they settled and what experiences they encountered both in Taiwan and in their immigrant families and communities.
David Chou shows how these complexities can lead to misunderstandings about “Taiwanese American.” Chou was described as Taiwanese American because he was born in Taiwan, but he did not self-identify as Taiwanese American because of the ethnic and political meanings attached to that. And it brings an interesting angle to this question because even though Taiwanese Americans are prominent in American society, there are layers and dimensions to what it means to be Taiwanese American that broader American society might not fully realize. Huang’s recent article for LAist shows that Taiwanese Americans themselves are often conflicted about these identities and meanings.
These complexities behind Taiwanese American are historical (i.e., the waishengren oppression of benshengren under KMT rule in Taiwan), generational and also just a part of negotiating complicated social identities in an immigrant society.
I think it’s important to point out that while migration from Taiwan to the United States began in the 1950s, “Taiwanese American” did not emerge as a category until later. The first migrants out of Taiwan to America were mostly “double migrants” from wartime China who landed in Taiwan only briefly and had the capital and connections to almost immediately leave again. These people would not have described themselves as Taiwanese American. Only in the late 1960s did young benshengren (from families that settled in Taiwan well before 1945) begin to move to the United States in appreciable numbers. The first self-described “Taiwanese” in the United States — those who advocated for democracy in Taiwan, for the overthrow of the ROC, who spoke Taiwanese as a first language and established “Taiwanese,” not “Chinese,” community organizations overseas — came from this group. While “Taiwanese” is a diverse identity today, it began as a political and ethnic one, when it was verboten to claim at home and not even entirely safe to express abroad.
That said, I hope we quickly get to a point where “Taiwanese” is a default descriptor for everyone who comes from Taiwan, because that will mean Taiwan is treated as a country like any other one, and that there is no need to “reserve” this identity for those who have special devotion to it. Right now, people who oppose recognition of a Taiwanese state want to have it both ways; deny that a separate or unique Taiwanese identity exists, except when someone like David Chou makes clear that a hatred of Taiwanese sovereignty can lead to murderous places. Then suddenly this is just an “intra-Taiwanese” problem, rather than a predictable outcome of ideologies that are also funded, supported and articulated by the Chinese state and plenty of Chinese-identifying people and diaspora.
I favor a broad “Taiwanese American” identity because it allows individuals the choice to identify with Taiwanese Americanness based on personal affinity and experience and doesn’t seek to exclude based upon externally or politically imposed categorizations of “ethnicity” or “nationality,” while also reifying Taiwan as an actual place with its own national identity.
The former is important because like in the case of African Americans or Latinx Americans with multiple generations in the United States, shared experience can more powerfully bind a group together than national origin. But the latter is important too since Taiwan should also receive equal status as other national origins. “Canadian American,” for example, does not include connotations about one’s political stances or ethnic self identification, and I think Taiwanese American should be a neutral term in that same sense.
How can Taiwanese progressives and their allies articulate a compelling vision of a multiethnic, vibrant Taiwanese society if the bulk of the mainstream stories are about Chinese-Taiwanese tension?
On Western media focus on Taiwan’s “escalating tensions” with China, and the lived reality of these tensions for their communities back in Taiwan:
In 2021, the news quoting Xi Jinping’s violent threats was alarming to me and I felt that an offensive attack from China was imminent. Maybe these headlines have been going on for years but it was new to me then. What I hear from people living in Taiwan, though, is that they cannot hold back their lives because of the threat — they continue with their quotidien concerns, just with a backdrop of awareness that their lives could be upended any day. I liken it to living in California with the known risk of a major earthquake that has been predicted for decades. We have to be prepared with a plan of how we’ll react, but we cannot let the fear of the threat stop us from living.
I haven't been back to Taiwan in a few years, but I often check in with my family there. I think they've long been inured to the daily speculation in the news, and I wonder if they don't take any threats particularly seriously because of their childhood spent under the shadow of the Cold War.
From other friends I've heard things similar to what Angela is saying. Last October, China escalated its air presence after its National Day (10.1) activities, which led to new rounds of speculation. Soon after, I recorded a podcast with Brian Hioe and Wen Liu from New Bloom Magazine. Living in Taiwan, they too expressed skepticism about the imminence of the threat. Certainly it was real and people were aware of it, but they felt like it wasn't dominating most people's lives after surviving decades of it at this point. Obviously, there is a risk of being wrong about this, but I gather that my friends and family in Taiwan have just decided they have no control over the situation so they should not stress themselves too much.
For what it's worth, I also happened to hang out with some U.S.-based academics from China at a conference around that time, and I asked what they thought. Their position was that an invasion was unthinkable and that the activities were mostly theater for Xi Jinping's domestic agenda, to foment nationalism, that kind of thing. Hearing that was slightly mollifying from a Taiwan perspective. I think it is useful to adopt a more functional approach sometimes, that is, to ask what interests the threat-mongering can serve, across the United States, China and Taiwan. I know the U.S.-Taiwan-China military standoff is a real thing that cannot be naively dismissed, but I wonder sometimes how much intelligence reports simply recycle old information to manufacture uncritical support for militarization.
This recent issue of the Economist referring to Taiwan as the “most dangerous place on Earth” is one of many hyperbolic examples of media scrutiny the past few years stemming from increased geopolitical tensions. Historically, we have to keep in mind that Taiwan has been under threat of military invasion from across the Strait for over 70 years now. The likelihood of military conflict breaking out was likely greater during the 1950s Taiwan Strait Crises or during the 1995-96 Crisis, when the United States deployed the Seventh Fleet to Taiwan. Taiwan being under threat is nothing new. Many Taiwanese don’t remember a time when they weren’t under some sort of threat.
That’s not to downplay the real threats that the PRC poses to Taiwan’s sovereignty and how that has intensified in recent years under Xi Jinping’s irredentist nationalism discourse, but I think it’s important to keep perspective on the matter. I fully agree with Angela and Andy that Taiwanese are well aware of the threat from China, but also live their lives just as normally as they did before the Economist and other media publications turned their attention to Taiwan as a global hotspot. Ideally I would hope for continued reporting on the troubling foreign policy from Beijing directed toward intimidating Taiwan, while also centering perspectives from Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans who can describe how this is affecting their lives and what they hope to see out of greater awareness.
I am glad for the media coverage about the CCP’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan because it’s important for the American public (and consequently, the politicians who represent us) to recognize the PRC’s imperialist and unwelcome encroachment on all borders. I don’t think it’s sensationalist to tell the stories of individuals who are concerned for their human rights like the “Is Taiwan Next?” story in the New York Times Magazine. As much as I dislike the anti-Chinese sentiment that the Republican party has stoked, I don’t want either party of our government to tolerate human rights violations perpetrated by the CCP. With the exception of Fox News, I’d much prefer the major media stories that have been published/aired than whatever videos tipped many in my parents’ generation to support Trump purely because they portrayed him as the only president that would take a hardline stance against China.
On ways in which Western media could cover Taiwan more responsibly:
I’m “Academy Chair” for my region (USA West) for World’s 50 Best Bars, which basically just means that I pick voters to vote on the World’s and North America’s 50-100 best bars. When award recipients for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, a sister brand, were announced, restaurants in Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, etc., were included and listed as “City, Taiwan.” Soon afterwards, some Chinese restaurateurs? voters? complained and immediately W50BR changed their cities to read “Taipei/Taichung/etc., Greater China.” When I learned about it, I wrote a stern email to my contact at W50BB and said that in no uncertain terms could I continue in my position if they were going to list Taiwanese cities in this way. The compromise they came up with was to basically eliminate any mention of countries.
The thing is, there can always be more coverage that stops the lies that China has been spreading. Terms like “renegade province” when they’ve never been under the same government and “reunification” when the “re-” is flat out wrong are still used. But my frustration just stems from the sheer power that China and their actors have and exert to protect a super fragile ego. They will always have undue influence in coverage, it seems.
I’m a broken record on this, but I think we need to actively dispel common misconceptions and misinformation on Taiwan and on U.S. policy towards Taiwan. The United States has never agreed to the PRC’s “One China” principle and has its own “One China” policy which does not hold a position on Taiwan’s status. The current PRC government has never had jurisdictional control over Taiwan.
I think it'd be useful to de-exoticize Taiwan by pointing out how the country has been integral to the United States' military and economic presence in East Asia since the 1950s, which I’m sure many of us feel ambivalent about. If you spend any time there, you'll see many American companies and meet people who lived or studied in the United States. Most people now have heard of TSMC and the global chip shortages. They probably don't know how many of these tech companies were also partly an outgrowth of Taiwanese migration to the United States, with subsequent technology and talent transfer back to Taiwan — not just "brain drain" but "brain circulation." Before that, Taiwanese companies supplied countless American companies as back-end manufacturers for Dell, Apple, etc., and they were in the thick of China's liberalization in the 1990s and 2000s. It really is a very rich country by now, certainly by global standards and compared to what it used to be.
If you pitch an editor in Western media about Taiwan, chances are high that they want the story to center China. While the mainstream media has increased its coverage of Taiwan, it’s mostly in regard to Taiwan being under threat from China. Descriptions of Taiwanese identity tend to focus on its emergence as an “anti-Chinese” identity rather than democratic processes through which that self-conception emerges. There are other fascinating nodes through which Taiwanese identity — and more broadly a democratic, anti-authoritarian spirit — is birthed. Among these are advocacy for migrant workers, environmental justice, indigenous rights, death penalty abolition, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, feminism, arts and music. Yes, the PRC’s aggression plays a big role in consolidating anticolonial identity. But a more textured approach would look at how Taiwanese identity emerges through the exercise of political and aesthetic freedom in domestic civil society.
What is at stake when the Western mainstream media focuses only on China-Taiwan tension? Well — everything we’re talking about in this roundtable! How can Taiwanese progressives and their allies articulate a compelling vision of a multiethnic, vibrant Taiwanese society if the bulk of the mainstream stories are about Chinese-Taiwanese tension? I would love to see more bottom-up stories that show how Taiwanese people imagine solidarity and culture.
As someone who identifies as both Chinese and Taiwanese American, I hope to see Americans of both identities look beyond the positions their parents held and figure out independently what China and Taiwan mean to them.
On Taiwanese American community and coalition building:
I think everyone here agrees on the idea of a broad, fluid and multiethnic Taiwanese identity. It would be great to fill in more of the meat around this concept, through projects like this one and in all of the respective areas we work in. How do we define this identity? How did it come about? How is it tied to Taiwan’s past? What does it mean for Taiwan’s future? How do we define “Taiwanese food” or “Taiwanese literature” under this concept? How do we put Austronesian indigenous peoples in the place that they deserve within this definition? How do we talk about the “Chinese” elements within Taiwanese identity?
The more density there is to the concept of “a broad, fluid and multiethnic Taiwanese identity,” the more readily I think coalitions will form.
I think there is a challenge inherent in the fact that while we want to define the identity to be broad and inclusive, the fact of defining an identity is just as much about defining who to exclude. The borders of our definitions will be debated and contested, but that in itself, to me, is an essential part of our identity; that it is much more open to interpretation than a lot of other ethnic or national identities.
Agree with Chieh-Ting. I want us to have more open conversations with each other about all the ways we can define Taiwanese identity and as part of those conversations, talk about the tensions that exist in the various ways people may hold those definitions. We don’t have to always agree but rather talk to understand each other.
As someone who identifies as both Chinese and Taiwanese American, I hope to see Americans of both identities look beyond the positions their parents held and figure out independently what China and Taiwan mean to them. There’s an opportunity for today’s generations to organize and show up for Taiwan in a big way, but it can’t go as far if half the diaspora is confused or ambivalent.
I have worked as a lawyer at nonprofits that serve undocumented immigrants and incarcerated people; very few clients are Taiwanese. This isn’t to say there aren’t Taiwanese people in the United States at risk of deportation, detention or imprisonment — there are — but for various reasons related to our migration history, they’re more rare. I say this to underscore the forms of solidarity that I think Taiwanese Americans ought to take on in the United States. If we care about the history of state violence in Taiwan, this ought to give us a unique vantage point to empathize with those who encounter state violence in America. “Solidarity is not a market exchange,” Robin D. G. Kelley likes to say, and by that he means that we extend solidarity without expecting it back. We extend it because we believe in mutual liberation. It’s through these cross-racial, cross-ethnic and cross-national acts that we enact our ideas of freedom.
On what they wish other people knew more about Taiwan:
The most obvious thing non-Taiwanese people should learn about Taiwan is its layered history. I only came to understand it in my 20s, when I visited after college. My family are post-49ers, and it was a revelation to me that Taiwan was not "China" and that Taiwan had its own specific language and cultural practices, and that my family grew up on the privileged side of the White Terror. As I've studied more history, I've been struck by how Taiwan has always been entangled in global networks, not just with China but also Europe, Southeast Asia, Japan and the United States.
The Taiwanese government recognizes 16 indigenous peoples as official groups. Linguists have recorded 26 indigenous languages. Eleven have become extinct; all are endangered. There is a long history of peoples and communities on the island that deserves broader attention.
Taiwan is a place with lots of things going on domestically that are both unique to Taiwan but also reflective of shared burdens and anxieties shared by societies across the world: LGBTQ equality and rights, a diverse history (and marginalization) of Indigenous peoples, migrant worker exploitation, changing ideas of race, wage inequality, democratic values and protests, etc. I’m continually surprised by how much of what Taiwan experiences is mirrored in the United States, and also how differences between the two can mean there is much to learn from each other in terms of achieving social justice and equality.
I wish there was greater understanding and appreciation of the values that, at the risk of oversimplifying, the larger part of Taiwanese society espouses and holds dear. While it’s important and right to tell Taiwan’s story for its own merits, I think there’s a lot of alignment here with the Biden administration’s emphasis on shared values and principles — and for existing and future avenues for cooperation.
The narrative that “Republicans care more about Taiwan” or “Republican administrations are better for Taiwan” is pervasive, overdone and frankly damaging, as it risks politicizing an issue that has had enduring bipartisan support for over half a century. It also misses the fact that, outside of lame duck periods, Republican administrations have almost always neatly overlapped with DPP ones and Democratic with KMT ones (Clinton, Lee (1992-2000); Bush, Chen (2000-2008); Obama, Ma (2008-2016); Trump, Tsai (2016-2020) until 2020, and that, at least with the most recent KMT administration, U.S. support might not have been as actively sought out or encouraged.
Taiwan doesn’t appear on lists of “most progressive countries” but it belongs there and should be recognized as such. As one of the world’s youngest democracies, Taiwan has an opportunity to demonstrate what an ideal democracy can accomplish without being bogged down by the overwrought flaws of American government. I wouldn’t endorse the theatrics of Taiwan’s parliamentary brawls, but in the end, Taiwan’s policies more closely reflect the will of the majority of the population than America’s policies with respect to America’s constituents. I think if more American Democrats saw how closely Taiwan’s values align with their own, they would be more interested in helping protect Taiwan’s democracy. Globally, with this recognition, more people would understand why Taiwan is distinct from China.
As a food media person, southern Taiwanese food.
I wish more Americans knew that boba drinks have their origins in Taiwan. Everyone I know already knows what boba is, but none of them know it originated in Taiwan.
Also, Taiwan is not Thailand.