whenever people ask me what my ethnicity is, my default response is, “my parents are from taiwan.” this has always been the easiest answer, as it is factually true and it skirts the actual question. i’ve wrestled with how to identify my ethnicity for a long time — almost 10 years, according to this blog. it feels a little ridiculous that this, the most basic of questions, has tripped me up for so long, but… them’s the facts.
my parents have always identified as chinese, though they were born and raised in taiwan. there are a number of reasons for this, i think. for one, you can trace the roots of almost everyone in taiwan back to china — some recently, like my mother’s parents, who fled the mainland when the communists took over in 1949; some more distantly, like my father’s hakka people, who arrived from china centuries ago — so in that regard, it makes sense that my parents call themselves chinese. a second reason is that taiwan has insisted since 1949 that it’s the real china (a history lesson for another time), so i imagine that my parents grew up being told that they were chinese. finally, for their first few decades in the states, pretty much every chinese person they knew was from taiwan, so saying that you were chinese was tantamount to saying that you were from taiwan, at least where we lived. so my parents had no problems identifying as chinese, and since they did, i naturally did the same.
but things started to shift in the ’90s, when there was an influx of immigration from mainland china and taiwanese immigrants were no longer the only chinese people around. suddenly, identifying as chinese made people associate you with the mainland — something i didn’t like as much for its lack of accuracy as its connotations (i.e., communism, tiannanmen square, and everything else the news told us about china). i wanted a way to differentiate myself from that, but identifying as taiwanese in the late ’90s and early 2000s was loaded with its own implications: it implied that you could speak taiwanese, which i could not, and that you were pro-taiwanese independence, which i was in theory but not in practice. so for years, it felt like i was presented with two inaccurate choices: to say i was chinese and have people think my parents were from the mainland (and, i feared, to think that we were communist sympathizers or unfamiliar with democracy or freedom), or to say i was taiwanese and have people assume i had a certain political stance and certain linguistic abilities. neither label fit.
i still don’t feel like either one really does, but in recent years, i’ve reluctantly started to identify as taiwanese. in part, it was because i was more comfortable with that set of incorrect assumptions than the other; in part, it was because the taiwanese-independence fervor of the early 2000s died down and identifying as taiwanese felt like less of a political statement; but mostly, it’s because that’s the story that i identify with the most. my parents immigrated to the states in 1972, on the heels of the immigration and naturalization act of 1965, which abolished the national origins quota system that had been in place for decades in favor of a system based on skills and family relationships. now it was possible for people to come to the US for education and to actually stay because of the skills they acquired here. that started an influx of immigration from taiwan, india, and other asian countries; people used their academic chops to get into school out here, which then gave them the opportunity to stay. my parents were among thousands of people from taiwan who came to the US in search of opportunity and financial stability — a better life, as the saying goes. they both ended up in detroit for grad school, where they met in a community of other students from taiwan, and they stayed in the area when they got academic jobs there, making their home in a community of other immigrants from taiwan who shared the same story. the people in their community of 20+ years came to the states under the same circumstances, they speak chinese in the same way, they have the same values, and they have the same memories and experiences of taiwan.
mainland chinese people were not part of the initial influx of asian immigrants because of stringent emigration laws; it wasn’t until the ’80s that china eased those laws, which led to a wave of mainlanders immigrating to the US — a wave that continues today and has long since overtaken the taiwanese one. many of these mainlanders were able to enter the states for the same reason my parents were, but otherwise, their story is not quite the same. they speak chinese differently, their values are different, and their memories and experiences of their homeland are very different than the ones my parents have of theirs. their story is valid and beautiful, but it is not my parents’ story. my family’s story is thoroughly taiwanese american.
so even though i still don’t fully fit the label of taiwanese american and all that it entails, i feel more comfortable identifying as such because my family’s story fits that narrative. it doesn’t come easily; i still say it with a mental asterisk, bracing myself for questions and explanations and qualifiers, and it’s easier for me to identify pretty much anything else about myself (that i’m from michigan, that i went to michigan, that i drive a honda civic…). but it fits better than all of the other options. and i’m starting to get used to that.
i’m super-curious if anyone else with parents from taiwan had the same kind of angst about this issue as i did — or of anyone of any background has wrestled with how to identify. i would love to hear it.