i think i’m taiwanese american.

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.

7 thoughts on “i think i’m taiwanese american.

  1. This is something I’ve struggled with as well. Born in Malaysia, but not Malay (ethnically Chinese), brought up in New Zealand. It gets a little tricky. And while I was travelling through parts of southeast Asia locals often got really confused (you’re from NZ? but you look Chinese! and you were born in Malaysia! *brainsplosion*). To make things worse, growing up I really hated the fact that I was an immigrant and was different and did everything I could to reject my heritage, but ultimately I still looked different and had weird parents. (I’ve since come back to embrace the parts of my culture I do have and appreciate)

  2. i just found your blog. really like it!
    anyway, i’m also taiwanese american, however, i may be of slightly later generation only because i was actually born in taiwan. my parent immigrated in the 90’s along with the chinese mainlanders so i was very vocal about my “taiwanese-ness”. and yes it definitely had to do with the difference in china’s values but also my own parents’ prejudices. it was also a way to educate my classmates and tell them no, i am not from the china they think of, aka communism, and here is a little bit about taiwan. where i am located now (new york) where there is a ton of chinese people, but not taiwanese, i still feel continual pressure to assert how i am different from them. in the end, i think i just end up telling the whole story of where i was born and where i grew up and thus “who i am”. just to those willing to listen:) because identity really isn’t that simple.

  3. I found your blog by chance and I love it! This piece resonates with me because I identify myself as a Chinese-American although I am also Taiwanese-American. My father’s side of the family immigrated from the Fujian province in the late 1700s to Taiwan, so they’ve been in Taiwan for centuries. On the other hand, my mom originates from Tianjin and her ancestors lived near the Yellow River. I remember being so confused about what I was because the majority of people I encountered didn’t understand the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese people. When I started saying I was half of each ethnicity, they’d give me a puzzled frown and say, “Aren’t they the same thing?” And of course, I don’t feel like explaining my mixed heritage to strangers. The truth is, I’m still confused about identity and my ethnicity. My dad’s side is mixed with other ethnicities so I can’t precisely say I’m 100% Han or anything. Yep, that’s my story. Thanks for sharing yours! 🙂

  4. Some background:
    My mother grew up in southern china. My father was born and raised in central taiwan. 35 years ago they met in a newspaper ad, had their first date in disneyland, and was married in reno shortly after. I was born and raised in northern california and went to college in southern cali. I always thought of myself as Cantonese-Taiwanese-Californian.

    The thought: This all seems logical in the past, but now asia has changed so much that it no longer makes sense to be labeled as such. The “taiwanese” in taiwan are not the same as the taiwanese 10 years ago. Neither is hong kong or the rest of china. With $8/mo cable tv, the toisan village barely follows any kind of toisan traditions and follow the lifestyle of the hongkonese tv dramas. When i travel to asian populated locations outside of asia, I realize they(and we) live as a people of a culture that has been preserved in a time capsule, and their countries of origin has moved on without them (into the modern world currently).

    The twist:
    Now that I’ve been in boston, MA, for four years, I feel at home and somewhat bostonian.

    The conclusion:
    So do I now call myself Cali-Canto-Taiwanese-Bostonian? Probably. But that’s just something to tell people who want to label me. For me personally, is not one or a list of terminology that could “label” me, and there is nothing that I can identify with; I don’t know who I am- and from realizing/accepting this to be so, I feel a deeper sense of knowing who I am.

  5. Hi Elizabeth,
    I really like your blog and I can definitely relate to so many things you’re writing about. They’re fun to read!

    I totally agree with the reasoning to separate myself from Chinese-Americans as well. Then the next question people would ask is, “you know how to speak Taiwanese?” and well, my answer would be no. I know how to speak Hakka, but there’s no point in mentioning it to non-Asians unless I wanted to explain the whole story about “my people”. I’ve only met a couple of people that had the slightest clue about what Hakka is. And I’ve yet to meet someone born outside of Taiwan that can speak the language. But I always mention it to the Taiwanese people I meet, in the hopes that they too are Hakka people and can speak the language as broken as I do.

    I feel like I’m a nesting doll. The first shell is Asian, second is Asian-American, then Chinese-American, then even further is Taiwanese-American and finally at the center is a little Hakka-American. Oddly enough, I came to terms with my ethnicity through geometry. A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square. I think my ethnicity as a square. Being Taiwanese means I’m also ethnically Chinese, but that doesn’t mean Chinese people are Taiwanese.

    So the solution I came up with was to say I’m fully Taiwanese-American. When people ask me if I’m Chinese, I tell them “yes”, then mention that I’m also Taiwanese. And there’s your little conversation starter.

  6. Liz, thank you for sharing your thoughts on your cultural identity. I was born in the Fujian province and immigrated to NYC at eight, so I would consider myself 1.5 generation Asian-American, having lived half of my life in China and the other in the US. It is interesting to realize that back in high school, where 70% of students are of Asian backgrounds, I did not feel the need to think about my identity because like you said, being Asian was normal in school, in the city, in the neighborhood that I lived in. However, after I had started college in Houston, my identity as Chinese-American became less transparent. This is probably because, one, there aren’t many Asians in Houston, and two, the myriad of Chinese international students from Mainland. On campus, everyone is hypersensitive of everyone else because students come from across the nation and across the world. On many occasions, domestic and international students have asked of my background. Obviously, because physically I look no different from a Chinese international student, sometimes some students had thought I was an international student and acted accordingly with specific associations that come with being an international from China. Non-Asian, domestic students do not approach me as much due to the assumed misconnect in culture and value while Chinese international students would approach me and start talking about things that I have struggled to make a connection with. I have nothing against these international students but the fact that people here judge an individual based on his or her physical traits and associate them with stereotypes frustrates me because without these associations, I could probably make more friends of different backgrounds and ethnicity. As an individual, I embrace both Chinese and American values, like working hard while also being ultra-competitive and highly individualistic. However, I think ultimately I identify myself as more American because of the associations carried with being Chinese (communism, passivity), which I have no experience or knowledge of, enforced by my experience here as an American by the language I use to construct my social circle and the American values that I live by everyday.

  7. Your experience almost exactly mirrors mine. I’m a person who has an affinity for certain abstract ideals. So for me, the values that I perceive a culture to embody are important.

    My parents are strongly pro-KMT and still are. I’ve never shared their conservative values but somehow I did feel that Taiwan and China did have a lot to do with each other. Many of my friends were children of mainland Chinese and we didn’t have problems getting along, so I had no reason to think about the difference (though we were all (relatively) “Americanized”). I wasn’t comfortable calling myself Taiwanese-American since, like you say, I associated it to a group which I didn’t belong to (namely, 本土人). It wasn’t until a year or two out of college that I switched, and I think for me it’s been mostly driven by political forces, and the idea that to identify as Taiwanese-American was not a rejection of my friends nor the Chinese people as a whole.

    I’ve felt that recently, Chinese leadership has been increasingly hostile toward Western (liberal) values in their rhetoric and actions, or maybe it’s that I’ve only just started to become aware of it. I’ve also become more pessimistic about the prospects of a liberal China. For those who were born and/or raised in the States and feel affinity toward certain Western values, I think it’s a bit of a dilemma with respect to identity, since the two parts of “Chinese-American” seem to be in conflict. For those with the option, identifying as Taiwanese-American was a way to accept these Western values yet reflect one’s cultural roots in some way.

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