Growing up in the Taiwanese American community, I learned as a child the importance of understanding how history and politics shape and define our community. We become well versed in geopolitics across the span of several centuries, including comparative cases of identity formation and nationhood. We learn the story of how groups of diverse peoples living on an island, called Ilha Formosa by Portuguese sailors on a Spanish ship, became caught between the warring visions of ambitious and powerful neighbors and far-flung interests. We learn not to be constrained by those events and processes; rather, once we become informed of what came before, we as a community engage in the act of construction—as cultural and political artists—in the determination of our unique Taiwanese American identity. In that sense, just as our identity is influenced by history, our identity is also a construction, which once made, becomes history.
Now, as a mother, I also want my son to understand history and politics so that he can find empowerment in it, rather than be defined by it. I find that, for myself, understanding family history was the critical entrée into the complexity, which has defined the Taiwanese American community. My grandfather was in his teens when the Japanese colonial administration exited Taiwan at the end of World War II, making way for the Nationalist Chinese engaged in a losing civil war on the Chinese mainland. The son of sharecroppers, my a-kong longed for a peaceful future after Japanese colonialism. The ruthlessness of the new political regime dashed his optimism. He, along with several of his closest friends, participated in rallies across Taiwan in February and March 1947, when tens and thousands of frustrated men and women were killed or disappeared under suspicious circumstances. In the 1950s and 1960s, my dynamic and charismatic grandfather organized fellow farmers and spent time behind bars for speaking out on behalf of them as a bureaucrat in the farmers association, an institution which was left behind by the Japanese that the Kuomintang government quickly co-opted. In history books, the Kuomintang presided over what became known as the “Taiwan miracle,” as one of the East Asian Tigers touted for unprecedented economic transformation. My grandfather’s post-war experiences instilled in him a sense of Taiwanese-ness, which was not Japanese or Chinese. This new identification with Taiwan, his homeland, both surprised him and empowered him.
Learning about how the different threads of my grandfather’s life intertwined with the geopolitics of post-war Taiwan inspired me to study history and economics and to become a political scientist. Spending childhood summers running around barefoot in my grandfather’s chicken farm and fruit orchard instilled in me a deep appreciation for the island paradise. Growing up in the Taiwanese Presbyterian church (PCT) propelled me to investigate how the church, whose Scottish missionaries first went to Taiwan in the second half of the 19th century, transformed into an indigenous church. The PCT became an instrumental part of vibrant social movements, which pushed to end 40 years of Martial Law in 1987 and galvanized for democratic change leading to Taiwan’s first free presidential election in 1996.
For many people, food is an induction into one’s cultural and ethnic heritage. This is true for me too. I feast on the diversity of foods, which dominates the Taiwanese consciousness, from indigenous tribal fare and Hakka cuisine to Japanese food and gastronomy from different Chinese regions brought over to Taiwan by the Mainlanders. Aware that music is the gateway and bridge to my son’s heart, I expose him to Taiwanese children’s music and the Mariachi tunes, which originate from the Jalisco region of Mexico, the home state of his paternal grandfather. In addition to indulging in the flavorful cuisine of Puebla, where my husband was born, he travels to Taiwan and Mexico and spends quality time wrapping “bah-zhang” (a.k.a. Taiwanese tamales) with my mother and planting popular Taiwanese greens with my father. As a professor, I know there are many different ways to capture the imagination of my students. I encourage Taiwanese Americans to engage in the work of construction, to contribute to the making of history, by creating individual variations of the Taiwanese American identity.
Roselyn Hsueh is an assistant professor of Political Science at Temple University.