What makes you Taiwanese? Is there an answer that’s more right than others? What terms make up that definition?
I’m tempted to begin this article by listing what I feel qualifies me to claim Taiwanese identity, as if somewhere out there, there’s a scale and the more Taiwanese I can be, the more my writing here matters. Nonsense.
When we create definitions of identity based on looks, language, or legalese, we use a whole host of criteria to tell people if they are enough or not. We default to such theories, myself included, because they’re simple, but the practices of lived identity bloom beyond the barriers we place around them.
Though I’ve received nothing but kindness from people as my online presence as a Third Culture Kid from Taiwan slowly grows, the staying power of narrow definitions gives me pause. Laying claim to my own Taiwanese identity dredges up memories of previous attempts being met with casual dismissal, from Americans and Taiwanese alike.
For example, this past January, the night before I left home for America again, I was at a Wellcome in downtown Tainan doing last minute shopping. Nescafe 3-in-1, blueberry ice cream Oreos, pineapple cakes. Suddenly, eager parents pushed a tiny child in my direction, ordering her to say “Hello!” to me. She was shy and a little confused.
I squatted down to her level and addressed her in Mandarin. “You could just say nihao to me, you know.” I looked pointedly back up at her parents. “How do you know that I speak English? What if I’m from France or Spain or Russia? Luckily, I’m Taiwanese just like you, I was born here too!” Her parents looked startled, the little girl simply giggled. “There are many kinds of Taiwanese people, you know! I’m one of the newer kinds, and I’m glad to meet you today.” I stood back up, smiled brightly at her parents, and walked away to try and shop in peace.
From the next aisle over, I heard her parents intervene after a brief pause. “She’s not Taiwanese. She’s just a foreigner who was born in Taiwan.” Rather than feel heartbroken, it just stung a little. Their exclusionary definition of “Taiwanese” is nothing new to me. I still know who I am. I wish they could see it too.
I share this story with you not looking for pity or affirmation, but to suggest that we, myself included, examine our definitions of “Taiwanese” and consider whether we should expand them to better fit the reality of who Taiwanese are in 2014.
Taiwanese people come in different colors and speak many languages. We arrived thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, seventy years ago, thirty years ago, just a few days ago. Taiwan has, for millennia, received people from all over the world, touched their hearts, and in turn sent people back out into the world. People like you and me. Even if our feet have never touched its ground, we care about its past, present, and future, we call it a home.
We still hope for recognition, personal and international, of what we know already to be true in our hearts. We are Taiwanese. We know, for ourselves, who we are. We know.
Allow me to suggest an inclusive definition. To be Taiwanese is to self-determine. We Taiwanese are what we say we are. We are, every one of us, by our self-determination, shoring up Taiwan’s identity against those who would deny it.
I no longer live in Taiwan, joining the ranks of Taiwanese around the world who, instead, visit – annually, semi-annually, irregularly, or maybe even never. Miles (or kilometers) can never quantify the heart. Those of us who live away from Taiwan, yet leave pieces of our hearts there, tell its story around the world.
There are many kinds of Taiwanese people. I’m one of the newer kinds. I’m glad to meet you today.
Katherine Alexander is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. She blogs at Far From Formosa, and misses Taiwan daily.