What Taiwanese Americans Can Learn From Taiwanese Politics

PHOTO CREDIT: MAX OH

One of the opportunities of sitting at the masthead of TaiwaneseAmerican.org is continually engaging with the borders and expectations of this community. What does it mean to be Taiwanese, American, and Taiwanese American? What is our role as citizens of the diaspora? And, heavily on my mind in the aftermath of the November 24th election:

Do we need an acute awareness of — or even interest in — Taiwanese politics to identify as Taiwanese American?

My impulse is to say yes, we do — because what are pride and identity without their due contexts, histories, and traumas? What is Taiwanese identity, if it cannot claim its own protests and absences?

But I also want to recognize the ways that diasporic children inherit the ideologies of their parents, how family histories are often proxy for entire cultures. It is no coincidence that so many poets and artists conflate mother and motherland. For many of us, Taiwan is an enigmatic product of our parents’ imaginations and itineraries. And our parents, the products of a generation defined by emigration, martial law, and political censorship. However you came to identify as Taiwanese American — or even the ways you question it — can be personal and complex; I do not want to serve as gatekeeper to such a fragile sense of self and allegiance.

But here’s what I do want to share with you:

Taiwan held its first direct presidential election the year I was born, in 1996. I’d venture that its democracy is a little like most twenty-somethings: deeply unsure of itself, restless, overwhelmed by its own potential and frustrations. Functional (if like me— barely so). The burden of those who love this twenty-two year old, then, is to forgive its trespasses, its temper tantrums, the many failures and falls that will predate any sort of real victory. A lot of people were disappointed by the outcomes of this election — in particular, the losses for progressive values like marriage equality and sex education. But this referendum was a singular event in the bigger project of a democratic process that can still produce and be better. My father remarked the other day that he hadn’t anticipated how, with freedom and free will, I’d make so many choices he didn’t agree with. Such, I reminded him, was parenthood. Such is a democracy. However it disappoints you, you will keep it alive the same way you brought it into being: with whatever it takes. With indignation, with love, with your fists clenched and arms raised.

Taiwanese Americans, our cousins overseas are more alike us than we think. Whatever languages or politics we share or don’t, know that they, too, are confronting generational differences at the ballot, chipping away at an older, conservative, and fearful hegemony. Just take a look at how comparisons between United States president Donald Trump and Kaohsiung mayor-elect Han Guo-yu challenge us to recognize resentment and fear in its powerful, loud forms. How the racialized identity politics dominating American discourse dissolve when every candidate looks like family. How we can extend our Thanksgiving consciousness of indigenous Americans to indigenous Taiwanese tribes also fighting for lands, rights, and recognition.

If you want to know what is happening overseas, there are dozens of English-language reporters, both Taiwanese and not, creating that bridge for you. As editor of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, my sole hope is to convince you to cross over. I’m asked very often, particularly by first-generations, how we can convince the Taiwanese diaspora to care. I always struggled to articulate any sort of practicality, deferring instead to the poetics of how understanding Taiwanese history allowed me to better understand myself.

But I’m more confident in my answer now: that perhaps dual identities allow us to be doubly empathetic. 

We are third culture kids who will spend our entire lives straddling the borders between tradition and progress. We are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, both undocumented and not. We have been outsiders; we’ve also cast outsiders. We can decide whether to check our racist aunties and conservative uncles. We can decide when to be filial; when not to be. We can protest police brutality in remembrance of White Terror. We can support and donate to Native American coalitions as the descendants of indigenous tribes. We can protect sister democracies: one over two hundred years old, one barely twenty.

Doesn’t it make sense, then, that we can be better Taiwanese Americans when we embrace these synergies?

Like many American families post-midterm elections, my Taiwanese family — here and overseas — will have to navigate the tension of our political differences laid bare in the aftermath of a referendum. The LINE group chat is a little awkward. But there are exciting and uncertain times ahead. I hope you’ll want to be a part of them.

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