Are semiconductors Taiwan’s vibranium? “Actually,” offers one speaker, “it’s the Taiwanese people’s ethics and heart.” Aw.
There’s a scene in the Marvel franchise where T’challa disrupts the meta-fiction of Wakanda’s unremarkable, third-world pretense, grandly revealing their true nature in a gesture of humanitarian aid. That both Wakanda and Taiwan can be categorized as global fictions is sad. But, crucially, there is a difference between hiding and being ignored.
Unlike Wakanda, whose obscurity is a strategic calculation against outside influences, Taiwan exists, for the most part, in that latter space of being deliberately and systematically ignored. For the Taiwanese people, the aspirational elements of Wakanda may not be superior technology (besides, we kind of already have that covered) or superpowers; they are agency, power, institutionalized legitimacy. Wakanda hides its innovation until compelled otherwise by T’Challa’s resolve to help the world at large; Taiwan suffers the indignity of having to beg to help, of openly and willingly proving its own competence over and over, only to be denied membership to the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
The “TAIKANDA: Why is 臺灣 Asian Wakanda?” Clubhouse event, co-hosted by Marc Liu and Taiwanese American Film Festival executive director Cindy Lu tonight, examines this apt analogy. “I have two questions,” Liu begins, “what is Taiwan’s vibranium? And what is Taiwan’s heart shaped herb?”
Most propose that semiconductors, Taiwan’s most famous and significant contribution to contemporary technology, are its vibranium. (Please do not make me explain how semiconductors work; I just know that they are important and that the TSMC Museum of Innovation does a much better job at showcasing why.) “Actually,” one speaker counters sweetly, “it’s the Taiwanese people’s ethics and heart.”
The second question is less straightforward, and therefore much more fun.
“I seriously think it’s boba, man,” submits Albert Wang, to enthusiastic applause (on Clubhouse, speakers “clap” by toggling their mute buttons on and off. To a newcomer like myself, this more resembles a seizure of tech ineptitude than a show of approval. But I guess a fit of “Amens” would be less appropriate here.)
The heart-shaped herb of Wakanda, by the way, is the conduit through which a Black Panther heir-apparent obtains enhanced physical abilities and a spiritual connection to the past. For diasporic Taiwanese, boba – or any tokenized food, for that matter – makes sense. 滷肉飯 is nourishing, goes the logic, and reminds us of our ancestors. Check and check.
Derrick Hsu offers a more nuanced alternative: the traditional Chinese written language (繁體字), representing “a longing for Chinese culture without some of the unfortunate circumstances of the mainland.” It’s a fantastic suggestion, both for what the language has lent to present-day Taiwan (as its primary written language in documents, literature, and general aspects of everyday communication), and its imbued Sino lineage. Check and check.
Hsu also notes the absurdity of using imperialist elements to counter imperialism, reminding the room that so many of Taiwan’s most distinguished, celebrated elements today are fixtures from past colonizers. Case in point: for all the tensions between waishengren and benshengren in claiming “legitimate” Taiwanese identity, the father of our very own vibranium, the founder of TSMC, Morris Chang, was a waishengren.
To that, I would say (and I did!) that these absurdities are precisely what make Taiwanese identity so compelling.
Family history, while incomplete as a proxy for a national narrative, can be helpful here. In my own family, there are a couple sources of tension formative to my understanding of Taiwan and Taiwanese identity. My mother’s side is indigenous Ketagalan and Hakka, both of which were undesirable lineages in my grandparents’ lifetime, and as such were secrets that my grandparents kept from each other.
Enter my mom, a martial law-era child who grows up in a family that is paradoxically so proud to be Taiwanese and yet unwilling to grapple with the complexity of that identity: the ways they carried Japanese, Chinese nationalist, indigenous, Hakka roots within themselves that felt inseparable from a geopolitical framework. Taiwaneseness became most apparent to me in this swirl of violence and resistance and complicity and survival. The good-guy, bad-guy, colonizer vs. colonized paradigms repeatedly fail our people and our history, and I think that’s what makes Taiwanese identity so radical, in that it is willing to be full of contradictions and conflicts and choices and even incorporate those anxieties into the very bones of what it means to be Taiwanese. This is Taiwan’s greatest promise: that these absurdities might be built into a remarkable new world if we honestly account for the oppressor with the oppressed. This is the foundation of transitional justice.
But back to Wakanda.
Ketagalan Media’s Chieh-Ting Yeh and I have had related conversations about the Taiwan/Wakanda analogy, though he positions it from a decolonial framework. Political fantasizers and futurists of both Taiwan and Wakanda have probably had the same conversations about a decolonized utopia, born from the shared desire to claim a narrative where we were able to fight off outside forces. (For the African diaspora, of course, there is the added gravity of race, enslavement, and continued violence. I don’t want to dismiss these in trying to prove our camaraderie.) The Taiwanese ask: what would indigenous Austronesians have constructed without the impositions of the Dutch, the Spanish, the Japanese, the Chinese?
In Wakanda, liberation was imagined as the undoing of these influences; their self-evident prosperity is directly available because they shielded themselves from colonial conquest.
Taiwan is not a fictionalized Marvel universe, and so in praxis can only achieve this liberation through meaningful redress of its past abuses. And, by existing in the real world, she has proven that this is an extraordinarily difficult task. To start, the political conditions of contemporary Taiwan tether her to the Republic of China. Decolonial work tries to restore a history that doesn’t only overlap with Chinese history, inclusive of – but not limited to – indigenous history by incorporating the legacies of Dutch and Spanish colonialism. To admit to more conquerors is to be more faithful to the facts: Taiwanese history on Taiwanese terms, delineated by Taiwanese geography. And so part of Taiwanese liberation becomes necessarily counterintuitive; these concessions serve to complete an autobiography beyond the ROC narrative.
And finally, both Wakanda and Taiwan have seized upon isolationism as a survival tactic. Taiwan’s mandatory quarantine is, itself, a microcosmic metaphor for Wakanda’s protective instinct. From the outside looking in, we are envious of this, implicitly understanding that we, as Americans and other foreigners, have become the perceived threat.
The Clubhouse conversation eventually steers towards more general dialogue about the experience of Taiwanese and diasporic Taiwanese, online and offline. But still, the Wakanda analogy has been a spectacularly productive one, prompting a new Taiwanese spinoff of Black Panther fan fiction: our own leader, addressing the United Nations, triumphantly offering Taiwan’s knowledge and resources.
“[Taiwan] can no longer watch from [the PRC’s] shadows. We cannot. We must not. We [have] worked to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat other now more than ever. The truth connects us more than it separates us, but in times of crisis, the wise build bridges…
… and Taiwan can help.”
TaiwaneseAmerican.org founder Ho Chie Tsai and editor-in-chief Leona Chen are both now on Clubhouse. Find us at @hochie71 and @leonawchen, respectively.
Leona Chen is the editor-in-chief of TaiwaneseAmerican.org and author of BOOK OF CORD, a docupoetry collection about the formation and reformation of Taiwanese identity through state-sanctioned narratives, immigration, and family stories.