What I learned from a year of asking, “Am I Taiwanese?”

By Angela Yu, co-host of “Hearts in Taiwan” podcast

I am Taiwanese American, but it’s taken me a long time and a lot of careful thought to say that. I am also Chinese American, an identity I’ve lived with for much longer. This week marks the one-year anniversary of launching a podcast that my cousin Annie Wang and I created to understand the complexities of identity among people whose families come from Taiwan, and we’ve come a long way since then.

Angela Yu (right) with cousin and co-host Annie Wang (left) recording their podcast, Hearts in Taiwan.

Taiwanese identity is nascent and evolving

For second generation diaspora and beyond, our ideas about Taiwanese identity get frozen in the year that our parents emigrated from Taiwan unless we actively work to seek out updated sources. One of the most affirming surprises from our first season was learning how the Taiwanese identity has expanded since the 1980s when we grew up. In our tenth episode “What does it mean to be Taiwanese?” we surveyed a variety of people whose families come from Taiwan. We heard inclusive responses ranging from “if you love stinky tofu” to “when you think of Taiwan as your home” that made us feel welcome in the identity, aligned by mindset rather than any sort of biological or legal qualification.

In our newest interview “Becoming Taiwanese” on the ethnogenesis of the Taiwanese identity, we learned from Professor Evan Dawley of Goucher College that the Taiwanese identity is less than 150 years old(!), having emerged during the Japanese colonial period which began in 1895. Before that, people described themselves by the local region they lived in or originated from, and national geopolitical boundaries like China and Taiwan were too broad to convey a person’s ethnic context.

Reconciling Chinese and Taiwanese identities

Among people who lived in Taiwan in the latter half of the 20th century, the terms waishengren 外省人 and benshengren 本省人 were commonly used to distinguish new Chinese immigrants from people whose families had lived in Taiwan for centuries. Most Taiwanese people point out that the terms are problematic because they are based on sheng 省 meaning “province,” which politically Taiwanese people reject as a term to describe Taiwan since it was never a province of China. However, even in conversations today, descendants of that era still fall back on those terms as a shorthand.

Perhaps a better practice would be to describe the distance between one’s family and China in generations. My family has been out of China for three generations on both sides (since 1949), so I still explicitly identify with some Chinese heritage. Many others have been out of China for 12 or 13 generations, so saying that they are Chinese is about as imprecise as saying that a Black American is African. In my lifetime, the popular vernacular has shifted from “African American” to “Black American” because Black Americans don’t all originate from Africa and even many of those whose ancestors did are so many generations removed that they have no ties to Africa. Similarly, diaspora from China have varying degrees of preserving their Chinese culture and combining it with the cultures of other countries where subsequent generations have lived.

The author at age 10 on a bi-annual family visit to Taiwan, wearing a souvenir t-shirt from the National Palace Museum depicting the evolution of written Chinese characters.

Lately I’ve been saying “I was raised Chinese” to explain that both my parents identified as Chinese and definitely did not identify as Taiwanese, even though they both grew up in Taiwan. The Taiwanese families around me were similarly adamant that they were Taiwanese and definitely not Chinese, so I learned a binary division between the two identities, even if I didn’t know the politics behind them at the time. From the late 1940s through the 1980s, the Chinese identity was forced upon the population in Taiwan through education and martial law, so Taiwanese identity was hardened as resistance against an oppressive regime. Unaware of this until last year, I learned wordy euphemisms to describe my heritage such as “child of immigrants from Taiwan” when I want to be ambiguous or “my parents were born in China but grew up in Taiwan” when I want to tell the listener everything they need to know depending on their own familiarity with Taiwan.

It’s encouraging to see that the end of martial law has given way to generations that are freed from the mutually exclusive choice between Chinese and Taiwanese. Especially in families with mixed numbers of generations away from China, individuals can identify with multiple cultures that have shaped their experiences.

Identity as the foundation for activism

I concluded the first season of the podcast with a conscious decision to maintain my Chinese identity and adopt the Taiwanese American identity. While I still very much feel like a guest in the Taiwanese identity, I think it’s important to claim this identity in my context as an American, where I hope to influence America’s support for Taiwan. In the United States, elected officials must weigh the interests of their constituents and they won’t know how many of their constituents care about Taiwan if they don’t see them counted. In the interest of preserving democracy in Taiwan, my wish is that other Chinese-identifying second-generation people like me will take a fresh look at Taiwanese identity in the context of American civic representation. Consider it another milestone in thinking independently of what your parents told you.

Angela Yu is the co-host of Hearts in Taiwan, a podcast about heritage and identity that celebrates the diaspora’s connections to Taiwan.

Leave a Reply