Cōng yóu Bǐng: A Catalyst for Taiwanese Self-Identity

Oil in the worn iron skillet bubbles a caramel hue with burnt flaky dough dotting the bottom like poppy seeds. Laying the newly formed Cōng yóu Bǐng in the pan, the oil splatters and the scent of fried dough and sharp tang of scallions perfume the kitchen. As my hands shape each pancake, I reflect on how food has shaped me, allowing me to connect with my ethnic roots and construct my identity. 

The author’s Cōng yóu Bǐng prepared in a cast iron skillet

My first encounter with Cōng yóu Bǐng, scallion pancake, (literally translated, “scallion oil pancake”) is murky, however my memories of it are fond. Growing up, I would indulge in numerous pancakes during family dinners at Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants in the Bay Area, using them to mop up black bean sauce and other remnants of delicious dishes. As I grew older, I found myself curious about how to make scallion pancakes, and stumbled across Angel Wong, a Taiwanese American food blogger who connected with her Taiwanese heritage through food. My exploration of her Taiwanese recipes led to a longing to understand Taiwanese identity through food — something that was familiar to me and easy to approach. 

As an Asian American, I’ve often been asked, “what are you?” Unsure of how to answer, I would refer to my ethnic heritage, but that caused internal conflict. My mom was born in Taiwan and my dad in Malaysia — both immigrating to Canada before the age of 7. My mom, a product of Canada and Taiwan, speaks English, Mandarin, French, and Hakka. My dad, Chinese by ethnic heritage, grew up speaking English and a bit of rudimentary Cantonese, nurtured by his mostly English speaking parents and a noticeably absent Asian population during his youth in the suburbs of Toronto. 

Left: The author (right) with his maternal grandparents and brother; Right: The author with his family.

My parents’ own patterns of immigration to North America in the 1970’s for “better opportunities” mirror that of many other Asians. My maternal grandfather immigrated from Taiwan as an airline mechanic, and my paternal grandfather as an electrical engineer. Their diasporic stories are not necessarily unique; however, the stories they tell about their upbringings shed light on the multifaceted ways in which identity is constructed. 

In order to understand my mom’s ethnic ties to her Taiwanese-ness, I found it important to learn about Taiwanese history. I’d always heard about waishengren (mainlanders from China) and benshengren (people whose “ancestral home” is Taiwan) as the two distinct groups living in Taiwan. Throughout my childhood, my grandfather, a staunch benshengren who claims indigenous blood, reiterated to me that I was Taiwanese, not Chinese — to him, this distinction was paramount for my self-identification. However, learning about the history of Taiwan further complicated my understanding of Taiwanese identity. 

The history of Taiwan begins with the arrival of today’s Taiwanese indigenous peoples around 3000 B.C. followed by the settling of the Han Chinese, the Dutch, and the Spanish. A surge in immigrants from mainland China of Hoklo and Hakka descent established a large population of Taiwanese people today, and the subsequent overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty who had taken control of Taiwan until 1895 by the Japanese led to a period of industrialization. The Kuomintang (the nationalist party of China) followed the Japanese, escaping communist rule on the mainland following their loss in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, eventually resulting in today’s democratic Taiwan following reforms in the 1980’s.

One particularly interesting nuance to this history is the fraught relationship between the Hoklo and Hakka, underscoring the heterogeneity found amongst Chinese mainlanders as they regarded each other as enemies. Upon immigrating to Taiwan, this sentiment remained as the Hoklo immigrated in much larger numbers, pushing Hakka peoples off the lands they settled on and into more interior and dangerous parts of the island. Today, Hoklo peoples comprise about 65% of the Taiwanese population and are the dominant people group; when referencing Taiwanese “culture” or speaking “Taiwanese” as a dialect, it is the Hoklo (also known as Hokkien) that are referenced. Hakka people today only represent 15% of the Taiwanese population and are considered a minority. 

This newfound understanding of the many ruling powers throughout Taiwan’s rich history added layers to my view of what it means to be “Taiwanese.” In reading articles about the subject, it seems that one’s ethnic identity is not a great predictor of one’s relation to their “Taiwanese-ness.” Angela Yu, the producer and host of “Hearts in Taiwan” podcast, explored what it means to be Taiwanese, surveying people whose families come from Taiwan; the responses she received spanned a wide range of answers from “if you love stinky tofu” to when you think of Taiwan as your home” causing her to posit that perhaps, Taiwanese identity is “aligned by mindset rather than any sort of biological or legal qualification.” Further interviews by Yu, specifically attempting to uncover the ethnogenesis of the Taiwanese identity led to her discussion with Professor Evan Dawley of Goucher College from whom she learns “that the Taiwanese identity is less than 150 years old.” Emerging from the Japanese colonial period beginning in 1895, people living in Taiwan used to identify by the local regions they came from, allowing for a more nuanced and specific identification of one’s identity. 

This local identity is part of how my maternal grandmother identifies herself; interviewing her about the construction of her Taiwanese identity, she surprised me with her answer. For my grandmother, her ancestry is important to her self-identification. Realizing that her Hakka ancestors originated from mainland China hundreds of years ago, she identifies as Chinese. Yet, because she was born in Taiwan and has no extended family left in China, she also identifies as Hakka Taiwanese. For my grandmother, her “Hakka-ness” is as much a part of her identity as her “Taiwanese-ness.” In the context of history, this makes sense as Hakka people are a minority group in Taiwan and don’t fit the common narrative of “Taiwanese” that many people have become familiar with. For my grandmother, Cōng yóu Bǐng, is a mark of Chinese-ness, not Taiwaness-ness. However, savory tang yuan soup (salty meat broth soup with glutinous rice dough balls) is a hallmark of Taiwanese identity and is one way she reconnects with her Taiwanese-ness.

The author’s mother and grandmother with the author (left) and younger brother (right).

My mother’s Taiwanese identity is multifaceted and confusing. Growing up most of her life in Montreal, Canada with a small Asian population, her main sources of ethnic identity input were from her parents. Her father, a staunch supporter of Taiwanese independence, urged her to think of herself as Taiwanese; however, as a child growing up with few Taiwanese peers, she self-identified as “Chinese” because it was “easier” and “people understood it better.” Further adding to her “Chinese” identity was her infatuation with suānlà tāng, Chinese hot and sour soup. A melange of bamboo shoots, tofu, mushrooms, and tongue-tingling amounts of white pepper simmered in a hot, tangy broth, my mom recounts a particularly salient memory, ducking between the eaves of storefronts on a bone-chilling rainy day on her way to the local Chinese restaurant in Montreal, motivated by the thought of a piping hot bowl of peppered soup. While the history of suānlà tāng is contested and its migration to North America is unclear, it originates from mainland China as a “poor man’s dish” to warm hungry frigid bodies during the cold winter months in China. For my mother, she enjoys suānlà tāng in a similar way to her Hakka ancestors of generations past, albeit in a different context, as a reminder of her identity. However, due to the current geopolitical climate in which China has claimed Taiwan as its own, my mom has also begun reforming her identity, feeling a sense of obligation to support her birth country of Taiwan, and thus has begun to realign herself more with identifying as “Taiwanese.” 

Reflecting on my interviews with my mother and grandmother I’ve begun to better understand what it means to be Taiwanese. However, I’ve also realized that I’ve been missing a component of my identity all along — my “Hakka-ness.” Through the stories my mom tells me, I understand that my own longing and connection to my Taiwanese heritage is two-fold: 1) being influenced by my maternal grandfather who stressed the importance of “being Taiwanese” and 2) the ethnic enclave I grew up in, the Bay Area, surrounded by other Taiwanese people that allowed me to appreciate my “Taiwanese-ness” as distinct from “Chinese-ness.” I’ve also realized that one’s Taiwanese identity is personally constructed and takes on countless forms. As a second-generation Hakka Taiwanese American, my identity has been shaped by my North American upbringing and the heterogeneity that is found under the umbrella of “Taiwanese.” As my mom and grandma have taught me, being Taiwanese is not confined to a specific narrative. It is a story that is written by the unique and distinct experiences that differ across generations — and the feelings associated with these memories. My newfound Hakka Taiwanese identity is thus perfectly encompassed by Cōng yóu Bǐng. It has served as the catalyst that has allowed me to connect with my Taiwanese self-identity.

The author as a child growing up in the Bay Area.

Ryan is a senior at Pomona College majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Asian American Studies. Growing up in a Chinese-Taiwanese American household, he has been able to connect with his roots through food, stories, and family, but has also been able to understand the greater implications of his Taiwanese identity through the context of academic scholarship. In his free time, you can find him cooking, playing piano, running on the Pomona-Pitzer cross-country and track and field team, or spending time with friends exploring the greater LA area.

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