By Kristie Wang, Program Director Center for Taiwan International Relations. Excerpted from speech given at the 1995 ITASA Conference, ARCO Forum of Public Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, February 4, 1995.
I am a Taiwanese American. Yet I did not wake up one day and become one. It was a process. So, to borrow from the title of a speech Professor Keelung Hong made in 1992, I am going to speak about "How I Became a Taiwanese American and Why It Matters." First of all, how did I arrive at this self-identification as a "Taiwanese American?" Well, the "Taiwanese" part was easy because I was born in Taiwan, my parents were born there, and -- except for the few who had emigrated -- all of my relatives were there. This label also made me feel comfortable because I needed a way to explain my differences from the other people around me in America.
Even after I became fluent in English and had assimilated in many ways into the American culture, I felt different from most of my friends in suburban California. I didn't speak English with my parents, our family dinners centered around rice, and we took our shoes off when we entered the house. Telling myself and my friends that "I'm Taiwanese" seemed to be an adequate explanation for all of us. Yes, back then, I used to just call myself "Taiwanese." I didn't feel very "American," even though I did well academically, had many friends, and was a cheerleader in high school and college. Ironically, it was only when I took my first trip back to Taiwan in the summer before my senior year of college that I began to understand the "American" part of my identity and began to feel uncomfortable without attaching it to the end of "I'm Taiwanese."
During the 13 years before I made my first trip back to Taiwan after we immigrated to America, I always felt a strong attachment to Taiwan. I spoke Taiwanese "with no accent," my parents kept me updated on my relatives and on current events in Taiwan, and I watched videotapes of Taiwanese TV shows. I was proud of saying to people, "I feel more Taiwanese than I do American." I thought that when I went back to Taiwan, everything would suddenly fall into place and I would feel complete. So, it was a real surprise to me when I went back and realized that though I spoke the same language, ate the same food, and watched the same TV shows, the 13 years in America had made me different from the Taiwanese people of Taiwan. I dressed differently, had different social ideas, and interacted differently with people. On top of that, my friends and relatives assumed that I had lost the "Taiwanese" part of my identity. It took me at least two weeks to realize that they were talking about me whenever they said "that American."
It was during these three-plus months I spent in Taiwan that I began to understand the "American" part Of my identity and began to feel the most comfortable identifying myself as "Taiwanese American." So, that's "How I Became a Taiwanese American." To explain "Why It Matters," I'd like to share with you part two of this story. Whenever I tell people that I'm a Taiwanese American, I brace myself and prepare to explain or defend my identity. I'm sure that those of you who identify yourselves as "Taiwanese" in one form or another have encountered people who think you are either Thai or that you're Chinese. Some may even insist that you are "the same thing" as Chinese. When I was younger, this used to be the quickest way to get me mad. Just start telling me that "Taiwanese" is "the same thing" as "Chinese" and I would feel blood rising to my head, I start getting hot, and my head starts buzzing so I can't think. It made me so angry because I had always identified strongly with Taiwan and the only things I associated with China were its ongoing attempts to colonize Taiwan and the genocide and linguicide by the losers of its Civil War who had fled to Taiwan in the late 1940s.
Moreover, it seemed so unfair that other people could say they were Korean or Italian or Egyptian and no one would try to tell them that they were something else. It was incredible to me that people who knew nothing about my background and even less about Taiwanese history would try to argue with me about my claim to a Taiwanese identity. Today I have learned that the best way to counter that frustration is through education -- to educate myself and to educate the people around me. Normally, I wouldn't insist that anyone go out and learn about his or her ancestry. The United States is made up, for the most part, of people whose ancestors came from someplace else. I wouldn't insist that a third- generation Italian American read about the history of Italy or follow up on current events in Italy. However, I would ask that of you, if you are of Taiwanese descent. One important reason is that if you are of Taiwanese descent and you identify yourself as "Chinese" because you think that the use of "Taiwanese" is "political" and "Chinese" is "neutral," then you are not only wrong, but you are committing a great disservice.
In the introduction to the book Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society, which he co-authored with Keelung Hong, Stephen Murray argues that "accepting official definitions and labels ... is as political as using those of oppressed minorities and that to accept (and reproduce) the lexicon of dominators provides them undeserved legitimation." *1 What this means is that use of the label "Chinese" to indicate a person of Taiwanese descent is ALSO political -- because it legitimizes China's claim to Taiwan and it is an acceptance of Chinese efforts to wipe out the Taiwanese identity, language, and culture. You have to realize that there IS no "neutral" when it comes to making the distinction between Taiwanese and Chinese. If you say you don't care about the distinction, then you are choosing to perpetuate a myth through your complacency. In this case, complacency is complicity.
We must realize that if we do not make the distinction between Taiwanese and Chinese, then nobody will do it for us. To take it another step further, if you don't determine your own identity, then it will be imposed upon you, as Taiwan's history has demonstrated time and time again. Our parents and ancestors did not have a choice in determining their identities, and they were beaten, jailed, blacklisted, and killed for trying -- because they wanted to ensure that we would have this choice. Today Taiwanese all over the world have the opportunity for the first time in our tragic history to write our own page. The United States is an important ally in ensuring the safety and security of the people of Taiwan. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Our friends and family, brothers and sisters in Taiwan are being denied this dignity and these rights. WE can do something about it. THAT is why it matters.
*1. Stephen O. Murray, "Introduction, Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society: A Critical Review of the Social Science Research Done on Taiwan." Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong, University Press of America, 1994, p.11.
Back to: Table of Contents
Copyright © 1995 Taiwan Communiqué