An Open Minded Perspective on Being Taiwanese-American

Steven Lin

I am Taiwanese-American. But that's not something I will normally say outside the scope of an essay or a short bio of myself. My parents were born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. I can trace my family ties to Taiwan from China dating back to the 1700s for ten generations. But when people ask me what I am, I say I'm American or I'll mention my parents are from Taiwan if they inquire further. I answer the same regardless of whether it is a Caucasian or Chinese person asking me. To be honest, I consider myself more Asian-American and identify with the cause of Asian-Americans more than anything else.

Sometimes I wonder if it is my obligation to do anything for Taiwan because of my strong family ties to Taiwan. Because I don't live in Taiwan and have never lived nor intend to live there, it is better for the people of Taiwan to decide what they want for themselves, as opposed to me pushing for a certain cause that will not directly affect me.
However, I do acknowledge that Taiwanese-Americans living in the United States have the power to do things for Taiwan, even if it is in small ways such as trying to garner support for Taiwan from our congressional representatives, attending rallies to support Taiwan's entry into the United Nations or the World Health Organization, or even simply talking to people about Taiwan.

If someone not living in Taiwan, such as myself, is to take action, I feel this individual should have very strong opinions before making the decision to take action for such a cause. This requires substantial knowledge of the cause and perhaps some degree of faith that what you believe in is the right way to go. I have noticed that people tend to feel strongly in favor of the side in which they have family ties. So to formulate a strong opinion also requires carefully understanding both sides objectively. For myself, the more I have learned about Taiwanese history and politics, the more I have concluded that I don't have a strong of a stance as I used to. This is why I don't actively do anything for the cause of Taiwan besides openly discussing Taiwan with others so that they can form their own objective opinions.

Having gone on the Tsunah tour, I have observed that the vast majority of its participants and organizers are pro DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and hate the KMT (Kuomintang Party, the party with origins from China). Also, the same people strongly feel that sometime in the future Taiwan should be independent and separate from China. I felt the tour, while excellent overall, was not very unbiased in presenting historical and political information to its participants. I hope to be able to raise a couple of points that those who are pro DPP or pro independence should consider.

A number of Taiwanese feel they are quite different from the Chinese, despite the obvious cultural and language similarities. My parents are among those who have told me that I am not Chinese but Taiwanese. Their arguments stem from the fact that Taiwan is geographically separate and has its own unique history, language, government, and circumstances that make it quite different from that of mainland China. Some of these people will often not acknowledge that they are even ethnically Chinese or Chinese in any form except that their ancestors came from China. Others will argue that any group of people that would like to self determine should be able to do so. This last argument is the source of controversy in many places where people would like to self determine such as Chechnya.

Although I was not in Taiwan fifty years ago, I believe hardly any of the Taiwanese fifty years ago felt so strongly about not being Chinese. Many of them did not feel they were "Taiwanese", even today a good number still don't. Also, many Taiwanese people welcomed the KMT and were willing to give them the chance to rule without any violent uprising. It was not until the Taiwanese felt their rights, that they were entitled to, were being infringed upon that they rebelled against the KMT. I believe the recent influx of Taiwanese nationalism was caused by the oppressive governments of the Japanese and KMT as well as the desire to distinguish Taiwan herself from communist China.

Personally, I don't believe Taiwanese people should renounce their Chinese heritage considering that many of the customs, religions, food, language, and holidays are similar. To deny that Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese seems a bit disrespectful to me, especially since Taiwanese and Chinese people look virtually the same and there have been huge immigrations from China as late as the 1800s and the late 1940s.

China has many provinces where the people of the province speak their own language and have experienced their own history, yet the Shanghai-nese, Cantonese, Hong Kong-nese people all acknowledge being Chinese. Even those in Hong Kong, who has had its own history for the past hundred years completely separate from that of the rest of China like Taiwan, acknowledge being Chinese. For me, it makes sense to acknowledge, "I am Taiwanese, but ethnically Chinese." Perhaps a person of Taiwanese descent should think twice before being offended at being called Chinese or feeling it is an improper label.

Another issue I wish to bring up is concerning the KMT. It is impossible to deny the brutality of the KMT under martial law. But, I feel many Taiwanese-Americans who are pro DPP fail to give the KMT any credit. I am no historian but there are a few points I would like to make that many may disagree with and perhaps with good reason.

First of all, if the KMT had lost the civil war in China and were not able to escape to Taiwan, then I believe the Communists would have just came over as if they already owned or deserved Taiwan without any objection from the international community who already seemed to acknowledge that Taiwan should be returned to China after World War II. Certainly American forces would not aid a Chiang Kai-Shek-less Taiwan that has no military of its own in a conflict with China. So, because of the KMT, Taiwan is not a part of communist China right now and is a lot better off because of it.

Secondly, Taiwan has prospered immensely economically under KMT rule. Regardless of whether this was due to the "hard working" Taiwanese people or the "sound" infrastructure the Japanese laid out the prior half century, the fact remains that under the KMT, the standard of living has increased immensely, corruption or not.

Finally, Taiwan currently is a thriving democracy. It may be unforgivable that dictators like Chiang Kai-Shek and his son, Chiang Ching-Kuo, were able to stay in power for forty years, but the fact is that Chiang Ching-Kuo permitted the government to be what it is today. Perhaps he realized that democracy would be the key to Taiwan's entry into the world community or perhaps he wanted to leave behind a positive legacy or perhaps he realized that it was impossible to put down the spirit of activists such as Lin I-Shiung. All I know is that democracy was able to prevail in Taiwan whereas many regimes around the world have not undergone the change that Taiwan has gone through. I can say that the KMT were far from ideal and unjustified in many of their killings, but there are clearly worse alternatives.

In conclusion, I do feel Taiwan should be independent from China due to the circumstances that occurred since the Chinese civil war. But, I admit I am not so caught up in what seems to be like Taiwanese nationalism and pride. The view that is shared by any mainland Chinese people and some people of Taiwan that Taiwan is a part of China should be respected. The view of those Taiwanese who feel Taiwan should be independent from China should also be respected as well. Furthermore, I respect the views of those who support the KMT government as being an overall positive influence the past half century as well as those who disagree. Both sides, for both issues, have strong arguments on their behalf and can be seen as right or wrong depending on the criteria used to judge the situation. Perhaps the most important thing is to keep an open mind and not let one's own personal biases prevail when considering one's stance on Taiwan and being Taiwanese or Taiwanese-American.