Redux: What makes us Taiwanese?

Last year I wrote an article for about Taiwanese identity, an article that I’m really proud of. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can go read it here:
Beyond Boundaries: What makes us Taiwanese?

Recently, a website that will remain unnamed reposted that article in full on their new content aggregator, something I discovered via trackbacks to my blog.

The annoyance this has caused me isn’t really the point of this post.

The point is something I noticed in the tags they’d given my article upon reposting:

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 6.31.12 AM
American, identity, mixed, Taiwan, USA.

Some of these words apply to me.

But “mixed,” in the strictest sense, doesn’t. In all contexts I’ve heard it used growing up in Taiwan, and in Taiwanese communities here in the US, it means mixed race. I’m not.

In stating my love of Taiwan and my care about its future, I’m often met with direct skepticism about why someone like me, whose ancestral bloodlines (血統) all trace back to Western Europe, would have this interest.

People narrow their eyes at me, scanning my features, and sometimes tell me that I must be mixed. I’m not tall. I have a small nose. My hair isn’t blonde. Anything, really. Any genetic excuse to make my cultural identity make sense, as if DNA markers carried in them some kind of homing signal.

Maybe I'm a watermelon?

Maybe I’m a watermelon?

The site that reposted my article read it, picked up on the fact that I don’t automatically look like I belong (a problematic concept in itself anyway) in Taiwan, squinted at my writing, and added the “mixed” tag to their appropriation. Because I must be mixed, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

But if my existence doesn’t make sense in the categories you sort the world into, perhaps you need to revise the categories, because I can’t explain myself away.

In all honestly, I’ve wished many times that the mixed identity I feel on the inside was more obvious on my outside, just to quiet the skepticism and questions. It might be easier for me if people didn’t have to experience the cognitive dissonance that my blood and my heart don’t map onto each other in the way they expect.

But I don’t want anyone to think I’m pretending to be mixed so that I can represent their experiences. Though they may overlap with my own identity issues about Taiwan, the experiences of mixed race Taiwanese are also incredibly different. So different that I can’t tell you about them because they aren’t mine.

So, “what makes us Taiwanese?” I ask.

And continue to ask.

Not genetics or bloodlines. Not the social constructions of race that continue play out in exclusionary and devastating ways worldwide.

Do you love and care about Taiwan? What does your heart say?

Good enough for me.

How about you?

7 thoughts on “Redux: What makes us Taiwanese?

  1. Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing. I don’t know if there is a connection or not, but your comment, “Do you love and care about Taiwan? What does your heart say? ” reminded me of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on emotions and political affiliations. Here’s a link to her latest book: One of the blurbs for her book reads:

    The book demonstrates how people of different identities can be brought together around a common set of values and political principles through the power of art and symbol.
    —Govindan Nair, The Hindu

    Not sure if this intellectualizes something that should be personal and felt, but I’ve often thought about similar issues of identity and affiliation and found her work good to think with.

    • I’m pretty sure admission to UChicago is predicated on potentially over-intellectualizing things. :)

      Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll check it out when I have time someday!

  2. While I was pastoring a Japanese-American congregation, I joined a seminar-tour of Japan (sponsored by a Japanese-American Denominational Fellowship). I was stunned that *everyone* in the Group felt “I don’t belong!” Why? Everyone had a different reason, but the resulting feeling was the same: Chinese-not-Japanese, J-A-not-J, J-not-J-A, Buddhist-not-Christian, Hawaiian-not-Mainlander, Happa[‘half’]-neither-just-“White”-nor-just-J, Raised-in-Japan-not-in-USA, etc. Is it easier to Exclude
    or to Include factors in our Personal Identity? clearer for us to feel we do NOT-Belong than to Belong?

    • Interesting how you pose your final two questions. Seems like it’s sometimes not just about excluding or including others, but also feeling like we have the right to claim inclusion.

  3. Love this. When starting a Taiwanese group at school we realized that some of the people with the most enthusiasm and love for Taiwan weren’t necessarily of Taiwanese ancestry. So we decided to take advantage of the school’s Quaker heritage and called the group Friends of Taiwan, welcoming anyone loved the small but might nation of Taiwan regardless of their ancestry.

  4. I came to believe that identity is something one discovers for himself rather than having an external party framing what one ought to be. Only you should be able to define who you are. To me being Taiwanese is not about blood, or race, or even whether you speak Taiwanese mandarin. It’s whether your heart believes that you have made this land your own.

    It’s not surprising that overseas Taiwanese tends to accept you with open arms. I think that’s because countries like the US is based on values and institutions and the push and pull of the different groups of people to form a common identity whereas the custom of many nation-states made it impossible to imagine someone born outside to truly become part of its brotherhood. Being around different people changes the definition of identity from location and race based (externally defined) to character and disposition (internally defined). I know it did for me. At one time I probably would have stared the sh*t out of you if I saw someone like you and swear you’re not one of us. Not that it’s an extremely accurate viewpoint, I just get where these feelings come from.

    Despite all this you still feel like you belong. If that doesn’t make you Taiwanese, I don’t know what does.

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