LEE: Swimming across the Strait

Last Wednesday, Taiwan celebrated its 101st birthday. I’m a second-generation overseas Taiwanese Yalie, and I spent the day posting nationalistic Facebook statuses. I texted my family “Happy 10/10 National Day!” taking great joy and pride in a country from which I traced my roots but have not resided in for any appreciable amount of time.

Whether Taiwan (or the Republic of China, if you’re annoyingly politically correct) is recognized as a sovereign state internationally makes no difference to me. I still shamelessly wave my Taiwanese flag around to celebrate our revolution that overturned the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

But I’m not actually Taiwanese. All four of my grandparents were refugees from Mainland China after the Communist Party took power. Only my parents were born in Taiwan, so I’m what they call a “wài-sheng rén” (Taiwanese person from an outside province). I can identify with neither native Formosans, the term for true natives of the island — who would think it treacherous even if I did — nor with those on the Mainland, but instead only with the ambiguous label of “Taiwanese.”

Cultural identity limbo aside, I nevertheless was fed a fair share of anti-China sentiment as I grew up. It was impossible for my parents, cousins and me to sympathize with a government whose people had once raided my grandparents’ towns, killed their loved ones and eventually forced them from their beloved homeland. These stories were engraved in my own memory, as I witnessed my grandmother’s heartbreaking expressions and heard my grandfather’s experiences in war whenever the old days were brought up.

Thus, I’ve always referred to Chinese people as “those Mainland people” with a slight distain. My distaste with China-made products stems beyond the popular stereotypes; I adamantly write only traditional characters in Chinese class while viewing their simplified counterparts with scorn; I subconsciously treat my Taiwanese friends more favorably.

It wasn’t until this past summer that I began to question my behaviors. At the London Olympics, I found myself cheering along with the Chinese crowd for Ye Shiwen to torpedo past American Elizabeth Beisel over the final leg of the 400m individual medley for gold, and was elated when she also broke the world record.

At first, I just thought it was the heat of the moment. However, as I watched the red-clad Chinese supporters screaming their throats hoarse, I realized we weren’t that different. I looked like them, understood their language and relished with them that the Americans were beaten at their own sport.

I smiled as the Chinese flag was raised and anthem played (I’m sorry, Grandpa).

Attempting to explain this, my dad said I started supporting the Mainlanders only while caught in a sea of Caucasians. But that was only part of the story. Olympic Park was filled with Chinese people, and it was hard to find another reason besides their nationality and Beijing accents to dislike them.

This idea cemented in my mind when I met Taiwanese supporters on the Tube — had it not been for their track jackets and distinctive accents, I wouldn’t have been able to spot them out. What reason besides ignorance did I have to like some strangers more than others?

The Taiwanese have a special label, “chun-kùng,” to describe people, most notably businessmen nowadays, who have ditched Taiwan in favor of China for personal gains. It is not a compliment.

But that’s short-sighted. Politics need to be separated from the people, and the actions of a government so many years ago should not define my sentiments about everyone from the modern-day Mainland.

Don’t get me wrong, though; the anti-China attitude is still a cancer within me that knows no cure. But our ancestors once coexisted peacefully as Chinese people, not as Taiwanese or Mainland Chinese. We are all still Chinese when the sun exits stage west. We can still be family.

After all, to borrow an American phrase, it’s not “divided we stand.”

Ike Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at ike.lee@yale.edu.


  • bkk5026

    “However, as I watched the red-clad Chinese supporters screaming their throats hoarse, I realized we weren’t that different. I looked like them, understood their language and relished with them that the Americans were beaten at their own sport.”

    I don’t know about this, you wouldn’t say the same if you were an Australian or a New Zealander or even a Canadian when you are in the UK would you? What about all those small countries that used to make up the USSR? You wouldn’t also say this if Taiwan is given equal footing in the international stage would you?

    I am a full-fledged Taiwanese. My family immigrated from China many generations ago so I don’t consider myself or my family “wai sheng ren”. Taiwan to me is more than just a result of a “family feud”. It’s my country and I will never give that up, no matter what China claims.

    To me, Chinese people from China and Chinese people from Taiwan are not of the same. We are two different countries, different backgrounds and different lifestyles. Sure, we may all look the same but we are still different whether or not politics is involved. I do not feel any pride when China wins many of the Olympics events. They are a whole other country to me. It’s like how every other country that has their own flag, their own government, their own culture would view other countries with people that look, talk and act just like them.

    Taiwan and China is no different. And it shouldn’t be and it just makes the world a whole lot more interesting this way.

    So let me ask you this again, if Taiwan is given equal footing in the international stage without China breathing down its neck, will you say the same?

    • ike_lee

      I guess I tried to do too much here in ~800 words. I didn’t mean that I’m the same as the Chinese; your points about backgrounds and lifestyles are spot on. All I meant was that I shouldn’t be viewing them so negatively as I once did before, because while they may be foreign to me, I have no inherent right to dislike them to such extents on the sole basis of my heritage. Of course we’re not the same. You don’t need to be full-fleged Taiwanese to recognize that.

      As for the parts about pride in their winning Olympics events, I don’t particularly care that China has been ranking in the top 3 medal earners for the past few Olympics, and nor do I feel any pride in that. Liu Xiang’s success or lack thereof makes little difference to me (though it still **is** a heartbreaking story). My point with that anecdote was simply to show where my idea of not treating Mainlanders so condescendingly started. I don’t know why I was so happy for Ye to win, but I was, and that says a lot about what I truly feel versus what I thought I felt.

      Would I feel this way if Taiwan were given equal political footing? With all due respect, that’s a silly question. Of course not. That’s the whole point. My resentment for everything Chinese definitely has to do with the political oppression Taiwan has faced and still is facing. If Taiwan and China were treated equally, Cross-Strait tensions would be just as unimaginable as Cross-Atlantic ones between the U.S. and U.K., simply because bloody wars have occurred between the two. (Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but the general point is there.) Yeah, we’d still be two completely different countries, but I wouldn’t care to especially like or dislike Mainlanders, as I very much do so right now.

      In short, my general idea can be best summed up as the following: we’re all still Chinese in the end, and so we shouldn’t view each other negatively (because this very column could be written by a Mainlander in the opposite direction just as easily) on the basis of our nationality. Instead, we should strive to collaborate and help one another whenever we can. Perhaps I was the only one who was unwilling to do so before, but I doubt I’m the only overseas Taiwanese kid who felt that way.

  • The Anti-Yale

    The Two-China policy is a vestigial appendage from the Cold War years which the carcass of the State Department still drags around as if it were useful, just like the ban-Cuba policy.

    Our government is hopelessly unable to evolve with the times.

    It’s a miracle we are able to function at all. Read the new biography of Eisenhower, “Ike’s Bluff” if you think I am exaggerating.


    • ike_lee

      I disagree, PK. The issue with Two Chinas is not just something the U.S. still likes to keep around, though I agree that we may be the standard on which other countries tend to act. How many countries in the world recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty? Only those that aren’t afraid of pissing China off. Most of them are in Central and South America, where they don’t care about exploiting cheap labor in China because they have their own to use. I hate to admit it, as doing so burns a hole straight through me, but Taiwan will never gain diplomatic relations with the U.S. in my lifetime. We’ve become too damn dependent economically on China for this to change. And let’s face it, the Chinese aren’t going to change their stance any time soon. Sadly enough, efforts to reconcile this will continue and they will all fail to be fruitful.

      The roaring monstrosity of a machine that is China (both in a good and bad way) will only grow as time goes on as people from all over flock there to exploit its human resources and markets. Meanwhile, “Chinese Taipei” can only sit, watch, and pray that Cross-Strait relations don’t worsen, because they’re not getting better any time soon. I’m just being realistic.

  • inycepoo

    “Swimming across the **Straight**”

    Wow, the YDN editors **really** dropped the ball on that one, huh?

  • The Anti-Yale

    “I disagree, PK”

    Le communisme est mort.