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How Taiwanese identity has evolved on the island in recent generations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And I'm Ailsa Chang in Taipei, Taiwan, where I often visited as a kid because this is where my family is from, going back centuries. But, you know, all through my life, I never really thought of myself as Taiwanese, even though I grew up speaking Taiwanese. My parents always just said, you are Chinese, just like, well, someone such as Emily Feng is.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: NPR's Emily Feng covers China and Taiwan from her base here in Taipei.

FENG: But to be clear, my parents emigrated to the U.S. from China.

CHANG: That's right. And yet, Emily, a lot of people would clump you and me together as Chinese.

FENG: Yes. And identity is a hugely sensitive issue for this island of 23 million people. Because even though more than 90% of people living in Taiwan can trace their roots to mainland China, the majority of them now identify in polls as Taiwanese only. And that's a huge shift from just 30 years ago.

CHANG: Exactly. And part of the reason that we're here is because there's a really consequential presidential election this week. And for many voters, at the heart of this election is the question, what does it mean to be Taiwanese?

HSI-YIN: Nice to meet you finally.

CHANG: I'm Ailsa. So nice to meet you.

So to better understand how Taiwanese identity has evolved on this island through the generations, Emily and I spent some time with a father, a mother and a daughter.

CHEN YAO RAN: Steven.

CHANG: Steven. Nice to meet you.

First up, the dad. His Chinese name is Chen Yao Ran. He's 67.

(CROSSTALK)

CHANG: It's so funny. Emily's translating the Mandarin, and I'm translating the Taiwanese (laughter).

FENG: I don't understand the Taiwanese.

CHANG: And I don't understand so much of the Mandarin. Chen's daughter, Hsi-yin, was also there with us.

HSI-YIN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: But she didn't want to be interviewed alongside her dad because she knew they'd get into a fight over politics. We all met up at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, which sits at the top of 89 steps, each step representing a year of Chiang's life.

FENG: OK. I'm out of breath. He's not. Yeah, he's not out of breath.

CHANG: In China, Chiang Kai-shek led the Nationalist Party, which lost a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party. He then fled to Taiwan in 1949 and imposed martial law on this island, which lasted until the late 1980s. Chiang Kai-shek is a controversial figure here, but Chen and many people of his generation still revere him.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He wants to thank Chiang Kai-shek because without him, China would have invaded, and Taiwan wouldn't exist the way it does today.

CHANG: Now, Chen's family has been on this island for centuries. He grew up under martial law alongside families who had just fled from China. And the new government here taught him to think of Communist China as the enemy.

So growing up, you really felt there was a difference between Taiwanese people like you and mainlanders that were here also in Taiwan?

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "No."

CHANG: Really? They seemed just as Taiwanese as you, the mainlanders?

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "My ancestors came from mainland China."

CHANG: And so even though Chen says he's proud to be from Taiwan, he has always thought of himself as a Chinese person.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "People of my generation will mostly think that they are Chinese." And he doesn't believe that the generation after him will think that they are Chinese. Babies born today in Taiwan, they're born and raised in Taiwan. They're going to think that they're Taiwanese.

CHANG: Chen recognizes that his Chinese identity largely came out of the way that he was educated in the 1960s, when the island's public school curriculum taught only Chinese history. It wasn't until the 2000s that the schools replaced much of that curriculum with the history of Taiwan, and Chen says that is why so many younger people in Taiwan today identify as exclusively Taiwanese.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "This Taiwanese identity is deliberately created. It's been done through education."

CHANG: Oh, interesting. You see it as a construct.

FENG: The concept changes depending on your political perspective and depending on the administration and power. And if another administration comes in, he thinks the concept will change again.

CHANG: How have you felt about the current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, and the way she handles the relationship between Taiwan and Beijing?

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Terrible."

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "If you think about it, Tsai Ing-wen herself is Chinese. The real Taiwanese people are Indigenous people. Everyone else came here after. They're Chinese. And so there doesn't have to be this kind of military tension in the region, and everyone would be happier without it."

CHANG: By the way, during this entire interview, Chen's daughter, Hsi-yin, had been listening in silence. And then at one point, she texted our team, this is brutal. We didn't get a chance to ask her what she meant by that until we were finally in the car alone with her.

HSI-YIN: I've never asked him those questions. So today, it's actually my first time listen to him explain himself...

CHANG: Really?

HSI-YIN: ...In this, like, really clear manner.

CHANG: You see, Hsi-yin and her father have often disagreed on what it means to be Taiwanese. And when it comes to identity, she says she is only Taiwanese, not Chinese. It was something she arrived at when she was living abroad in the United Kingdom several years ago. In 2014, a major political protest was unfolding back home in Taiwan. It was called the Sunflower Movement, and people in the U.K. were asking her about it.

HSI-YIN: I still remember that moment. I had to make a decision whether I'm a Chinese or Taiwanese. And especially when you are a foreigner in a foreign country, that feeling is stronger that you have to identify yourself.

CHANG: So you get to choose what you want to be, those people.

HSI-YIN: Yeah. I have to.

CHANG: Hsi-yin, who's 41, has lived almost her whole life in a democratic Taiwan with an open civil society. During the Sunflower Movement, young people occupied the legislative building in Taipei, pushing back against what they say was the then-Taiwanese president's over-eagerness to strengthen ties with China. Some of the protesters were Hsi-yin's friends.

HSI-YIN: They were putting themselves in danger. I think there's maybe only one reason. Because we care about the country. We care about the system. We care about how we are going to live in this island.

CHANG: When you say we care about the country, you mean Taiwan...

HSI-YIN: Yes.

CHANG: ...The island?

HSI-YIN: Yes, the island, well, the environment. I don't know how people call it when their country is not recognized as a country. We have our president. We have our own constitution. We have paid our own taxes to our government. We also have our own territory. So what are there missing that we are not a country?

CHANG: So when you first started feeling the urge to describe yourself as Taiwanese, did that feel political?

HSI-YIN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Why?

HSI-YIN: Because if it's not political, you don't have to say it.

CHANG: At this point, Hsi-yin gets a call from her mom.

HSI-YIN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: We're meeting Hsi-yin's mother and father separately today because they're divorced.

HSI-YIN: I think she's a bit anxious.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HSI-YIN: She's like...

CHANG: She's actually anxious kind of on behalf of her daughter, Hsi-yin, who doesn't want to get in trouble at work for speaking publicly about politics. That's why we are only using first names for both Hsi-yin and her mother, Zhen-Zhen.

FENG: Emily Feng.

ZHEN-ZHEN: Emily.

FENG: We're meeting Zhen-Zhen at her office in Taoyuan.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: (Laughter).

FENG: We tell her we're so happy to meet her. And Zhen-Zhen and Hsi-yin lead us inside.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: You can take off your shoes or not.

CHANG: Oh.

FENG: Unlike Hsi-yin's father, whose family has been in Taiwan for centuries, Zhen-Zhen's father first arrived on this island as a soldier with Chiang Kai-shek's army in the late 1940s. Zhen-Zhen says her father always hoped the nationalists would defeat the Chinese Communist Party so that he could return to China one day, his homeland.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: She says, when Chiang Kai-shek set up his government here, he immediately forced everyone to speak Mandarin Chinese to enforce one unified language for the island of Taiwan.

FENG: And young Zhen-Zhen spoke Mandarin really well.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: She says she was commended as a young schoolgirl because her Mandarin was so excellent. In fact, she won many speech and debate competitions and brought back awards for her school.

FENG: But then her daughter, Hsi-yin, chimes in to add one more detail.

HSI-YIN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: Hsi-yin says any students who are caught publicly speaking languages other than Mandarin were punished. They had to kneel on the floor and wear a placard around their neck announcing that they had broken the rules. Some were even fined.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: But Zhen-Zhen says this wasn't strange to her. It's just the way it was back then.

FENG: But many years later, after Taiwan had transitioned to democracy, Zhen-Zhen's excellent Mandarin actually got her into trouble.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: She remembers this one time when she was in a taxicab speaking Mandarin to the driver, and he thought her accent sounded too Chinese, and he suddenly made her get out of the car. That got her so angry. She thought, am I not Taiwanese like you? I was born and raised here.

FENG: Though to be clear, the line between being Taiwanese versus Chinese has always been blurred for her.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: She says, "you should never forget your origins. The blood of your ancestors runs through your veins." So she says she is Chinese, but she's also lived in Taiwan her entire life. She loves this land. So she sees no point in picking whether she is Taiwanese or Chinese. The distinction is just bureaucratic to her.

How do you feel about your daughter, who says she is Taiwanese? And she says it very decisively now. How does that make you feel?

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: She says she will always respect her daughter's decision to identify as Taiwanese.

ZHEN-ZHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: In fact, when Hsi-yin lived abroad, Zhen-Zhen's friends asked if she was worried that her daughter would never return.

FENG: But Zhen-Zhen says she was sure that her daughter would return to Taiwan because this is where she is from.

CHANG: And indeed, Hsi-yin did come back home. In Taipei, I'm Ailsa Chang.

FENG: And I'm Emily Feng.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This story was produced by Jonaki Mehta and Mallory Yu with Hugo Peng. Our editor is Patrick Jarenwattananon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Hugo Peng
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