Embracing Your Chinese Identity in Taiwan

Hilton Yip.

When Diaspora went up on chinaSMACK, I really wanted to contribute. I read almost every single story and I could identify with most. Alienation among one’s own home country, self-identity issues, the pangs of guilt at not being too familiar with Chinese culture, being an overseas Chinese, all these apply to me. The trouble then became what I should write about. Well, I finally settled on an issue that should be familiar to readers but also offer a different take.

Basically, how do you embrace your Chinese identity when you’ve grown up mostly in the West? How does one merge different cultural and social values from various Western and Chinese backgrounds? Notice I use the word “West” instead of American or Canadian. That’s because I’m neither, nor am I from the UK or Australia or Malaysia. I grew up in the country of Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean island that is within touching distance of South America but whose first language is English, due to a 165-year-old British colonial legacy (Please don’t confuse us for Jamaica). Anyways I’ll speak more about my background later, but first let’s jump to the present.

Taipei from a hilltop.

I work and live in Taiwan, where almost every week is a challenge to me. Not because of language (though my Mandarin is barely intermediate) or cultural differences, but because I struggle with understanding my Chinese heritage here. I’ll spare people the historic and political issues between Taiwan and mainland China, but suffice it to say, the concept of Chinese is complex here, even in a cultural and societal sense. This is a place where pretty much everyone speaks Chinese (Mandarin, Hakka, Minnan), reads and writes Chinese, respects Chinese culture and values, and prides itself on this. But despite the increasingly “close” relationship at the higher-level business and bureaucratic arenas, there’s a lot of anger and arrogance, even paranoia, among the locals towards the mainland. “They have no morals and they lie and steal. They have no culture since they don’t use traditional characters anymore. They are dirty and rude.” These are just some of the common notions of mainlanders held by locals.

Giving a personal example, a Taiwanese relative of mine went on a trip alone to Sichuan, and when he was showing us his photos, his cousin was aghast that the relative was in some of them, meaning that someone else took the pictures for him. “You let a 大陸人 (mainlander) hold your camera?!!” he exclaimed, horrified that the relative actually handed his camera to a mainlander to take it for him. Yes, that is the level of enlightened thinking that some youths in Taiwan hold.

Of course, I understand that some of these stereotypes aren’t unfounded. I’m familiar with the fact that lining up to buy tickets or board a bus is often a contact sport in China and that spitting and shouting in public aren’t uncommon. A recent NY Times article on Chinese tourists to Taiwan noted how many locals “openly complain” about the tourists’ uncouth behavior and that the Taiwan media “gleefully recount stories about mainland visitors” engaging in rowdy behavior. Life in China isn’t a bed of roses and there’s a lot of rough stuff there. But you know, there are Chinese who don’t spit in public or steal or drive over pedestrians and who are educated and polite and generous. Yes, they exist and I’ve met them.

I found this patronizing attitude bemusing in the past, but steadily it’s become more aggravating. Only recently was I able to put what bothered me into words. The attitude of many Taiwanese goes something like: “We value writing Chinese, we value Chinese culture and history, but we hate actual Chinese people. Hell, we are Chinese and they’re not, except they live in China and we’d rather stay away from them, or they stay away from us.” I don’t know about you but this logic seems to have a bit of hypocrisy in it.

To be fair, it’s not just Taiwanese who hold this attitude, but also Hong Kongers. Despite having become part of China over 13 years ago, many HKers still hold a similar notion of mainlanders being dangerous and savage aliens from another planet.

Street market in Mongkok, Hong Kong.

Now some of you might wonder why does all this matter so much? Why am I going on and on? Also, am I so ignorant that all this is a shock to me? Well, no I’m not naïve and I know very well about recent Chinese history especially the middle of last century. And yes, I’m aware of the political complexities with Taiwan and the mainland. But this matters so much to me, because my parents are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and my grandparents hail from the mainland.

Because my Hong Kong father, uncles and aunts grew up during a time when the mainland was going through a lot of turmoil, they harbored a deep sense of fear (and disdain) towards the mainland. This fear grew so much that when the British agreed to return Hong Kong to China, most of them left Hong Kong for other places in the eighties. So it was with much irony, that we ended up in Trinidad where basically 99 percent of the few-thousand-strong Chinese population was from the mainland, specifically Guangdong. To make a long story short, I grew up among these Chinese. Whether it was at home get-togethers, weddings, dimsum or New Year’s Day banquets at a Chinese association hall, my family interacted with people from places like Guangzhou, Taishan, Zhongshan and rural Cantonese villages. We weren’t particularly strong members of the community, but slowly I grew to regard them as peers. And slowly I began to dream about going to China (I’d been to Taiwan and Hong Kong but not the mainland back then). My Chinese interaction continued at university in Canada where I met more Chinese. This time, they were not from Guangdong, but from Beijing, Anhui, Hainan, Xian, Fujian and more. I made friends and they tolerated my constant questions about China. At one point, I had a Beijing dentist (my doctor was from Hong Kong though), a Beijing driving instructor (after 5 years in Canada getting used to the driving conditions, he was too afraid to drive in China anymore) and two Chinese colleagues at my student job, one from Harbin and one from Beijing.

Ironically, the years that I’ve been in Taiwan have been the only years of my life when I haven’t been in regular contact with people from the mainland. Taiwan is a nice place with some really pleasant people and a great environment to learn Chinese. Yet I know I cannot accept the ignorant and disdainful attitude many have towards the mainland. I can’t accept respecting a culture yet hating the very place where this culture is from and its people.

I feel that as a Chinese person who grew up with American, British, Caribbean and Chinese influences, speaking Cantonese at home and English outside, to be Chinese is to not limit your understanding of Chinese to any one place, but to embrace the greater Chinese world. I don’t know, maybe there’s a screw or two loose in my mind, but I feel that one can’t appreciate Chinese heritage without appreciating China. My sincere hope is that there can be a stronger sense of respect and open-mindedness towards China.

Shanghai's Bund.

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