“So… do Taiwanese people consider you Taiwanese?”
This was a question a Taiwanese-American friend asked me last year.
At the time, I had been in Taiwan for only a few months, so didn’t have anything insightful to say. It’s also not like people can identify that I’m foreign from my looks or my accent.
I have since found that Taiwanese people (mis)understand me in hilarious ways.
But first, let me specify which Taiwanese people I’m referring to:
- NOT Taiwanese people I met abroad. I’ve met a lot of Taiwanese people whether in Japan or Korea or the U.S. For some reason, they have never asked me these questions.
- NOT Taiwanese people who have family members in other countries. They are aware of the diaspora.
- ONLY Taiwanese people I meet in Taiwan — including Taiwanese who like travelling, have lived abroad for part of their lives, or have foreign friends.
So what are these interesting thoughts they have?
The Questions I Get
I’ve been asked a lot of funny questions, and at first I didn’t know how to answer them or why they were being asked. It’s kind of like being asked by an adult, “Is the ocean big?” or “Are there other planets in the universe?” You can’t tell if they’re being serious or why they’re asking you this question.
Here is a sampling:
“Taiwan is a country and it also isn’t a country. I bet you’ve never thought about that, huh?” (台灣同時是一個國家，也不是一個國家，這妳大概沒有想過吧？)
PLEASE. Taiwanese-Americans/etc and Taiwanese living abroad are often most affected by this issue. When I was in ~2nd grade a teacher told me that “Taiwan is a part of China.” According to PRC regulations, my parents can’t go to China unless their US passports (they have US passports now) say they were born in “Taiwan, Province of China.” It’d be crazy if I had never considered the issue of Taiwan’s statehood.
“Where did you learn your Chinese?” (你中文是在哪裡學的？)
Umm… in my house?! Once someone asked me this over text message, and I just ignored the question as I wasn’t sure how to answer it. Now I usually just cut to the chase: “Mandarin was my first language. I’m a native speaker. We spoke Mandarin at home.”
Another time, a friend noticed that when I touched something hot by accident, I would say 好燙！(“hot!” in Mandarin). He then asked me, “What did you say before you spoke Mandarin?” （你還不會講中文的時候是說什麼？）At that time, I didn’t understand the question. Thankfully another friend, said “Mandarin is her first language, right?” (中文是她的母語吧？) and it hit me why he was asking the question.
Once I shared that tomato fried egg 番茄炒蛋 is the first dish I make when I move to a new country. The reason being that there are tomatoes and eggs everywhere! When I shared this story, a Taiwanese friend asked, “How do you know the flavor is right?” （你怎麼知道味道對不對？）
I’ve been eating Taiwanese food for as long as I can remember. That doesn’t mean I like all Taiwanese foods of course. For instance, I don’t like duck blood, but I do like stinky tofu, Taiwanese sausages, etc and cannot remember when I first ate them. A related question my sister was once asked: “You guys only eat hamburgers, right?” (你們那邊只吃漢堡，對不對？)
“Do you use chopsticks?” （你會用筷子嗎？）
I’ve been using chopsticks for as long as I can remember. In fact, I don’t remember when I learned to use chopsticks.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Oh so they think you’re not Taiwanese.”
That’s only half the story. 😂
They don’t realize my parents are Taiwanese 😅
I’m not totally surprised when Taiwanese people assume that I have zero understanding of Taiwan, that my first language was not Mandarin, and that I’ve never tried Taiwanese food.
What DOES surprise me is the underlying assumption– that my parents totally forgot to
- speak Mandarin to me
- teach me to use chopsticks
- eat Taiwanese food
Taiwanese people seem to think my parents moved to the US and just… became 100% American.
Once when I was discussing Taiwanese parenting with some friends, and I brought up how my parents wanted me to be a doctor, a friend asked, “You mean your parents didn’t totally assimilate?!”
Even more interestingly, they don’t seem to fully understand that my parents are Taiwanese, born and bred in Taiwan. They know that my parents are from Taiwan, but then somehow forget that they are Taiwanese.
In a conversation once, I mentioned that I can speak/understand basic Taiwanese (Hokkien), because I grew up hearing my mom speak it to her family. Upon hearing this, a Taiwanese friend asked, “Your parents speak Taiwanese!??!”
At the time, I was dumbfounded. After all, it’s common knowledge that most Taiwanese people in my parents’ generation speak Taiwanese or some other non-Mandarin language as their native tongue. So I wasn’t sure why this was news.
Then a Taiwanese-American friend of mine shared a similar story that enabled me to connect the dots.
A Taiwanese friend from Taiwan was visiting her in the US. He was going to stay with her family, and asked her, “What should I call your parents?”
She replied: 叫叔叔阿姨就好了 (“just call them uncle and aunty”).
His response: “They speak Chinese?!”
This is a smart person who went to one of the best universities in Taiwan. Yet they thought it was possible for Taiwanese people to move abroad and… not speak their language 😅
So it seems that many Taiwanese people forget that Taiwanese people who move abroad… still retain “Taiwanese characteristics.” I guess these examples show how difficult it is for most Taiwanese people these days to envision uprooting themselves to settle in a different country.
What I realized is that the idea of the diaspora escapes most Taiwanese people who grew up in Taiwan and plan on living here their whole lives.
So they may be well-travelled and have foreign friends, but they don’t really have diaspora friends — that means, Taiwanese-Americans/Canadians/Australians/Dutch/etc.
So I don’t blame them. But I do think they could… think a little more carefully.
A little anecdote to illustrate my point — In the 2016-2017 school year, I was an assistant English teacher in France. It was late September 2016. I was having one of my first classes with the 2nd graders, so the teacher had the kids ask me questions. A bunch of them were curious if I could count to 100… or 1000… or “what’s the highest number you can count to?” “in English? and in French?”
The teacher and I both burst out laughing. The teacher however told them, “Think before you speak!! She’s been to university. Of course she can count!!”
This is the expectation the teacher had for his second graders. So I’d like to say the same thing to Taiwanese adults.
Think: If you moved abroad, would you all of a sudden stop speaking Mandarin or Taiwanese? Would you forget to use chopsticks? Would you not speak in Mandarin to your kids? Would you not make or buy Taiwanese food to eat?
And… that’s a wrap!
Again, I don’t mean that all Taiwanese people I’ve met in Taiwan have asked me these questions!
But a surprising number of them have 😅
And I hope this clears things up.
If I get a chance I’ll write a Part II to this about my legal status in Taiwan and other fun stuff about my confusing existence.