Who is Taiwanese? : A Taiwanese American Christian’s Response to the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Shooting

Who is Taiwanese? : A Taiwanese American Christian’s Response to the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Shooting
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

We are a complicated people with so many backgrounds, stories, and ways of understanding identity. We are all a part of Taiwan, whether we call ourselves Taiwanese or not.

“Who is Taiwanese?” 

What on the surface seems so simple actually gets more complicated the more you learn. I spent two years of my life working on a documentary film trying to answer that very question. In Taiwan, if you ask, “Who is Taiwanese?” you’ll probably get a wide and diverse set of responses and answers. But this question is at the heart of the major political parties and cultural conflicts that divide Taiwan today. It is a question that has come up again in the wake of the recent tragic shooting at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. In its wake, the simple attempt to identify facts about the shooter, the victims, and the motivations of this planned attack has ripped open old wounds and made new ones. It has reminded us that in the Taiwanese and diaspora communities, there is still much more healing that needs to come.

David Chou, the suspected gunman who murdered Dr. John Cheng, and injured five others, was identified in early reports was identified in early reports as “Asian,” “Chinese immigrant,” and “U.S. citizen who grew up in Taiwan.” But as more information has surfaced in Taiwan and among diasporic communities, it has become clear that Chou, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, was not merely motivated by “anti-Taiwanese hate” as most U.S. English language outlets reported. He is from Taiwan and a waishengren, a child of one of the millions of Chinese people who came to Taiwan after the Kuomintang (KMT)’s retreat from China after the end of World War II, as well as a member of a Las Vegas chapter of a right wing pro-Chinese unification group. Understanding Chou’s social position in the recent history of Taiwan is essential for understanding why this man planned this attack.

What we know from reports, that he visited the church before to scope out the space, and drove from Las Vegas to Irvine, passing many other Taiwanese churches along the way, conveying guns and homemade explosive devices, all point to an attempt to murder as many people as possible at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church.

It is easier to paint a picture of international aggression between China and Taiwan than to delve into the fact that, in a place like Taiwan, there are many who identify as Taiwanese, Chinese, or as both. Indigenous Taiwanese people, too, are often erased in this dialogue. We are an island full of kind and generous people who live, work, love, and raise families alongside one another with fierce disagreements about national, cultural, and ethnic identity.

This brings me to the question behind the one that I opened with:

“Am I Taiwanese?”

I was not raised to think of myself as Taiwanese. I grew up in a family with two parents who had immigrated from Taiwan to the United States, where I was born and grew up. But we never referred to ourselves as Taiwanese. We were Chinese.

My family came to Taiwan after 1949; We are waishengren. My father’s side came from Myanmar to Taiwan in the 70’s under the rallying cry and banner of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s — the KMT — project to gather overseas Chinese support for an exiled Republic of China (ROC) government. They came with the hope and promise that they were finally “going home” after a generation as persecuted ethnic minorities, unable to practice their language, cultures, and traditions, and most of all unable to access the privileges of citizenship.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A memorial for Dr. John Cheng, a 52-year-old victim who was killed and others wounded in Sunday's shooting, is shown at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, U.S. May 17, 2022.

The ROC offered all of this to them. My father, proud to be Chinese, and proud to be part of a history, legacy, tradition, culture, and “civilization,” finally found a place to belong.

During this same era, the KMT was enforcing martial law and brutal political repression upon the people of Taiwan, a period known as the White Terror. The people who had been living there before the KMT’s arrival — mostly ethnically Chinese Hoklo or Hakka and Indigenous Austronesian people — were not allowed to practice their languages, cultures, and traditions. My maternal grandfather was a member of the KMT military, the very same regime that Taiwanese people describe as the colonizers and oppressors of Taiwan. 

But this is not the narrative I was raised with as a child. I grew up in a Taiwanese American community alongside waishengren blue KMT families and benshengren (the people living on Taiwan before the arrival of the KMT) green Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pro-independence families. But mostly, I grew up extremely ignorant of Taiwanese politics and enjoyed (inasmuch as a child enjoys extra school) attending Chinese school, going to my extracurricular activities, potlucks, mahjong, and karaoke most weekends with these families. This is why when new reporting from Kimmy Yam revealed that Chou had participated in community potlucks and social activities from the Taiwanese Association of Las Vegas, alongside mostly pro-independence Taiwanese people, sometimes even attending musical performances with his wife at the local Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Las Vegas, I was not at all surprised. 

It was not until I grew older that the gaps in my knowledge began to create almost comical problems for me. I joined a number of Taiwanese independence internet groups, assuming that since my family was from Taiwan, we must support Taiwanese independence. Everything changed in college when I began my own journey to critically understanding my racial and cultural identity and started to research the history and politics of Taiwan, filling in the gaps of my U.S.-oriented education. I returned to Taiwan on my own to study Chinese, and befriended many people from various backgrounds and politics. Most of all, I began to listen.

I have heard Taiwanese people say that I am not Taiwanese because I am American. I have heard Taiwanese people say that waishengren should go back to China, that they are not real Taiwanese people either.

My life changed through a friendship with an older Taiwanese woman, active in Taiwanese independence politics and Indigenous issues. She told me, “If you have a relationship with Taiwan, and you think that you’re a Taiwanese person, then you are a Taiwanese person.”

I cannot change the past. I cannot undo the fact that the reason why my family ended up on Taiwan was for reasons connected to the agenda of a military dictator who terrorized the ancestors and families of many of my close friends — and even some of my extended family. I cannot change the conditions that lead to me being here, in this place that my family and I now call home. I do not think that it benefits anyone — me or those victims of this systemic violence — to stew in guilt or shame, to try and self-flagellate myself. We do not have a choice about how and to whom we are born and raised. But we do have a choice in how we decide to live. While I may not have been born in Taiwan or raised as a “Taiwanese” person, I recognize that my personal story and that of my family is deeply and inexplicably intertwined with Taiwan, that it is the place my family lives now, and it is the place we will continue to be. I have chosen to cast my lot in with them, here on this beautiful island.

Biology is not destiny. I have chosen — instead of dwelling in guilt and shame — to build a future together where we do not erase the past but work to fix that which has been broken and seek healing in love, hope, peace, and solidarity. You jump, I jump Jack.

“Do I belong here?”

Citizenship in the Kingdom of God was the first place that I ever felt assured of my belonging. Earthly nations and kingdoms may come and go, but I could rest in knowing I was God’s child. It was this security that gave me the courage to start asking bigger questions, questions that before I had been too scared to ask for fear of an answer that might trigger a deep existential crisis, about my Asian American-ness, my Chinese-ness, and my Taiwanese-ness.

I was not raised a Christian, but my faith is perhaps the most important and defining part of my life and identity. I remember the first time I ever read the Bible at the end of seventh grade. When I got to the part in Exodus about Moses fleeing to the desert away from the Egyptians who had adopted him, and also, his blood relatives the enslaved Hebrews, he named his son Gershom which means “sojourner” because “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” It hit me somewhere deep in my soul. 

Growing up in the United States as the child of immigrants, I never felt like I fully belonged: I knew I had U.S. citizenship, but I never felt quite sure that I was fully accepted as an American. I would return to Taiwan with my family, and they would say I was American.

When I mentioned in casual conversation at a family dinner that I had started attending a Taiwanese Presbyterian church, my aunts and uncles made little jabs telling me that I shouldn’t tell them I come from a “blue” (KMT) family. To them, the Taiwanese Presbyterian church represents the DPP, benshengren, those who see people like my family as the enemy and will never accept us as belonging here in Taiwan. For my family, the ideology of Chinese nationalism is what brought them here in the first place, the thing that justifies their existence. If we let go of that way of seeing Taiwan, as a part of China (and not just the ROC or PRC, but the bigger overarching “idea” of China), then we are also letting go of the idea of home that they’ve finally been able to make for themselves after generations of wandering and migration. For many, Taiwanese-ness is something that exists in the past, an identity that claims pre-existence to the arrival of the ROC, something that we don’t quite have the family background to claim for ourselves. So the only way we can believe ourselves forward, and preserve our existence is to hold onto Chinese nationalism, the hope of the glory of a reunited China, a reunited family, so that we can finally go home again, or rather “stay home.”

I understand why members of my family and particularly, my parents’ generation hold onto this way of understanding identity. I and many others in my generation disagree with it, but I think that I can understand the need to find home and belonging for them. After all, those are things I hope to find for myself too. But for me, Taiwanese-ness is not something that exists merely in the past before ROC occupation, but the hope of a future for all of us who have, by various means, found ourselves calling this island our home. 

Making a Home and Building a Future

I have spent almost four years here in Taipei attending graduate school at National Taiwan University (NTU). For the majority of that time I have attended a weekly Bible study at Chi-Nan Presbyterian Church, a flagship church of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (PCT). There is no question of the political orientation of my Bible study attendees: pan-green, pro-independence, and politically progressive.

We spend many nights reading the Bible and discussing the context of those Bible passages, then asking how we can apply them to our current context here in Taiwan. Questions about nation building, identity formation, militarization, and colonization come up almost every week.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

As someone from a waishengren family, my Taiwanese Hokkien skills are extremely limited. Other than a few everyday phrases that my mother used to usher us to eat dinner, apologize, or say thank you, we were very much a Mandarin-speaking household. In this Bible study and church community, I found that upwards of 50% of my Bible study would be in Taiwanese Hokkien. (The rest mostly in Mandarin Chinese until recently when an influx of Hong Kongers threw Cantonese into the mix as well). Weekly church services at most PCT congregations are done in Taiwanese Hokkien, from the hymnal, to the Bible translation, to the sermon, this is one of the few places in Taiwan that you can still find institutionalized Taiwanese Hokkien, or Taigi.

I started taking Taigi classes at NTU. My degree required a third language related to my research, and since I was studying church music in Taiwan, Taigi felt like a perfect choice for me. I seized upon an opportunity that I had long awaited, a missing piece to feeling like a true bonafide Taiwanese person. Back in 2014-2016 when I worked on my documentary, I had arrived at the conclusion that I did not need to know Taigi in order to be a “real” Taiwanese person. I instead arrived at a place where I had decided it was enough to embrace this identity and chose it for myself. I felt that learning Taiwanese would help me to deepen the relationships I had with local Taiwanese people and be an expression of my solidarity with my chosen community.

I was welcomed as a sister. I was welcomed as a Taiwanese person. I may be a “third generation waishengren” but my Taiwanese Presbyterian community will remind me, enthusiastically, that I am a “first generation Taiwanese!” We wrestle with the ins and outs of Taiwan’s postcolonial realities, transitional justice, of loving our enemies, and working to make Taiwan into a place for the flourishing of all people.

I will not pretend that this denomination and community does not struggle with issues of settler colonialism, homophobia, ethno-nationalism, or other worldly corruptions, but it is the place that I have found a home, people to co-labor alongside, and belonging.

St. Paul, the most prolific apostle in the entire New Testament began his story as Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians. While on the road to Damascus, Jesus appears to him and asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What follows is the most dramatic transformation of the New Testament where the oppressor becomes the oppressed, and the persecutor becomes the persecuted.

I find comfort in stories like that, most of all, because I need to believe that there is hope for people like me. My family inheritance does not come without stains and without blood, but how am I to make a home with and among those who I or my family has harmed in the past? My faith gives me answers for that and gives me hope that healing and reconciliation is possible, and that we are not doomed to the sins of the past or destined to condemnation. I am a Han Chinese person, but I spend a significant amount of my life denouncing and fighting against Han supremacy — think white supremacy but Chinese! We can build a future together, we can take the swords used to kill and destroy, and we can turn them into plowshares that till earth and bring new life and sustenance to bless people.

The Taiwanese Presbyterian church is a place for me that I found love and acceptance. I am building a life and a future for myself — someone without the pedigree of Christianity or Taiwanese-ness but who gets to join in the harvest, celebrate the good news, go home, and be called sister.

This fall, I am enrolling in Princeton Theological Seminary with the intention of pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church, in large part due to the influence that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has had on me. They gave me a vision of a future that included a place for someone like me, and I look forward to spending my life serving in this community.

This is why the news of the shooting by David Chou has affected me so much. When he showed up at the church, they welcomed him in. They knew he was not a regular, but they heard him speak Mandarin and heard something familiar in his accent, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t think that the shooter was looking for community and acceptance. Instead, he wanted to eliminate what he saw as an obstacle to the glories of “Chinese civilization” and “reunification.” Usually in the United States, we speak of nationalism or racism as conflicts between groups based on difference. In Taiwan, it may be that people who do not look or sound so different from each other have radically different ideas about identity and nationality. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies. Sometimes our “enemies” are our neighbors or the members of our own families. 

Chou didn’t just want to kill any Taiwanese people. He wanted to make a strategic political attack against a community and institution that has supported Taiwanese independence and been a sanctuary for Taiwanese activists. Even more, assumptions that have arisen about Chou’s identity and belonging do not connect his specific branch of pro-unification Chinese nationalism to a domestic Taiwanese history, rather assuming it is of outside Chinese influence, stoking increasingly rampant Sinophobia in the United States. We are a complicated people with so many backgrounds, stories, and ways of understanding identity. We are all a part of Taiwan, whether we call ourselves Taiwanese or not.

When I look at Chou I see someone whose experiences and views are not so distant from that of family members I know, or friends of family — but our realities are not split into some sort of ethnic essentialism. There are benshengren who identify as Chinese and waishengren that identify as Taiwanese. As we continue to sit with the grief of this attack and consider the posture with which we want to move forward, my prayer is that we choose restorative justice instead of retributive justice, and we continue to extend the welcome that I have been so fortunate to receive.

I am thankful to be in a spiritual community that is wrestling with hard work of repentance and reconciliation because it knows that we are all one body, even if we don’t always like to admit it. We do not get to choose who we are born as, but we do get to choose who we want to build our lives with, and how we want to live them.

My heart is broken and still breaking whenever I think about the tragedy that took place at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. But I will continue to believe in a God who promises that it shall come to pass: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65: 25). And I will continue to cling to my faith which teaches that there is room for everyone to belong and continue the work with my community to build a better world and a bigger table, even for sinners such as me.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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