Before I became a Taiwanese citizen I was a waiguoren (外國人), a “foreigner.” Now that I am a citizen, am I still a waiguoren? I was a bit surprised at first, but it makes sense. Waiguoren, like the Hokkien a-tok-á (阿斗仔, “straight nose”), is as much an ethnic marker as it is a statement of one’s nationality. Personally, I prefer to call myself a “new immigrant” in Mandarin (新住民), but it is a bit strange for Taiwanese when I call myself that because the term is mostly associated with foreign brides from Southeast Asia.

I’m clearly a white guy, but my not too distant ancestors were not always “white.” I am the descendent of Jewish immigrants to the United States, and when they first arrived Jews had not yet been accepted as white. That changed after World War II, and Jews are kind-of-white now, although the shouts of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville served as an ugly reminder that our whiteness remains a provisional (and largely urban) phenomenon. But just as Taiwanese become “Asian” or even “Chinese” when they immigrate to the U.S., I became a generic “American” white guy when I came to Taiwan.

After I became a citizen I thought that maybe I should call myself an American-Taiwanese, mirroring the hyphenated identities of Taiwanese-Americans. But the way multiculturalism works in the two countries is not the same. Taiwanese-Americans, like other Asian Americans, exist in the buffer zone within a bi-racial caste system that is the legacy of slavery. The term “Asian American” was coined at Berkeley in the sixties, and was inspired by the Black Power Movement. Over time, however, this kind of radical pan-Asianism has given way to a more fractured landscape of culturally and nationally specific identities. In choosing whether to call themselves Asian-, Chinese- or Taiwanese-Americans, many young people still find themselves face to face with the legacy of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) state-sponsored ethnonationalism.

陳長慶短篇小說集中越文本發表 新住民同賀

Photo Credit: 中央社

Taiwanese writer Chen Chang-ching (L) at an event celebrating the Vietnamese translation of a collection of his short stories. Beside Chen are “new immigrants” from Vietnam. Kinmen, Taiwan, July 25, 2020.

American-Taiwanese like myself, on the other hand, are still too few in Taiwan to even register as an ethnic group. And most of us are first-generation immigrants, so issues of ethnic identity are less fraught. Moreover, few of us face the ethnic discrimination here that Asians in the U.S. still face on a daily basis. But it would be a mistake to claim, as Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson did in April, that the “concept of racism does not exist in Taiwan.” Despite official rhetoric celebrating multiculturalism, racial discrimination is a very real problem in Taiwan, especially against Indigenous and migrant worker populations.

Taiwanese racism is in many ways a legacy of the ethnonationalism that helped spark the 1911 Xinhai Revolution in China. A combination of anti-Manchuism and anti-imperialism, Han ethnonationalism served as a useful reversal of the colonial rhetoric that the Chinese people were not ready for democracy or self-rule. Ironically, however, when the KMT came to Taiwan this ethnonationalism was retooled as an instrument for suppressing democracy and self-rule in Taiwan. Generations of Taiwanese were taught that their shared ethnocultural heritage unified China and Taiwan. This logic shaped the status of Taiwanese citizenship as well, with the descendants of Republic of China (ROC) citizens from around the world being granted a fast track to Taiwanese citizenship — a policy akin to the “Law of Return” for Jews migrating to Israel.

It is important to point out that such ethnonationalism has a gendered dimension as well. State promotion of “Confucian values” also meant state promotion of patriarchy. Up until quite recently, Taiwanese ethnicity was determined by that of the father. The children of an Indigenous Pangcah (Amis) woman and a Taiwanese who had emigrated from China after 1945 would be listed as waishengren (外省人), even though Pangcah is a matrilineal culture. Similarly, children of Taiwanese women and non-ROC nationals would not be eligible to attend local schools, since they were not considered citizens.

If Taiwan is now moving away from official ethnonationalism and embracing multiculturalism, much of that has to do with the ways in which China is deploying ethnonationalism as a justification for its territorial claims over Taiwan. Such views are also what China uses to justify the kidnapping and harassing non-PRC citizens who happen to be ethnic Chinese, as happened with the Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai and the Australian journalist Cheng Lei, among others. Although, as Brian Hioe has written, China’s relationship to the Chinese diaspora has not always been so welcoming, having “gone through several inversions in the course of the 20th century.”

There is also no better symbol of Taiwanese sovereignty than its move to disassociate citizenship from Chineseness. Recently, a small number of “special foreign professionals,” like me, have been encouraged to apply for citizenship without having to give up our original nationality. But the egalitarianism of multicultural citizenship can’t erase the hierarchical logic of race which still shapes Taiwanese society. There is no denying the privilege associated with being a foreign professional, as opposed to an Indigenous Taiwanese or a migrant worker. I love my adopted home and am proud of counting myself among its new immigrant population. But I also firmly believe that Taiwan’s future will be safest if it can embrace a more equitable vision of citizenship, one not burdened by the racist legacy of ethnonationalism. I may always be a waiguoren, but that doesn’t mean that Taiwanese have to always think of themselves as Chinese.

In fact, recent opinion surveys show that most Taiwanese reject Chineseness as an identity, but, as Catherine Chou has written, Taiwanese citizenship laws still remain trapped in the logic of ethnonationalism. There are different laws for “ROC nationals” from Southeast Asia and their “non-‘Chinese’ counterparts.” Dual citizenship (like I have) is still considered a privilege for a select few. And Taiwan desperately needs a refugee law. Nor are such problems limited to foreigners. Indigenous people are often used as a symbol of Taiwan. Their likeness sold on keychains at the airport, Indigenous singers are invited to sing at the presidential inauguration, and Indigenous cultural performances are part of many pre-packaged tour group itineraries. But actual living Indigenous people are still often treated as second class citizens.

It is not uncommon for Indigenous people to be mistaken for Southeast Asians, and their names (often appearing in Latin romanization on their official IDs) to be mistaken for “English” — despite the fact that all sixteen Indigenous languages now have official status in Taiwan. Immigrants to Taiwan are expected to pick a Chinese name. Imagine if they could pick an Indigenous name instead? Hopefully Taiwan can someday embrace the slogan of the long-running Indigenous protest movement, and proudly declare that “No one is an outsider” (沒有人是局外人).

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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