Monday, March 03, 2008

Nerd Journal: China, Taiwan, and a Conversation on Campus

Gentle reader, I simply have to report this. You'll have to let me know what you think.

Anyway, I've pointed out before that people from mainland China often have a certain...predictable or common reaction to finding out that I (or my Sibling or my relatives, etc.) have a heritage from Taiwan.

Well, a few days ago, I had to go to a campus reception, and it happened again. Let me explain.

There were lots of people in the room, and everyone was mingling and talking and being sociable (largely because, I suspect, we had been ordered to go to this function and had no choice). After a little while, a cheerful middle-aged Asian man introduced himself to me. He was a professor teaching Chinese matters.

His English was very good, though I could detect a slight accent.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"I am from Beijing," he said, saying then that he had lived in the States for a large number of years. Then, inevitably, he asked me, "Where are you from?"

Here it comes. Here it always comes. In as neutral a tone as I could, I said, "My family is from Taiwan."


He was still polite, but a certain light was now in his eyes. I had seen it before, trust me.

"Ah, well," I said lightly. "So much politics."

I was trying to steer the conversation to a less volatile topic. But he pressed. He was still polite, but he pressed: "So what do you consider yourself to be? Chinese or Taiwanese?"

This question was not innocent. It was a loaded question, and it had the potential to open an argument. Are you Chinese or Taiwanese?

I looked back at him and smiled. "I'm an American."

He stopped, looked, and slowly smiled back. "Ah..." It was a defeated look, but there was a silent understanding: I was NOT going to take his bait, and I was NOT going to get into some pointless debate (besides, a Taiwan-cheerleading nobody like me versus a real Nerd Lord?).

As for my answer...Well, maybe it was a little evasive? But it also had the benefit of being true.


Brian J. Dunn said...


You applied the Taiwanese defense strategy to your social problem: Hold off the Chinese onslaught by appealing to America for help--which everyone knows leaves you being Taiwanese.

Perhaps it is a good sign that it worked for you.

And your answer was good even without the international relations angle. Being American is a state of mind and not of the blood or soil.


Mad Minerva said...

Good point about being American. After all, I'm an American first -- an American with Taiwanese heritage, not a Taiwanese who happens to reside in America.

As for the conversation itself, I can't even begin to say how sick and tired I am of the Same Old Thing every time I meet someone from mainland China. My dear Sibling just called to report that he had run into someone who proceeded to lecture him on how Taiwan is a province of China, etc. etc. In every case, it's the Chinese who picks a fight with the Taiwanese who's minding his own business and just wants to be left alone. Hmmm...maybe it's the small scale version of the overall situation! ;-)

Michael Turton said...

LOL. I was just reading on a Canadian Blog a translation of an interview with a Canadian-born Chinese -- isn't THAT a weird formulation -- nobody would call me an "American-born Italian" -- who, after commenting on her social work, came up with that inevitable quasi-religious formulation -- we need to stop calling ourselves Toisan Chinese or Taiwanese Chinese, and we have to accept that we are all Chinese.

Aargh! Why must we accept that we are all Chinese? What does that mean? It's just a reach for control...

Many of my Taiwanese friends who have gone to the PRC report that experience. Some pro-KMT types have for the first time questioned their own identities as a result. So on the whole, the continuing a$$hole nationalism is helping to foster the local independence movement. On the other hand, sometimes I wish the Taiwanese would speak out more. They are just toooo silent on the Taiwan-China issue.

Anyway, nice blogpost. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

This is actually a very common situation people from China like to use against people from Taiwan. They ask you where you are from (assuming already you could be Taiwanese), and hoping that you answer Taiwan.

It's not just bait, a lot of times they just go ahead and say "oh, but we're all Chinese", or "Taiwan is part of China too". You just met a more polite one.

Unknown said...

Bravo. Your reply was perfect. I have the same background and experience. We are Americans!

No point in getting into a debate with the ultra-nationalistic Chinese.

Mad Minerva said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

True, sometimes the Chinese person will say something like "we're all Chinese," but far more often I get the hostile response in some degree. Besides, what does "Chinese" mean to the person in question? Are we talking politics or culture? There's that old saying, after all, that China is a culture masquerading as a state.

There's also a persistent factor in all these interactions: no matter if the mainland Chinese person is hostile or not, in every case, he CANNOT OR WILL NOT LEAVE THE TAIWAN ISSUE ALONE, but will pick at it like a dog with a bone.

And Michael: yes indeed, the Chinese nationalistic push is very alienating. I mean, seriously, why would a Taiwanese (for instance) who gets the PRC browbeating then turn around and decide, hm, I think I'll go JOIN these people who have been browbeating me...? (BTW, I really enjoy your Taiwan blog!)

Anonymous said...


My wife was born in Taiwan and lives in Australia, so I understand this issue.

My understanding is that Chinese use blood lines to state everyone is Chinese.

But how far back does one go? 5000 years, 50,000 years?

We now choose the later, and tell Chinese we are all Africans!


Anonymous said...

I say I'm Taiwanese all the time! My (mainland) coworkers know I'll stand up to them, and they don't even try. However the other Taiwanese are more polite, and avoid the situation.

Anonymous said...

Mad Minerva, I think you handled the situation great! However, I was surprised that so many people commenting also apply this strategy. I usually see this as an opportunity to stick up for Taiwan. I'll answer that I'm Taiwanese and if disagreed with, I'll explain myself briefly and keep things civil. So far, no heated arguments, but maybe my Chinese friends are just nice people. I know there's little chance of convincing the Chinese person, but I just can't bring myself to say I'm Chinese to a Chinese person trying to get me to call myself Chinese.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that you had this encounter. I remember a similar incident with an older person while I was in college, however, ten years later and in grad school now, it's refreshing to meet Chinese who do recognize Taiwan as an independent country, or are open to learning more about Taiwan beyond what their government tells them.

Prince Roy said...

I find your answer to be a cop-out. When he first asked you where you were from, why didn't you say "America" then? Because you yourself said "My family is from Taiwan", I think he followed with a legitimate question.

Anonymous said...

Prior to the influx of chinese in high tech jobs (or maybe just at my company) things were fairly civil).

However after 1998, a few of these new colleagues started to be more political and after finding out I'm from Taiwan, proceed to inquire what I "am"?

What could I say but I am Taiwanese! Taiwan is its own country!

Anyways after a few encounters they stopped provoking me.

Mad Minerva said...

Dear Roy,

I don't think it was a cop-out as I took his initial question to be about geography, not politics. I guess he and I were talking in different terms, because he said he was from Beijing and I said we were from Taiwan. Maybe if I'd said that we're from Taipei and matched him city for city, it would have been better...but oh well.

Mad Minerva said...

Dear anonymous, you make great points. For me there's also the factor that on campus, that other person is my superior, so that throws another factor into the mix. I would feel much freer about "mixing it up" with a peer or colleague, though I'm inclined to avoid pointless arguments when possible, as in every case so far the other person isn't interested in hearing a Taiwanese point of view. Well, maybe sooner or later, I'll be surprised and have a productive exchange of ideas, but it hasn't happened yet in my life...

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that you'll meet more open-minded Chinese - sometimes, it may just be the circles that we find ourselves in at a certain time and place.

I do wonder, though, had your conversation with your professor been in Chinese, would things have turned out differently?

Just saying "Chinese" or "Taiwanese" in English for some people may be too loaded like you said.

This may not only have been a seniority issue, but also a generational issue - if you're perceived as an American of ethnic Chinese descent, you may also be thought of as ignorant or disrespectful of things Chinese or Taiwanese.

Of course, this is still unfair, because it's not like your superior is the end-all, be-all of Chineseness.

I suppose what I'm saying is that sometimes it might be easier to persuade than to provoke.

For example, I speak fluent Chinese and often ask my Chinese peers, "What is so-and-so like in your country?"

And of course, when they ask about Taiwan, I say, "In our country..."

Mad Minerva said...

Thanks for your feedback, anonymous. It's certainly preferable to persuade rather than provoke, though there's a problem if the other party isn't interested in persuasion...?

Anyway, do feel free to email me and we can discuss more off-post if you like.