What it’s like to be Taiwanese American right now

In the Miss Taiwanese American pageant, contestants typically answer questions like, “Describe yourself in three words.”

As this year’s contest came days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan, organizers urged the young women to share their thoughts on the island.

One candidate, Tiffany Chang, highlighted Taiwan’s vaunted semiconductor industry and a democratic government that provides universal health care and has legalized same-sex marriage.

Chang said afterwards that she has become increasingly aware of her role in educating others about Taiwan as China’s threats become more aggressive.

“As Taiwanese Americans, when we don’t define our identity, it’s imposed on us, which is something Taiwan’s history reminds us over and over again,” said Chang, an incoming freshman at Stanford who was crowned the winner Aug. 6 at the Hilton Hotel in San Gabriel.

A woman in a red dress.

Tiffany Chang, winner of the Miss Taiwanese American pageant, at Pasadena City Hall.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Taiwan’s complex geopolitical and ethnic history caught the nation’s attention in May after a gunman opened fire on a Taiwanese church congregation in Laguna Woods, killing one and wounding five.

As details emerged about the Taiwan-born suspect and his political beliefs, Taiwanese-Americans explained an issue that can only be dealt with in paragraphs, not sentences. Some growing up in the United States realized that before they could answer friends’ questions, they had to study more themselves.

Last month, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan forced the world to take notice of the island’s precarious existence.

To what extent was Taiwan, with its own military and a democratically elected government, de facto independent despite China trying to call the shots? Would the US come to Taiwan’s aid if China attacked? Were the people of Taiwan afraid? (No, they mostly were worried about what to have for dinner — and what Pelosi ate while she was there.)

In Southern California’s Taiwanese immigrant community, some thought Pelosi had given her homeland the attention it deserved, while others viewed the trip, which prompted China to launch rockets and fly fighter jets near Taiwan’s coast, as dangerous bragging rights.

Among the Taiwanese, ideological divisions in American politics are as deep as red and blue, and friends often agree to avoid sensitive issues. Some elders speak Japanese better than Mandarin, while others remember fleeing the Japanese in mainland China during World War II. Some call themselves Taiwanese. Others prefer Chinese. Some want to push more openly for independence.

People hold up signs outdoors.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, chanting “Keep Taiwan Free” and asking for continued support from the US government.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

But most agree on one thing: they support Taiwan’s democratic way of life and don’t want China, which considers the island part of its territory, to take over by force.

“It’s like two brothers in the same family running the family business, but they disagree,” said Prudence Huang, 63, of Long Beach, of divisions among Taiwanese immigrants. “I only hope that before I die, Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution – without war.”

Huang, a retired database administrator who came to the US four decades ago, usually avoids discussing Taiwanese politics. But an online group chat got heated when she asked why Taiwanese citizens would pay for a billboard that read “Taiwan for Trump” during the 2020 election.

“They immediately labeled me pro-Chinese and I didn’t mention China at all,” said Huang, who has dual American and Taiwanese citizenship.

Janet Chu, a medical assistant in the San Gabriel Valley, said Pelosi’s visit put the spotlight on Taiwan.

It was the first time since Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1997 that a speaker of the House of Representatives set foot in Chu’s home country, though congressional delegations often visit.

Until Pelosi (D-San Francisco) made headlines, many of Chu’s friends had little interest in Taiwan, preferring to travel to China or Japan.

“Ms. Pelosi draws positive attention to our country,” said Chu, who moved to California from Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, in the 1980s while waiting for a table at the ZZ Hotpot House in Garden Grove. where she wants to go. I’m glad she chose Taiwan because we need the public to understand our situation.”

In West Los Angeles, Crystal Kaza, who immigrated to the United States in 1991, had a completely different take on Pelosi’s journey. She wondered if Pelosi was after publicity instead of trying to help Taiwan.

“When I see us on the news, my first question is, ‘What is the purpose?’ People talk about Taiwan as if they really understand its history and all the nuances,” said Kaza, 53, a substitute teacher. “But until you live it, you can’t judge.”

People sit at a long table.

Members of the karaoke club at the Taiwan Center in Rosemead.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

More than 50,000 Taiwanese-Americans live in Southern California, according to the June analysis of AAPI Data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This is probably a significant undercount as some identify their ethnicity as Chinese.

Beginning in the 1960s, students from Taiwan enrolled in US graduate schools, often to study science or technology, said Chris Fan, a professor of Asian-American studies at UC Irvine.

Many stayed to pursue careers and raise families. The immigrant pool later became more diverse, but Taiwanese Americans remain among the country’s most educated and wealthy ethnic groups, Fan said.

Older Taiwanese immigrants are defined by their identity as orphan gren – those fleeing mainland China around the time the Nationalists lost to the Communists in 1949 – or Benshengrenwho had previously settled in Taiwan, said Wendy Cheng, a professor of American studies at Scripps College.

Subsequent generations are more likely to identify as Taiwanese regardless of their ancestry, Cheng said — just as is the case with younger people in Taiwan.

Recently, members of the karaoke club belted out songs at the Taiwan Center in Rosemead.

People sit at long tables in a large room.

Members of the karaoke club at the Taiwan Center in Rosemead.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

John Huang, a retiree from Arcadia, sang “Minato Machi Blues” in Japanese.

He was born under Japanese colonial rule at the age of 84. After Chiang Kai-shek’s repressive government took power, he was banned from speaking the Taiwanese dialect at school.

Huang, who came to the United States in 1975 and worked as an interior designer in Beverly Hills, taught his two children to be fluent in Taiwanese.

“A long time ago they said we were Chinese because they controlled everything,” he said. “You now know that everything is Taiwanese”.

A day later, Lillian Chang arrived at the center to collect her award for being named the first princess in the Miss Taiwanese American pageant.

Chang, 26, is a satellite structures engineer from Torrance who moved to the United States as a teenager. Quite a few colleagues have recently asked her about Taiwan.

“I just told them, ‘We’re doing our job to spread democracy,'” she said. “Well, if you can help, that would be good.”

Perspectives are different on both sides of the Pacific, Chang has recognized, with distance heightening fears for loved ones.

After the church shooting, Chang’s parents called from Taiwan to express their concerns about gun violence and hate crimes. She promised to hide in her car if necessary, adding that she went to a shooting range to become familiar with a gun.

Many in Taiwan, accustomed to decades of threats from China, reacted nonchalantly to Pelosi’s visit. Chang reminded her mother and father to prepare for an emergency Backpack to take with you in case things get bad.

“They didn’t,” she said. “Which worries me.”

The events of the last year have forced Taiwanese-Americans to confront their history and their internal divisions — which may draw them closer together, said Chieh-Ting Yeh of Mountain View, Calif., co-founder of Taiwan-focused Ketagalan Media.

Regardless of their ethnic background, many can unite in the common cause of “defending democracy, freedom and human rights, especially against China,” said Yeh, who came to the US from Taiwan at the age of 10.

“People realized that despite all the internal differences within Taiwanese identity, we have something to fight against,” he said.

Being a Taiwanese-American means constantly reading the headlines, “trying to read everything people say about us,” said Alan Chang, 26, while sipping sea-salt coffee at Taiwanese Bakery 85C in Irvine.

Chang has friends whose parents are from mainland China, as well as friends like him with roots in Taiwan. They haven’t delved much into each other’s backgrounds.

Chang, who works part-time for a transport service, is not registered as a voter and was surprised by Pelosi’s visit. He assumed that American politicians were primarily concerned with domestic issues.

“I didn’t understand the impact of their trip because I’ve never been to my parents’ home country,” he said. “I guess now is the time to learn more. It made me curious to talk to them about how they grew up.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-01/from-o-c-church-shooting-to-pelosis-visit-what-its-like-to-be-taiwanese-american-right-now What it’s like to be Taiwanese American right now

Alley Einstein

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