Featured Photo Credit: Ted Thai/TIME Magazine
Last semester, I applied to attend a conflict resolution conference that brings together young representatives from China, Taiwan, and the U.S. to discuss cross-strait relations. Having spent much of my life studying the controversial status of Taiwan and the various perspectives surrounding it, I was excited to use my knowledge to help foster mutual understanding on all sides. Needless to say, I was also looking forward to the video interview. When I opened Skype, I was greeted by two conference planners. After exchanging the usual greetings, they asked me the first question:
“How would you describe your ethnicity?”
For some people this is a simple question. For me, it is not. I was born and raised in the U.S. to parents from Taiwan whose ancestors came from China over a century ago. My last name is Chinese. Chinese people would consider me Chinese. For all intents and purposes, I might as well be Chinese. And yet I never wanted to identify as ethnically Chinese. Growing up, China always seemed so foreign–even hostile. I have distinct memories of people in Chinatown speaking to my family in Cantonese, a language that none of us understood. In middle school, a Chinese-American classmate whose family hails from Beijing once declared to me that Taiwan is “not a good place.” One time, my family went to a “UN for Taiwan” rally in New York, where I learned that China uses its influence to bar Taiwan from the UN. So what did it mean to be “ethnically Chinese” if I had no positive feelings towards China?
What even is an “ethnicity”? The first thing most people think about is the racial aspect of ethnicity: you are part of an ethnicity if you are a part of the bloodline of that ethnic group. Based on this definition, I am Han Chinese, because my ancestors migrated from Qing China over a century ago to the island of Taiwan. But what does that mean if “everyone on earth is actually your cousin“? What does it mean to be Chinese when we are all human beings with a common origin? From a scientific perspective, the racial basis for ethnicity makes no sense.
“Fine,” some people may say, “but ethnicity is also about what language you speak.” Based on this definition, I might also be ethnically Chinese, because I speak Mandarin, a Chinese “dialect.” When you think about it, Chinese is a family of related languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hakka, and Shanghainese to list a few) that are as mutually unintelligible as Spanish, French, and Italian. Further the languages spoken in Taiwan have changed so much in the past century: the constellation of languages that existed before the arrival of the Republic of China including Hokkien, Japanese, Hakka, and various Austronesian languages, has largely been replaced by Mandarin. Language, it turns out, is not any better than bloodline at defining ethnicity.
“Then what about culture?” some might ask, “ethnicity is about sharing a common culture, isn’t it?” But then what is Chinese culture? Is it the culture of the Tang dynasty or the Ming dynasty? Is it peasant culture or elite court culture? Perhaps more importantly, would peasants and courtiers, Tang dynasty officials and Ming dynasty officials have considered each other to be of the same “culture”? Culture, an arbitrarily-defined concept, can therefore not lend itself to the task of defining the concept of ethnicity.
So ethnicity is constructed. But what does that mean for me?
The interview continued: “How would you describe your ethnicity?”
The way the question was phrased seemed to indicate that my interviewers did not believe there to be one definition of ethnicity. Yet, I felt that they were still expecting a straightforward answer from me, and I did not have one. How could I describe my ethnicity if I did not believe in ethnicity? Flummoxed, I replied, “I don’t identify with an ethnicity. It’s a social construct.”
“Then how would you describe yourself?” they asked.
It then occurred to me that they were probably trying to use my views on ethnicity as a proxy to understand who I was and where I was coming from. I suspected that if I revealed my “ethnic affiliation,” they might conclude that my views were a direct result of my being Taiwanese-American. Not wanting to take the risk, I avoided any mention of Taiwan and instead listed my interests: “I like playing ping-pong, I’m a history major, I… I like to learn languages…” Clearly these were not the answers the conference planners were looking for, as one of them interrupted me with the next question: “Why do you want to be at this conference?”
In retrospect, they were right to be confounded. I was presenting a false image of myself, one that made me seem completely detached from Taiwan. This of course could not be further from the truth. My passion for Taiwan was what motivated me to help set up a conference that would give American students the opportunity to go to Taiwan themselves. In addition, my questions about Taiwanese identity were what inspired me to study history in the first place. My application touched on some of my passion for Taiwan (though without mentioning my family background), so it is evident that I had a personal connection to cross-strait relations.
Yet, I’m not sure that probing this personal connection through my ethnicity was the best way to do this. My views on cross-strait relations are not a direct result of the fact that my parents came from Taiwan. (Taiwanese people disagree with each other on the topic of national identity anyways.) My family background did spark my interest in Taiwan, but could I not have arrived at my conclusions through careful thought and analysis? Furthermore, am I not a unique individual with interests like ping pong, history, and language-learning?
I would like to think of myself a sum of my experiences. Experiences which derive from being raised by two Taiwanese immigrants and having a spunky sister, from loving Taiwan and visiting it often, from growing up in the US and having lived in South Korea and Japan, from meeting people, reading books and taking courses that changed the way I view the world, and from all other experiences that have made me who I am today.
So please do not reduce me to an ethnicity – I am much, much more than that.