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What It Means To Be Taiwanese And Why It's Different Depending On Generation


The island of Taiwan, about a hundred miles off China's southeastern coast, has its own democratically elected government, its own flag, its own military. Yet most of the world, including the U.S., won't recognize it as an independent country for fear of upsetting China, which insists it owns Taiwan. Caught in the middle are the island's citizens. They are constantly at odds over national identity, even in their own households. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us this report.


XI GUOREN: (Speaking Chinese).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The bean sprouts in the wok inside the Xi family kitchen are starting to sizzle - and so are the tempers around the dinner table.

XI RAY: (Speaking Chinese).

XI G.: (Speaking Chinese).

XI R.: (Speaking Chinese).

XI G.: (Speaking Chinese).

XI R.: Yeah, sure.

SCHMITZ: It's only been minutes since I've sat down to chat with Xi Guoren and his daughter Ray. And when I ask a question about identity, Rei asks her dad to leave the dining room.

XI G.: (Laughter).

SCHMITZ: Why don't you want him to be here?

XI R.: Because we, like - it's been through so many times that we had an argument about it.

SCHMITZ: The last time the two argued about their identity was in Japan. It was a family trip. They were on the subway. And Rei became embarrassed because her dad was speaking loudly inside a crowded but characteristically quiet Tokyo subway car. When they got to their stop, she lectured her dad.

XI R.: I just told him, like, you have to respect their culture. You don't talk it out loud in the metro. And that's their culture. And he's like - oh, but no, we're Chinese. We don't care about that. No, you're Chinese. And then we started to really, like, fight and everything.

SCHMITZ: She yelled at her dad - you might be Chinese, but I'm not. I'm Taiwanese. We're different. There they were, screaming at each other over whether they were Chinese or Taiwanese along a crowded street in Japan.

XI R.: I think that to respect other people's culture means that you respect your own culture. But then, if we do not agree, like, what culture we are...

SCHMITZ: Then, Ray says, you've got problems. This gets to the heart of what it means to be Taiwanese - where concepts like country and culture can be trigger words; where people in Ray's father's generation see themselves as exiles forced to flee China, their homeland, after losing a civil war to Communists, only to arrive here on this island, an island their children identify not as a refuge but as home, a homeland, a democratic free society independent from China.

Later on, when I get a chance to talk to Ray's father, he explains.

XI G.: (Through interpreter) I was told at school I'm Chinese. Young people are told they're Taiwanese. Their education tells them to be wary of China, that the country's backwards and disorderly and that it threatens us. But we're all Chinese by blood. However, we taught our daughter to be whoever she wants to be.

SCHMITZ: He says his daughter is what the Taiwanese call born independent.

SZU-CHIEN HSU: In Chinese, we call that tianran du.

SCHMITZ: Dr. Szu-Chien Hsu runs the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

HSU: The young people have very strong Taiwanese identity. If you ask them if you're Taiwanese or Chinese or both, almost 90 percent of them will say we are Taiwanese.

SCHMITZ: In a survey Hsu's foundation conducted last fall, 70 percent of young people in Taiwan said they'd fight if China's military invaded their island, which China has threatened to do if Taiwan's government formally declares independence. That said, the overwhelming majority of people in Taiwan, says Hsu, do not advocate declaring independence from China.

HSU: Overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people, they prefer to maintain status quo - and the status quo including a democratic system.

SCHMITZ: Back at the Xi household, Ray, the daughter, says she would die defending Taiwan. Her father has a more favorable view of China. But her younger brother, 23-year-old Xi Zhengqun, seems to be in the middle, the status quo majority Dr. Hsu was talking about. But he's less worried about China's political influence than its economic influence.

XI ZHENGQUN: (Through interpreter) If we unify with China, their money comes in, and it will be hard to live here. They're richer than us. We'll be priced out of our own home.

SCHMITZ: He complains that China already exerts considerable control over Taiwan's economy.

XI Z.: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: "They don't need to take us over by force," he tells me. "They've already bought us." It may be cynical, but it's a thought nobody around the Xi family dinner table seems to disagree with.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Taipei.

(SOUNDBITE OF NADIA SIROTA'S "ETUDE 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.