We should unify as Asian Americans, not get hung up on old-world identities

Sulu Wang and Sue Yang Wang circa 1950s after they arrived in Taiwan from mainland China. (Courtesy Irene Hsiao)

Special to The Times

I am not Taiwanese American.

My parents — who were born and raised in Taiwan — are not Taiwanese.

They are Chinese from Taiwan because they are waishengren, which literally means “people not from the province” in Mandarin Chinese.

The recent turn of events starting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China’s response by holding more military drills and the heightened tensions between Taiwan, China and the U.S. have made me reflect on my identity as a Chinese American and an Asian American here in the Pacific Northwest.

My grandparents and their Taiwan-born descendants were the waishengren, the “roughly 1 million Chinese civil war exiles who had been displaced to Taiwan before, during and following the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime in China,” according to University of Missouri-Columbia’s Associate Professor Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang’s book talk.

Some of the issues related to Taiwan-China relations that have resurfaced stem from that same period of time when Mao Zedong and the Communists took over the Chinese government in 1949.

During this historical moment of upheaval, my family landed in Taiwan. All of my grandparents fled, including a grandmother who boarded a train and then a boat with four young children to escape.

My parents, who are waishengren, identify as Chinese. Since I was born in Renton and raised in Arizona, I describe myself as Chinese American.

When people ask me if I’m Taiwanese, my response is always to talk about the explanation above. I am not Taiwanese or Taiwanese American, for that matter. I did visit Taiwan a few times when I was young, and I had my first Chinese language immersion experience there. However, my identity is not just based on my family’s history. Some of my cousins are Taiwanese Americans. Some of the friends I grew up with in Arizona are Taiwanese Americans, as well.

Since I moved back to the Pacific Northwest a few years ago, the number of “Are you Chinese or Taiwanese?” questions that I am asked have increased. After all, Washington is on the Pacific Rim and the state has one of the largest Taiwanese American populations outside of California, Texas and New York, according to the Asia Matters for America project.

Frankly, quibbling over who is Taiwanese, Chinese, Chinese American or Taiwanese American is unimportant these days. We should all be unified as Asian Americans when we deal with the real issues Asian Americans are facing. Are we able to rally everyone to support each other when we confront Asian American hate, especially in our post-pandemic world? Can we take political action as a group whether it’s in Washington state or nationally? Can we tackle racial and gender inequity issues, such as unequal pay, lack of leadership opportunities in the C suite and microaggressions in the workplace as Asian Americans with a united front?

These are the real issues many Asian Americans face, not what identities our families had back in the old countries. The problems they faced are no longer a priority for Asian Americans in the U.S. Instead, I challenge all Taiwanese Americans, Chinese Americans and all other Asian Americans in Washington state and across the country to drop anything that divided us in the old country and come together to combat current anti-Asian American hate and workplace inequality issues.