Sometimes when I write about my wife and daughter’s heritage, I do not know whether to call them Chinese American, Taiwanese American, or Asian American. For different reasons, none of the terms quite work. Manyu would agree with me. When she is asked about her cultural roots, she describes herself as “Chinese from Taiwan.”
The problem with Chinese American is that “Chinese” refers both to a chunk of land and to a race of people. Even though Taiwan is officially the Republic of China, most people think of Communist China when they hear the word “China” or “Chinese.” I do. Chinese, however can also refer to the Han people, those (regardless of their residency) with the physical characteristics of straight black hair, brown eyes, soft facial features, and skin folds on the upper eyelids. Manyu and Clare are Han, but they are not Mainlanders.
The problem with Taiwanese American is that for the entire second half of the 20th century, “Taiwanese” referred to only one segment of the people living in Taiwan. The indigenous people there were not called Taiwanese, nor were the Han people who came to Taiwan in 1949 along with Chiang Kai-shek. These recent arrivals, considered interlopers by the people already there, were called wàishěngrén (外省人) or “outside the province people.” Only the Han people who relocated to Taiwan from Fujian Province back in the 1700s were called Taiwanese. They also were referred to as bénshěngrén (本省人) or “the provincial people.” With the passing of many of the people who were alive in Taiwan during 1949, the sharp distinction between wàishěngrén and bénshěngrén fades. My mother-in-law, who escaped to Taiwan as a teenager, still considers herself Chinese, not Taiwanese. Clare, nearly seventy years my mother-in-law’s junior, thinks of herself as Taiwanese or Taiwanese American. Manyu, born in Taiwan, but still looked upon as wàishěngrén by her elders, is stuck somewhere in the middle.
The problem with Asian American is that it is overly broad, taking in peoples as different from each other as the Japanese and Bangladeshi. Had you asked me a year ago, I would have assumed the term was coined by the US Census Bureau in its attempt to replace the somewhat offensive term Oriental. Recently I learned that Asian American was first used by a group of Asian graduate students from the University of California Berkeley back in the 1960s who wanted to show a united front in their efforts toward social justice. Even though these Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian students had little in common culturally, they suffered the same ignorant bigotry of the racists who lumped them all together.1
Only once have I heard Manyu or Clare ever refer to themselves as Asian American. It was from Clare when she was in college. She served as an officer for her college’s AAA (Asian American Association). Her alma mater, Grinnell, is a very small school, so the coming together of disparate groups was an effort to bring together enough people to form a community on campus. When Clare completes a voluntary race question on a form from either the government or her college, she likes it when “mixed race” is listed as an option. She is less pleased when the form stops there and does not allow her to proudly state she is both Han and white. On most of these forms, she can be white or Asian or mixed race, but she can’t be all three.