Treacherous Waters: Growing up in Mainland China as a Taiwanese

Celine Chang, a Taiwanese who has spent the majority of her life in Mainland China, reflects on her experience juxtaposing her identities while living in “treacherous waters”.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot these days, about what it means to be Taiwanese.

It was the first week of my second year in college and I had just finished introducing myself in a Friday afternoon class when it burrowed its way through the sandy seabed soil and lunged out into open water like a starving Bobbit worm roused from ancient slumber—one of my most dreaded questions, something I had been anticipating ever since I first learned of the controversial complexities of my homeland—

“Which side are you on then,” my professor looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, “Taiwan or China?”

I had already predicted this question the moment he emitted a telling noise of intrigue right after I introduced myself as a Taiwanese who had been living in Beijing and Shanghai for most of my life. Nonetheless, the actual verbal utterance of the question still caught me off-guard. Before I knew it, I was a krill snared in the jaws of the Bobbit worm, floundering helplessly as it dragged me to its lair.

He was not asking me to choose between the Qingshan Waterfall Trail and the Sheshan Forest Trail, nor the Taipei 101 and the Oriental Pearl Tower, not even the DPP and the CCP, and certainly not Taiwanese beef noodles and Beijing fried sauce noodles—he put it in the bluntest manner: Taiwan or China.

In retrospect, perhaps I should’ve asked him to clarify what he meant exactly by his question.

Instead, my tongue decided at that very moment to gnarl itself into a knot that sat stubbornly in the middle of my dry mouth. The silence in the room was smothering. I could feel eyes boring holes into my tensed back, and I was suddenly made acutely aware of the identities of the people that surrounded me in this small classroom. A boy from Henan province to my right, a half-German half-Chinese exchange student sitting just behind me, and lo and behold—to my left, a girl from the capital of China and the same city in which I had resided for five years, Beijing.

For the very first time since I had befriended these lovely people, their presence was stifling in a way I’d never foreseen—yet to be completely truthful, I did indeed expect myself to be wedged into an awkward situation not unlike this. I guess I had merely not expected it to take place so soon.

“I’m neutral,” I replied feebly, inwardly wincing at how weak of a response that was and how uncertain I sounded. From the tilt of his head and the way his eyes flitted away from our locked gaze, it was evident he felt the same disappointment. I fidgeted in my seat as the rest of the class took their turns, ruminating over all the other things I could’ve replied instead. I felt almost a little afraid to look my Chinese deskmates in the eyes. I wanted nothing more than to sink into the crevices of Kenting’s many colorful corals as a disguised cuttlefish.

Why was I so nervous? I knew I had no reason to fear them, of all people.

It wasn’t as if anybody was holding a gun to my head or a knife to my throat. It was even anticlimactic, I would say; it felt as if everything in my life so far had led to this event, to this very question—and I had failed, miserably and inelegantly, to summon an appropriate response.

But then again, what would be the appropriate response precisely?

Growing up in mainland China as a Taiwanese, it is a question I myself have pondered time and time again.

The Taiwanese national identity is a peculiar thing, you see. You may hear Taiwanese separatist leaders or Taiwanese citizens in general proclaiming themselves as native Taiwanese people when accentuating how different they are from mainlanders. Now, native Taiwanese are not to be mistaken for the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. While the latter group consists of aboriginal Taiwanese tribes genetically related to New Zealand’s Māori people and who were forcefully driven to the mountains by Han Chinese settlers, native Taiwanese are known as benshengren (本省人) which technically also includes indigenous peoples but typically refers to all those who moved to Taiwan before Japanese occupation in 1895. The native Taiwanese movement or Taiwanese nationalist movement is in no way an indigenous movement. For further information, feel free to check out Jalene’s photo essay on Taiwan.

My own father is half-Hoklo from his mother’s side whose ancestral home lies in Fujian province, and half-Hakka as his father’s lineage can be traced back to Guangdong province and whose ancestors moved to Taiwan during the early years of the Qing Dynasty. My mother is fully Hakka with roots in Meixian prefecture of Guangdong. My ancestors were already in Taiwan long before Japanese occupation, thereby making us benshengren.

As a young child though, I was oblivious to such distinctions. Countries, nations, states, and whatnot were probably the furthest things from my mind. There was only one thing I was aware of—my family is from Taiwan, so I am from Taiwan. Although my nuclear family moved to Beijing when I was five years old and then to Shanghai after five years due to my father’s job, we would fly back to Taiwan almost every summer and winter vacation. It was in Taiwan where we were reunited with my grandparents, my cousins, my relatives, all the rest of our big family—everyone was always ecstatic to see us.

“Finally,” they would say to us, beaming, “you’ve come home. Tell us, were you doing well in China?”

Sometimes they would say “mainland China”. More often than not, just “China”. Thenceforward, my young and naïve mind latched onto this mark of contrast. China was where I studied, where most of my friends could be found. Taiwan was my home, where my parents were born and raised, and a place that welcomed me like a child wandered astray. As far as Little Celine was concerned, “Taiwan” and “China” were separate entities. I did not find one to be cooler or more fashionable than the other, just…different.

Well, Little Celine became more cognizant of the fact that cross-strait relations outstripped the mere constituents of “home” and “school” as I grew up.

During my first year of primary school in Beijing, we as students were asked to draw the flag of our nationality as an activity in preparation for Culture Day, where we would then wave our self-drawn flags while parading around the campus in traditional costumes. Back then I was enrolled in an international school with students of various nationalities, so when I saw my Japanese and Korean classmates drawing their respective flags, guess what I did? I drew the flag of the Republic of China, Taiwan, of course. That’s right, I drew the Blue Sky, White Sun, and a Wholly Red Earth in all its blazing glory. It did not matter that the White Sun was missing two or three triangular rays, as it still very much resembled the picture I had found on the internet.

Or rather, I did not think it mattered until the mere sight of the flag was enough to startle my white American homeroom teacher into drawing me aside. I do not remember her exact words, only that she was very kind. First, she praised my artistic talents (debatable) before telling me that it would be even cooler if I drew another flag. Why not draw the flag of my birthplace, France? I was a bit disgruntled that three missing triangular rays could rouse that big of a deal, but since she said that drawing another flag would be cooler—fine, it was a convincing argument. I complied.  

Nonetheless, I still could not help but to let slip a few words of complaint to my mother upon returning home. I cannot recall how that conversation proceeded exactly, but needless to say, I ended up waving only the flag of France on Culture Day.

As far as I can remember, this is the earliest memory I am able to recollect along the timeline of how I was gradually made aware of the possibilities my Taiwanese identity could pose complications for myself. Events such as the flag-waving incident of Taiwanese K-pop group member Chou Tzuyu and various occasions of Taiwanese celebrities being cancelled in the mainland Chinese entertainment industry along the years only exacerbated my growing worry and identity crisis.

I am Taiwanese of Han Chinese origin, that I knew. I am not from mainland China. But did being Taiwanese mean being Chinese? Should I introduce myself as Taiwanese or Chinese to other people? Did being Taiwanese make me not Chinese? Where am I from, really? How should I introduce myself? Who am I?

I’ve had one too many experiences concerning this matter throughout these past few years. A more personal case occured just last summer while I was doing my civic internship in Shanghai and ended up hailing a taxi back home.

“You have a southern accent that I can’t quite pinpoint,” the taxi driver remarked halfway through our easy conversation. “Do you come from Fujian?”

“I come from Taiwan, 师傅/師傅[i],” I replied without looking up, focused on updating my parents about my whereabouts.

“You mean to say Taiwan, China (中国台湾/中國台灣), right?”

The sudden edge to his voice prompted me to glance up from my phone, and I balked when I met his flinty eyes through the interior mirror.

“O-Oh yeah,” I replied hastily, “of course.”

His eyes immediately creased into a smile, and we picked up the conversation where we had left off.

Honestly speaking, I had assumed that he was merely asking me which province or municipality I came from within China, as people tend to automatically believe that I am Chinese before anything else.

Another recent experience transpired two days before I flew to France from Shanghai, when I was trying to obtain my PCR test certificate. As travel restrictions were tight due to the pandemic, I insisted on the most accurate detailing of information and asked for my Taiwanese passport ID number to be printed on the certificate.

“Your passport ID number?”

I almost reeled back at the sharpness of her voice.

“Your Taiwanese passport is not recognized here,” she glowered at me, “do you know that? It has absolutely no legitimacy.”

By that point, I had become numb to it all. I was just tired of seeing a complete change in one’s demeanor contingent on my identity, being spoken to like I was a traitor caught in flagrante delicto. Taiwanese or Chinese or both or neither—whatever people wanted to call me—I no longer cared and I still don’t.

At that moment, I just needed my passport ID number on that piece of paper.

“Miss, we know, we understand,” my mother explained calmly from beside me. “We are truly not implying anything of that sort, it’s just that my daughter is going overseas, and they do not recognize the mainland travel permit nor the mainland residence permit for Taiwanese residents there. Her international passport ID number really needs to be on that certificate.”

The nurse stayed silent, clicking away on her computer as I exchanged an anxious glance with my mother.

“I can type your passport ID number on the corner of this certificate,” she finally responded after a long moment, “will that suffice?”

Suffice it did, and in fact it turned out to be a lifesaving move because when the customs officer in France pointed out how my residence permit ID number on the certificate did not match my passport ID number, I was able to gesture towards my tiny passport ID number on the corner of the certificate with confidence.

Of course, the pleasant moments I’ve had in mainland China definitely outnumber and triumph over the small handful of sour encounters without question. Whether they be acquaintances, teachers, hairdressers, janitors, and even total strangers—I’ve held amiable conversations with many mainlanders about Taiwan and cross-strait relations without ruffling any feathers. It is the same case in Taiwan whenever the topic of my life in mainland China is brought up. People find amusement in playing with exaggerated accents, people lament the end of individual travel for mainland tourists in Taiwan, they ramble excitedly about celebrities or the entertainment industry from across the strait, they praise the cuisines, the sceneries, they tell me about how much fun they had visiting or studying in the other side during their younger days, they are curious about what people from across the strait think of them—and indeed, after being separated for several decades, the two populations are very different people. As long as our conversations did not veer towards the disputatious topics of nationalism, identity, reunification, or anything of that sort—all went well. At the end of the day, we all reached a firm consensus on one thing: we did not want war.

Each time that I am onboard a plane flying from Shanghai to Taiwan or reversely, I find myself staring at the map of Taiwan on the screen. A place that makes me question my identity, a source of my numerous doubts and worries, making me feel like I belong nowhere and everywhere all at once—I stare in bewilderment at how this misshapen potato of an island could carry so much weight in the world.

How does one choose between the comforting scent of traditional Chinese medicine clinging to my grandmother’s shirt as I tuck my face into the slope of her neck, the way sunlight filters through wutong tree leaves as my friends and I stroll along Wu Kang Road, the crisp sensation of sinking knee-deep into snow during a wintry day in Beijing, the incomparable bliss of slurping Taiwanese oyster vermicelli at the Taoyuan night market, marveling at the festive atmosphere on the streets as people busy themselves with the arrangement of tributes and feasts during the Ghost Festival, the rib-crushing embrace my Shanghainese friends envelope me in after not seeing each other for a whole summer, the sheer convenience of using WeChat for anything at anywhere, car rides at dawn to random mountains or dormant volcanoes for my entire family to go hiking together—tell me, how am I supposed to choose?

After residing in mainland China for more than ten years, I am content to call it my home alongside Taiwan. I am more than Taiwanese, more than Chinese. Born in Paris, raised by a Taiwanese family, brought up in Taiwan and Beijing and Shanghai—I’m just me.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot these days, about what it means to be Taiwanese.

[i] 师傅: pronounced as shī fù. Traditional form is 師傅. It is a respectful title—not to be confused with 师父/師父, which is another story—that you may use to address a skillful person, trainer, or master. For example, you may address taxi drivers, your martial arts teacher, or the repairman who comes to fix your plumbing issue as 师傅.

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