The Greatest Challenge Facing U.S.-Taiwan Relations
When it comes to the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Taiwan (the Republic of China), there have been numerous controversial issue-areas. For example, under the framework on its One-China Policy, the U.S. has revoked its diplomatic recognition and broken off political ties with Taiwan back in 1978. Later on the bilateral relations were continued based on the Taiwan Relations Act, a domestic law regulating mainly the economic and cultural relations between these two countries, till today. In spite of the fact that there are no official diplomatic relations, both governments retained its dialogue on the international stage. So, what is the common problem that both sides are confronted with? Both lands are composed of an ethnically diverse citizenry. But this has unfortunately brought about prejudice and discrimination amongst each other. It is troubling to find a national identity when there are struggles internally. Two stories will be unveiled in the following parts.
1. My homeland, Taiwan, is a very tiny island located in the very eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, with more than 23 million people dwelling in. There are mainly four ethnic groups constituting the whole population: 70% are Hoklos who speak Hoklo dialect that was later perceived as Taiwanese, 15% are Hakkas who speak a different Hakka dialect, 13% are Mandarin Chinese- speaking Mainlanders who immigrated to this island during and after the Chinese Civil War in 1940s, and 2% are the indigenous people who were the original inhabitants. The clashes and lack of trust towards each other have deteriorated this island in terms of unity and identity.
I, as a descendant of the Hoklo group, have been continuously taught by elder family members that people other than us especially those mainlanders fleeing from China with their lord Chiang Kai-shek (a former president of the Republic of China and political party Kuomintang) are not genuine and even wicked that they want to “sell this island to the People’s Republic of China. Back in 1996 when I was only an 8-year-old boy, onceI was stunned at the news in which numerous missiles deployed by the opposite side of Taiwan Strait were targeting our homeland.
“You see? It is the evil Chinese people and those who don’t speak Taiwanese here that threaten our security and democracy”, said my agitated and anxious grandfather.
It was my very first impression on the antagonism between ethnic groups in Taiwan. A couple of years later, I finally knew that the missile crisis was China’s response to our unprecedented democratic presidential election which allowed people to vote for their president, rather than what my grandfather told me.
Then I began to ponder upon what led to my grandfather’s thoughts. The divide between Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese can be traced back to 1940s, when president Chiang retreated to Taiwan with his army. To rule the unfamiliar island in which most of the people neither spokenor understood Mandarin Chinese with such a small number of mainlanders, hence several bloody oppressions were conducted to strengthen the rule. The Taiwanese dialect was even prohibited in school education for 40 some years until democratization in late 1980s. My grandfather and his peers fell victims to the oppressive rule of Kuomintang government. To no surprise, they educated their offspring, namely the generation of my parents, to hate the ruthless government and its followers; on the other hand, the mainlanders also taught their children that Taiwanese people are uneducated and uncivilized. That was how the story went on.
In addition, I was also told that Hakka people are stingy and selfish and Indigenous people are comparatively unintelligent since I was very little. And I guess that’s part of the reason why in the past intermarriage among different ethnic groups was also very unusual, if not discouraged from elders, and the situation didn’t disappear until recent years.
As I grew older, Taiwan has gone through tremendous political and social changes, including the first and second party alternation through which it claimed to be a mature democracy. But the truth is that the antagonism ingrained in the social structure hasn’t been mitigated but become worse. My first experience to exercise my political right as a citizen was the 2008 presidential election. A series of family discussions were held by my grandfather and father to explain how the family should vote.
“Who should I vote for?” asked my innocent mom.
“Just remember not to vote Ma Ying Jeou who is unqualified to be the president because he was a mainlander,” responded my father in a firm manner.
Both my grandfather and my father didn’t forget to urge everyone not to vote for “the representative of the mainlander” right before we were stepping into the voting booth.
Even till now after president Ma has begun his second tenure as a president, this kind of irrational hatred toward each other is still going on at many places in this small island.
With its steady and outstanding economic performance, Taiwan has attracted many people from South-Eastern countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines. These new immigrants come here either for making their living or marry to Taiwanese people. As far as I am concerned, this ongoing new trend is a turning point for underlying cultural issue. More and more children of new immigrants are attending schools, interacting with their peers who come from multi-cultural backgrounds, and this can undoubtedly educate the children to get along with people different from them at the very young age.
Now I am already a graduate student who aspires to be an official in the government in the future, I find it extremely necessary to integrate different ethnic groups into a solid unity, especially when Taiwan is still facing a very difficult situation internationally. If the people in this island cannot stick together and a sort of Taiwanese identity hasn’t been established at the first place, under no circumstances would Taiwan’s voices be heard by the rest of the world.
2. A seven year old boy walks in with an Asian woman to enroll in swimming lessons at their local community pool. He’s filled with apprehension because he’s afraid of drowning. He doesn’t know what it’ll feel like when the ten-week summer lesson is over, when he’ll be expected to swim all the way to the six-foot deep end alone. This goal is what consumes his young mind, yet everyone is staring at him for other reasons. He isn’t as well-equipped as the other kids - lacking a swim cap, and only dressed in board shorts. The other kids his age are sporting the more expensive Nike-designer boy swim shorts the other parents have opted for. His mom proceeds to just lightly brush his face, neck, and shoulders with sunscreen, avoiding the rest of his body. “Don’t worry you’ll just get a little darker, and the sun isn’t too strong today,” she says. His mother then leaves and will pick him up a couple of hours later. Everyone now looks on curiously with what just happened as the swim instructors take him in to mingle with the other young kids.
The curiosity presses on, and the children are not afraid to hide their true feelings.
“Was that your mom?”
“How come your mom didn’t smother you in lotion like the rest of us?”
“Where did you buy your clothes?”
One of the most expensive summer swimming camps in San Diego just had the rare occasion of adding what appeared to be a young African American kid interested in learning how to swim. That,and he has an Asian mom. And it may be even more surprising because everyone else there happened to be Caucasian. This just happened to be my story and this experience provided me with an interesting personal take on American society, albeit at such a young age.What I could gather though, was a person different from them sparked questions.
As a kid, I never thought of myself as being a part of a minority that was looked upon with a curiosity because we technically didn’t fit the mold of the rest of country. Having an immigrant parent with a thick Cantonese accent didn’t help all too much either. But in future situations, the truth was that I was different and I couldn’t avoid questions not just about being biracial, but about looks and ethnicity as well.
“What do you eat every day?”
“Do you have a dad?”
“Do you live around other people your color?”
Despite the shared American culture that prides itself as a “melting pot,” there are still evidently misunderstandings. Certain factors that are characteristics of one group was always applied to everyone.
Back to my swim camp at seven years old, perhaps I was too young to understand all of the complexities. However, when facing the barrage of questions I knew that I was being treated differently. As the weeks went on, I grew closer to everyone there. And as they got to know me better, soon the questions went away. Once people grew more comfortable, they adapted to the differences. It wasn’t until my very last day where we were tested to swim 10 meters to the six-foot-deep end of the pool. I successfully completed the task with no problem. I had one of the best times among all children present. After all kids received their certificates, a coach approached my mother and said he wanted me to participate in their regular swimming season. He was impressed by my improvement, but also that he “could spread a little diversity too.”Regardless of my own merits, he still sought to take me as a means to improve the way others perceived him.
Despite signing on for swimming lessons for another year, he never seemed to change this distinction. Whenever he talked about our differences as swimmers, it was hard to separate it from the obvious.If he chose me last in the order of swimmers and said that my “long arms would be helpful,” it’s hard to know if he was predisposed to believe advantages in biological factors.
It’s hard to explain the seclusion people feel when no one else is similar to them. In society, most people tend to live in areas where they can find others with similar lifestyle interests. This however, creates vast differences between communities.Aperson might live a few blocks from another area, but may never go there because it might be different among ethnic or economic lines. It’s now not so difficult to see how curious people have grown towards each other.
Through my experiences, I was put in a place so different from home, but this particular community is what I felt was part of mainstream society. The dichotomy was stinging because together we have the same national identity and I had to struggle to see where to fit in.
The lack of understanding is telling between different cultures within America. Among different demographics, especially race, many do not intermingle. Yet, many assume that America should be the leader when it comes to creating a working intercultural society. As we look to other parts of the world, these lessons can hopefully form a national identity that can help to bring people together and solve our differences.
The U.S. and Taiwan are so different in some ways, the former is one of the mostpowerful countries around the world, and the latter is not even a country in many people’s eyes. But they are also very similar in other ways; both are facing the cultural clashes among different ethnic groups. In the U.S. the problem might result from the history and the lack of respect towards others, while in Taiwan the prejudices were instigated by the political elites who tried to maximize their interests by manipulating ordinary people’s ideas.
Having been very close friends for a long period of time, the U.S. and Taiwan’s relationship can probably sustain longer due to the shared democratic values and close trading partnership despite of the fact that there is no diplomatic relation between them. Here we present the possible common challenges within each country that would put potential impacts on the bilateral relationship. Mainly consisting of immigrants rather than aboriginal inhabitants, people in both U.S. and Taiwan should adopt a more open-minded attitude towards others. Although the divides in both countries did not necessarily stem from the same origin, it’s very important and urgent to cope with the issue. Through impartial and right education, I believe, people will gradually learn to appreciate others, and in the long run both countries will become the real paradigm of democracy.
[Author 1 David Li]
[National Cheng-Chi University, Taiwan]
[Author 2 Lawrence Whitfield]
[National Cheng-Chi University, Taiwan]