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Cao ’13: Across the strait: Chinese, Taiwanese or both?

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Opinions Columinst

Last Thursday night, students almost overflowed Salomon 001 to hear a speech by Justin Lin, the current chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank. The title of his talk was “Demystifying the Chinese Economy.” It was a very insightful and inspiring speech, but I find Lin’s personal story even more interesting. This expert on China’s economy was actually born in Taiwan.

Before coming to mainland China, Lin was a captain in the Republic of China Army, which is part of the Taiwanese military. But he saw the mainland as his motherland and wanted to go back. When he was 27, he swam across the Taiwan Strait from the island of Kinmen to Xiamen, which is in the Fujian province of the People’s Republic of China. With only two basketballs as flotation devices, Lin swam 8 kilometers to the other side of the strait. Soon after, he went to Beijing to get a master’s degree in political economics at Peking University. The Taiwanese military, unable to track him down, declared him missing after one year and compensated his family.

 Lin has stated that “based on my cultural, historical, political, economic and military understanding, it is my belief that returning to the motherland is a historical inevitability. It is also the optimal choice.” Lin and his family gave up a lot for this belief. He went to mainland China to pursue his personal aspirations, but because of his identity, his decision could not stay personal.

His story proves how difficult it is for someone from Taiwan to assert his Chinese identity. The gap between the two identities is definitely wider than a 8-km swim in bitterly cold water and life-threatening danger. Lin left behind his pregnant wife and a three-year-old son, only to unite with them after years in the United States. The Taiwanese government has branded him a traitor. He was not permitted to travel back to Taiwan to attend his father’s funeral.

Does one always have to choose between Taiwanese and Chinese identities? It is already difficult to be a Taiwanese American, but to be Taiwanese Chinese is almost impossible. Between 1945 and 1991, the government in Taiwan claimed that it was the only lawful government for mainland China. But the One-China policy, supported by the People’s Republic of China and many other countries, asserts there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it. The People’s Republic of China thus disputes Taiwan’s sovereignty by claiming Taiwan is ethnically Han and therefore culturally related to the Chinese nation.

But Taiwanese history, culture and ancestry are much more complicated than they seem to be. Other than the Mainlanders (waisheng ren), Taiwan has many other ethnic groups, including the Hoklo (fulao ren), the Hakka (kejia ren) and the Aborigines, which includes the Plains and the Mountains. Taiwanese identity has also developed over the decades. Since the political and economic transformations of the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwanese identity has become more inclusive and nationalistic.

On the other side of the strait, the Chinese portray their Taiwanese brothers mainly through imagination. Teachers tell students that Taiwan is historically a province of China and all they want is to get it back, while the Taiwanese tend to imagine the mainland as much more underdeveloped and totally authoritarian.

But reality contrasts with these imagined depictions. Chinese travelers find Beijing more modern and attractive after taking in the urban landscape of Taipei. The Taiwanese report similar experiences and sentiments: They sometimes find the mainlanders to not be very civilized and hesitant to follow some rules. The derision runs both ways.

The way to resolve this problem is through communication. But both groups need a neutral understanding of each other’s cultural and historical background in order to begin the process. Strait Talk, a non-partisan dialogue program founded by Brown undergraduates in 2005, seeks to resolve the conflict by bringing together people from both sides of the strait. The topics of Strait Talk’s speaker panels have included peace and stability, law and society, culture and identity and business.

The program focuses on dialogue rather than on pushing political agendas. Although the Taiwan Strait issue is supposed to be a flashpoint that can trigger confrontation between the U.S. and China, it is not purely political. By maintaining a dialogue, Strait Talk gives participants a chance to stand in each other’s shoes before making abrupt judgments.

The 2011-12 academic year is Brown’s Year of China. The themes of this series of events include China’s cultural production, its place in the world and its future. But before we look at these themes, we first need to understand what we mean by “China.” What is Taiwan’s place in this discussion? Is it possible to be both Chinese and Taiwanese? The Year of China and Strait Talk both provide us an opportunity to reflect on these questions.

Jan Cao ’13 has never been to Taiwan. She loves Taiwanese cuisine, especially o-a-chian (oyster omelet), san bei ji (three cup chicken) and bubble tea.