Sean Su (left), a first-generation Taiwanese American activist, was born to Taiwanese immigrants who escaped to the U.S. in the 1980s. Courtesy photo

Sean Su (left), a first-generation Taiwanese American activist, was born to Taiwanese immigrants who escaped to the U.S. in the 1980s. Courtesy photo

Understanding the Taiwanese perspective | Guest column

  • Friday, December 17, 2021 2:41pm
  • Opinion

Being Asian in America is a complex experience primarily because the term “Asian” singularizes and organizes a cacophonic plurality of cultures and lived experiences into a monolithic category called “Asian American.”

However, there is more to the Asian experience than we assume. Asian immigrants bring in stories and histories that are often overlooked in the midst of more popular cultural histories and stories.

Take for instance the story of freedom and strife that many Taiwanese Americans have been trying to convey by marching through the streets of New York and Seattle. The Taiwanese experience has noticeably gathered more momentum since October 2021, with Taiwan-U.S. relations becoming a recurring subject of discussion in the media. Experts attribute this to the looming threat of a potential invasion of Taiwan by China in 2022-2023, and to the U.S.’s role in attempting to arrest the invasion along with the consequent geopolitical repercussions of Taiwan’s invasion. Most of these hypotheses remain ambiguous at this point.

The U.S. has a significant Taiwanese American population. I met Sean Su, a first-generation Taiwanese American activist, recently to understand the complex politico-historical journey of Taiwan through his story.

Sean was born to Taiwanese immigrants who escaped to the U.S. in the 1980s. His father was a journalist who had to flee the consequences of uncovering a criminal activity closely tied to triads with connections to the government. Sean’s aunt had already been executed for speaking out against the government during the White Terror, and it was unlikely that his father would take the risk of endangering his own family by staying in Taiwan.

The complexity of Taiwanese politics, that drove Sean’s family out of the island, goes back to the 1940s. Officially known as The Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan came under the control of the nationalist government of China in 1945 following the cessation of Japanese occupation. However, a civil war back in the Chinese mainland, between the Kuomintang (KMT)-led nationalist government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), forced the former government to retreat to the island of Taiwan.

The nationalist party from China found itself at loggerheads with a Taiwan that was under Japanese colonial influence for 50 years. Steven Phillips in his essay “Between Assimilation and Independence” notes how the Japanese colonial era left Taiwan with much higher standards of living, education and sanitary conditions compared to mainland China. Not only was this a reason for the new rulers (KMT-led government) to struggle with the decolonization and reintegration efforts, but it also led to setting up a state security apparatus that clamped down on any form of dissent or anything the government recognized as disloyal to its interests. Any failure to prove loyalty to this new government led to arrests, imprisonment, and other forms of disciplining.

The reintegration efforts by the government were what led to the Feb. 28 massacre and the period of White Terror in Taiwan, when Sean’s aunt — like thousands of other dissenters and pro-democracy activists — was executed. Martial law and the excessive control of a state security apparatus on the locals of Taiwan would continue until 1987. The 1990s saw Taiwan’s democratization. Ever since, Taiwanese people have kept up the momentum of social movements. And 21st century movements such as the Anti-Media Monopoly movement, Sunflower movement, and Wild Strawberry movement bear testimony to this culture of activism and revolution that shapes the present Taiwanese civil society.

Sean Su has been actively involved in some of these modern-day movements, and remains an integral part of the Keep Taiwan Free movement that is “committed to safeguarding Taiwan’s democracy, human rights, press freedom and civil liberties.” The movement fights against Taiwan’s orphaned status in international politics (including the United Nations) owing to “political aggression and scaremongering from the People’s Republic of China.”

On this note, Su clarifies the definition of freedom in the context of Taiwan: “We want people to feel a sense of urgency — Taiwan is already independent, but we want to keep Taiwan free from authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, free from hate, free from China, from KMT until the KMT can reform itself.” Despite these sentiments, the mainland’s ruling party, CCP (Chinese Communist Party), claims China has territorial rights over the self-governed island of Taiwan.

On being asked about the recent reports of Chinese fighter jets spotted near Taiwan, following the increasing ties between Taiwan and the U.S., Su remarked: “We are so used to it in Taiwan, that most people don’t react fearfully to it.”

Furthermore, China has its own set of internal problems with the Evergrande real estate crisis, several companies folding due to inability to pay back debts, commodity prices rising, etc. As a result, Su observes: “China has been stepping up its aggressive posture. I think the Chinese government wants to be feared. With the rise of ultranationalism in China, there needs to be a scapegoat, and Taiwan is always the scapegoat.”

While the potential invasion of Taiwan by China remains equivocal, the Taiwanese continue to fight for international recognition and spatio-political rights to sustain their freedom. Activists like Su are of the opinion that China’s display of military threats is intended to construct a formidable image to obscure its internal instability and deflect any accusations or threats from other world powers.

However, with Taiwan’s status as the hub of semiconductor production, and its geographical proximity to Japan and Korea, an invasion could lead to severe geo-political repercussions bordering on a war that sucks different world powers, including the U.S., into its folds.

Taiwan or the Taiwanese perspective therefore sheds light into a world that is co-dependent, and multifarious in terms of its histories and stories. It also counters the myth of the meek and docile Asian, for different Asian Americans/Asian immigrants bring in different perspectives, stories and histories. It is up to us to listen with care to what they have to say.

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray serves as Faculty of English at Highline College. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India.


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Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray serves as Faculty of English at Highline College. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India.

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