By Rebecca Wei Hsieh
It’s hard to talk about Taiwan. I’ve spent forever agonizing over this piece, trying to approach it delicately so as not to anger folks on either side of the Taiwan Strait, to avoid being overtly political. The relationship between China and Taiwan is thorny at best. However, tiptoeing around the issue, especially for this particular piece, contradicts my argument, so I’ll get right to it:
We need more Taiwanese representation in English-language literature, and we need to sit with the discomfort of all the sociopolitical baggage that entails, whether the story is explicitly about politics or not. (For brevity, I use Taiwanese to encompass both the sourceland and diaspora.)
For starters, increasing Taiwanese representation would be a win for Asian representation in general. Western media portrays Asia as a monolith, often using China and Japan as stand-ins for the continent as a whole. Distinguishing Taiwan as a unique culture would serve as a reminder of the sheer diversity of a continent that contains multitudes, from Mongolia and Singapore to Sri Lanka and Nepal.
“We need more Taiwanese representation to show that not everyone who speaks Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) and looks ‘Chinese’ is from China,” author Peg Cheng told We Need Diverse Books, adding that she would often be mistaken for Thai. “[My family is] Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American and we have our own culture and traditions even if some of them overlap a bit with those from China and Japan.”
There are also plenty of people who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese, such as writer Mina Li, Mina Li, whose parents are Waishengren—her Han Chinese grandparents moved to Taiwan after the Kuomingtang government’s retreat in 1949. However, despite the extensive cultural overlap across the strait, Chinese rep can’t fully take the place of Taiwanese rep.
“I don’t know if I can really think of any [books that represent me] when it relates specifically to Taiwan,” Li told We Need Diverse Books. “I want to say Joy Luck Club, maybe […] but otherwise, not a lot in terms of being Taiwanese.”
As for myself, I’m a Benshenren of Hakka and Hoklo descent whose Han Chinese ancestors migrated to the main island before 1949. I admit a major reason why I’d like more Taiwanese representation is that I’m pro-independence, and want to highlight the elements that set Taiwan apart from China. But my desire for more Taiwanese rep still boils down to the simple desire to be seen.
For most of my life, the closest thing to Taiwanese representation that I could find was actually Chinese. “Eh,” I’d think, shrugging my shoulders. “Close enough.” But is it really?
There are countless similarities shared across the strait, and I’ll be forever grateful for the Chinese stories that kept me afloat as I consumed white-centric media. Yet similar is not a replacement for the rich, eclectic mix that is Taiwan.
No text about China or Chinese America has made me feel as seen as books like Want by Cindy Pon or The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. The particular way we speak Mandarin mixed with Taiwanese. The fluorescent signs of half a dozen convenience stores, vying for my attention. The sweaty waves of people as I squeeze my way towards a coffin bread vendor, dodging scooters left and right.
Since Taiwan is home to less than 24 million people, and an even smaller population resides in the West, the lack of visibility comes as no surprise. There simply aren’t that many of us. But I think cross-strait tensions contribute to the invisibility too. YA author Judy I. Lin agreed, and told WNDB, “There may be reasons why someone chooses not to identify as a Taiwanese author or write stories set in Taiwan, because to call yourself Taiwanese is, at times, a political statement in itself.”
Even as a child, I was aware of the pressure the Beijing government was exerting on Taiwan. The evening news played segments debating the pros and cons of calling ourselves Taiwan or the Republic of China. Controversies would arise whenever a Taiwanese person catapulted into the international spotlight, whether in the literary world or in sports. My high school maths teacher called the whole class Chinese, sparking an argument that (blessedly) derailed the statistics lesson that day.
Political tension is embedded in Taiwan, whether we want it to be or not. It curls around every piece of art like incense smoke, barely visible but undeniably present. It echoes amongst our mountains, reminding Han Taiwanese of our history as both the colonizers and the colonized. It endures journeys across the Pacific, shifting as migrants leave for the West, shaping the diasporic landscape of their new homes. The shadow of 1949, of the White Terror, of imperialism, will follow us, as shadows do, for as long as the sun shines.
We should absolutely work to bring our painful history to light. As writer and sensitivity reader Shenwei Chang explained to WNDB: “Taiwanese identity is […] deeply political in its formulation and framing. […] There were entire generations of Taiwanese people who were silenced and made invisible by the White Terror.”
It’s a sentiment shared by poet and editor Rebecca Y. Lee. “There’s definitely a lot of silence in our communities around the politics of our parents and what came before they immigrated to the U.S.,” Lee told We Need Diverse Books. And those stories deserve to be heard.
Young readers would benefit too. Yes, politics is complicated and messy and difficult. But kidlit introduces complex concepts and makes them more accessible to younger readers. The way writers weave heavy topics into age-appropriate stories is one of the reasons why I still enjoy reading kidlit as an adult.
Lin also pointed out how English-language rep alleviates language barriers, an obstacle that Taiwanese kids in diaspora may face when trying to connect with their roots. “I’m lucky in that I’m able to understand and speak Mandarin and I can read Traditional Chinese,” she said. “But other Taiwanese Americans or Canadians may not have that ability, and therefore what they are able to access is limited. It’s difficult to find translations of Taiwanese books!” She added that immigrants and children of immigrants in the West have stories different from those who grew up in Taiwan, stories that deserve to be celebrated and shared as well.
Little Taiwanese kids deserve to be seen, and non-Taiwanese kids should know that we exist. I don’t want adults not to write about Taiwan at all to avoid its baggage, or because we underestimate young readers’ capacity to understand complex concepts. As those children mature, they may choose to delve deeper, developing their own nuanced opinions that shape cross-strait politics for their generation.
But the thing is, you can’t really develop opinions on something that you don’t even know exists in the first place.
Taiwan’s convoluted history has led us to the tension that hovers over the Taiwan Strait, but it has also resulted in a sprawling, breathtaking, intricate tapestry unique to the islands. It’s time we put Taiwan and its diaspora onto the map of English-language literature and imagination; if not for us, then for the generations to come.
Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is a Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator, and authenticity reader based in NYC. Having grown up across several continents, her writing focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness, and mental illness, and has been featured in outlets like Book Riot, The Dot and Line, Off Colour Inc (formerly Nerdy POC), and OC87 Recovery Diaries. She has a BA in theatre and Italian studies from Wesleyan University, and you can find her attempts to use her liberal arts degree at rwhsieh.wix.com/home.