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Are the Huangs in “Fresh Off the Boat” Chinese or Taiwanese?

IMDB says Fresh Off the Boat is about how "a Taiwanese family makes their way in America during the 1990s". However, its season finale features the Huang family shouting "China! China! China!" and sporting PRC flags -- so what are they? Chinese or Taiwanese? And what's the difference?

By , 25 Apr 15 11:22 UTC
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Fresh off which boat?

As I’m sure we’ve heard countless times now, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat tackles the issue of identity. Nowhere was that more apparent than last Tuesday’s season one finale, in which family matriarch Jessica Huang starts worrying about whether or not her family has assimilated too much. In her paranoia, Jessica starts wearing a qipao and forces her son Eddie to represent China in a school project. “China! China! China!” she exclaims.

Most commentators have viewed Fresh Off the Boat through a broader immigrant lens, framing the Huangs’ struggles as “are we Asian, or are we American?” However, FOB‘s season finale made me realize that the show highlights another equally important question of identity: is the Huang family Chinese, or Taiwanese?

From a cursory Google search, most articles and promotional materials for FOB refer to the Huangs as Taiwanese; IMDB’s blurb says the show is about how “a Taiwanese family makes their way in America during the 1990s”. However, FOB‘s season finale is called “So Chineez” and as part of his school project in the episode, Eddie unfurls a big red People’s Republic of China flag — something that has never flown in any ruling capacity over Taiwan. So what the hell are these people? Taiwanese or Chinese? And what’s the difference?

Let’s start with a few basics (if you’re already familiar with this issue, skip the next few paragraphs). Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China. Right after World War II, China had a civil war between the Nationalists (supported by the US) and the Communists (loosely supported by the Soviets). In 1949, the Nationalists lost — and two million of their top brass and supporters retreated to Taiwan, which already had six million people on it at the time.  From this point forward, Taiwan and mainland China basically became two different states on opposite sides of the Cold War — the Republic of China (ROC; the runaway Nationalist government on Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC; the Communist government on the mainland) — think North/South Korea or East/West Germany.

There’s a lot more nuance to this, but to fast forward a few decades and abridge the historical narrative, we’ll just say that the Communists aren’t too happy that the Nationalists got away. As a result, the People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan to be an inalienable part of Chinese territory to this day.  They do have a point — besides those Nationalists that came over in 1949, most Taiwanese are descended from Chinese settlers who came over starting in the 1600s, meaning the island shares a common language with the mainland. Before 1895 (Japan colonized the island from 1895-1945) Taiwan was also part of the Chinese Qing Empire, though the extent to which the Qing actually bothered to govern it is less clear-cut. The point is, if you ask any Chinese person today about Taiwan, they’ll probably tell you “oh yes, part of China” — because that’s what they’ve been taught from birth.

Until about 30 years ago, the Nationalists themselves also agreed (and still partially do, but don’t worry about this) that Taiwan was part of China, and actually assassinated people for dissenting from that view (they don’t anymore). After 1949 the Nationalists established an authoritarian government over Taiwan, suppressing the native population and creating a social divide. On one side you have families who’ve been on the island for centuries and thus identify more closely with Taiwan itself. On the other you have those ’49 mainlanders, who identify more closely with their Chinese homeland and might even chime in with their PRC counterparts to say “oh yes, part of China”.

But wait, you might be thinking: why is Taiwan a different color from China on my map from Costco? If Taiwan’s a part of China, then why does my LCD monitor say “Made in Taiwan” instead of “Made in China”? Well, that’s because a) not everyone agrees with the PRC’s stance and b) for all intents and purposes, Taiwan functions as an independent country — it has its own government, laws, military, passports, and defined territory.

In the 1990s, Taiwan transitioned to democracy and elected its first native Taiwanese president. Since then, people on the island, regardless of when their ancestors came over, have increasingly started thinking of themselves as “Taiwanese” instead of “Chinese”. Today, few actually want to “reunify” with China, for almost a century of effective separation from the mainland has fostered the growth of a distinctively “Taiwanese” identity. As the Nationalists’ old Cold War buddy and the Communists’ new favorite trading partner, the US walks a fine line on the China-Taiwan issue. On paper, the US government (along with most other countries and the United Nations) officially agrees with the PRC that Taiwan is a part of China. In practice, the US (along with most other countries) treats Taiwan as independent — and this reflects itself in how America has separate passport/visa requirements for Taiwan, sells weapons to Taiwan, and educates its children/populates its media with the notion that Taiwan is a separate nation. If you think all of this is very confusing, you’re not alone.

So what does all this have to do with Fresh Off the Boat? In short, FOB is an excellent example of how the complex nature of the China-Taiwan issue carries over to American media and identity politics. As the citizens of Taiwan grapple with whether they are “Taiwanese” or “Chinese”, Americans of Taiwanese descent must also contend with the downstream effects of that debate and decide whether they are “Chinese-American”, “Taiwanese-American”, or a little bit of both.

“Chinese-American” is an easy, low-effort term. Everyone knows what China is, whereas some Americans might mistake Taiwan for Thailand and ask start asking about how to find ladyboys in Bangkok (trust me, this happens). Using “Chinese-American” means not having to explain what Taiwan is, which comes in handy when making quick introductions to annoying people you’d prefer to avoid. Direct descendants of the two million Nationalists (especially the higher-ranking ones) who fled from the mainland in 1949 also tend to use “Chinese-American” more, since their family narratives are more likely to have been imbued with the Nationalists’ initial Cold War desire to “take back the mainland“. On the other hand, anyone whose family supports the DPP (Taiwan’s main pro-independence party), or had roots on Taiwan before 1949, might lean towards declaring themselves “Taiwanese-American”.

However, in Taiwan, considering yourself “Taiwanese” over “Chinese” is becoming less correlated with party affiliation; even descendants of Nationalist bigwigs will declare themselves as “New Taiwanese” to win elections. As polls across the past ten years show more and more people in Taiwan self-identifying as “Taiwanese”, there seems to be a corresponding influence on US demographic trends. The 2010 census saw the first concerted effort to encourage Taiwanese-Americans to record “Taiwanese” instead of “Chinese” as their ethnicity, something unimaginable just decades earlier (to judge how effective or ineffective that campaign was, you can compare 2000 and 2010 results on the US Census website).

Granted, these are more absolute examples. The majority case is probably that most Americans of Taiwanese descent are content to switch between “Taiwanese-American” and “Chinese-American” based on whatever is easiest for the situation. Frankly, most people don’t care enough to know the details of the Taiwan-China issue; given at least some awareness of that debate is a prerequisite for a conscious, absolute declaration of either Taiwanese or Chinese identity, the laziness approach prevails, for better or for worse.

Eddie Huang, the inspiration of Fresh off the Boat, exemplifies this hybrid Taiwanese/Chinese identity of convenience. Just watch the Shanghai and Taiwan episodes of his VICE food/travel show Huang’s World. In the Taiwan episode, we learn that Huang’s family came over with the Nationalists in 1949 — yet the video description still explicitly refers to Taiwan as a country, and Eddie visits his grandfather’s grave near Taipei and launches into a mushy discussion about belonging and heritage. Conversely, in Shanghai Eddie bonds with his hosts by saying how he’s from Hunan (his family’s ancestral home before 1949), neglecting to mention any connection with Taiwan (much less the fact that his favorite grandfather is buried there).

If Fresh Off the Boat is supposed to be based on Huang, then it at least got this one aspect right: the Huang family is neither absolutely Taiwanese-American nor absolutely Chinese-American, they’re whatever the hell they decide it’s easier to be at the moment. In season one’s finale, it was far easier just to wave around a Chinese flag, because having Eddie (the character) give a presentation about Taiwan instead would probably confuse the hell out of most Americans and lose ABC a lot of money.

But hey — by nature, identity is never static. Maybe as notions of Taiwanese-ness in Taiwan, Chinese-ness in China, and American-ness in America change, so too will Fresh Off the Boat. So who knows, Eddie might be sporting a different flag if he gets a second season.

Want to watch season one of Fresh off the Boat? Help Cinema Escapist pay its bills by buying the DVD box set with our Amazon affiliate link. We greatly appreciate your support!

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  • davehall says:

    Pretty good article. And I agree that for simplicity Eddie sported a flag of China in the final episode. It is hard to explain to Americans back home why I study Chinese if I’m living on Taiwan-after-all who wants to get into a long winded history lecture to answer that question from people who don’t really care or don’t understand the background. I guess Eddie is Hunanese AND Taiwanese? Yes, that would be it!

    • mark says:

      As a Taiwanese American I do take the time to explain the difference between Taiwan and China. I do make a correction when people call me Chinese American instead of Taiwanese American. I am proud of who I am and will take the time to correct the ignorance.

      • Jimmy says:

        As a person born and raised outside of China with Chinese heritage – I find all of you “TAIWANESE” to be LAUGHABLE! Stop trying to make yourself more superior or better than mainland China by not learning and accepting of history and the truth.

        If you are so proud to be TAIWANESE  than stop using Chinese language in Taiwan, stop eating Chinese FOODS in Taiwan, and stop celebrating and honoring CHINESE traditions. 

        Taiwan is culturally and historically part of China. Taiwan is basically Chinese outside of the fact it not part of communist China. Grow up and stop spreading lies to non-chinese people to make them think otherwise. 

      • Joe says:

        This Jimmy guy knows nothing about the history of China and Taiwan… His comments are laughable, stop talking and learn history… Taiwan is not China and never will be. 

    • Han says:

      For simplicity Eddie’s grandfather would be furious from the graves.

  • AJ says:

    This point is irrelevant when you think they used “a-ma” in an episode for “mom”.  The writers clearly didn’t care for any of the unique Asian cultural differences and just group it all under one umbrella Asian Fobs. 

  • MC says:

    Please do some further research on Chinese/Taiwanese modern history before spouting off about it. The Chinese Civil War had been running for a long time before World War II even started, and neither East/West Germany nor North/South Korea is anywhere close to analogous to China/Taiwan. 

    • MC$KS says:

      South/North Korea is actually quite close as an analogy to China/Taiwan. You are demonstrating a misconception about “The Chinese Civil War”, this term is exclusively used to describe the 4-year long open clash between KMT and CCP after WW2. There are numerous struggles between the different warring faction before WW2, but not exclusively to only KMT and CCP. The “CIVIL WAR” that mattered came after 1945. 

  • Han says:

    You write a long article about Taiwan and China, but really you just need one fact. Eddie’s grandfather worked in the Taiwan ROC government. That alone says the PRC five-star flag would never be accepted in their family, even if Chinese as a culture would.

  • jmm says:

    This last episode is a disgraceful capitulation to China. Taiwan is an independent country. The people who live there are Taiwanese.

    • mark says:

      Unfortunately plenty of people on Taiwan capitulate to the Chinese all the time in trade, business, and politics. They still continue to vote for the KMT and the pan blue coalitions. 

      • Han says:

        Eddie’s grandfather worked for KMT. Even if the current KMT sucks up to China, they would never fly the communist flag.

  • Thomas Tan says:

    Something very often missing from Western analyses regarding the historic context of Taiwan-China relationship, is that Taiwan was a Japanese territory from 1895 to 1945. During WWII there were 207,083 Taiwanese personals who fought on the Japanese side. After the war the Chinese Nationalists took over Taiwan as Japanese gave up the island, the two civilisation (Chinese and Japanised Taiwanese) clashed over strong corruption of the ruling Chinese government, which triggered the 38-year-long military martial rule with countless (or uncountable, currently estimated around 200,000) Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants being arrested and executed without proper trial. The remaining population was subjected to a whole generation of Chinese Nationalist education designed to eradicated the original national and ethnic identity, including the aboriginal population (more than 540,000) in Taiwan who are in no way Chinese. The resulting confusion of national identity is still the root of most political agenda that divides the nation nowadays (ie. pro China pan-blue or pro Taiwan pan-green).

    • MC says:

      Thanks for the excellent comment. I would extend this line of argument by noting that from an international law perspective, the island Taiwan has never been part of the nation of China. So this idea that Taiwan is a “renegade province” or that Taiwan needs to be “re-unified” with the mainland is 100% CCP propaganda. And so trying to make an analogy–to help us uneducated Americans understand the Taiwan issue–between Taiwan/China and North/South Korea or East/West Germany really displays a total lack of understanding of Taiwan’s history and legal status.

      • MC$KS says:

        You are going up against your American overlord to claim Taiwan “never been part of the nation of China”. US recognised KMT’s little regime on Taiwan as Republic of China. They even gave Taiwan a seat in the UN security counsel as “nation of China” for many years, until they were kicked out in favour of People’s Republic of China or communist China. The analogy between North/South Korea is not far-fetched cos even the time scale look somewhat similar. And don’t even try to suggest the Chinese Civil War started earlier, there were many civil wars in China prior to WW2, but the only one that mattered for the political landscape as we know today is THE civil war that lasted 4 years, from 1945 to 1949. 

    • John Thacker says:

      “including the aboriginal population (more than 540,000) in Taiwan who are in no way Chinese.”

      Sure, but don’t forget that the aboriginal population actually tends to vote pretty strongly KMT, partially because there’s a couple century history of the Hoklo / Hokkien people who didn’t exactly treat the aborigines very well when they came to the island during the Qing period. While the KMT history of Taiwan has a pro-Han (and pro-KMT) bias, many aborigines tend to view the DPP and the pan-green coalition as having a pro-Hoklo Han bias.

    • Leonidaz says:

      If we are talking about history why start from 1895 and not earlier? I guess it’s because that would make people understand the fact that Taiwan was under the rule of Qing dynasty of China after Koxinga reclaimed it from the Dutch colonizers and later surrendered it to Qing in 1683. Japan took over only as a spoil of war after defeating the Qing navy in 1895. The claim Japan had on Taiwan, compared to the Chinese (Qing or PRC or ROC) legitimacy of the island is temporary at best, illegitimate at worst. Tracing back even further the root of the confusion we see today is due to Japanese imperialism.

  • Jarrod says:

    I have a son adopted from Taiwan so I tend to go more for the Taiwanese pride, but that’s just me.

  • Eric says:

    Seriously who cares.  Most humans just want to live peacefully and enjoy time with family and friends.  Give this Taiwan or China misunderstanding a rest.  Creating this distinction only creates divide amongst people that have similar cultures.  As for the show, it is about growing up in America and experiences integrating into the American society by immigrants.

    • mark says:

      Seriously, people like you are the biggest problems. How can people in Taiwan live “peacefully and enjoy time with family and friends” when the Chinese are threatening Taiwan with military force and pointing thousands of missiles at Taiwan. Culture between Taiwan and China is very different. China casted away most of the “traditional” Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution. China was never under the Japanese control for 50 years. Language is part of culture and the written is different. There are plenty of differences, only wussies like you want to kowtow to the Chinese.

      • WHO CARES?  the people in taiwan who live in a permanent state of being threatened by mainland china — for simply wanting a say in their own future.   and i live here! and i care!

  • M.Y. says:

    Migrants from Mainland China who arrived in Taiwan in 1949 and some of their descendants view Taiwan as their temporary home while waiting to return to Mainland China or before immigrating to a third country, hence they do not consider themselves “Taiwanese”.  Once in a third country, like the US, they begin to identify with the regime in Mainland China, hence the display of PRC flag in the program.  As for those who remained in Taiwan, a few of them even moved to the PRC for business and permanent residence.  They do not view the PRC with hostility.

  • Che Huang says:

    U.S.  never officially agrees with the PRC that Taiwan is a part of China. Rather, U.S. only “acknowledges”  PRC’s claim without agreeing. 

  • SFK says:

    The US does not officially agree that Taiwan is a part of China. The US merely officially acknowledges that is China’s position. The US has its own position which is otherwise.

    Taiwan was legally Japanese sovereign territory at least until 1952 when US and Japan signed a Peace Treaty. After this treaty Taiwan’s status is undetermined pending US disposition.

    1662 to 1895 China colonized one half of Taiwan. The Chinese Empire ceded their colonies on Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity via a peace treaty they signed with Japan. 

    The Chinese colonized Taiwan. 

  • Chairman Ma says:

    The current government of Taiwan and former government of the mainland starting in 1911, the Republic of China, was recognized as the real “China” by the United States until 1979.

  • Peter says:

    Here is a simple way to show American’s who do not understand the Taiwan/China relationship and why in real life the China flag would NEVER be associated with the family.

    Have you ever seen Ulysses S. Grant waving a Confederate flag? Or Abraham Lincoln supporting the Confederates? Ya, it’s like that!

    • Aaron says:

      It’s never that simple. People who live in Taiwan are not one homogeneous block with a single identity, not even those whose ancestors who were Nationalists. This article is on point, because those of us who are Americans have an even more complicated identity. For us, the Chinese flag and Taiwanese flag can hold different connotations than you would assign the Confederate flag.

  • Daisy says:

    umm it’s obvious his family is obviously the blue party. Wai-sun ren, originally from China but immigrated to Taiwan but considered Chinese. 

  • Ed says:

    As an American I am very interested and I do pay attention to these issues. I was exposed to it when my daughter moved to China and then to Taiwan, where I visited her. Otherwise I would be completely unaware because Taiwan is rarely mentioned in the US media. What concerns me is that the issue is politically unresolved. In essence it remain civil war like and I’m not surprised when a young boy or an American television program are a bit confused.

  • John Ueng says:

    Spare the history lesson, it’s not necessary to explain this issue all too familiar to “Chinese” people around the world. The English word “Chinese” is too vagu.  It can mean a person’s nationalit, or ancestry, which are two extremely different matter. One can be Taiwanese, which is also both a nationality as well as an ancestral culture, but also be of Chinese ancestry, but not of Chinese nationality. In the Chinese language, we also have “Hua-Ren”, which better describes someone of Chinese ancestry without the suggestion of being a national of China. Also, “Han-ren”, means an ancestry of the Han tribe, the predominant ethnicity in China, but not all nationals of Chiname are of Han ancestry, so one could be a Chinese national but not a Han-ren. Likewise, one can be Taiwanese and either of Chinese ancestry or not, and even if Chinese ancestry, can still be non-Han. But a Taiwanese can also be of non-Chinese ancestry nor Han ancestry, which is then most likely of Taiwan indigenous ancestry. Therefore, it all depends on whether you are talking about nationality, ancestry, or the culture you identify with. Similarly, when we say “American”, it can mean nationality or culture. I can be a citizen of America but culturally Chinese or Taiwanes, or any of the diverse cultures in this diverse nation.  

  • Wenli says:

    Blue or Green, Communist Flag never represents Taiwan, Taiwan was part of, is now ROC, has it’s own flag. The “China” blue ones recognize is ROC  not PRC.
    On the other hand Taiwan was NEVER part of PRC, the communist flag represents. BTW, as a mainland Chinese, that flag means “the populace united under Communist Party of China” where the big star in the middle represents Communist Party of China. 

    I loved the show until the season finale ruined it all for me. 

  • catknight says:

    This is ridiculous. Are you an American or a Texaser? When can you learn that taiwan is just a part of China. Stupid people ask stupid questions.

  • Ria says:

    Taiwan is an independent country. I think everybody knows that.

  • Aidan says:

    Taiwan is an independent country. End of the story.  這有甚麼好吵的呢?

  • John says:

    I think it’s obvious the confusion lies in English translation.  

    Eddie is post 1949. He is “wai sheng ren”.  He is a “taro”. Usually these types of people consider themselves ethnically Chinese, but living in Taiwan. They might consider themselves citizens of Taiwan, but ethnically Chinese.

    So if he were to ever say “I’m Chinese” I am pretty sure he means “ethnicity”.

    For pre 1949 people, “ben sheng ren”, “sweet potatoes” the feeling is mixed with identity.  Some recognize Chinese ancestry but indeed feel separation much like a 4th generation American of German descent might feel towards Germany.

    But for some “ben sheng ren” (this term does not include Aborigines) the hatred for China is so fierce that they want to disassociate themselves with anything Chinese. Irrationally they will claim to have no Chinese ancestry or have any shared culture with Chinese, despite the fact that their ancestors most likely came within a few hundred years from Fujian, China, speak Chinese (either Mandarin or Taiwanese which is a dialect of Southern Min Chinese), eat Chinese food, celebrate Chinese holidays, and even call themselves “Hoklo” which means “Fujian person”.

  • SEAN KIM says:

    Huang’s familiy was came from china after 1949.and his mother side was arrived in Taiwan in ethnically Chinese for sure . some ppl who has same background like Huang’s family such as Lucy Liu Alexandwe Wang Chow Daoyi (Desinger of DKNY) are all considering themselves chinese not taiwanese .Lucy Liu’s parents came to USA from Taiwan but she is always say her parents came from Beijing & Shanghai cause thats their homeland

  • ruoyang123 says:

    The truth is that the balance (economy, military, technology etc.) between China and Taiwan has been broken for decade. China is becoming a superpower after US but Taiwan is till a small island ignored by most people of this world. So, who care how Taiwanese people think? When white people conquered America 300 years ago, did they ever care about if the native indian people wanted to be US Citizen? No, the white just fucked them up. So will be Taiwanese.  

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