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.
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