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Parishma Patani

How Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan revealed my family’s deep political differences

As Sino-Taiwanese tensions grow, the political views within my family are becoming ever more polarised. How and where can we still find common ground?

16 Sep 2022

“When I think of rivers, I think of Chinese rivers,” my mother tells me. And then she adds: “It’s not my fault. It’s just the way I was taught.”

This is how my parents and I speak to each other now: from a defensive crouch. It hadn’t always been this way. Like our parents, my sister and I were born in Taiwan. When I was three years old, we immigrated to Canada and settled in a small town in British Columbia called Maple Ridge. Back then, all our neighbours were white, and seemingly all proud owners of Ford F-150s. Nevertheless, we were enveloped into Maple Ridge’s conservative, Mandarin-speaking community: a smattering of diasporic families, like our own, who regularly gathered around the twin spires of church and Bible study. My grandmother, a devout Christian, set the religious rhythm of our household, and we dutifully followed.

But I had always felt like we were different from the other families in our insular circle. My mum and dad held white collar jobs, and spoke to other parents with ease at our softball and basketball games. My sister and I were allowed to go to concerts, wear makeup and read Harry Potter. We laughed more loudly and more openly; we refused to be closed off from the world around us.

‘Some days, it feels like we’re standing across the line from each other on every issue imaginable’

My sister and I were raised as westerners in a liberal democracy, with values I thought my family would always share. But in recent years, my parents have been increasingly drawn to the policies espoused by the Chinese Communist Party, and we’ve begun to disagree about politics, human rights and even the status of the island where all three of us were born. Some days, it feels like we’re standing across the line from each other on every issue imaginable.

Thankfully, two things never fail to draw us together still: family and food. “Bought a luobo from the farmer’s market today,” I text my parents. “What’s your recipe for chicken soup again? I miss it.”

Then, three days later, Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker, lands in Taipei. Shit.

The history of an island

When the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, my teenaged grandparents were part of the mass exodus that fled to the island of Taiwan under the protection of the Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT were the formerly dominant political party in Republican China and are now the opposition party in the Taiwanese government. As a result, my grandparents and parents have always been dyed-in-the-wool blue KMT voters. I can still remember my grandparents packing their bags and making the 12-hour journey back to Taiwan so they could cast their ballots for Ma Ying-jeou in the 2008 Taiwanese presidential election. It was, to them, the most consequential election of that year.

The KMT, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the United States government historically haven’t agreed on much, but they do see eye-to-eye on one thing: that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China. What that actually looks like in practice is very much up for interpretation.

“When the Chinese government speaks about the ‘return’ of Taiwan, they do so in the most grandiose terms”

When the Chinese government speaks about the ‘return’ of Taiwan, they do so in the most grandiose terms: a ‘reunification of the motherland’ and a ‘national rejuvenation’ that will see the prodigal island return to the fold. Taiwan, they assert, is an ‘inalienable’ part of China, and has been since ‘ancient times’ – conveniently erasing, of course, Taiwan’s indigenous communities and the island’s history as, alternately, a Spanish, Dutch and Japanese colony from the 17th century onwards. 

Meanwhile over in Taiwan, political attitudes towards their powerful neighbour have been historically mixed, and are growing ever more polarised. The KMT advocates for closer ties with China, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours a more distinct Taiwanese identity. The DPP are currently in power, and their party line is that Taiwan is already an independent nation with its own system of governance, currency and judiciary. They have not gone so far as to advocate for formal independence, as to do so would be crossing the CCP’s most aggressive red line. Under president Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has made it clear that while they would prefer a peaceful ‘reunification’ with Taiwan, they would be willing to use military force to bring the island under Beijing’s control if necessary.

A red blinking button

The world media breathlessly follows every step of Pelosi’s visit, which is quickly criticised by both Chinese and US politicians, including Joe Biden. In the days after Pelosi’s trip, the Chinese government begins a series of military drills, perilously close to the Taiwanese coast. The red, blinking button on the BBC front page makes me physically nauseous. Is this it? Is this the start of the war we’ve been threatened with for generations? Am I going to have to read a live play-by-play of how we get dragged into the abyss? 

I think of my aunts and uncles. My cousins.

I remember one summer, visiting an aunt in the city of Kaohsiung and hearing the terrible wail of the air raid siren for the first time. “It’s just a test,” she reassured me. “It happens pretty regularly.” All around me, people were crossing the street, heading into the post office and going about their daily routines as if they hadn’t heard a thing. How do you live like this?

I text a cousin. “Hey, are you okay? How are your parents? How is everyone holding up?”

His reply is deeply nonchalant. “Nothing to worry about. Not the first time.” Eye-roll emoji.

Oh. I put my phone down. 

I do not call my parents. 

People outside the province

According to a 2022 study conducted by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Centre, 63.7% of voters consider themselves Taiwanese only. This number is up from 17.6% in 1992, the year that I was born. 30.4% consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese; a drop from the high 40s. 2.4% see themselves as Chinese only.

When my parents were growing up in Taiwan, they were called waishenreng, which roughly translates to ‘people from outside the province’. Despite the fact that they were born and raised in Taiwan, and that waishenreng historically held a disproportionate amount of political, cultural and economic power in Taiwan, they would always be outsiders. Home was China. When they were growing up, they were taught Chinese history and geography and songs, in preparation for the day that China and Taiwan would be one country again.

“My parents know the rivers and mountains of China better than they know those in Taiwan; of course that knowledge will shape your politics”

This is what my mother told me last winter, when I finally, tentatively, asked her why she and my father still consider themselves Chinese, despite never having lived in China. As my parents’ political views became increasingly aligned with the CCP, we’d begun to disagree over what was happening in Hong Kong, and to the Uyghurs; then over the basic tenets of freedom of speech, free press, and the right to protest

All of this pained and dumbfounded me, but the issue of Taiwan baffled me the most. This was our home; we still had family there. The Chinese government seemed, to me anyway, an existential threat against the people and places we loved.

But of course, displacement has a long half-life. When my grandfather was dying last spring, he did not yearn for Taiwan, where he made his life and raised his family. He told my father he saw the ship that would be bringing him back to Shandong, the province in Eastern China and his childhood home. My parents know the rivers and mountains of China better than they know those in Taiwan; of course that knowledge will shape your politics. How could it not?

A rather large oversight

My mum ends up calling me.

“Listen Deb,” she says. “I don’t think you should come to your cousin’s wedding. It’s just too dangerous now, what with stupid Pelosi making all this trouble.”

“But you’re still going, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but if anything should happen, I can run faster if I don’t have to worry about you too.”

My cousin texts me a political cartoon of a journalist in a helmet and a flak jacket, drawn like Munch’s The Scream. Meanwhile in the background, a group of Taiwanese people are cheerfully taking photos of a red, writhing, missile-breathing dragon off their shores.

The message is clear: chill out, will you? We’re fine.

Taiwan has only ever been valuable to both China and the US in terms of what the island can represent for them at any given time. For the US, Taiwan is a shining example of democratic ideals (and a useful measure of containment against China), while China seeks to control Taiwan as a means of fulfilling its sense of manifest destiny: a civilisation-state centred around the Han identity.  

But what do Taiwanese people want? This seems like a rather large oversight on everybody’s part. According to that same study by the Election Study Centre, 80% of voters want to maintain the status quo. Let’s keep things the way they are. It’s a deeply pragmatic response, free of political posturing. Let’s just live our lives.  

“This is one thing my parents and I have ended up agreeing on: Nancy Pelosi doesn’t give a shit about Taiwan”

For what it’s worth, this is one thing my parents and I have ended up agreeing on: Nancy Pelosi doesn’t give a shit about Taiwan, not really. She’s a white American octogenarian – what she wants is one last feather in her cap as she heads off into the twilight of her career. She won’t be the one in the room making the difficult decisions if and when the time comes.

But also, I recognise that a lot of Taiwanese people were thrilled that Pelosi came, and in all the Sino-Taiwanese discourse to come, we need to be better at letting them lead the conversation – including myself.

On the day of Pelosi’s visit, I agonise over whether I should send my parents a picture of my chicken soup. “I just don’t want to fight with them right now,” I say to my partner. Maybe soup wouldn’t be enough this time.

But to my surprise, my dad texts me back right away. “Very nice. I see 黑胡椒 (black pepper)? That’s very good too.”

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