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Taiwanese in the US insist their identity is not a “political choice” – but must be a census option

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A new report from the Pew Research Center estimates that between 195,000 and 697,000 people of Taiwanese descent live in the United States, correcting an earlier analysis that confused Taiwanese and Chinese Americans and elicited a strong backlash from the Taiwanese diaspora.

The to study, which was released earlier this month, is based on disaggregated data from 2019 American community survey.

For Taiwanese American activists who have fought for decades for political visibility and global recognition of Taiwanese independence from China, the correction is a step in the right direction.

“Being part of a democracy is having a voice,” Christina Hu, director of civic engagement at the Taiwanese American Citizens League, told NBC Asian America. “The first step in this is to recognize that we exist. “

The movement to promote personal identity on U.S. census forms began in the 1970s and 1980s with the first wave of Taiwanese immigrants.Courtesy of the Taiwanese American Citizens League

In April, Pew released a demographic report on Asian Americans who classified self-identified Taiwanese as part of the larger Chinese population, noting that “it is difficult to directly identify Taiwanese Americans confidently and distinctly with Census Bureau data.” . (Self-reported Okinawans, the indigenous people of Japan’s Ryukyu island chain, were also hidden from the dataset.)

More than 500 Taiwanese and Asian American leaders from prominent community organizations wrote an open letter to the think tank demanding an apology and explanation for what they saw as an erasure from the Taiwanese community. They noted that the amalgamation between Taiwanese and Chinese Americans is particularly offensive given that China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has embarked on an increasingly aggressive campaign to destroy international identity. from the island.

“Part of our response to the original report is that the Taiwanese have been denied the agency for so long,” said Leona Chen, editor of nonprofit news site TaiwaneseAmerican.org and signatory of the letter. . “There is a feeling that you have to protect something that is constantly under threat and historically in danger.”

Pew said the study author was not available for comment.

Only 17 countries, not counting the United States, recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. Global companies, from airlines to fashion brands, fearful of losing access to China, the world’s largest consumer market, have scrapped marketing initiatives that recognize Taiwanese sovereignty. At the same time, Beijing has stepped up military activities near the island and warned Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party opposes unification, that independence “means war. “

But identifying oneself as Tawainese on Census Bureau forms, Chen said, is more than just an expression of ethnic pride: it is also an “intellectually accurate data report” that determines the amount of funding one receives. a community receives.

“We want to communicate that being Taiwanese is not a political choice,” she said. “It’s a fact of who we are.”

The US census never included Taiwan in its race and ethnicity category. In the American Community Survey and Decennial Census forms, the racial identity question includes boxes for only six Asian subgroups, such as Chinese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese. Respondents who wish to identify as Taiwanese should check a box indicating “Other Asian” and write in “Taiwanese”.

Since 1990, the Taiwanese American Citizens League has carried out popular campaigns to encourage American Taiwanese to identify themselves in every census. The group Write in the Taiwanese census campaign prior to the 2020 survey, bilingual social media advertising was leveraged, as well as community events such as food festivals and arts and crafts festivals.

Pew’s updated analysis revealed overlapping answers to three survey questions used to determine racial identity. Almost everyone who wrote “Taiwanese” as their race also reported having Taiwanese ancestors or being born in Taiwan. But only half of those who reported being born on the island chose “Taiwanese” as their race or ancestry.

Hu said the discrepancies highlight the need to improve the census format and invest more money to educate ethnic minorities on how to identify themselves.

“The questions themselves mean different things to different people,” she said, noting that not everyone thinks “Taiwanese” is a race and that many Taiwanese immigrants have Chinese ancestors but consider themselves still Taiwanese. Some people may not know they can write an answer when there are checkboxes under a question.

The movement to promote personal identity on U.S. census forms began in the 1970s and 1980s with the first wave of Taiwanese immigrants, most of whom were pursuing graduate studies in engineering and medicine. During Taiwan’s 38-year martial law era, which ended in 1987, many were spied on by China’s nationalist government and blacklisted “to return home.” In Taiwan, students were fined and punished for speaking Taiwanese in schools.

“The Taiwanese problem was that Chinese nationalists were in charge of government while the majority of Taiwanese were still speechless,” said Ho Chie Tsai, community organizer and founder of TaiwaneseAmerican.org. “Being in America has given them this freedom to assert their identity.”

In the United States, political dissidents have used population surveys as a vehicle to assert their ethnic pride and support for independence from Taiwan. Some of the first civic and political organizations aimed at promoting Taiwanese heritage and culture, such as the Taiwanese American Citizens League, the Taiwanese Association of America, and the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, were formed during this period.

As the Taiwanese diaspora has grown over the years, Tsai said, the movement’s goals and reach have broadened.

“Now it’s more about: we should be more involved in American politics, and in order to do that, we need to identify ourselves as Taiwanese Americans,” he said.

Tsai said he was encouraged to see that more than 375,000 people chose to write in “Taiwanese” under the ancestry question in the 2019 American Community Survey. While the number is likely still underestimated, it said this was a marked improvement over results in the early 2000s, when fewer than 145,000 people claimed to be of Taiwanese descent.

The results reflect a growing understanding and pride in Taiwanese identity: less than a third of Taiwanese consider themselves Chinese, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report.

For young Taiwanese Americans who actively oppose any reference to being Chinese, the determination to express and preserve their heritage runs deep in history.

“Where young people have a different attitude is that we are very lucky,” Chen said. “We inherited a lot of things our parents and grandparents fought for. We have to protect something that is so young and fragile.