Saturday, September 26, 2009

Does she look "Chinese"?

Take a good look at this photo.

Many foreigners who come to Taiwan are often fixated on "the Chinese." They will describe Taiwanese people as "Chinese" this and "Chinese" that. They are the ones that find the name "China" Post much more attractive than a "Taipei" Times or a "Taiwan" News and so can be found almost exclusively reading it. With their China-colored spectacles, little do they know how politically charged, insensitive and ignorant they are.

The above photo is very typical of young beautiful women from Taiwan. Doubtless this type of foreigner will label her "Chinese" without a second glance. Just because someone has "Asian-looking" features in no way means that person is "Chinese." Koreans are not Chinese. Japanese are not Chinese. Taiwanese are not Chinese. This photo is of an up-and-coming recording artist from Taiwan named Naomi Yohani. Uh-oh, are you noticing her name is not "Chinese" at all? She is Austronesian -- half Sakizaya Austronesian, half Amis Austronesian from Hualien. She considers herself a native Taiwanese. So how can she look so similar to lots of other young Taiwanese girls out there if Taiwan is populated by "Chinese" as so many foreigners carelessly say?

She does look typical in many ways because the vast majority of Taiwan's people have Austronesian ancestry in addition to the Hoklo or Hakka ancestors that came from China several hundred years ago. Yes, Naomi speaks Mandarin, a "Chinese language," and perhaps does not speak as well the language of either of her parents, but that is because she along with everyone else in Taiwan has been forced to learn Mandarin and use it almost exclusively in the school system.

In the United States, we do not call Native Americans "English" -- or any American for that matter -- just because they speak English. We do not call Ugandans "English" just because they speak English.

Foreigners in the habit need to stop using the word "Chinese" to describe people from Taiwan. You should rather say of a recent Chinese immigrant who look like most people in Taiwan, "Oh, you look Austronesian, like the rest of the Taiwanese."

Incidently, her first name "Naomi" is not the Hebrew name, "Naomi" found in the Bible. It is Nao-mi, pronounced "now-me," and is a name handed down from her ancestors.

If you'd like to hear her music, please go to her website. She also has a Facebook fan page if you want to join.


Anonymous said...

While I totally agree with the sentiment of your rant here about the differences between Taiwanese and Chinese . . . I find it VERY offensive that you lump ALL foreigners into one great big insensitive group.

It would be more accurate to say something like "newcomers to Taiwan tend to . . . " or "non-Taiwanese often . . ."

But to say ALL foreigners do this is a VERY ethnocentric statement that is inaccurate and is just as wrong as calling Taiwanese people Chinese.

Aì Tâi-oân said...

Dear anonymous: the qualifying word was "often" -- and it is true, I more often than not hear foreigners say this kind of thing. If I recorded the number of times I have heard it from different people, it would be in the thousands of times. Because you took offense, I have added a few more qualifying words to help with your sensitivities.

I also would not characterize this post with the label of "rant" that you use. That seems a bit dismissive of the content and sentiment that you said you agreed with. I rather think of this post as a quick hitting wake up call for all of those in love with the idea of the "mysterious Chinese people who have been mysterious, deep, rich, etc. since ancient times." Those people in love with their idea of China should actually move to China. Then they can better figure out if their love affair was for real or a figment of their own imaginations.

If they feel it is for real, then good for them: they have just moved to the place where they can live in their dream world (literally or figuratively) -- depending on one's point of view.

Anonymous said...

The Chinese who control Taiwan are convinced that they're Chinese. They still refer to their government as the Republic of China. A young Taiwanese guy said he was from the 'Republic of China' when he introduced himself to me recently. If you're gonna talk about the China-obsessed foreigners in Taiwan, why don't you also talk about the China-obsessed Taiwanese in Taiwan. Once the Taiwanese stop sending out mixed signals about their own identity then you are free to blame us. A recent poll suggests that over 40% of Taiwanese still refer to themselves as either Chinese or both Taiwanese and Chinese. It's encouraging that a majority of those polled say they're Taiwanese only. Still, the problem of identity starts with the people of Taiwan first. Do you call every Taiwanese person on it when they refer to some aspect of themselves or their country as Chinese? What about the China-colored glasses many locals wear?

Anonymous said...

To be honest there really isn't much difference in terms of appearances between Chinese and Taiwanese. Chinese and Japanese? Yes. Chinese and Korean? Yes. Even still, mostly only non Asians who are around different types of Asians can tell the difference. Also nowdays most people use "Asian" instead of "Chinese".

That aside, there is not much difference in terms of appearance between Chinese and Taiwanese. In fact China is such a large and diverse country that there are more differences in looks between the northerners and the southerners than there are between Taiwanese and "Chinese". If you want to argue the differences there you cannot lump people from China as just sort of "look" - because they all look different.

Aì Tâi-oân said...

Definitely within China and its occupied territories there are people of non-Han ethnic groups, some of whom would love to be free from China's brutish authoritarian rule -- e.g. Uighurs and Tibetans. Some of the Mongolians from inner Mongolia would like to be joined to Mongolia instead of being ruled by China.

There is no question that Taiwanese and Chinese look different.

Those Chinese immigrants fled China to come to Taiwan in 1949 with the Republic of China regime in exile look different from Taiwanese and are often easy to spot, even in Taipei.

You will hear many, many people saying Wo-men Chung-Kuo-Ren ("We Chinese"), because they have been brainwashed by the school system that was under authoritarian ROC-in-exile rule for 50 years. After their defeat in China, the R.O.C. regime of Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan (a Japanese territory) and set up a government in exile. They seized Taiwan and ruled in as a dictatorship. The Taiwanese people did not have any say in the matter -- the intellectual elite of Taiwan who objected were massacred and anyone who spoke up over the next forty or more years disappeared and was murdered by Chiang Kai-shek's government, by Chiang Ching-kuo's garrison command, and the affiliated KMT mafia organizations including the Bamboo United.

The people voted overwhelmingly in the past referendums to use the name Taiwan (not R.O.C.) to join the U.N, etc. but the KMT which controlled the legislature blocked the people's will by setting a voter turn out threshold so high that a minority could sabotage the referendum. Notice how in the Penghu referedum they removed that voter turn-out threshold because they wanted that referendum to pass. Fortunately the people of Penghu were not deceived by the KMT and voted it down.

Tortue said...

Hello Aì Tâi-oân !

It's an interesting post about a discussion I often had with my friend over here in Taipei and I have to say that I'm not very agree the opinion exposed here, especially that it's based on the ethnicity. In my opinion, it's indeed VERY easy to differentiate mainlanders from a Taiwanese for a LOT of reasons (Way to speak, clothes, behaviors...etc...) but definitely not on the ethnicity looks.

In a paragraph you say:

You should rather say of a recent Chinese immigrant who look like most people in Taiwan, "Oh, you look Austronesian, like the rest of the Taiwanese

I'm one of the people who fully support the Darwin theory but, it's supposed to take hundreds of thousands of years. You should explain to me us how descendants of 4 millions ofmainlanders could suddenly look like something else than "Chinese" in less of 60 years, even though some are supposed to have Austronesian "blood" (I don't like that expression). In my opinion, you need to dig quite deep to find that part (especially when people start to be whiter than I'm!)

If I take the example of the woman I'm sharing my life with, her family is from Fujian, arrived in Taiwan in the middle part of the 20th century. She was born in Taiwan, she's nativetaiwanese speaker (she learnt mandarin at school, several years later) and even though she's quite blu-ish, she calls herself a Taiwanese (which she's!). So given the fact that she's 100% ethnically Chinese, why would I say she looks like Taiwanese and why would she be offended to be called to be called a (ethnically) Chinese?

Cya !


Aì Tâi-oân said...

Dear Tortue,

1. It is right for recent immigrants from China to call themselves Taiwanese if they identify with Taiwan. Yes, recent immigrant Chinese can call themselves "Taiwanese." Likewise, it is right that foreigners of any country (including China) who have chosen to live in Taiwan and identify with Taiwan to call themselves Taiwanese.

2. It is wrong for both foreigners or these Chinese immigrants who are "blu-ish" to then insist on calling everyone else in Taiwan "Chinese" particularly the Hoklo and Hakka (both with Austronesian ancestry mixed in) whose Han ancestors immigrated several hundred years ago and whose Austronesian ancestors have been in Taiwan for several thousand years.

Do you know that before the Ming Dynasty in China, Fujian was not part of the previous Han empires? Many Fujianese may look a little Austronesian because they probably had some Austronesian ancestry all the way back to the people who lived in Fujian before the Han people migrated into Fujian on the mainland of Asia, this region - Fujian - now a province in China.

The point regarding recent immigrants who look like Taiwanese (Formosans: those who have some ethnic Han ancestry mixed with Austronesian ancestry, together with those who have fully Austronesian ancestry)... is that why do we have to say these people look "Chinese"? Why cannot we say that a person of ethnic Chinese origin who lives in Taiwan and looks similar to someone like Naomi Yohani looks a bit Austronesian? But no, people will say Naomi looks a bit Chinese. That is totally incorrect.

People dismiss the Austronesian culture in deference to thinking of everything as Chinese -- the power/prestige culture. In particular, many foreigners whom I know are fall into this error.

Anonymous said...

please Aì Tâi-oân, don't fall inside tortue's trolls and lies.

Alex Trup said...

First of all, thanks Aì Tâi-oân for your interesting and informative post.

The idea of what is truly "Taiwanese" or perhaps "Native Taiwanese" is an interesting one and obviously means something different to everyone.

Naomi herself (I run the record label to which Naomi Yohani is signed), doesn't like the term "aboriginal" (perhaps due to negative/racist connotations associated with the word as well as the fact it just sounds ugly like "abnormal") used to describe people of the Austronesian tribes that have been on Taiwan for thousands of years.

Instead Naomi likes to use the term "Native Taiwanese" which is still an accurate description of what she is. However, I have also spoken with people whose lineage is ethnically from China who also call themselves "Native Taiwanese", which does also confuse the phraseology used somewhat.

I also met a Taiwanese born, ethnically "Chinese" guy who is very pro unification with Mainland China. He talked about the "return of Taiwan to China" so that the people can be "as one family again". While I certainly can see the potential economic benefits of unification, I was particularly irritated by his view that it was the Taiwanese "re-joining" the Chinese family. Sure the VAST majority of people living in Taiwan are now ethnically Chinese, but as we've stated previously, the native Austronesian tribes of Taiwan have been there thousands of years longer.

It's safe to say I pretty much won the conversation with that argument, but it does reinforce the problem (that some of the other people here have raised) that even the general Taiwanese population is generally ignorant about their own history and cultural identity.

Alex Trup said...

[Sorry for multiple comment postings, but seemed Blogger didn't like it as one long one]

@Anonymous commentor 1 - Aì Tâi-oân is correct. Most foreigners do consider/call Taiwanese people to be "Chinese", I've met several who had never even heard of the native Austronesians of Taiwan.

@Anonymous commentor 3 - There is generally a difference in the way Taiwanese people (and especially native Austronesian Taiwanese people) look compared to people from China. The fact you may not be able to clearly see the difference, is probably because you may not have met any native Austronesian Taiwanese (because they are such a relatively small percentage of Taiwanese people as a whole). As you say, the the difference between Chinese people and [ethnically Chinese] Taiwanese people is not as big as say with Japanese or Korean and that is because it's been a relatively short amount of time (as little as 100 years in some cases) that a large number of Taiwanese families that you see on a day-to-day basis will have lived in Taiwan.

@Tortue - As Anonymous Commentor 3 pointed out there are huge differences between ethnically Chinese people around China. I've lived in Shanghai and Guangzhou and also visited Beijing several times and can see a noticeable difference between the physical (face/body/skin) characteristics of the people native to these cities (which I won't go into right now). There are also certain physical traits I've noticed in ethnically Chinese Taiwanese people that I think means I can spot them from other Mainland Chinese groups. Where I think that test would fail would be if I was picking the Taiwanese out of a line-up of Chinese people from Fujian or the other parts of China from whence Chinese Taiwanese people typically come from. But in the same way, I think I would have a hard time telling the difference between people from Hong Kong and Guangdong because most Hong Kong people's families originate in Guangdong.

On a separate note, the photo used in this post is Naomi's most "Chinese" looking photo :D You can see some of her other pictures on Facebook -

Finally, I think it should be said that we all shouldn't stereotype too much (I'm not saying that I don't do it). I've had lots of Chinese people say "Oh you look very English" or "You look French" to me... Truth is, although I was born and raised in London, I'm ethnically Polish, Russian and Ukranian...

Tortue said...

Hey ! :)

The point regarding recent immigrants who look like Taiwanese (Formosans: those who have some ethnic Han ancestry mixed with Austronesian ancestry, together with those who have fully Austronesian ancestry)... is that why do we have to say these people look "Chinese"? Why cannot we say that a person of ethnic Chinese origin who lives in Taiwan and looks similar to someone like Naomi Yohani looks a bit Austronesian? But no, people will say Naomi looks a bit Chinese. That is totally incorrect

Ha ! But don't get me wrong, In my previous comment I wanted to ask why would I call someone that "obviously" looks like ethnically Chinese, an Austronesian? But of course if that person looks like more a native/aboriginal/formosan, the adjective chinese doesn't apply here.

I don't think that the example of Naomi applies here as she actually looks like formosan but in that picture she adopted all the "chinese" look code :)

@Anti-reptile : ô cousin ca va ? Ca faisait presque deux semaines, je commençais à m'inquiéter dis donc !

@Alex : Hey bro, when I saw the pic of Naomi, I knew you'd appear sooner or later ;-) I agree with you, when you land in Guangdong you see a HUGE difference , but this is a bad example because the Guangdong (and especially Shenzhen) are the home of millions of Chinese migrant (from north and inner China). But if you check the natives (basically those who speaks cantonese), those from Hong Kong and especially those from Shanghai, I'm practically in front of the same people that met everyday in Taipei.

After, more or less "Han" blood doesn't makes you more or less Taiwanese in my opinion.

Tortue said...

"Finally, I think it should be said that we all shouldn't stereotype too much (I'm not saying that I don't do it). I've had lots of Chinese people say "Oh you look very English" or "You look French" to me... Truth is, although I was born and raised in London, I'm ethnically Polish, Russian and Ukranian..."

I might be wrong but white people in europe belongs to the same ethnicity (caucasian) where UK/Slavish is more about identity/culture and history.

Alex Trup said...

@Tortue I should also add that my father's side is also Jewish, so ultimately I go back to Israel.

There is definitely some overlap ethnically between certain Brits and Slavs (who may share Nordic or Germanic heritage), but probably not much more related than the French are... :)

I can still spot a Polish person a mile off, but these days in England (and particularly in London & Brighton it seems every other group of people are Polish).

Anonymous said...

"Chinese" is a political idea. A Uighur can look Chinese as much as a Cree can look Canadian. The difference is that both the CCP and KMT have conflated the political construct known as "Chinese" into the concept of a racial nation.

Many people have done the same with Austronesian or Hoklo to "Taiwanese".

These are all political constructions designed to mask the great ethnic diversity and create artificial boundaries of identity. Identity Politics.

Anonymous said...

Even the concept of "Han" artificially draws together a great diversity of peoples based on selective customs. It is still even more recent history of conflating Han and Chinese (see Dru Gladney' work on Hui Muslims). The ethnic and cultural strata of those who are labeled "Han" is just so vast. I suggest conducting more research into the construction of ethnic/cultural/racial identities in China and Taiwan.

DeMo! said...

Most foreigners I know do not think of "Chinese" or "Han" as a political region but rather an ethnic group or race. From that limited and inaccurate perspective, then they would not see why there is a problem for what they incorrectly see as a "Chinese" island of Taiwan to be annexed by China (in their faulty understanding of history -- "reunited to the motherland.")

So whatever the theory, we must look in practice to the perception of those who make policy or acquiesce to policy.

If foreign nations thought of Taiwan as Austronesian territory (which historically it is), then they would not think China has a right to annex it.

Because, again, the vast majority of people's perspective is one of race and ethnicity.

Anonymous said...


I think it may be more important to start challenging these terms.

It wasn't long ago Croats were Yugoslavs and Vietnamese were simply Indo-Chinese. Nationalism is the central concept.

China is allowed to get off easy by orientalists who apply different rules to Europe or "The West".

The important thing is to avoid playing the ethnonationalist card. It will ALWAYS alienate potential allies.

Fujian Boy said...

She doesn't look Chinese to me. I would have guessed some kind of European-Asian mix if I didn't know.

I am born and bred overseas but my family was originally from Fujian province. I have never been to Taiwan in my entire life.

I speak Minnan and I can understand every word on your blog.Also, looking at Taiwan food online, they also eat some Fujian foods that I grew up eating.

Would you be able to pick me out in a crowd of Hoklo "Taiwanese" if I dressed exactly the same?

I see no difference, except that my family left China more recently than the Hoklo "Taiwanese".

As for your Austronesian "identity", I have yet to meet a Hoklo Taiwanese who's truly eager to embrace it, even if they're pan-green Taidu supporters. They may mention it but they still speak Chinese, eat Chinese and practise Chinese customs.

Aì Tâi-oân said...

Fujian Boy said "She doesn't look Chinese to me. I would have guessed some kind of European-Asian mix if I didn't know."

Precisely. She does not look Chinese, but she does look Taiwanese. That is because Taiwanese have Austronesian ancestry in addition to their Han ancestry. So rather, you could say many Taiwanese look like her because they share a common ancestry.

Taiwanese are not "Chinese."

AltWorlder said...

The Hoklo and Hakka may not be Han, but their ancestral roots are in China. I'd say them and the recent 1940s immigrants are both more "Chinese" than the native Taiwanese aboriginal peoples. But then to call Amerindians "Americans" is inaccurate as well, isn't it? All of these native peoples have their own names for themselves.

Let's just say that Taiwanese is a nationality, and the different ethnicities are separate from that. Though the Hakka/Hoklo originate from China.

Anonymous said...

Taiwanese are a bunch of stupid Fujianese people who deny their Fujianese heritage.

Kepha said...

Speaking as someone who wishes Taiwan well and thinks it should have international recognition whether it calls itself the rump of Sun Zhongshan's Republic of China, Taiwan, Great Liu Qiu, Dong Ning, or even Seymour, I only wish Taiwanese could avoid this nonsense about racial identity. It is very disconcerting to run into "Taiwanese are not Chinese" folks claiming an Austronesian heritage when their grandparents never called an Austronesian anything other than "Hoan-a" (番子--or "Fon-a" if Hakka), and gave "Shandi Ren", "Yuanzhumin" and such terms currency only when speaking Mandarin. Even if Taiwan declares independence, it is as ridiculous for most Lowland Taiwanese to pretend they are not of southern Chinese descent as it would have been for most white Americans of 1776 to claim they were Indians rather than of British Isles descent (the majority of even the most pro-independence colonists of that era generally thought of the Indians as "howling savages"; especially on the frontier).

And to Anonymous, who called Taiwanese "stupid Fujianese people", I can only note that right after June 4, 1989, some Hakka folk from a certain northern Taiwanese town I know well, whose older generation thought that things had been set right in 1945 and where the Pan-Blues always won, commented to me "现在,我们都是台独分子。"

The world doesn't need any more petty-minded nationalisms claiming they represent the pure, sinless, untainted autochthonoi (even when linguistic, cultural, and historical evidence say otherwise). And I don't know why poor Taiwan needs to imitate White America's Marxist-induced guilt trip about its real origins (News flash: None of the Marxist guilt-peddlers all the way down to Herbert Zinn was ever in any rush to move back to wherever the ancestors came from) or the idiocy of neo-Peronista pretend "Indio" Argentines whose grandparents boasted of their pure Spanish (and Italian) ancestry. Maybe Taiwan needs to declare a real independence that understands and admits that people move, things change, and history happens.

Kepha said...

While I'm at it, I personally don't like the "Native American" monniker for my country's indigenous peoples. A lot of us who are "white", "black", "yellow", or "swarthy" were also born in the USA--which is what "native" really means.

Anonymous who's offended at Taiwan people lumping all of us as "foreigners", please grow a slightly thicker skin. When I lived in Taiwan and teaching English, I carried around a card that read "Alien Resident" on it (and to anyone who thinks that back then I, or someone on an American "Green Card", is a Martian--At the count of three, let's all laugh: one, two, hahaha--couldn't hold it any longer). The fact of the matter is that I'm a foreigner and an alien when I'm in Taiwan. For the record, when my students asked how I could tell fellow Americans from Canadians (the nationality of some of my fellow foreign teachers and visitors), I told them to check the guy's passport.

I can understand, however, my German friend's feelings when the little kids on the street shouted "Mi-Gok-Lang!" (美国人) at him.

This hypersensitivity about ethnonyms and recognizing someone else's heritage is another American import the Taiwanese need like a hole in the head.

As for calling Americans of any kind "English", most of my European/Middle Eastern ancestors did not speak English; but I guarantee to any former students lurking here that I did not hang up an English sheep's head to sell German, Scandinavian, or Aramaic dog's meat when I taught you.