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Why some Taiwanese Americans are moving back to Taiwan


I'm Ailsa Chang in Taipei, Taiwan. I have a confession. This is the first time I have come back here in 30 years. And I can't quite explain what's taken me so long except that I always thought of Taiwan as the place my parents left behind and that, as their child, I should continue their path by leaning into the American life they chose for me. But, you know, an interesting thing happened during the pandemic. Even though China was intensifying military activity in the Taiwan Strait, a surge of Taiwanese Americans moved out of the U.S. and to Taiwan. Some of them had never lived on this island.

MICHELLE KUO: I'm Michelle Kuo, and I moved to Taiwan three years ago.

JOCELYN CHUNG: I'm Jocelyn Chung, and I moved to Taiwan about a year ago.

ROSA TSAY JACOBS: I'm Rosa Tsay Jacobs, and I moved to Taiwan six months ago.

CHANG: On a Sunday afternoon in Da'an Forest Park in Taipei, we brought these three women together to understand why each of them decided to start a new future in the place of their parents' past. Michelle Kuo said she actually burst into tears when her husband first suggested the idea.

KUO: I was like, well, how am I going to be a lawyer? How am I going to learn the language? And then there is this added layer where I had, like, a million aunties who were disappointed that I wasn't a doctor, didn't make tons of money. It's like, I'm going to have to, like, move in with 24 million of my aunties. And I was like, oh, my God. Eventually my daughter's going to speak better Mandarin than me, and she's going to look at me with contempt the way I secretly looked at my parents when they couldn't speak English. So then I'd have to work through all this bad karma. That kind of anxiety and dread and guilt all mixed together and also this sense of, like, wow, I don't know anything about where I come from and the kind of, like, very repressed shame, I think.

CHANG: Yeah, I relate to that guilt. Well, how about you, Jocelyn? - because you were 26, and you moved to Taiwan. How did you make that decision?

CHUNG: The decision was based upon safety, based upon a lot of bit of political disillusionment in the U.S. I feel like this is something that maybe all Taiwanese Americans specifically talk about here - is that the feeling of safety is completely different in relation to guns, in relation to school safety, in relation to public safety. Like, we're in a park right now, just surrounded by tons and tons of intergenerational families. Kids are off playing on their own. Like, we know that they'll be safe.

CHANG: My wallet's over there, and nobody's watching it.

CHUNG: Oh, no one's going to take it. And if you leave and you come back, it'll probably still be there. And I think that that is something really special about Taiwan. I think also as a woman here, being able to walk at night, which is so simple - but I'm at ease in general.

CHANG: Rosa, when you listen to Jocelyn talk about safety and other reasons why she moved here, how much do you relate to those feelings?

TSAY JACOBS: I definitely relate to that. Things are sanitary. They're efficient, technologically advanced. You know, that was not what my parents experienced, which propelled them to want to move away. You know, they lived under martial law for some time. And so when I was deciding to come back, you know, my mom was like, you know, you have this dream of what it would be like, but it's not actually that.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about what it is actually like to live here day to day because when people outside Taiwan talk about this place, it's often, you know, in the context of geopolitics, cross-strait tensions. Do you feel like every day you're under the threat of China?

CHUNG: (Laughter).

TSAY JACOBS: Yeah, I definitely had friends ask me, you know, you're moving to Taiwan. I'm excited for you. But I'm also scared for you because you're going to, you know, live in this place that might not be around for long - not to say that there's no truth to that. Obviously, we should be alert that, you know, the geopolitics are constantly changing and the tensions are possibly rising. But life here is more than just that. It's kind of like in the U.S. There's - it's complex, right? Like, there's a lot of bounty, but there's also a lot of anxiety we live with.

CHANG: What is it like to go from being a racial minority in America to just blending in, at least physically?

KUO: I think when you grow up a minority or the other, you're doing so much labor to prove that you belong. And so I just found myself relaxing when I was here. I was like, well, as long as I don't say anything and they don't hear my accent, you know, I'm an anonymous part of the majority. What a privilege. But I also think you never let go of the consciousness of a minority. And what has blown me away being in Taiwan is the way in which different Taiwanese progressives have fought for a place for minorities. So one example - children in elementary school are required to take a minority language, either an Indigenous language or Southeast Asian language because there's so many migrant workers. Now, there needs to be more of these classes. Like, one hour a week isn't enough. But I don't know any school in the United States off reservation that requires people to learn a Native American language.

CHANG: Well, how about you, Jocelyn? What were you afraid your parents would think when you told them, I want to move back to Taiwan?

CHUNG: All of - my mom, my aunts and uncles - they're all like, why? And I have half of my family in the U.S., half of them still here. All the ones who immigrated - I don't know if it's part of the pride that they feel. We're successful here. We stayed here. We built this whole life. And so the idea of going back the knee-jerk reaction for them was, why? I was pleasantly surprised to be so welcomed by my family here. They were like, oh, like, the prodigal child has come home, kind of feeling. And they're like, oh, yeah, welcome back. They've just embraced me completely, and just they've even used me as a tool to scold the rest of the family that has immigrated. And they're like, see? You could be like Jocelyn. Look at all the good things she's eating, like, how much fun she's having here. You could just come back, and then you could see us.

CHANG: Well, can I ask - because it sounds like each of you felt a little bit of dread telling your parents that you were deciding to move back to Taiwan. I can't help but wonder. Was part of that dread because, as you were growing up in America, you felt there was maybe some expectation to continue sort of realizing the American dream that they were pursuing when they decided to move from Taiwan to the U.S.? Did that ever weigh on you growing up?

KUO: Oh, yeah. I mean, I can really see it from their perspective. You give up so much when you decide to move to another country. There are certain jobs you'll just never have. You'll never have the language ability, can't quite read signs, can't quite understand the cultural references. You never quite feel like you belong. They gave up a lot psychically and emotionally so that children could integrate, master English, be better. And it's just a huge mental adjustment to be like, well, now my kids want to go back to the place that I left. Well, then why did I leave? You know, and none of this is articulated. This is - it's all below the surface.

CHANG: Totally. Do either of you relate to what Michelle just said, that pressure to sort of fulfill some promise - implicit promise to your parents?

CHUNG: I don't know as much pressure. But I think now seeing my future here and articulating that to my family - what that has done to especially my mom is, I think, reemerged some of her suppressed longing for Taiwan that she had to kind of fully suppress to the back of her psyche while she was assimilating to the U.S., you know, kind of cut off some of the grief that she was feeling, which - now, in coming back, I've seen this resurfacing of her intense longing and nostalgia and love for this island that she's even considering retiring here. And so what I thought would be, like, oh, maybe a pressure of, oh, I don't want to, you know, disappoint them or change the course that our family has been on has actually, I think, been a reigniting spark for, like, our living situation to be open again - that we could move freely between Taiwan and the U.S. and be like, both are home. And that's OK.

CHANG: That's so beautiful. Thank you all so, so much. I so enjoyed talking to all of you.

KUO: I've loved it so much. Thank you.

CHUNG: This was very fun. Thank you for having us.

TSAY JACOBS: Thanks for coming to Taiwan.


CHANG: That was Rosa Tsai Jacobs, Jocelyn Chung and Michelle Kuo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY JACOBS' "HALFWAY HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.