After my parents got married, my Yeye went to my Ah-Gong in Taiwan to introduce himself.
Ah-Gong — my mother’s father — refused to come to the door.
Yeye — my father’s father — was a waishengrenor someone who had arrived from mainland China in the 1940s.
As for Ah-Gong, waishengren were oppressors who had taken over his country, cornered the best jobs, massacred civilians and imprisoned anyone who spoke against the government.
Even if he had gone out, Ah-Gong could not have expressed his displeasure to Yeye.
Ah-Gong was fluent in Japanese, in addition to Taiwanese, as he had grown up under Japanese colonial rule. He spoke little Mandarin. The rift between my grandfathers could not be bridged with words, even though Yeye had brought a friend to interpret.
Since that day in 1970 when my grandfathers silently parted ways, Taiwan has gone from the “white terror” of martial law to a full-fledged democracy.
But China has become increasingly aggressive over its threats to take control of Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory.
In this climate, the people of Taiwan, including the descendants of waishengren – have become more determined to defend the de facto independence of their island. It is common these days to have waisheng heritage while considering you Taiwanese.
This month, this complicated story caught the world’s attention when a gunman opened fire on a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, killing one person and injuring five.
David Wenwei Chou, 68, charged with murder and attempted murder, is a waishengren and apparent author of a seven-volume document entitled “Diary of an Angel Destroying Independence”. He had been evicted from an apartment he once owned in Las Vegas and appeared to be separated or divorced from his wife.
The precise mix of ideology and personal failure that would motivate someone to shoot elderly Taiwanese-speaking worshipers may never be known. But any deeply felt issue — be it abortion, immigration, or foreign wars — can inspire violence.
As a child of a mixed marriage, I understand waisheng-Taiwanese divide that probably defined Chou’s life, as it defined the lives of my parents, the lives of over 23 million people in Taiwan, and those around the world with ties to the island.
I understand why many older people waishengren feel like outsiders, how their sentimental attachment to China and their desire to one day unite with the mainland has relegated them to the fringes.
waishengren — pronounced why-sheng-ren — literally means people from outside the province. Taiwanese people – who usually speak Taiwanese or Hakka dialects at home – are sometimes referred to as Benshengren, or people of this province. Taiwan is also home to 16 Austronesian-speaking indigenous tribes.
Visiting Taiwan as a child, I knew that both sides of my family were different. Ah-Gong and Ah-Ma spoke Taiwanese, which I didn’t understand. Yeye and Nainai’s Mandarin was heavily accented, but I could make out the words if I listened carefully.
When I was 8 years old, my waisheng the grandparents lived in a two-story house with a large garden near Hsinchu Station. Yeye ran the Hsinchu branch of the Bank of Taiwan, and the house belonged to the bank.
Ah-Gong had made peace with my parents’ marriage and often stopped on his bike for Taiwanese snacks or fresh fish. He and Yeye both liked to drink and Yeye invited him to parties.
I thought Taiwan was about half and half of every type of person, just like my family.
Later I found out that waishengren only made up about 10% of the population – a percentage that has since declined, as those born in China have died.
My father was born in the Chinese province of Zhejiang in October 1945, shortly after the surrender of Japan. Her surname is “Shengli” – victory. His parents – my Yeye and Nainai – had fled from the invading Japanese army for years, selling gold bars to buy food.
Yeye quickly went to Taiwan. After Japan returned the island to China, there were plenty of jobs for educated young men on the mainland – but not for Taiwanese, who lacked connections to the ruling elite. Many, like Ah-Gong, did not speak Mandarin, and the Japanese had severely restricted their opportunities to go to university.
Like the others waishengren, Yeye became an exile after Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang lost to the Communists and retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Communication with the mainland was completely cut off. Chiang’s government tolerated no dissent, imprisoning many Taiwanese as well as some waishengren.
Yeye taught his children that China was their true home, even though they had no memory of it. He longed to return to Anhui Province to see his mother and tend to her family grave.
Taiwanese like Ah-Gong, whose ancestors came from Fujian province or elsewhere generations earlier, had no connection to China. His children called him “Tochan” – Japanese for dad.
waishengrenThe hatred of Japan was deep. The Japanese invaders had driven them from their homes. Many, like Yeye, had family members who were killed by the Japanese. They were eternally suspicious of Taiwanese who had adopted not only the Japanese language but also certain Japanese habits.
The Taipei of my father’s youth was very segregated. He went to an all-waisheng elementary school in the capital. But from junior high, students were sorted by exam results. My parents met at university and their fellow physics students – some Taiwanese, some waishengren — have remained close over the years.
Despite marriages and friendships, many in this generation are still defined by their ethnic identities.
In my twenties, I lived in Taipei for several years with my aunt, my father’s older sister. Every time I mentioned a new friend, his first question was, “Are they waishengren or Taiwanese?
Sometimes she would say racist things: “Taiwanese houses are always dirty.
Stereotypes go both ways. My mother called waishengren “odious” and complains about their sense of entitlement.
At 76, my father is among the youngest waishengren to be born in China. Although they grew up in Taiwan, there is no doubt in their minds – they are Chinese, not Taiwanese.
But China seems increasingly distant to the children and grandchildren of waishengren born on the island. Taiwanese are increasingly likely to see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, and to oppose potential unification with an authoritarian country that would stifle the freedoms they hold dear.
In Taiwan, the divide between political parties is at least as wide as the red and blue in the United States. The holidays are “deep green”.
For people of my parents’ generation, political affiliation is often divided between ethnic groups. In my parents’ group chats with their friends, politics is forbidden.
Shortly after the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in 2016, I was surprised by my father’s reaction when I told him I was going to visit Taiwan.
“Why do you want to go?” he said. “It’s not for people like us.”
Four years later, I covered Tsai’s re-election campaign for The Times. During a dinner in Taipei with my father’s family, I mentioned the election. My cousin’s son, switching to English, said to me, “We’ll talk about that later.
One-on-one, he told me he didn’t discuss politics with his family. A millennium and a third generation waishengren, he was such a strong supporter of the DPP that a few days later he celebrated Tsai’s victory outside his party headquarters. I don’t think he told his parents or grandparents where he went on election night.
The weekend after the Taiwanese church shooting, I saw my parents.
Of course, we were all horrified. But I wondered if, somewhere in the shooter’s warped mind, his politics were similar to my father’s.
My father said that he supported Taiwan independence at first, but many waishengren couldn’t stand the affinity Taiwanese felt for Japan.
And what’s up with so many people saying they’re Taiwanese, not Chinese? How can they not recognize that they are Chinese? he growled.
It is not a contradiction to say that your language and culture originated in China and that you consider yourself Taiwanese, I pointed out.
My mother is generally silent during my father’s political reflections. What she has to say would provoke a debate — a debate in which neither side would budge.
In Southern California, a wide selection of Taiwanese television is available on cable. My parents got into the habit of watching the news separately, on different channels – kind of like CNN versus Fox News.
“Mom? Do you think you’re Chinese? I asked.
She answered with silence.
Los Angeles Times