Missing Chapters in Iris Chang’s “The Chinese in America”

Iris Chang’s book The Chinese in America is one of the very few books that chronicles a major Asian American community, the Chinese Americans. Of course, no one book could fully capture the incredible diversity of the Chinese American category and all the people who populate (or are made to populate) it, but this book definitely does a great job of covering most of that diversity as well as filling a gaping hole in American history and collective consciousness.

Nevertheless, I was a little surprised to find how unrepresented I was in this book. Let me explain. I’m Taiwanese American, which means I’m of “ethnic” Chinese heritage (whatever that means), and my ancestors have been born in Taiwan for about six generations back. A quick glance of the table of contents of the book shows that Chang has all of Chapter 16 dedicated to the Taiwanese Americans, so it would seem that my little nook of Chinese America is nicely explored in the book. Unfortunately, it is not.

Although Chapter 16 focuses primarily on Taiwanese Americans, it really only focuses on one particular group of Taiwanese Americans–the ones who left China to escape Communist rule by going to Taiwan and then left for the United States after that. They’re characterized as more highly educated and more well-off, and even if they lost everything in the move from China to Taiwan, they had more socio-political and intellectual capital than the country bumpkin Chinese ethnics or indigenous peoples that were already on the slow-paced, agrarian island before their arrival. As it always is in history, the natives were oppressed by the newcomers.

The oppressed would be my ancestors. (To be fair, when my ancestors arrived on Taiwan, they were the oppressors of the indigenous natives.)

My grandparents were subjects of the Japanese empire when Taiwan was a Japanese territory (won from China), and they were more fluent in the Japanese language than Taiwanese (Minan) or Mandarin Chinese. Then when the flight of the Chinese from communist China came after World War II, my parents were the ones who grew up under a totalitarian Kuo Min Tang regime who mass murdered dissidents and indoctrinated the local children to not speak anything but Mandarin Chinese and to praise Chiang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen as their saviors and political gods.

The kicking out of the Republic of China from the United Nations and Jimmy Carter’s US recognition of the People’s Republic of China as a legitimate ruling government of China was the impetus for my family to move to the United States.

So that brings us to me, the Taiwanese American that does not have super educated parents who came as intellectuals or professors or high level engineers, doctors, scientists and knowledge workers. My parents are the quintessential American small business owners, very mom and pop. I’m the Taiwanese American that speaks Taiwanese (Minan) at home and didn’t learn Mandarin Chinese fluently until college. I’m the Taiwanese American that doesn’t have stories of how my family fled China and the Communists but instead my childhood was full of stories of how my predecessors were brutalized and ruled over by the Kuo Min Tang instead, how my parents wore signs at school that said “I was bad because I spoke Taiwanese”.

I’m a huge fan of Iris Chang’s work, having read both this book and the Rape of Nanking when it came out in 1997. While reading The Chinese in America, I was elated to learn how integral the Chinese American history was to the American history and heartbroken to see again and again those accomplishments and contributions to this great nation never recognized as American at the core. When I got to that Taiwanese American chapter, I was on the edge of my seat, thinking “Here’s my part!”, but in all honesty I was disappointed to see that the particular and substantial Taiwanese American community that I belonged to was barely referenced at all in a chapter dedicated to Taiwanese Americans. We got swallowed up in a bigger majority group that dominated socially, politically, culturally and intellectually.

Also, I felt there was also a missing chapter about the Chinese in America hailing from other continents and countries. In my own personal experience and life, I’m always interacting with ethnic Chinese who are here in America after their families had spent a substantial amount of time in another country such as South East Asian countries, other East Asian countries, and South America. There are so many Americans that are ethnic Chinese who came from Korea, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil…basically my friends and neighbors. I think as a Taiwanese American who came from generations of ethnic Chinese who lived in Taiwan, I’m part of that group of ethnic Chinese who left China generations earlier and then made it to America in subsequent generations. It’s my impression of Chang’s book that it focuses most heavily on the Chinese that came more directly to America from China, neglecting this whole other alternate stream of Chinese Americans that I think has made a substantial addition to the American population, mainly because I’m surrounded by them everyday.

This is my reading of the book, and of course, if Chang was still with us today, I think she would appreciate such feedback, and being the amazing writer and scholar she was, would have come out with a new edition that better addressed these gaps. It is our great loss that she is no longer with us, but I definitely cherish and honor what she has done, digging out the bloodied bricks of the past and building a monument of our heritage to remind us of where we all come from. The cost of her efforts were excruciatingly high, as she exchanged her soul and lifeblood for the dark pieces of history she revitalized for us. For me, I know she has indeed made a priceless contribution to my identity and who I will become in the future. R.I.P. Iris Chang 3/28/68 – 11/9/04.

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