“Change the topic!”

As an interlude to the Diary of a Taiwanese in Beijing posts I’m running, here’s a little vignette from when I invited Wu Yi-jung – a Taiwanese exchange student in Beida – to join Marie and I for dinner one night. Marie has had a long-standing interest in Taiwanese and Japanese culture*, and was excited to meet Yi-jung. Her first question was about the Taiwanese chat shows and singers she loved. Yi-jung shot a wry glance at me – just that afternoon, she’d told me this was the most common question she got in Beijing. But she answered patiently, and we started talking about Sally’s recent trip to the Great Wall.

I had hardly expected this to be a segway segue* into the topic of Taiwanese independence.

Yi-jung and her friends had been cheated on car-fare to the Great Wall. Yi-jung and Marie both thought that was because the group was all from Taiwan. Not thinking, I added “yes, it’s easy for foreigners to get cheated”. The word I used for ‘foreigners’, 外国人, literally means ‘people from outside the county’. Marie stopped eating, gave me a smile so sweet it could only mean she was offended, and said “but Taiwanese aren’t foreign. Taiwan is part of China.”

Yi-jung froze up, not wanting to play through this line of conversation – clearly a TiVo repeat of countless conversations before it. “I’m hypersensitive,” she mumbled (saying ‘hypersensitive’ in English), “change the topic … change the topic.”

But Marie wanted to score the point. “Don’t you think Taiwan is part of China?”

Yi-jung wasn’t getting involved. “I’m afraid you’ll get angry with me”.

“We always think that Taiwan is just another province of China.”

“I’m afraid you’ll argue with me”.

This was getting repetitive. I felt I had to intervene. (And yes, I was fully aware of the risks of being labelled a ‘foreign nation intervening in affairs which are not it’s own’.) It was tricky: I had to pick a topic different enough to break the impasse, but not so different as to be awkward. I choose poorly: tensions within the United Kingdom.

Explaining the respective relations of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, not to mention which combination is Britain, which is Great Britain, and which is the UK … this is difficult enough in English. In Chinese … well, I guess there’s only one way it could have been worse. A Scot could have been sitting next to us.


* a quick note: it isn’t mutually exclusive for young Chinese today to be politically hostile towards, and at the same time culturally fascinated by, Japan or Taiwan.

** thanks to my Dad for pointing this out to me. And apologies to any Italian readers for butchering your language. What a foaw paah!


  1. The ‘3 minute Taiwan hate’. Otherwise intelligent people turn into purple-faced drooling idiots at the mere mention of Taiwan. I’m not invested in the cause either way but the intentionally provocative dummy-spit never fails to leave a bad taste. Never once heard someone say ‘you know, the reason why I support A versus B is because…’.

  2. If only you had simply said, “外国人、港台同胞” (Hong Kong / Taiwan compatriots) in the first place, there would have been no problem!

    Actually, it would be interesting tease out exactly who it is that is more likely to get cheated in that situation. Presumably, your friend Marie wouldn’t disagree that the Taiwanese are like foreigners specifically with regard to their cheatability. I guess the people who would be easy to cheat are 外地人 in general, and more specifically anyone who isn’t used to navigating mainland Han society (or who looks like he or she isn’t used to it), so that would include foreigners, non-Mainlanders, and not-so-assimilated minorities.

  3. In a conversation a few years ago with several Chinese friends, I once used the phrase 爱国 when referring to the Taiwanese and the particular affection they feel for their home pile of dirt and rock. (I’ve since forgotten how the conversation began.) I was immediately and soundly criticized for my lack of political correctness and for having lived too long in the U.S. One person even suggested that my family and I were perhaps damaged (i.e., rendered unpatriotic) by our years living in the British colony of HK, where I was born and raised until the age of 14. (As I recall, he practically called me a coolie.) Of course, my friends informed me, one mustn’t characterize the Taiwanese as 爱国 unless the 国 being referred to is 中国 (i.e., the mother of all 祖国). I was then reminded that Taiwan itself is not a 国, but rather a 省. Change the topic, indeed.

    Interestingly, two years ago, during a stint at Taipei’s Academia Sinica, I had an interesting conversation with a professor at Taiwan’s Tsinghua University. This professor was born and raised in the Mainland, after which he then earned a PhD at a U.S. university. After teaching for a few years in the U.S., this professor the relocated to Taiwan. One day in class, he took an informal poll of his students – around 100. He asked them to choose between the following 5 choices: reunification with China; a declaration of formal Taiwanese independence; continue with the status quo; U.S. statehood; Japanese statehood. The results of the vote really suprised him – each of the 5 choices received approximately 20 percent of the votes. In the end, about 40 percent of the university students preferred U.S. or Japanese statehood to reunification. I was also suprised.

    There are times in China when the groupthink stereotype seems right on the mark.

  4. LOL. You chose poorly indeed. Good effort though. Your heart was in the right place. I probably would’ve indulged her and see if I could get her to contradict herself into hating me forever.

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