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What the Gospel Has to Say About the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Shooting​, Part 1

This article is part of a two-part series by SueAnn Shiah reflecting on the 2022 Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Shooting​. Read the second part by clicking here.

“Who is Taiwanese?” 

What on the surface seems so simple actually gets more complicated the more you learn. I spent two years of my life working on a documentary film trying to answer that very question. In Taiwan, if you ask, “Who is Taiwanese,” you’ll probably get a wide and diverse set of responses and answers. But this question is at the heart of the major political parties and cultural conflicts that divide Taiwan today. It is a question that has come up again in the wake of the recent tragic shooting at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. In its wake, the simple attempt to identify facts about the shooter, the victims, and the motivations of this planned attack ripped open old wounds and made new ones. It reminded us that in the Taiwanese and diaspora communities, there is still much more healing that needs to come.

David Chou, the suspected gunman who murdered Dr. John Cheng, and injured five others, was identified in early reports as “Asian,” “Chinese immigrant,” and “U.S. citizen who grew up in Taiwan.” But as more information surfaced in Taiwan and among diasporic communities, it became clear that Chou, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, was not merely motivated by “anti-Taiwanese hate” as most U.S. English language outlets reported. He is from Taiwan and a waishengren, a child of one of the millions of Chinese people who came to Taiwan after the Kuomintang (KMT)’s retreat from China after the end of World War II, as well as a member of a Las Vegas chapter of a right-wing pro-Chinese unification group. Understanding Chou’s social position in the recent history of Taiwan is essential for understanding why this man planned this attack.

What we know from reports, is that he visited the church before to scope out the space, and drove from Las Vegas to Irvine, passing many other Taiwanese churches along the way, conveying guns and homemade explosive devices, all point to an attempt to murder as many people as possible at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church.

It is easier to paint a picture of international aggression between China and Taiwan than to delve into the fact that, in a place like Taiwan, there are many who identify as Taiwanese, Chinese, or as both. Indigenous Taiwanese people, too, are often erased in this dialogue. We are an island full of kind and generous people who live, work, love, and raise families alongside one another with fierce disagreements about national, cultural, and ethnic identity.

This brings me to the question behind the one that I opened with:

“Am I Taiwanese?”

I was not raised to think of myself as Taiwanese. I grew up in a family with two parents who had immigrated from Taiwan to the United States, where I was born and grew up. But we never referred to ourselves as Taiwanese. We were Chinese.

My family came to Taiwan after 1949; We are waishengren. My father’s side came from Myanmar to Taiwan in the 70s under the rallying cry and banner of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)’s project to gather overseas Chinese support for an exiled Republic of China (ROC) government. They came with the hope and promise that they were finally “going home” after a generation as persecuted ethnic minorities, unable to practice their language, cultures, and traditions, and most of all, unable to access the privileges of citizenship.

The ROC offered all of this to them. My father, proud to be Chinese, and proud to be part of a history, legacy, tradition, culture, and “civilization,” finally found a place to belong.

During this same era, the KMT was enforcing martial law and brutal political repression upon the people of Taiwan, a period known as the White Terror. The people who had been living there before the KMT’s arrival — mostly ethnically Chinese Hoklo or Hakka and Indigenous Austronesian people — were not allowed to practice their languages, cultures, and traditions. My maternal grandfather was a member of the KMT military, the very same regime that Taiwanese people describe as the colonizers and oppressors of Taiwan. 

But this is not the narrative I was raised with as a child. I grew up in a Taiwanese American community alongside waishengren blue KMT families and benshengren (the people living in Taiwan before the arrival of the KMT) green Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pro-independence families. But mostly, I grew up extremely ignorant of Taiwanese politics and enjoyed (inasmuch as a child enjoys extra school) attending Chinese school, going to my extracurricular activities, potlucks, mahjong, and karaoke most weekends with these families. This is why when new reporting from Kimmy Yam revealed that Chou had participated in community potlucks and social activities from the Taiwanese Association of Las Vegas, alongside mostly pro-independence Taiwanese people, sometimes even attending musical performances with his wife at the local Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Las Vegas, I was not at all surprised. 

It was not until I grew older that the gaps in my knowledge began to create almost comical problems for me. I joined a number of Taiwanese independence internet groups, assuming that since my family was from Taiwan, we must support Taiwanese independence. Everything changed in college when I began my own journey to critically understand my racial and cultural identity and started to research the history and politics of Taiwan, filling in the gaps of my U.S.-oriented education. I returned to Taiwan on my own to study Chinese, and befriended many people from various backgrounds and politics. Most of all, I began to listen.

I have heard Taiwanese people say that I am not Taiwanese because I am American.

I have heard Taiwanese people say that waishengren should go back to China, that they are not real Taiwanese people either.

I wrestled with the question, “Did I even deserve to call myself a Taiwanese person?” I didn’t have the language skills or the pedigree.

My life changed through a friendship with an older Taiwanese woman, active in Taiwanese independence politics and Indigenous issues. She told me, “If you have a relationship with Taiwan, and you think that you’re a Taiwanese person, then you are a Taiwanese person.”

I cannot change the past. I cannot undo the fact that the reason why my family ended up in Taiwan was for reasons connected to the agenda of a military dictator who terrorized the ancestors and families of many of my close friends — and even some of my extended family. I cannot change the conditions that lead to me being here, in this place that my family and I now call home. I do not think that it benefits anyone — me or those victims of this systemic violence — to stew in guilt or shame, to try and self-flagellate myself. We do not have a choice about how and to whom we are born and raised. But we do have a choice in how we decide to live. While I may not have been born in Taiwan or raised as a “Taiwanese” person, I recognize that my personal story and that of my family is deeply and inexplicably intertwined with Taiwan, that it is the place my family lives now, and it is the place we will continue to be. I have chosen to cast my lot in with them, here on this beautiful island 【一島一命】.*

Biology is not destiny. I have chosen — instead of wallowing in guilt and shame — to build a future together where we do not erase the past but work to fix that which has been broken and seek healing in love, hope, peace, and solidarity. 

You jump, I jump Jack

*This is a phrase that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan that translated means “One Island – One Life.” As Taiwan is not allowed membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) or other international diplomatic organizations, Taiwanese people worked together to fight the virus, to take care of one another, and keep each other safe. Another phrase that became popular during this time was “we must save our own country!” –the implication that intervention or aid from other countries or international organizations could not be counted or relied upon.

SueAnn Shiah (@sueannshiah) is a Taiwanese American musician, filmmaker, community organizer, and emerging theologian specializing in identity formation, racial justice, gender, and sexuality. Her first feature length documentary HuanDao follows her journey in asking the question “Who is Taiwanese?” in a two week bike trip around Taiwan. She released her debut solo album of reclaimed hymns, “A Liturgy for the Perseverance of the Saints” in June 2018. In addition to her own creative and theological works, she collaborates with other artists and musicians in a variety of capacities as an artist manager, producer, audio engineer, songwriter, and creator of liturgy. She has a B.B.A. in Music Business with a Production emphasis and a Chinese minor from Belmont University, a M.A. in Musicology from National Taiwan University, and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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