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Why Taiwanese Americans are moving to Taiwan — reversing the path of their parents

From left: Rosa Tsay Jacobs, Jocelyn Chung and Michelle Kuo in Taipei in January. All three moved to Taiwan after having lived and grown up in the United States.
An Rong Xu for NPR
From left: Rosa Tsay Jacobs, Jocelyn Chung and Michelle Kuo in Taipei in January. All three moved to Taiwan after having lived and grown up in the United States.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Taiwanese Americans Jocelyn Chung, Rosa Tsay Jacobs and Michelle Kuo each made the decision to move from the U.S. to Taiwan, they all felt some apprehension about telling their parents.

"I was so afraid to tell them for a while," says 42-year-old Michelle Kuo. "My parents didn't want me to give up what they had built [in America]. They were like, 'You've been so successful in America, we give you every advantage.'"

"My mom, my aunts and uncles, they're all like, 'Why?'" 26-year-old Jocelyn Chung adds. "I have half of my family in the U.S., half of them still here [in Taiwan]. All the ones who immigrated ... the knee-jerk reaction for them was, 'Why?'"

"When I was deciding to come back, you know, my mom was like, 'You have this dream of what [Taiwan] would be like, but it's not actually that," chimes in 40-year-old Rosa Tsay Jacobs.

All three of these women had grown up aware that their parents had left Taiwan for better opportunities for themselves and their families. Yet, all three of them decided to move to their ancestral homeland, to start a new future in the place of their parents' past.

And they aren't alone. While the 1970s-90s saw a wave of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, the pandemic has seen a wave of Taiwanese Americans moving in the opposite direction — and navigating the complex feelings that go with it.

All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang host sat down with the three women while on a trip to Taiwan to hear about their experiences.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Ailsa: So I want to ask each of you about how you decided to basically make Taiwan, which used to be your parents' home, your home now. And I want to start with Michelle, because I understand you burst into tears when your husband Albert first suggested that you move to Taiwan. Can you just take me back to that moment?

Michelle: When I first thought about moving to Taiwan, I was like, "Well, how am I going to be a lawyer? How am I going to learn the language?" And then there was 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 move in with 24 million of my aunties. And I was like, "Oh my god, eventually my daughter is 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, this kind of anxiety and dread and guilt all mixed together. And also this sense of, like, "Well, I don't know anything about where I come from" and the kind of very repressed shame.

Jocelyn Chung.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
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An Rong Xu for NPR
Jocelyn Chung.

Jocelyn: The decision [for me] was based upon safety, based upon 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 [Da'an Forest Park] right now, just surrounded by tons and tons of intergenerational families. Kids are off playing on their own because we know that they'll be safe. 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 – I'm at ease in general.

Rosa: I definitely relate to that. Things [in Taiwan] are sanitary, they're efficient, technologically advanced. You know, that is not what my parents experienced, which propelled them to want to move away. You know, they lived under martial law for some time.

Ailsa: 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 in the context of geopolitics, cross-strait tensions. Do you feel like every day you're under the threat of China?

Rosa: Yeah, I definitely had friends [say to] 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 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 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. — it's complex, right? Like, there's a lot of bounty, but there's also a lot of anxiety we live with.

Rosa Tsay Jacobs.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
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An Rong Xu for NPR
Rosa Tsay Jacobs.

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

Michelle: 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 — 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.

Ailsa: It sounds like each of you felt a little bit of dread telling your parents that you were deciding to move back to Taiwan. 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?

Michelle: Oh yeah, I mean, I can really see it from their perspective. You give up so much when you decided 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 their 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?" And none of this is articulated. It's all below the surface.

Michelle Kuo.
/ An Rong Xu for NPR
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An Rong Xu for NPR
Michelle Kuo.

Jocelyn: I think 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. 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 maybe a pressure of, "I don't want to disappoint them or change the course that our family has been on" has actually been a reigniting spark for 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.

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Ailsa Chang
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.
Mallory Yu
Jonaki Mehta
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.
Patrick Jarenwattananon