My People Have Been in the News Lately
Some historical context for the church shooting in Laguna Woods, CA
When my brother and I were little, our family attended the Formosan Presbyterian Church in Greater Houston for about three years. There my parents sang hymns and listened to sermons in their native tongue, Taigi, while hip young college students taught us kiddos Sunday school lessons in English. You may or may not know this, but Taiwan is sometimes referred to as Formosa. If you’re wondering where that name came from, well, it came from Portuguese sailors who happened upon the uncharted island in 1524 and marked it on their map as Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island.” Among Europeans, it eventually became the standard name for the island well into the 20th century.
(Also, let me mention parenthetically that the naming of my parents’ native language is a politically loaded exercise. Despite the fact that it’s the heart language spoken by over 70% of the native population of Taiwan, it has no official name in Taiwan. While “Taigi” is what the people of Taiwan call the language in their own language, you can also refer to it as Taiwanese Hokkien, Taiwanese Minnan, or, if you’re feeling particularly cheeky, simply… Taiwanese. Hokkien, or Minnan/Southern Min, is the language that originated from the Minnan region in the southeastern part of the Fujian province in the southeastern part of mainland China. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.), people from Hokkien-speaking regions of China began migrating to the island. By 1624, the number of Chinese on the island numbered around 25,000. Over time, Taiwanese Hokkien/Minnan became distinct from Hokkien/Minnan through the impact of 40 years of Dutch and Spanish colonial rule (starting around 1624); interaction between Hakka speakers, Hokkien speakers, and island aborigines; 50 years of Japanese rule (1895-1945), and clashes between the established Taiwanese population and the mass of Mainland settlers who arrived in 1949 as a result of the Chinese Civil War.)
My memories of our time at Formosan Presbyterian Church play in my mind like a choppy highlight reel: me high up in a magnolia tree pulling giant blooms off stems; my brother dressed up as a shepherd; me in an uncomfortable pink leotard, tutu, and tights performing in a Christmas program; potluck lunches; our family getting baptized; me humiliating my dad when I threw a temper tantrum because he wanted to keep talking to the pastor and I wanted to go home right away; my parents respectfully nodding to all the elderly women and addressing them as “Obasan,” the Japanese word for grandmother. These are the things I thought of when I read about a gunman targeting a gathering of Taiwanese Presbyterians in Laguna Woods, California.
I live in Texas, and this incident happened on the West Coast, but the thing about being part of a relatively small diaspora is that we tend to be only one or two degrees of separation from things that impact even a distant part of the community. Nina, my Bible study leader from college, whose ethnic background is Cantonese Hakka, texted me as I was writing this post. Geneva Presbyterian Church, where the shooting took place, is within walking distance from where her mom lives. Dr. John Cheng, who died in the shooting as a direct result of his heroic actions, and his brother are friends of friends of hers.
It’s obvious from the media coverage I’ve read and the initial statements put out by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office that there’s simply not much known among the general population of the U.S. about the history between China and Taiwan. This is entirely understandable. It’s my own people’s history, and it’s only with a lot of research and effort over the past few years that I’ve begun to learn it myself. My brother and I were both born in the United States, and my parents for the most part tried for decades to bury their traumatic past by never talking about it and trying to assimilate to life in America as much as possible. Excavating the past, however, has proven to be quite healing for us.
While I don’t expect other people groups to have a deep understanding of our history, because of the recent high-profile tragedy happening on U.S. soil, I invite anyone who’s interested to learn about it and understand more deeply. Six years ago, I detailed some of the history between China and Taiwan in a Wordpress post entitled “Between Two Worlds.” I think it’s a decent primer.
Also relevant is a rather moving moment for me back in 2019 when a leader of the Campus Evangelical Fellowship in Taiwan reached out to me and asked for permission to publish a translated version of an article I had written for Christianity Today entitled “The Christian Mandate to Subvert Tribalism.” He explained that they had been grappling with the topic of transitional justice, largely over how to talk about the 228 Incident (which I describe in detail in my post “Between Two Worlds”). Naturally, there were members of their fellowship who were sympathetic to the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang/KMT) perspective and others who were bitterly resentful of the KMT and very strongly pro-independence. Peacemaking work is difficult, slow, and full of setbacks, and a tragedy like the Laguna Woods shooting might tempt us to believe that it’s futile. But the truth is that goodness, justice, and mercy will ultimately prevail because Jesus is LORD. Here’s a visual of the article translated into Mandarin.