Last year I was chatting with a student of mine about a new game that Taiwanese students were playing. “You play it using the local train stations,” she described. “You take only local trains, and you roll a die. Whatever number you roll, you get on the train and go down the line that many stations, and get off there, and tour that area. It’s really fun!”

The international media, always fifteen years behind events, has discovered the rising Taiwanese identity among the young. Commentators variously attribute it to the rise of democracy, the Chen Shui-bian era reforms to education, student activism, and other causes. But there is one element they miss: travel.

In the last decade, new forms of domestic tourism, coupled with the routinization of travel abroad, have enabled the young to confront their land and their position in the world at a younger age than previous generations. Recall that in the martial law era, the populace was less wealthy and travel abroad was difficult. The affluence of the older generation is helping to create a Taiwan consciousness among the young.

The 2006 film Island Etude sparked a revolution in the youth experience of Taiwan. The film’s main character rode a bicycle on a 7 day, 6 night discovery of Taiwan. Suddenly thousands of young people began emulating him, taking their own bicycle journeys around Taiwan. Today, round-the-island rides are a rite of passage for the young, and many of my students do them during breaks. An entire infrastructure of bike touring has arisen to service this impulse, including bike paths and agencies that rent bikes and arrange routes and places to stay. Biking has also taken off as a leisure and sporting activity, and local governments around Taiwan sponsor events that bring in cyclists from around the island, giving the young further incentive to travel and discover Taiwan. On weekends my students frequently take overnight trips and day trips, especially early in the semester before their workload becomes crazy.

In recent years, like the dice game above, other travel activities have appeared among the under-40 crowd. It is common currency that to be Taiwanese one must bike around the island, do the annual Sun Moon Lake Swim, and climb Yushan (Jade Mountain, the highest mountain in Taiwan). The outdoors has become a place where things are done — young couples camp, hike, and stay at B&Bs and home stays in the mountains. In doing these activities, young Taiwanese inscribe the island’s geography on their sense of self, as a known territory that is part of their identity. The KMT has done a good job in removing history from the experience of the young, but the youth has fought back with the Great Outdoors. Their Taiwan may not (yet) be a historical Taiwan, but it is a beautiful Taiwan.

At the same time, the affluent generation of parents has been indulging its children with overseas trips. I teach at a private medical university where upper middle class children are sent to be doctors and engineers and maintain the family status. Travel is an important signifier of modernity and status, and most of my students have been on at least one overseas trip to popular destinations such as Japan, Thailand, Europe, and North America. Many have spent weeks abroad in language programs in the US.

Travel is always an invitation to contemplate one’s own identity and place in the world. But for Taiwanese abroad, it is more than that. They come into contact with Chinese, especially students, themselves publicly ardent for the annexation of Taiwan, but often privately indifferent or even in opposition to the idea. This contact with Chinese teaches Taiwanese they are different, and reinforces their increasingly coalescing identity. They also find themselves constantly explaining to foreigners what Taiwan is, and differentiating it from other places, especially China. This too reinforces their sense of a Taiwan identity. Finally, as students they are often subjected to indignities from Chinese abroad eager to please audiences at home.

Taiwanese feel a great yearning to be a real nation accepted globally. It is an important part of the Taiwan identity, and travel brings it out. Taiwanese attempting to obtain visas abroad encounter a maze of problems, all of which reinforce the idea that Taiwan is separate and special. I often suspect that one reason the Ma Administration focused on visa-free entry into so many nations was to reduce the opportunity for Taiwanese to experience their identity as they navigated these problems. Young Taiwanese, especially those going to off-the-beaten-path destinations, encounter these as a matter of course, earlier than their parents did.

They also experience China’s suppression of Taiwan in their own lives. One of my students is an officer in a global medical students’ organization. The other day she explained to me “I’m going to the World Health Assembly, but with the organization. I can’t go as a Taiwanese,” she says with a sigh, “we Taiwanese are not allowed.”

“We Taiwanese”, indeed.

(Feature photo of a road in Taiwan, by ADOnline Promo)


Michael Turton

Michael Turton is a longtime resident of Taiwan. He blogs about Taiwan politics and cycling at The View from Taiwan (