When I flew to the Taiwanese capital of Taipei last November for Mandarin language training, I came with close to no knowledge about the place. I had just one question: How do the Taiwanese perceive the threat from China, which claims that the island is a breakaway province?

In an early conversation with my 30-year-old Taiwanese flatmate, who runs a digital diplomacy nonprofit, I was told this “threat” was something she has lived with since she was ten. “Honestly, we discuss the earthquakes in Taiwan more frequently than we discuss China,” she laughed.

It seemed easy to launch into political discussions with friends and strangers alike. “I wouldn’t say China won’t take over Taiwan. That day might just come,” said a young woman seated next to me at dinner one night. “But I will definitely join the fight. I cannot forgo my freedom of speech!”

Later, I unexpectedly spent the Lunar New Year holidays in southern Taiwan with a friend and her elderly parents. I was intrigued by how much more they spoke Taiwanese Hokkien over Mandarin in their day-to-day life, like so many in Taiwan.

I had started learning Mandarin in 2019 during a short stint in China since I believed learning the language would allow me a more nuanced understanding of East Asia: a complex region with varied histories and identities. It is a region that Indian readers have, for the most part, accessed only through the eyes of Western media.

From afar, Taiwan seemed to me like a floating democracy with a progressive government led by a strong woman. For the most part, that’s exactly what it is. But the more time I spend here, I realise the picture is much more complex than my initial reading.

The democratic values, like in India, are slightly skewed towards the majority population who assert a specific Taiwanese identity. Talking about how Taiwan managed its early Covid-outbreaks in May 2021, a young activist told me: “… Even citizens became ‘non-citizens’.”

Coming from a large country like India which has a looming presence in South Asia, Taiwan was quite the contrast: a small island struggling to be recognised by the world but home to people who are not any less ambitious.

To understand Taiwan better, I interviewed four women with unique perspectives about work, life, identity, politics and the internet. In the weeks since these conversations, Russia has invaded Ukraine and I can sense that the war is playing on people’s minds.

“Right now Taiwanese tend to believe China will not attack due to China’s urgent need of economic and political power among other nations, but we also believe we should be extra careful and observe what China does next,” said a journalism graduate student at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Not surprisingly, the internet, which I used to interview most of them due to Taipei’s incessant rains, plays a pivotal role in all their lives. A platform to “go out” into a world that is yet to recognise Taiwan.

Pia Lin, 30

From: Matsu Island

Identity: Taiwanese

Pia Lin.

“I barely traveled when I was young, studying first in a public school and then a public university. Most of my family members are teachers and they instilled the concept that teaching was a safe job. Personally, I was very interested in English, it was a tool to explore the outside world.”

At 17, Pia traveled to England for a month-long summer vacation study tour. She had been studying English for nearly a decade at the time but couldn’t understand a word when the immigration officer asked her questions.

“I was so frustrated! Because of that experience, I thought the world is big, but my English is bad. I should try to find ways that will help me leave Taiwan and access the world.”

In her final semester at university, Pia went abroad once again on an exchange programme, this time to Leiden University in the Netherlands. “That was a huge culture shock!” she said. “Everyone around me was super smart and they talked about all kinds of things. That’s when I realised that studying for all those years on a scholarship in a prestigious university in Taiwan did not help me socialise. I saw a problem in our education.”

One day, she found a page on Facebook called “The World in Your Classroom”, Leiden. She signed up and got invited to introduce Taiwan to Dutch students at a local school.

“I gave a 45-minute lecture! Without this chance, I would not have realised how unfamiliar I was with my own home country. I realised I was such a stranger to Taiwan. I was telling them about how we get dòu jiāng [soy milk] everywhere in Taiwan and one of the students yelled out ‘That sounds like Taiwanese Starbucks!’”

Buoyed by the adrenaline rush, Pia decided to bring “The World in Your Classroom” home to Taiwan. It’s a platform that matches foreign volunteers with high schools in Taiwan for a lecture series. The volunteers talk about their country, culture or any interesting work they are doing. From its first year of 12 volunteers, it grew to over a 100 in the next two years, and has spread to schools across Taiwan.

Technology is the only way Taiwanese can “go out”, Pia told me. “Taiwanese people really need recognition from other parts of the world. We are a small island.”

At the lecture she gave in the Netherlands all those years ago, the students couldn’t point out where Taiwan was on a map. “If we don’t tell people who we are, people won’t know!”

The World in Your Classroom, Taiwan.

A decade ago, Alden (name changed) and Beya Lee, navigated the same air space but flew in different directions. Beya flew from Taipei to Beijing for a six-month exchange program which would then extend to seven years in China’s capital city. This was just as Alden, a Beijinger, was traveling to Taipei soon after Taiwan eased regulations for mainland Chinese students.

Both women went to Peking University in Beijing at different times. Alden was born and raised in Beijing, a city which she feels fuelled her politics, and is presently pursuing a PhD in Culture Studies in a university in Taiwan.

Beya relocated to Taipei in early 2020 after her long stint in Beijing just as the pandemic was taking over the world. She works as a content editor for a large multinational tech company. Beya is a descendant of Minnan and Hakka people and has some indigenous roots on her maternal side which she is yet to fully discover. Beya told me she considers Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang, the first transgender and non-binary official elected to high office, as her role model.

Alden, 32

From: Beijing

Identity: Leftist intellectual in a weird world

“I have been quite political since I was very young, maybe when I was 15 or 16. My politics has something to do with being raised in Beijing. I started to read articles and books outside of my school textbooks. It was quite a ‘free time’ in China, a lot of liberal intellectuals were active just around my teenage years and they criticised the whole regime.”

When it came to selecting which way she should head for higher studies, Alden’s politics played a role. “I didn’t want to go to a capitalistic society by that I mean the West. For mainland Chinese, if they don’t choose Australia, US, or Europe, they will choose Hong Kong to study but I simply don’t like capitalism. To my knowledge, Taiwan was not that capitalistic, it doesn’t have that big an income gap.”

Over the last ten years in Taiwan, Alden has been able to freely express her sexuality. “When I was in Mainland China, I didn’t take sexuality as a big issue in my life, being able to express my politics was more important. I still haven’t come out to my family, though I think they know…”

She feels it is much more comfortable for sexual minorities to build a home in Taiwan, “I am able to hold my partner’s hand everywhere here which I can’t always do in Beijing. I feel someone is watching me all the time…”

Alden is quick to clarify her thoughts having been through an ordeal in her quest to re-enter Taiwan in 2020. She also cannot legally work in Taiwan, as a mainlander, unless she marries a local.

“I felt quite at home here till the pandemic which changed everything because I couldn’t come back to Taiwan. It was the first time I was made to feel I am Mainland Chinese. My whole life was in Taipei, and I couldn’t get back ‘home’ – it felt like I was just wandering the streets.”

Despite the identity of a sexual minority, it is the identity she holds as a mainland Chinese that is a bigger problem for Alden. She says she is singled out every time she goes to visit the doctor. “We are not given a resident card like other foreigners. I only have an A4 paper. Every time I go to the doctor, I have a lot of difficulties. That A4 paper is my only legal ID.”

“In Taiwan, sexual identity is seen as modern and progressive but the national identity especially that of mainland Chinese is seen as backwards. I had to change the way I spoke, just after I arrived, so I don’t stand out.”

Beya Lee, 32

From: Kaohsiung

Identity: Taiwanese

“I grew up in southern Taiwan with a clear understanding that Taiwan is different from China.” Through Beya’s school years, the histories of China and Taiwan were intertwined but she was often taught to emphasize her Taiwanese roots. “In fact, people had negative thoughts about China, and I didn’t understand why,” she said. “I was always a little suspicious over whether what I was seeing or hearing on the news was true or not.”

Beya opted for an exchange programme in China. She grew curious about the country after encountering a batch of mainland students who came on exchange to her school in Kaohsiung. In 2013, she returned to Beijing this time to study at Peking University in Beijing. She admits that the more logical decision for her would have been to go to the UK or the US since she was studying English.

“But I didn’t want to spend too much of my parents’ money to go abroad,” she sad. “At the time, I was seeing the rise of the Chinese economy, the phenomenon that everyone spoke of, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

She made good friends in Beijing with frequent invitations to visit their homes in northern China. “They probably wanted to say: ‘Hey, I have a Taiwanese friend’ to their families who mostly knew Taiwan only from watching television. And here I was a ‘live’ Taiwanese person,” she laughed. “They had a lot of questions for me on history. We spoke about similarities and differences on how we learnt Chinese history. They saw me as a part of them, as a tongbao [a Chinese term for comrade], as people of the same roots or something. They had been educated that they have to be nice to their tongbaos.”

However, this would change when President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party was elected in Taiwan in 2016. “Things changed a little after that, people were not that friendly to me anymore,” said Beya. “The first question I was always asked was ‘Do you have relatives who have come from China since 1949?’ I’d say that my ancestors have lived in Taiwan for over 400 years, and I would see they will look at me with pity in their eyes. Next, I’d be asked ‘Do you like Beijing or Taipei? Which city is richer and more comfortable?’ Or they’d discuss how they listen to Taiwanese pop music.”

Beya studied, worked, and even fell in love in China over the seven years she spent there. She and her Beijinger boyfriend often argued over politics of the Taiwan Strait. “Of course, that was the main topic we discussed,” she said, coolly. “He supported re-unification of Taiwan and was rather extreme advocating for a military takeover. At the time, I treated it as a joke, thinking that it wouldn’t happen that way.”

Beya was intrigued as to why he had such a mentality and filed it away as a different perspective than her own. They, naturally, broke up.

The experience of living in China made Beya see herself clearly…as a Taiwanese person. “It became clearer to me. I began recognising my indigenous roots and now want to work towards developing indigenous rights in Taiwan.”

An (name changed), 32

From: Hong Kong

Identity: Hongkonger

“After the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, I really had to define myself. The feeling of being a Hongkonger emerged during the movement when we were connected on the streets with other people. I believe more in international solidarity than nationality, but I guess, on the Hong Kong streets, is when my identity was born!”

An moved to Taipei soon after the Umbrella Movement, a series of sit-in protests in 2014 against proposed reforms in the Hong Kong electoral system. She came to Taiwan in search of a “new life” and a good humanities programme where she researches 1970s Hong Kong social movement history.

“If you live in Taiwan, you think every social movement needs to be in the newspaper,” she said. “China’s social movements work differently. They are quieter in the way they mobilise support and you only see it in the newspaper when people are arrested or when they need western media’s attention.”

An’s organisation talks about history which she says often makes us believe that some people are different from us. She cites an example on how Taiwan managed its early Covid-outbreaks in Wanhua district, where a cluster was detected in May 2021. “In this case, even citizens became ‘non-citizens.’ There was a familial value that Wanhua residents – sex workers, senior citizens, and others – didn’t fit into that of Taiwan being ‘civilised’ and ‘clean.’”

An said she understood Taiwan’s “pain”: “Living on this island it feels like we are living on a boat and there is so much danger around and we have no one to rely on but each other. Because of this feeling that we are always threatened and not always understood or accepted by the international community, a lot of Taiwanese people have this mentality that if I am good enough, if I am civilised enough, if I am open minded enough, western enough, then I can be accepted. Then I don’t need to feel lonely or floating in the sea anymore.”

A week before Russia invaded Ukraine, An and I discussed what that would mean for Taiwan. “I am worried about people believing that war can solve problems,” she told me. “Of course, I am afraid that China might invade Taiwan, but I know Taiwan will also fight back. If you tell yourself this is the end, I can’t do anything, that’s just not ok!”

Sowmiya Ashok is a journalist and a Chinese language student based in Taipei, Taiwan.