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Taiwan is trending, and L.A.'s Taiwanese community has mixed feelings about it

The night Donald Trump was elected president, JC Chang, 28, shed tears and called his mother, scared for the direction the country was going.

When he learned of Trump’s call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen last week, he found himself in a strange place: on Trump’s side.

“I guess if I was a pure American liberal, without any ties to Taiwan, I would criticize him. . . . But I am Taiwanese American. We kind of have a different perspective,” said Chang, a financial advisor and the president of the Los Angeles chapter of Taiwanese American Professionals. 

Asian American voters in California are twice as likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, according to the National Asian American Survey.  

About 79% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders voted for Hillary Clinton this November, according to an exit poll conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

And Trump has drawn plenty of ire from Asian Americans, especially during a campaign speech last year in which he used broken English to draw laughs at a rally. 

But Trump’s call with Tsai sparked excitement and cautious support from many Taiwanese Americans — a reminder that political identity is as variegated as humanity. 

Identity has always been a particularly complicated matter for Taiwanese Americans, of whom there are more than more than 45,000 in Los Angeles County, the largest population in the U.S. 

For Chang, just stating that he is Taiwanese American often feels like taking a political stand, depending on how much his audience agrees with China’s stance that Taiwan is not a country. More recognition for Taiwan — a democratic, progressive nation that just elected its first female president — represents more recognition of his identity, Chang said.

But support for Taiwanese independence would be just one small positive in a “whole sea of darkness,” Chang said, and he could never see himself voting for Trump in an election. 

Taiwan has functioned as an independent country ever since officials fleeing the Communist takeover of China established a government there in 1949. But China claims sovereignty over the island and refuses diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Taiwan’s independence.

“Everyone says, don’t aggravate China. But no one ever thinks, is this fair for Taiwan?” said Simon Lin, chairman of the Taiwan Center Foundation of Greater Los Angeles. 

Lin has voted as a Republican in every election since he immigrated to the U.S. in 1980. This year he voted for Clinton because he was afraid that Trump was too erratic to handle sensitive international relations with countries like China. 

Yet he supports Trump’s call with Tsai because Taiwan has “been ignored by a lot of people for a long time,” he said.

Other Taiwanese Americans, such as attorney Karin Wang, question Trump’s motives. 

“If anything, he is using Taiwan for some larger agenda, whether to provoke China or to further his own business interests,” Wang said.

And more attention for Taiwan may not be a good thing, said Stephen Cheng, 28. He’s worried that any negotiations between the U.S. and China over Taiwan will work out unfavorably for the island. 

“What’s good for Taiwan is the status quo, and the status quo as we see it now is already eroding,” Cheng said.

As “the call” trended on Twitter and became fodder for newscasters, it sent ripples of alarm through the international community. But its actual ramifications are still unclear, said Syaru Shirley Lin, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of “Taiwan’s China Dilemma.”

No American president has spoken directly to a Taiwanese president since 1979, when the U.S. established official relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Trump’s call was unprecedented, but so is any mention of Taiwan in the U.S’s foreign policy, Lin said.

President George W. Bush sparked a similar outcry in 2001 when he said he would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan from China in a televised interview, Lin said. 

“When it comes to Taiwan, everything is unprecedented because it’s so infrequent,” Lin said.

She thinks the call represents a wake-up call for the U.S. to reevaluate or restate its policy toward Taiwan, which hasn’t been updated since the Clinton administration. The U.S. has remained largely silent as China has taken a more assertive stance on Taiwan, which in turn has shifted toward more autonomy with the election of Tsai, a pro-independence candidate.

“There’s been too much focus on how this is an extreme action and very little focus on whether the U.S. needs to review its Taiwan policy,” Lin said. 

Though many Taiwanese Americans hope the sudden attention on Taiwan will improve the country’s political future, others worry about the consequences. 

Jeff Yang, a Taiwanese American writer and critic, would love to see more attention for Taiwan — the country that brought Boba tea and Jeremy Lin and “Fresh Off the Boat” to the world (his son, Hudson Yang, stars in the show).

But he believes Trump is using Taiwan to make political hay, and he’s worried that the president-elect’s actions will put the country at risk.

“I’d love to see us become more than a footnote in history, but I don’t want to see us become an epitaph,” Yang said.

frank.shyong@latimes.com

Twitter: @frankshyong

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