Partly it was because I was in Taiwan, the place of my birth and early upbringing, whereas Dad was in New Zealand, where my family had moved to in the 1990s. There was nothing I could do about the pandemic travel restrictions that prevented me from getting to his side.
But I also went to the cemetery out of a sense of being a member of a dying breed.
If war should come, the Taiwanese wonder, will they be as brave as the Ukrainians have been? Will they fight for their homeland just as tenaciously?
Families like mine also think of our forebears’ legacy of service, which has made us who we are. My grandparents’ choice to volunteer in the Second World War led to them taking the side of the Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government against the Communists in the subsequent Chinese Civil War. Victory by the Communists and the establishment of the PRC on the Chinese mainland in 1949 then led to their migration, essentially as refugees, to Taiwan under the auspices of the KMT government now in exile.
But the waishengren identity is on the verge of fading away. My father’s passing, like my grandparents’ some years earlier, has brought us that much closer to extinction.
In contrast, my father once in a while used to tell me: “Son, don’t forget we’re Chinese.” To waishengren true-believers like him, the ROC ought to be the legitimate government of all of China, and we are its rightful heirs. The tragedy for him was that that dream of the Republic died in 1949. This late in history, there is no realistic chance of reviving it.
And, little by little, the DPP government is building a Taiwanese identity distinct from the Chinese.
I would love for the Taiwanese government to reverse course on de-Sinicization, but I’m not holding my breath. In time, with younger generations increasingly educated under the new shibboleths, the sort of waishengren who insist on their Chinese cultural identity will cease to exist. The sort of waishengren like my family.
The sort of waishengren who take pride in the valor and patriotism of their parents and grandparents, as the Americans lionize “the Greatest Generation” who stormed the beaches of Normandy, as the British speak proudly of their grandparents who served in the Battle of Britain, as today’s Ukrainians take pride in their courageous defenders.
There once was a dream called the Republic of China. It was a dream for which my grandparents were prepared to give their last full measure of devotion.
It remains to be seen whether, when push comes to shove, the builders of today’s nascent Taiwanese nation will be equally prepared to sacrifice for their ideal. It remains to be seen whether the Taiwanese will hang together in the event of war, now that some of them may still love the lost Republic while others try to bring forth a new one.
My father always remembered my grandparents’ legacy. I, too, shall always remember it — even if in the end our memories cannot live forever. We shall rage against the dying of the light.