People from Taiwan like to joke that you can always tell that someone is Taiwanese if their reaction to a loud bang is to ask: “Is the Chinese army attacking us?”
It is a joke that we Taiwanese make to poke fun at ourselves when we are with our foreign friends, Chinese or otherwise, but there is also truth to it.
In Taiwan, children ask this question whenever there is a loud sound outside or when Chinese military planes fly nearby as they often do. It is a knee-jerk reaction given the constant talk of a potential invasion in the media, by politicians and among the general population.
The threat of an invasion by China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province while self-ruled Taiwan considers itself to be independent, is part of daily life in Taiwan.
For more than 70 years, people have “waited” for a war that is yet to come.
In 1949, China and Taiwan effectively came under the rule of two different parties after the Kuomintang (KMT) that had been ruling both fled to the island. The Communist Party took over the mainland, evolving to become today’s government of China. Every Chinese leader since then has claimed to have a formal military plan to recover Taiwan.
But Taiwanese do not look as though they are living with the threat of conflict – vigilant, panicked or even ready to flee. Quite the opposite. Over the decades, the Taiwanese have developed a unique coping philosophy. We go through our days with the sort of attitude that can best be described as casual.
Boba or bubble tea, the quintessential Taiwanese drink, popular among all ages and across all social classes, reflects this attitude.
In the afternoon, people often take a brief break to order a takeaway cup of boba tea from the specialist shops that sell it. It is a daily reward or treat. People bond over sipping, slurping and chewing the tapioca ball-filled milky beverage that comes in a variety of flavours and with a customised quantity of sugar syrup and ice. Boba tea represents this casual attitude because no matter what, we always find time to enjoy it – to enjoy life. Just as we cope with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we deal with the mental strain of military tensions and the uncertainty they represent with a big cup of tea.
Of course, our casual attitude can give many foreigners the wrong impression – that we are not worried about a war. This is not the case.
Indeed, when political tensions are high and the possibility of an invasion grows, people in Taiwan may be outwardly casual, while thinking, as the Taiwanese expression goes, “the wolf is coming”. But when tensions simmer down they will think: “The wolf is sleeping. Maybe there will be no war.”
In recent months, military and political tensions have risen between China and Taiwan with incursions by Chinese warplanes in the island’s air defence zone – more than 150 in early October – and the US saying it would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Some experts have said tensions are at their worst since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis when China fired missiles into Taiwanese waters in 1996.
This has made everyone feel nervous, although to varying degrees. The mood in the country has been tense, while debates in the media have discussed extending military service from the current few months to years. Ordinary people talk about the situation with their families and friends. I have friends who have nightmares about a Chinese invasion. I think such nightmares are common.
Even so, most people tell themselves that whether an attack comes or not, life must go on. “What else can we do?” people ask. It is a phrase commonly heard when Taiwanese talk about an invasion as they often do over dinner, coffee or at a bar.
In recent years, a Japanese word, shōkakkō, meaning “small but certain happiness/fortune” – a term coined by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami to denote life’s simple pleasures – has become a popular way for older people to describe young Taiwanese.
Sometimes, it means young people care only about the taste of boba tea, for beautiful, delicately crafted Japanese backpacks or postcards, or spending time discussing whether taro should be added to hot pots. Older adults, many of whom are scared of China while some advocate a “surrender”, see this as an escapist and unambitious approach to life.
My observations are quite the opposite. I admit that my peers born in the 1980s and 1990s and I are sometimes very lazy and comfortable with the status quo, as are many young people in developed countries around the world. But it seems to me that this is an amazing and unique mode of self-adjustment: it allows people to face the threats and uncertainties by choosing to live in the moment.
Most people are trying to grasp a “small but certain happiness/fortune” while knowing that in this life they may encounter the outbreak of a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, a 180km wide body of water separating the island of Taiwan from continental Asia, and most of them may not be able to escape.
This focus on living in the moment has prevented Tawain from falling into extreme nationalism – avoiding, for example, overly harsh immigration policies for the Taiwanese with spouses from China or xenophobic policies floated by right-wing politicians to prevent Chinese who live in Taiwan from accessing healthcare.
Earlier this year, I produced a story where I interviewed 33 Taiwanese of different ages, genders, social classes and ethnic groups about war and national identity. Among the questions were: “Do you think war will break out? And what would you do if that unfortunate day arrived?”
Everyone who answered felt that war was a possibility and that they were prepared for it. The majority said that, in such an instance, they would not feel competent enough to volunteer to serve on the front line alongside Taiwan’s standing army, but that they could help with logistics or transportation.
Some people told me they would choose to flee, perhaps to the US or Japan where many Taiwanese have relatives.
Then there was a senior executive in a multinational company who said he would first send his wife and children away from Taiwan and stay to fight until the end. If he died, he said he would want his children to pass on the history of Taiwan.
Among the interviewees, the person who struck me most was a good friend who I have known for many years. She belongs to the Paiwan Indigenous group. She told me that she didn’t have the courage to go to the front line, but that she would not run away: “It’s all because of my cat. My cat can’t go anywhere. I’m supposed to stay home and hold my cat until the end, no matter what the end is.” Her cat is old and sick. It moved me that a pet could influence such choices.
One interviewee of around 20 years of age said that if the war started, he would want to figure out how to make more delicious and convenient food for the soldiers. He thought that it would be sad to eat bad rice before dying. This answer is very characteristic of Taiwan: even in moments of life and death, one thinks about food.
These responses are the legacy of living through the peace of a war that is indefinitely delayed – we are highly tense but unexpectedly relaxed.
Most of us don’t look like “warriors against totalitarianism”, as many Taiwanese view China. But everyone has a rough plan of what they would do if Taiwan is invaded.
I hope that Taiwan does more to explore its relationship with China rather than rejecting it outright. But if there is a war, I will try to volunteer on the front line.
The thought of a conflict and what it could mean for Taiwan is heartbreaking. I worry about my male cousins who would be called up to fight, what would happen to our temples devoted to the sea goddess Mazu and the buildings in Taipei’s centre, where I live, which are part of the city’s gentle nature. But these worries are also what it means to be Taiwanese and to live in the shadow of a possible war.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.