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Actor and producer Welly Yang of Studio City watched with dismay as life in California came to a sudden stop while millions of people in his ancestors’ homeland — Taiwan — went to work in offices, attended schools, dined in restaurants and carried on with their lives with stunning normality in the midst of a global pandemic.
"We left California for Taiwan because we weren’t too optimistic about how the U.S. would deal with the pandemic,” Yang said. “And at the same time, we really thought it was important for the kids to attend school in person, experience their cultural roots, and quite honestly, so that we could all live a normal life surrounded by other human beings.”
Yang, 48, born in the United States to Taiwanese parents, did what many Californians have done in the last few months: He moved to Taiwan.
In Taiwan, they have been able to live a relatively normal life, unlike in California, where things are only now beginning to reopen, though officials continue to warn that the pandemic isn’t over and insist on social distancing and mask-wearing.
“I miss L.A. a lot, but I miss perhaps the memory of L.A., perhaps what it was,” said George Young, 40, of Culver City, also an actor who traded California for Taiwan. Young said he left because "everything hit the fan.”
According to the de facto Taiwanese consulate in Los Angeles, it issued 858 Taiwan passports last year compared with 219 in 2019. Taiwan visas issued in Los Angeles and San Francisco rose from 1,122 to 2,777 over the same two years partly because of demand from ethnic Taiwanese who hold only U.S. passports.
Some Taiwanese Americans can enter and live in Taiwan because they never gave up their Taiwanese citizenship when they settled in the United States. People without Taiwanese passports qualify for residency if immigration officials conclude their work or investments will help the local economy.
A number of Taiwanese Americans who returned to Taiwan in January 2020 for the Lunar New Year holiday chose to extend their stay as COVID-19 spread from Asia to Western countries, according to the government’s Overseas Community Affairs.
Yang, who in 1993 was the lead actor in the play "Miss Saigon" and appeared in the TV series "Law & Order," moved to Taiwan with his wife Dina Morishita; 11-year-old son Wyatt, and 8-year-old daughter Dakota. Now the family is trying to adjust to local customs and cultural differences they face each day. The children, for instance, don't speak Mandarin, Taiwan's official language. And Yang has negotiated the entertainment world in Taipei, as he has continued to pursue his career as an actor and singer.
Wyatt and Dakota, meanwhile, attend classes in person, not online, at a bilingual school in Taipei, and the whole family can go out without restrictions, just as they could in pre-pandemic times because Taiwan managed to contain the virus early and avert stay-home orders.
Taiwan controlled its coronavirus caseload nearly a year ago by inspecting inbound flights, quarantining all arrivals and tracing the contacts of anyone with COVID-19. Taiwan has reported just under 1,000 cases and 10 deaths since the start of the worldwide pandemic.
Yang has put down a deposit on the children’s school for the next school year as the family considers a long-term stay. He calls the Los Angeles-to-Taipei transition a smooth one and credits his Taiwanese heritage.
When Yang met his prospective Taipei promoter for five "Frozen" symphony concerts for which he’s a soloist, the actor-singer-producer realized the strength of his roots. “It turns out my grandma was his music teacher, like that’s just crazy,” Yang said. The promoter eagerly signed on.
And when his wife needed medical treatment right after their move to Taiwan, Yang’s mother called around and found a relative who heads a local hospital. The treatment was successful. “I can’t imagine having done that in L.A. given what hospitals (under the pandemic) look like,” Yang said.
Because jobs held in California can be done online from anywhere in the world, or readapted for Taiwan's booming economy, many of the new transplants continue to thrive as if they were still sitting in the Golden State.
An aunt and uncle offered their house in the southern Taiwan city of Tainan to Hester Han, a 45-year-old Realtor and graphic designer who had lived for four years in Los Alamitos. She can keep working on the board game she’s designing while she lives in Tainan. Her husband gets up at 4 a.m. to carry on his information technology job in the United States.
Relatives who live here offer the transplants a valuable head start to learn about the island that their parents left decades ago when Taiwan was poorer and more politically volatile.
Taiwanese American transplants start out feeling euphoric. Locals are happy to give directions, and the cities feel like villages because so many shops are crowded together on ground-floor levels of urban high-rises. Nearly everything is open, making jobs and business partners easy to find. In addition, Taiwan’s economy grew last year, and it is forecast to expand even more this year.
But still, it's not all smooth sailing. Some transplants eventually rail against local customs, especially at work and with business practices. Children adapt slowly to local schools if they’re not fluent in Mandarin. Non-Taiwanese members of the family start to miss the United States. And conflicts manifest between Taiwanese who have never lived abroad and returnees, highlighting differences between Americans and Taiwanese.
Longer-term returnees complain that too many transactions depend on personal relationships rather building bonds among strangers based on cold calls and resumes. Friends vet business partners.
“With the epidemic situation in the U.S. that did not look promising, many have decided to leave America,” said Ken Wu, the Los Angeles chapter vice president of the Taiwan political advocacy group Formosan Assn. for Public Affairs. “I believe the biggest challenges are the fact most Taiwanese Americans are to some degrees accustomed to the American culture, so they may experience reverse culture shock when they return home,” he said.
“Overseas Taiwanese have acquired a stigma over the last decade for being freeloaders of Taiwan's exceptional national health insurance, and many Taiwanese in Taiwan have this misperception of overseas Taiwanese as tax evaders who generally don't care much about Taiwan unless they need to take something from Taiwan,” said Wu, a Taiwanese American who lives in South Pasadena. He called these reactions “more or less a challenge.”
Relocations are often sparked by pleas of worried parents and siblings who were already in Taiwan. Yang’s brother moved back in March 2020 to avoid the pandemic and encouraged him to follow. “It’s a possibility that America isn’t going to handle this thing well,” Yang recalls thinking that month.
He would frequent a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outlet every morning over much of the 15 years he lived in Los Angeles. But that coffee shop shut down, as did other spots he also frequented on Ventura Boulevard.
Han and her family moved to Taiwan mainly because of their 12-year-old son. Born in Arcadia, their son speaks no Mandarin and was bumped back one year to sixth grade in a public elementary school when Taiwan’s spring semester started last month. He had resisted Mandarin classes on Sundays and had trouble picking up the language. Immersing in the language and culture would make learning Mandarin easier.
“It’s going to be difficult for the first couple of months, that’s what I heard, and then he should be fine,” said Han, who moved to the United States at age 15 and began her current Taiwan stay in January. “I told him, ‘You come here and go to school here, then you don’t have to go to Mandarin school anymore.’”
Han wanted him to study in person, not online. “He’ll learn whatever he learns and at least have that social interaction with other students,” she said.
Young, who is half-ethnic Chinese but has no Taiwanese roots, moved to the island in March 2020 with his Taiwanese American wife, Janet Hsieh. She is the host of Discovery Travel and Living Channel's "Fun Taiwan" program. That month, Hsieh’s sister called “in tears” pleading with them to leave the United States, Young said.
Young had lived in Culver City half the time since 2016, with the balance in Taiwan. He looks back on his days at the beach in Marina del Rey plus “overdosing on coffee” nearby.
He plans to resume living in Los Angeles once the pandemic eases but has not set a date for his return and intends to spend part of each year in Taiwan.
Euphoria for Taiwanese American returnees normally fades after a “honeymoon period,” said David Chang, a Taiwanese American and director general of the Taipei-based event planning organization and consultancy Crossroads.
That was the case for Taiwan-born YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, who returned to Taiwan after 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He spent about six weeks on his own sorting out visas for his family, enrolling children in a local elementary school, finding a Taipei rental and figuring out who could fix a gas leak in the stove. He’s now a partner in a California-based hedge fund.
Those who work for local firms chafe if they cannot openly or politely challenge the idea of a boss as they might in the United States, Chang said. Workflow is top-down in Taiwan, he said. “All these do take some time to get used to and understand,” he said.
Returnees say the rewards outweigh the challenges. “I feel that being in Taiwan has allowed us to continue our lives as we knew it without any drastic changes,” Chen said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.