Raising Global Families
Parenting, Immigration, and Class in Taiwan and the US
Pei-Chia Lan


Chapter 1

Transpacific Flows of Ideas and People

THE PACIFIC OCEAN HAS LONG been a vital conduit for flows of ideas, goods, and people. Waves of Chinese laborers began arriving in the United States during the 1840s gold rush, and the immigration reforms of 1965 expanded the population of Asian Americans. Taiwanese and Chinese migrant paths have never been limited to a single direction; instead, they involve reciprocal processes and circular movements across the Pacific, which not only bring renewed resources to boost industrialization in their countries of origin but also alter social structure and cultural practices back home, including the transformation of parenting repertoires.

The concept of transnationalism encompasses a variety of global forces, including international connections from above, such as foreign aid and investment, and transnational links from below, through travel, migration, cultural exchanges, and kinship networks.1 This chapter lays out historical and geographical contexts for the later chapters by looking into transpacific flows of ideas and people in the following four sections: the geopolitical and immigration links between Taiwan and the US after World War II, Taiwan’s changing scripts of parenting and transnational cultural circuits since the 1990s, immigration from postreform China to Taiwan and the US, and finally the current global economy and the increase of “return” migration among the second generation.

US-Taiwan Links: Geopolitics and Immigration

A vast majority of Taiwanese are the descendants of migrants from South China over the past four hundred years. Taiwan was a Japanese colony for half a century (1895–1945) and came under the rule of the Republic of China (ROC) after World War II. In 1949, the Chinese nationalist party Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the Communist Party of China. Chiang Kai-Shek brought in more than a million exiles from Mainland China with initial hopes of returning to the homeland soon. Taiwan’s strategic location—less than one hundred miles east of China’s southern coast—made it indispensable to American interest during the Cold War. The US wished to ensure Taiwan’s social stability and economic prosperity and recognized the ROC as the only “free China” until 1979, when the US established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Between 1951 and 1964, the US government offered Taiwan economic assistance totaling 1.5 billion USD. The aid covered a wide range of instruments and policies under the command of the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR). Although US aid to Taiwan officially ended in 1965, various forms of financial assistance from US state agencies and private foundations, including an organized campaign of family planning, continued to have a powerful impact on the nation’s development and modernization. These transnational activities and connections “from above” paved the way for Taiwanese immigrants in the later decades to pursue opportunities for economic advancement, political security, and children’s education in the United States.

Transnationalism from Above: US Aid and Family Planning

Taiwan of the 1950s was shadowed by nationalist sentiment and propaganda. Children were viewed as productive laborers for their families and future warriors for the nation. For example, a 1952 Taiwanese magazine article celebrating Children’s Day described the meaning of the holiday as “cultivating young citizens with a sound mind and body to build a prosperous nation.”2 The magazine published pictures of child laborers shining shoes and pulling a rickshaw as role models, because children had to be “directed toward serious, disciplinary real life” and “trained for obedience and proper life habits.”3

Taiwan’s then-high fertility rate indicated a rich source of human power for KMT troops. However, US policymakers and demographers were concerned about the geopolitical impact of overpopulation in Asia, which threatened to breed communism through stagnant development.4 In 1954, the US pressured Taiwan to become a “demographic laboratory” through the implementation of family planning programs.5 Yet the campaign of birth control initially stirred local controversy and political resistance—if the KMT approved the US’s Malthusian diagnosis of overpopulation, the implication would be that the KMT rule was valid only within the territory of Taiwan and that the political claim to retake Mainland China was futile. Therefore, JCRR tactfully masked the promotion of birth control methods as part of “housewife sanitary education” and “pre-pregnancy health programs.”6

Taking an incremental approach, JCRR established the legitimacy of family planning policy by producing large-scale fertility studies and disseminating scientific knowledge connected with the “soft power” of US experts and institutions.7 The campaign reached success within a short period. Women’s national fertility rate dropped from 5.6 in 1960 to 4 in 1970 and 2.5 in 1980.8 The rapid change of fertility behavior in Taiwan was not simply a natural result of industrialization or an endogenous process of social change; rather, it was the consequence of geopolitical and cultural interventions.

The birth-control program was accompanied by a family education campaign that defined the “modern family” as having fewer children and ample parental love. Starting since 1951, the US Information Service (USIS) in Taiwan published the magazine Harvest to circulate news and knowledge among the rural populace. Because many Taiwanese farmers were more literate in Japanese than in Chinese, the USIS insisted on publishing Harvest as a bilingual magazine despite the KMT’s rule that no books or newspapers could be published in Japanese after 1946 as a measure of decolonization.9 Harvest produced a flood of articles about the shortcomings of big families with titles like “A Big Family Is Not a Good Fortune” and “Too Many Children, Too Much Pain.” Parents were urged to offer their children quality care and advanced education, and they were advised that these investments were affordable only to families with two or three children.

In the 1950s, among a thousand newborns in Taiwan, about forty babies would die before reaching one year of age.10 International public health experts attributed the high infant mortality to not only poor sanitation and widespread contagious diseases but also oversized families and outdated childrearing styles. Harvest provided medical information about children’s health, such as the necessity of vaccinations, and advocated against folk treatments and superstition (e.g., that children with measles can neither eat noodles nor have haircuts). Several articles introduced ideas about modern methods of childcare regarding household sanitation, children’s sleeping habits, and home security; tips were offered for the purchase of children’s toys, books, shoes, clothes, and food.

With the implementation of birth control and family education, the KMT political elites collaborated with US officials to practice their own political agenda and cultural mission. The KMT regime relied on the US aid to establish ruling legitimacy vis-à-vis Communist China through economic and social stability as well as moral and cultural hegemony in all areas, including the private sphere of family life. In 1953, under the advisement of US experts, the National Normal University established Taiwan’s first department of home economics to promote the scientific management of domesticity. In 1959, Taiwan’s provincial government started the annual tradition of electing and celebrating a “model happy family.” This politically loaded celebration of family value took place just as the Chinese Communist Party was experimenting with the Cultural Revolution.11

Moreover, the KMT technocrats involved in JCRR and family planning were familiar with American culture and Western ideology through their personal connections. For example, Chiang Monlin, JCRR’s director from 1948 to 1964, had received a PhD in education from Columbia University in 1917 under the advisement of John Dewey. Chiang described the duty of JCRR as “applying Western democratic thoughts to China.”12 Job interviews for JCRR officers were conducted in English and most of the recruits had graduate degrees from US universities.13 The US aid also provided fellowships for higher education in the US to reproduce an increasing number of US-trained Taiwanese elites.14 These political elites served as “agents of modernity” by appropriating and domesticating American cultural repertoire in Taiwan.15

While the few local elites enjoyed the privileged access to overseas studies and served as the agents of US aid, those at the bottom of the Taiwanese society became targeted groups for the inculcation of modern lifestyle. For example, the birth-control campaign specifically targeted rural women and the less educated.16 The president of National Taiwan University Hospital commented on this matter: “People with lower education, mostly trapped in poverty, see reproduction as something natural and give birth to a dozen without thinking, and they also suffer from poor sanitary conditions and want to have more children as insurance.”17

The Bureau of Health specified in its work plan that at least half of home visits by public health workers and nurses must take place in remote areas.18 They organized small-group meetings in rural communities to teach personal hygiene and household sanitation and to advocate birth control and good parenting.19 In sum, the US aid programs, which coincided with the KMT regime’s interest in sustaining its ruling legitimacy, gradually established the norm of an ideal family featured by low fertility and modern parenting. This early phase of global parenting already indicated the power geometry of globalization, where the modernity project of birth control, as a measure of transnationalism from above, aimed at the lower strata of Taiwanese society.

Exodus of Taiwanese Immigration to the US

Migration paths across the Pacific were blocked for more than half a century after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. American attitudes and immigration policies toward the Chinese began to soften after World War II, when the ROC (Taiwan) became an ally of the US. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but Chinese immigration remained limited under a quota system. The Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 opened a wider gate to Asian immigration to the US, giving preference to immigrants with scientific and technical skills in order to compete with the Soviets during the Cold War. The law also allowed naturalized citizens and permanent residents to sponsor extended family members for immigration.

The post-1965 immigrants included a “hyperselective” group with much higher educational attainment than the average nonimmigrant American as well as the average citizen of their countries of origin.20 Before the normalization of China-US relations in 1979, immigrants from Taiwan fulfilled most of the immigration quotas for China. Taiwan’s political, economic, and cultural dependence on the US after World War II—including US aid, the influx of US investment in Taiwan’s export-oriented economy, and the infusion of Taiwanese education systems with “the US modes of thoughts and patterns of actions”—predisposed the growing Taiwanese middle class to emigrate to the US.21

Taiwan’s martial law lasted from 1949 to 1987, and travel outside the country was under state restriction until 1979. Yet throughout this period, an increasing number of students received scholarships from either the Taiwanese government or American universities to pursue graduate education in the US. A popular 1970s slogan, “Come, come, come to NTU, go, go, go to USA,” described a common pathway for elite students who attended National Taiwan University (NTU), the highest-ranked university in the country, and later immigrated to the US. Over the period 1971–1985, a total of 62,430 Taiwanese students went to the US for graduate education; only 18 percent of these students returned to Taiwan.22 In contrast to limited professional jobs in Taiwan’s still developing economy, the US attracted them with more economic opportunities and a better quality of life.23

Taiwan’s uncertain sovereign status was another push factor for emigration. When Taiwan (ROC) lost its seat at the United Nations in 1971, many citizens waited in line overnight outside the American Institute in Taiwan to obtain a visa application.24 The same phenomenon occurred again in 1979 after the normalization of US-China relations. In 1982, the US passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which established an immigration quota of about twenty thousand per year for Taiwan, separate from China.25 Taiwanese immigration to the US reached its peak between 1977 and 1990, with an average over ten thousand immigrants per year.26 The fear of political instability increased emigration from Taiwan again in the late 1990s, when China threatened to attack Taiwan’s democracy and silence the advocates for independence.

Highly skilled Taiwanese immigrants to the US concentrated in the fields of science and technology. From 1985 to 2000, 18,508 people from Taiwan received a doctorate in the US; more than 80 percent of these PhDs were in science and engineering.27 Between 1988 and 1990, Taiwan produced more math and computer scientists than any other Asian country and was second in the number of immigrant engineers and natural scientists to the US.28 The number of Taiwanese overseas students in the US hit a record high in the early 1990s.29 Between 1990 and 2000, approximately 121,504 Taiwanese immigrants were admitted to the US; more than 60 percent of them worked in managerial and professional occupations.30

Taiwan’s economic growth slowed down the outflows of economic migrants, but many continued to go abroad to find better educational opportunities for their children. Most of the Chinese “parachute kids” in the US during the 1980s and 1990s came from Taiwan; they migrated alone to attend elementary, middle, or high schools while residing with extended relatives or in rented homestay.31 In other transnational families, the mother and children migrated while the “astronaut father” would fly back and forth to work or to manage a business in Taiwan.

Education in Taiwan was rigid and competitive, with national examinations at both the high school and the college level. By contrast, the US offered an abundance of colleges and widened opportunities for children who might not be eligible for a strong university education in Taiwan. Wealthy Taiwanese parents also seek educational migration for their children to realize the American dream. Maria Chee nicely summarized myriad motives in her study of Taiwanese transnational mothers in California:32

Parents migrated to prepare a child for higher occupation and status than was possible in Taiwan given the child’s scholastic aptitude and inclination, to free a child from rigid education, to give a foundering child a second chance, to broaden their worldview for a global era, or so they claimed. All of these goals shared one feature, one hope: that their children may move up or at least reproduce their parents’ social economic positions in society.


1. Portes, Guarnizo, and Landolt 1999.

2. Harvest 1952a.

3. Harvest 1952b, 1952c, 1952d.

4. Hodgson 1988.

5. Chow 1970.

6. Tsai 2007.

7. Huang 2016.

8. Chang, Freedman, and Sun 1987.

9. Wang 2011.

10. Taiwan’s infant mortality rate (under one year of age) was 44.7 in 1952 and 35 in 1960 per 1,000 live births. ROC Ministry of Health and Welfare, https://dep.mohw.gov.tw/DOS/cp-3443-34193-113.html, accessed March 9, 2018.

11. An 2010: 60–61.

12. Chiang (1951) 1990.

13. Huang 1991: 48.

14. Lu et al. 2007.

15. Lo 2002.

16. Sun Te-Hsiung (1978: 17–18), a leading policymaker involved in the program of family planning, said: “The program was started in rural townships and continued to lay its emphasis on these townships. . . . The program is reaching relatively more of those who are less likely to adopt contraception on their own.”

17. Kuo 1998: 77.

18. Kuo 1998: 78.

19. Chen, Sun, and Li 2003.

20. Lee and Zhou 2015: 29.

21. Liu and Cheng 1994: 89.

22. Chang 1992: 35.

23. Gu 2006.

24. Chen 1992.

25. Ng 1998:18.

26. Chen 2008: 22.

27. Fong 2008: 32.

28. Kanjanapan 1995: 17.

29. ROC Ministry of Education, https://depart.moe.edu.tw/ed2500/News_Content.aspx?n=2D25F01E87D6EE17&sms=4061A6357922F45A&s=9548BB768A861B5E, accessed March 9, 2018.

30. Gu 2006: 106, 115.

31. On the basis of visa applications, some forty thousand children arrived in the US from Taiwan without parent accompaniment between 1980 and the mid-1990s, and the actual numbers of “parachute kids” are believed to be even larger (Zhou 2009: 203).

32. Chee 2005: 98.