Taiwanese and Taiwanese American students find a home away from home on university campuses across the United States.
BY KERRIE LIANG
On most days, East Pyne Hall is quiet. During the week, students at Princeton University are often too preoccupied with getting to their morning lectures to pay much attention to the courtyard. And on the weekends… let’s just say there are more exciting places to be.
However, once a year the still beauty of East Pyne is replaced with a much livelier atmosphere. Fueled by string lights, loud music, and endless trays of food, Princeton’s Taiwanese American Students Association (TASA) brings the gothic building to life with its annual Night Market. TASA is an affinity group dedicated to promoting, understanding, and appreciating Taiwanese culture and heritage on campus.
“One of our main goals is to just create a tight-knit Taiwanese American community by hosting events like the Night Market and cultural-themed study breaks,” says Sophia Chang, co-president of Princeton TASA, alongside fellow student Julia Lin.
In many ways, this is not your typical night market – there are no stalls where the dishes are cooked on the spot. Instead, the food is sourced from local restaurants in New Jersey, where Princeton is located. At the entrance, students are given tickets that they trade in for food as they navigate the various stations. From cabbage stir fry and fried rice to jelly, the abundance of East Asian flavors serves as a nice change of pace from the dining halls of Princeton.
In Taiwan, night markets are more than just a gastronomic experience. The tight confines of the busy walkways, the crackling of hot oil that punctuates the chatter, and the waft of stinky tofu aromas create an atmosphere of anticipation, wonder, and delight. While East Pyne vastly differs from Taipei’s Raohe Night Market, Princeton creates this vibrant energy in its own way.
Throughout the night, students turn their attention to the stage, where various dance groups perform choreographed routines and improvised dance battles. Ignited by their love of free food and live entertainment, students flock to the courtyard to get a taste of Taiwanese culture. If there’s one thing about Taiwan that the TASA Night Market nails to the tee, it’s the long lines. Even on a rainy night, the queue wraps around the building.
The TASA Night Market is one of the biggest cultural events of the school year. But this heightened interest in Taiwan is fairly new at the university. When I started at Princeton just two years ago, TASA didn’t exist. While emails from other cultural affinity groups, such as the Asian American Students Association (AASA) and the Korean Students Association of Princeton (KSAP), flooded my inbox, there was no news from or about a Taiwanese student group.
However, Taiwanese student associations are hardly a rarity in America. Of the top 20 universities, 18 have at least one Taiwanese affinity group listed on their college website. Princeton’s Taiwanese community is not new, either. In fact, Taiwanese and Taiwanese American students have walked through FitzRandolph Gate for decades, and the Princeton Alumni Association of Taiwan is exceptionally active. Posts suggest that a version of TASA had existed previously but fizzled out by the end of 2018. So how did TASA go from a defunct thing of the past to a thriving community in such a short time?
According to Kyle Tsai, vice president emeritus of TASA, it all started on the social media platform Discord. Tsai was one of the students who led TASA’s revival in 2022. “The summer before freshman year, there was me and two other friends, and we all just happened to be Taiwanese and in the same year, which felt like a big thing,” he says. “We were like, ‘Wow, AASA and KSAP are huge,’ and we started talking about how we have no representation.”
When the trio matriculated in the fall, they were determined to revive TASA. Throughout the school year, they reached out to other cultural groups for tips on planning events, watched old videos of the Night Market, and coordinated with the university for support. In April last year, months of work finally paid off. Over 1,000 students – almost a fifth of Princeton’s undergraduates – attended the inaugural Night Market.
“We saw how huge it was, and it was crazy,” says Tsai. “It’s impossible for it to be completely like the night markets in Taiwan, but we spent a lot of time preparing, and it was so much fun. Everyone was like, ‘wow, your culture is so cool,’ and it just felt really good.”
Creating a diverse experience
One significant factor behind TASA’s ability to attract a sizable audience is its dedication to inclusivity. Membership is open to students of all backgrounds, and there is only one prerequisite to joining – an interest in Taiwanese culture. At the beginning of each calendar year, students can also apply to be officers. According to Co-President Julia Lin, a key question on the application form is: What connection do you have to Taiwan or Taiwanese culture?
“We think that’s a good thing to ask because a lot of our officers come from different backgrounds, but something we all share is an appreciation for and connections to Taiwan,” says Lin. “We feel like that’s something very important to have that unites us in our goal.”
This diversity is not unique to the Princeton TASA. Across the United States, Taiwanese groups at other institutions have also welcomed students from all backgrounds. For Columbia University student Styvalizh Uribe, promoting inclusivity was a top priority during her time as TASA president.
“Taiwan itself is not just Taiwanese people,” says Uribe. “Some students went to an international school, where they’re taught English rather than Chinese. Some don’t speak Taiwanese at home at all. There’s already this sense of Taiwan not being this homogenous identity and community there, so I think it’s important to replicate that here.”
At colleges like Princeton and Columbia, where Asians are a minority (albeit a substantial one), ensuring TASA’s accessibility to all students can also be a logistical necessity. Restricting the association to only Taiwanese and Taiwanese American students could significantly decrease membership. However, inclusivity is still a priority for Taiwanese student groups at schools where Asians are the majority.
At the University of California, Berkeley, Asians comprise 52% of the student population. The more than 200 Taiwanese students (3.4% of all undergraduates) outnumber the university’s Japanese population. Students who want to join the Taiwanese community but are more comfortable speaking Chinese can opt to join the Taiwanese Student Association (TSA), TASA’s sister club. According to Ian Shiu, president of Berkeley TASA, having more options allows students to explore different avenues and discover what aligns with their interests and aspirations.
“We work closely with TSA to advertise each other, and it’s nice that people can go to both before picking which one works best for them,” he says.
Building identity together
While cultural clubs are typically run by students and for students, they are also supported – financially and logistically – by their universities. At Princeton, student organizations can apply for funding from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) to host events. Julia Lin says ODUS support has enabled Princeton TASA to run relatively smoothly. “They have been really communicative and helpful in facilitating all of those bureaucratic, logistical, and administrative processes,” she says.
Beyond their respective universities, Taiwanese affinity groups also support each other. Sometimes, neighboring colleges will host a joint event. This year, for example, Princeton TASA traveled 30 minutes up north to have dinner with Rutgers TASA. On a larger scale, student groups have also connected through initiatives led by the Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Student Association (ITASA).
The goal of ITASA is to “build a national network of people passionate about Taiwan and Taiwanese American issues” through conferences, mentorship programs, and scholarships. Since its founding, the organization has held over 80 conferences at 29 universities across the United States, in which they discuss relevant issues shaping Taiwan and its diaspora.
Although the Taiwanese community in the United States is highly connected, each TASA serves a distinct student demographic and thus approaches its mission in its own unique way. While Princeton TASA and Berkeley TASA host social events like movie nights and study breaks, Columbia TASA also tackles the political sphere by hosting discussion forums. But all organizations share a dedication to community building. This foundation is important since cultural groups, and affinity groups in general, are one of the main ways students find friends.
The need for TASAs persists regardless of one’s background or location. Shiu, who grew up in the Bay Area, says Berkeley TASA has helped him solidify his Taiwanese identity in a generality of “Asian-ness.” Most importantly, it’s allowed him to make some of his best friends.
“You won’t really find something like this anywhere else other than college,” he says. “It’s nice to have this experience for four years and then just have this group of friends that is always there for you.”
For students like Uribe, who grew up in Taiwan, TASA is a piece of home away from home. The growing interest in Taiwan has allowed Uribe to share her culture with others. “I’m really proud of the events we have and how passionate people are about the club,” she says. “Of course, there are going to be people who join and never come to any events, but the people who show up again and again and again are the people who make the club worthwhile to be a part of.”
For many Taiwanese American students, college is the first opportunity to meet and form friendships with other Taiwanese Americans. For these students, cultural groups are a way to avoid having to navigate their hyphenated identity alone. This can be especially helpful as Taiwan’s national identity is also evolving. When reflecting on his cultural identity, Princeton TASA’s Tsai admits that telling people he was Taiwanese wasn’t always easy.
“Before, nobody really knew where Taiwan was, so saying that I was Taiwanese led to a lot of questions,” he says. “When you have groups like TASA, it makes things a lot easier. The Taiwanese population at Princeton isn’t huge, but it’s nice to finally meet someone else with my last name.”
At Princeton, the TASA Night Market represents more than just a cultural exchange. It is the broader community coming together to shine a spotlight on Taiwanese students. It is the fire ignited from a conversation between friends the summer before college. And it is the act of helping each other define what it means to be Taiwanese and Taiwanese American.
“The Taiwanese identity is very scattered, and there aren’t as many of us,” says Chang. “But hopefully, through sharing our culture, we can help create this Taiwanese identity together.”