TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Like a compulsive overachiever who impresses everybody but himself, Taiwan has enjoyed stunning successes in recent years but is gripped by an identity crisis.
Despite having engineered an economic rise that makes Japan look like a slowpoke, and despite having introduced free speech and free elections, Taiwan still seems full of anxiety about itself and uncertainty about what it is.
Until five years ago, when four decades of martial law gave way to a sometimes tempestuous political free-for-all, the answer was clear: Taiwan was an inseparable part of China. The Nationalist government claimed to be the ruler of all China, and in school children spoke Mandarin Chinese rather than the Taiwanese dialect.
These days, however, few Taiwanese seem enthusiastic about identifying themselves with a largely peasant Communist society where people spit on streets and the army shoots student protesters. On the other hand, Taiwanese fear that if they try to establish an independent country, mainland China will attack.
Few countries recognize Taiwan, and citizens sometimes find that immigration officials at distant airports are puzzled by their Republic of China passports.
"We don't know who we are," said Antonio Chiang, a magazine publisher in Taipei. "The uncertainty is enormous. We don't know what we'll be in the future, an independent country, a part of China or whatever. It's an unreal existence, and it's related to the lack of self-confidence."
For four decades, the 15 percent of Taiwan's 20 million people who are mainlanders -- whose families came from China with Chiang Kai-shek -- dominated Taiwan and sometimes seemed contemptuous of local culture and history. But in the last few years, after Taiwan allowed visits to the mainland for the first time since the Communist revolution of 1949, many people have come back shaking their heads and exchanging tales of relatives demanding expensive gifts and of awful trains and shortages of toilet paper.
Rather than seeing themselves as exiled mainlanders, many came back as confirmed Taiwanese. One survey found that only 36 percent of Taiwan people who visited the mainland wanted to do so again.
Yet because of the fear of inviting military attack from Beijing, a National Assembly election in December -- the first full election on Taiwan in four decades -- led to a crushing defeat for the opposition party after it proposed a declaration of independence from China.
"Most people in Taiwan don't have much confidence in the future," said Tim T. Y. Ting, a leading pollster. "It's unpredictable. Anything can change tomorrow and destroy everything you have."
This uncertainty, coupled with the rapid change, seems to have provoked a malaise in some circles. People complain about crime, corruption, politicians, disintegrating moral values -- and this in a society that until recently played down discord and did not acknowledge uncertainty about national identity.
Diane Ying, publisher of a business magazine called Commonwealth, which recently devoted a special issue to Taiwan's history, cited a litany of concerns about the future and added: "All this is because of the uncertainty. There's nothing you can control about the future."
Some Taiwanese react by trying to forge their own identity and culture. The Taiwan dialect is having a renaissance, though it is still sometimes thought of as less cultured and sophisticated than Mandarin.
Democracy is speeding this, because with voters overwhelmingly Taiwanese, politicians try to portray themselves as Taiwanese as well. Thus, during the campaign, the opposition tried to portray the ruling Nationalists as carpetbaggers from the mainland, while the Nationalists used Taiwanese dialect in their campaign advertisements.
In any case, for younger people the distinction between mainlanders and Taiwanese is fading, and intermarriage is frequent. "I don't find any difficulty," said Jaw Shau-kong, 41, a Taiwanese-speaking mainlander and a popular politician. "It doesn't matter if you're a mainlander or a Taiwanese, so long as you work for Taiwan."
Other Taiwan inhabitants also say that whatever one's background, a new Taiwanese identity is slowly emerging that embraces everyone who lives here and that this may foster more self-confidence.
"Before I entered university, there was no doubt about identity," remembers Yvonne Yang, 32, the administration manager at Taiwan's English-language radio station.
"We were Chinese, and we would go back to the mainland. But then I started to talk to some friends, and I discovered that the textbooks had many errors. . . . I started to work, and I really loved this country. I created my own sense of belonging."