The people of Taiwan are overwhelmingly concerned about how the world views us. News about world rankings is hotly debated among the Taiwanese public: what do we do after National Taiwan University fell out of the world’s top 100 universities? What do we do about how low our income is comparing to other developed countries? What do we do about Taiwan being long excluded by international organizations? And what do we do about being suppressed politically by China? Gradually, we become less confident. We tend to feel inferior, and we tend to deterine our value by comparing ourselves to others. We criticize ourselves as insular; we lack confidence and are eager for recognition. However, do we truly realize where our value lies?
By participating in the Taiwan America Student Conference (TASC) this summer, I had an opportunity to know Taiwan better–through the eyes of my fellow American participants. TASC is an annual student-run conference that brings students from Taiwan and the US to work together across the Pacific Ocean for a 21-day conference around Taiwan. Spending a three-week long program together, it proves how close interaction between students of diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives can build bridges between cultures and nations.
The most shocking thing I experienced was how much, as a Taiwanese person, I had missed out about this island. Travelling around Taipei, Taitung, Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Taichung, the participants experienced Taiwan together: the fast-paced lifestyle and night markets that never rests in the cities, the captivating cultures of indigenous tribes, the stories of good hearted individuals who devoted themselves to help their hometowns, the rich history of how this island came to be since the 17th century… TASC provided us with this opportunity and environment to indulge in all that Taiwan has to offer.
But more importantly, as locals, the Taiwanese students originally only expected to introduce Taiwan to foreigners. Surprisingly, we had also discovered so much more of our home country than we knew was possible.
The trip to the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial was an unforgettable for our delegation, both Taiwanese and Americans alike. The Memorial was originally the site of military courts and prisons for political dissidents during the White Terror period under the authoritarian regime of the Chinese Nationalist Party that ended, officially, in 1987. Although we knew all the events and dates by heart through textbooks, it was such a remote history to people in my generation, because we never really witnessed the hideous scars of our past. In Jingmei, along side with our American delegates who learned about Taiwan’s democracy for the first time, the local Taiwanese delegates had also gained a deeper understanding of the footsteps people took to build Taiwan into the post-martial law, democratic and free country today. “Modern day miracle” was how former diplomat William Stanton described us. It was a fast progression: from White Terror to modern democratic society just within two generations. Not only is it a reminder for Taiwan to move on with constant vigilance making sure tragedy would never reoccur, but also an evidence of how far we have come.
The Harvest Festival in the Lalaulan tribe was as memorable. Lalaulan is a part of the Paiwan people, located in the magnificent mountains in Taitung on the remote Pacific coast. Within our four days stay there, our hoststook us in like family: we attended their private dancing rituals, tasted traditional delicacies, and witnessed their unique rite of passage. Aside from introducing Taiwan’s unique cultures to the American delegates, it was also the first time for most of us Taiwanese delegates to seriously consider indigenous culture. Taiwanese indigenous culture wasn’t just totems and pictures on textbooks anymore. This trip to Taitung made us realize how our country is home to so many different cultures, and taught us how precious our diversity is.
After this summer, I realized that Taiwan should not define itself just by where we sit on so-called international rankings. Instead, we should be proud of the rich culture and history we share. I especially remembered how the speaker Gwenyth from Ketagalan Media said: “No country is perfect,” but we have to first share our own unique value to the world before we can earn the respect and recognition of others.
(Feature photo of TASC delegates at the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial, from TASC’s Facebook page)
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