I recently discovered that I indeed had something in common with the esteemed Paul Krugman, the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Not surprisingly, it has to do with Taiwan. My recent visit back to the island brought back to mind many of the reasons why my family and I grappled with leaving in the first place, yet they also put a smile on my face and cemented the adoring image we have always had whenever the thoughts of Formosa, The Beautiful Island, came up. First, a little background: We came to Taiwan just after marrying in order to conduct research and collect primary data for my dissertation on international negotiation. It was a similar story that some may recall from the old TV show Gilligan’s Island about a disjointed group that planned on a spending a few fun hours somewhere in the tropics. My brief, research-oriented “semester,” surprisingly and unsurprisingly, turned into nearly four engaging years getting to know people, teaching, exploring the curious minds of my students, and sharing some Chicago culture with the freedom seeking Confucians. Many great once-in-a-lifetime experiences would ensure that I could only dream about: like seeking true meaning when translating course content into meaningful material in Mandarin, having your firstborn child in a culture where you can’t speak the language with medical staff, paying income taxes without the help of H&R Block, or finding your way around the national highway system with a paper map printed in traditional characters. I recall one time learning to cook on a waist-high wok with a flame so intense that I thought I would never need another haircut.
Experiences like these and many others gave us a chance to grow as individuals, as a new couple, and as a new family. We grew and we adapted and we learned and we changed—all for the better. We grew from two to four, we adapted from English and Portuguese into broken and beautiful Mandarin. We changed from sequential thinkers on the straight and narrow into holistic thinkers capable of embracing curves and unchartered waters. We changed our lives in such a way that today any heading on the magnetic compass presents an attractive course setting—the same now goes for our first and second grade girls. It is indeed interesting how we transmit our deepest values onward.
Many have failed at these kinds of cross-cultural attempts, and many more will in the future, but having the opportunity to engage with those challenges in Taiwan brings competence and compassion in friendly surroundings solely because of the Taiwanese and their penchant for unconditional patience, hospitality, and their sense of duty. The recent IEA program confirmed once again that these values have reliably remained constant, despite a world of shifting allegiances, budget tightening, and radical politics.
My original fellowship goals were challenging and broad. I sought to develop competency in international partnership and program development, to establish my institution as a credible and dedicated affiliate in the eyes of potential partners, to develop opportunities for students that hail from families with modest means, and to absorb as many tips as I could while working with such an esteemed group of dedicated colleagues. As I reflect on those goals and the outcomes after the fact, we, the entire cohort, achieved that and much more. We shared some of our most proud accomplishments as well as the insight that helped us make such achievements a reality. We shared our own organizational goals and exchanged ideas on how to best approach our new opportunities. We collected boxes of institutional data and notes from which we can turn such knowledge into action plans, and we learned about the hopes and goals of each of the institutions that we visited in the most genuine, open, and trusting manner possible. Through those close and nurturing relationships, a new competency was born. Moreover, when adding new knowledge to new competency, opportunities create themselves. For example, we, the cohort, discovered that financing tuition and living expenses for both students and faculty is available from both US sources (Gilman Scholarship, Taiwan Global Institute) as well as from Taiwanese sources (Institutional level and national level such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which can provide full scholarships, language and culture training, and living stipends for competitive applicants. These sponsorship and support outlets bode especially well for underserved students that are typically absent from study abroad programs. Similar fellowships are offered for faculty and others interested in collaborative research projects in a variety of fields like chemistry, biology, business, and fine arts. Those opportunities are especially useful as prerequisite introductory and relationship-building engagements necessary for international partnerships. One of the most notable features is the willingness of Taiwanese institutions to craft new programs in attempts to develop bi-lateral curricular precision, or more simply, the right knowledge for the right participants.
Through an intense and personal program agenda, several bilateral relationships were born based on interests and expertise. Indeed, the institutional caliber-matching, brought to the table in ways exclusive to the Fulbright Selection process, expedited the relationship development process. As IEA participants, we did not have to dedicate significant time qualifying or narrowing the often times mysterious international-partner field. As such, we were able to advance directly to step two and focus our conversations on programmatic and curricular matters. This particular benefit increased my own efficiency and ability to share opportunities with eager participants in my home institution.
While our cultures are profoundly distant, many of the tools of our trade are quite similar. For example, U.S. institutions share similar academic credit systems, semester based calendars, accreditation structures, and research goals. We also share similar values relative to democracy and academic freedom, essential elements in maintaining rigorous and credible academic institutions. We also share personal values that form the basis of lasting relationships, and many of us learned that Taiwan is uniquely qualified as a reliable “Front Door” to operating across Greater China. In sum, Taiwan is an ideal location from which to launch or expand international programming in Asia.
As an internationalist who has lived nearly half of my adult life on four continents, I’m often asked which country is the one I would choose to live in outside of my home country. Both Dr. Krugman and I agree: Taiwan.