A Superlative Professional Development Experience in Taiwan

What a tremendous privilege it was to participate in this program and work with the staff of Fulbright Taiwan.  The staff did a great job coordinating the whole program. They took excellent care of us from the initial contact to the arrangement of our return trip to the airport when the program was over. The itinerary was an almost perfect balance of visits to schools, agency visits, cultural sites, informational lectures, and free time.  I learned so much about Taiwan’s higher education system, its history, contemporary cross-strait relations, and about the various indigenous peoples of Taiwan.  The visits to a variety of institutions were also very informative and revealed a wealth of opportunities.  One of the many highlights was an opportunity to hear the President of Taiwan speak to a gathering of Fulbright recipients from all around the region that had gathered in Taipei for a research conference.

Having visited mainland China on many occasions, I was able to observe the unique opportunities in Taiwan in contrast with opportunities on the mainland. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Taiwan was to investigate opportunities that are being overlooked in the shadow of mainland China.   The advantages that I noted for US institutions and students in Taiwan included the availability of quality English language programs provided by US-trained faculty, the comparatively clean natural Environment is some parts of the country, the mature democratic higher education institutions, the high level of language proficiencies among students and faculty, and the transparent nature of government institutions in Taiwan. One of the most notable and relevant factors in Taiwan is the high percentage of professors with doctoral degrees from US institutions that work at the institutions we visited. This means that there is a high level of understanding of how US institutions work.  This knowledge and understanding is a tremendous advantage to US institutions in the process of building and sustaining collaborative agreements and exchanges. The institutions in Taiwan also seem to be a lot more similar to the US in their standards and governance than institutions on the mainland.  Relationships are much easier to manage when both parties in the agreement have common principles and understandings. 

Selling Points Regarding Student and Faculty Visits to Taiwan

Some of the highlights of my trip and the opportunities for US institutions that I discovered included:

  • The food
  • Safe Open and Welcoming
  • Natural Beauty
  • Opportunities for US Faculty to Teach Short Courses
  • Courses in English Offered at Taiwanese Institutions
  • Faculty Led Program Opportunities
  • Mandarin language programs at the institutions that we visited
  • Programs That Place Mandarin Instructors at US Institutions at No Cost

The food – The wonderful variety and quality of the food in Taiwan will also contribute to making this an ideal destination for our students.  Apart from the lavish and tasty meals we were provided at a variety of restaurants during the program, we visited a variety of night markets in Taipei and Kaohsiung when we had free time.   I was amazed at the variety at these markets.  In my visits to China I often encountered people that commented on how good food is in Taiwan and this trip thoroughly confirmed this.  The Taiwanese love to eat and there were countless small and large restaurants, and food stalls of every imaginable variety everywhere we went.  The selection of tropical fruit, in particular, was one of the highlights.   

Safe, Open and Welcoming – I found the people of Taiwan very friendly and welcoming.  They also seemed to be open to the foreigners in their midst. Unlike my experience in Japan and Korea, and in spite of the fact that I was often the only westerner in large crowds, I never encountered any awkward interactions with people that starred or glared at me as an outsider.   In Japan, Americans are generally very popular but the positive attention you receive tends to highlight/accentuate your outsider status.   People treat you with kindness but as a novelty and an outsider.  The feeling one gets in Taiwan is different.  There is still a sense of curiosity and novelty but less awkwardness.  People in Taiwan are also much less afraid of using their English.  They are more confident, daring and outgoing (open) and this seems to help them in their grasp and usage of English.  It is a relatively orderly society and that seems to reflect some of the very positive aspects of Japanese cultural patterns. Given the density of the population and the wealth disparities, I was impressed by how safe I felt everywhere I went. It was so refreshing to see elementary school children commuting on the trains by themselves to school.  Our guides on several occasions assured us that our belongings were safe in contexts where it would not be the case in the US.  However, there do appear to be issued with theft.  At one of the night markets, there were recorded announcements in English warning unwary tourists to be aware of the presence of pickpockets in the crowd.

Natural Beauty – We spent the first week in Taipei.  The second week we traveled around the whole Island.  It is a truly beautiful place, Taiwan.  The train along the eastern side of the island took us through the towering mountain ranges that dominate the island’s geography and along the beautiful ocean shorelines.  We also traveled through vast stretches of cultivated farmland and fish farms (a feature and an industry that Taiwan is famous for throughout Asia).  

Opportunities for US Faculty to Teach Short Courses – There seems to be an abundance of opportunities for faculty to teach short classes at Taiwan institutions during the summer.  These opportunities include airfare and a stipend for the faculty and would afford an opportunity to establish collaborative research partnerships with Taiwanese faculty during their stay.  All of the institutions we visited strongly emphasized their desire to host US faculty and were prepared to serve as excellent hosts.

Courses in English Offered at Taiwanese Institutions – Due, in part, to the high percentage of faculty at Taiwanese institutions that were trained at US institutions (and therefore speak English fluently), these institutions are particularly well positioned to provide an abundance of  English courses in a variety of areas to US students.  They are also very anxious to host US students.  We learned about a consortium of institutions, Study in Taiwan, that can offer almost any course in English that our students would like to take, and at a tremendous price.  The cost to our students for a full-course load for a semester in this consortium is fixed at about 7 thousand dollars, which includes housing.

Faculty Led Program Opportunities – Taiwanese institutions are ideal hosts for US faculty led programs. US students have a pressing need to become familiar with Chinese culture given the importance of Asia, which is increasingly dominated by China.  Programs in China, while very important, present some challenges that Taiwan does not (environmental issues, geo-political tensions, etc).  Such programs in Taiwan offer students an opportunity to gain exposure to Chinese culture without some of the disadvantages of programs in China.

Mandarin Language Programs at the Institutions that we Visited – Each of the schools that we visited offered mandarin language programs in addition to the English course offerings.  Without exception, these programs seemed to be excellent and well managed.  Two of the universities we visited also housed official Department of State (DOS) programs for US students that provide intensive critical language training.  Students that qualify for these programs receive support from DOS in support of the national interest.  These programs do not exist on the mainland.  For students that come to Taiwan to take courses in English, all of these university programs provide free part-time Mandarin courses, a substantial benefit to our students.

Programs That Place Mandarin Instructors at US Institutions at No Cost – Taiwan offers opportunities through the Taiwanese government and Taiwan Fulbright to provide Mandarin teachers to US institutions free of charge.  US institutions simply need to apply.  There are multiple advantages for US institutions signing up to host these teachers, in comparison to similar programs offered by mainland China, such as the teachers that come through the Confucius Institutes. 

•    The quality of the teachers consistently ranks higher in surveys that have been conducted.

•     The language that these Taiwanese teachers provide is more traditional, rather than the simplified language provided by mainland  Chinese instructors.

•    These instructors will not actively promote Mainland Chinese government policies that may be antithetical to the policies and interests of the US government.

English Language Competencies of University Personnel and the General Population – I was impressed by the level of English, even among those who had not had an opportunity to live and work in an English speaking country.   One of our guides at an unnamed university entertained us for a couple of hours with an over-the-top London accent.  Almost without exception, the people we interacted with at the universities and government agencies we visited have  a strong and confident grasp of English.  English language instruction in Taiwan begins in elementary school.  As a result, in most cases, even the clerks in convenience stores had adequate English to be able to interact with English speaking customers.  This would make life in Taiwan much easier for our students that have little to no understanding of Mandarin.

Taiwan as a Valuable and Reliable Partner in the Region

Taiwan, along with South Korea and Japan, is one of the mature democratic states in the region.  It can be argued that this is a good reason for universities in the US to consider partnering with Taiwanese institutions.  In a region that is increasingly dominated by Mainland China, these countries should be supported in any way we can.  The democratic and more transparent nature of Taiwan also makes partnerships easier to manage and more reliable.

Taiwan’s History with Japan

I lived and worked in Japan for 6 years and previously participated in an IEA Fulbright in Korea. I have also had numerous opportunities to travel to mainland China over the years. It was very interesting to learn about and experience the differences between Taiwan and these other countries in the region.

It was particularly interesting for me to learn more about the history of Japan’s influence during the years that Taiwan was a colony of Japan.  I was able to observe the legacy of this history all over the island.  Taiwan, unlike other countries in the region, had a much more positive relationship with Japan during the nearly 50 years that they ruled the island.   This positive experience was not uniform, of course.  The clear signs of this history remain everywhere in the form of Japanese style buildings, the train system, the legacy of the infrastructure they built, a large number of Japanese franchises (most prominently the convenience stores on almost every block), the number of Japanese restaurants,  and a large number of Japanese tourists. The millions of mainland Han Chinese that came over to the island after the communist won the civil war supplanted the Japanese rulers.  This was not a positive change for many inhabitants of the island, many of whom had grown up in Japanese schools and did not speak Mandarin. 

Not So Safe Taiwan

The sense of personal safety did not extend to the geopolitical sphere, however.  Mainland China continues to overshadow the island of Taiwan. The potential conflict is still very much a reality. This was brought home to me during my stay in Kaohsiung.  While we were visiting various historical sites in this city in the southern part of the island, on several occasions fighter jets and military planes flew over our party at low altitude. Many of our hosts also spoke about the strongly negative response of China toward the current ruling party of Taiwan which favors Taiwanese becoming an independent country.  There was much talk about the impact of China’s increasing economic power in the region. Some of our hosts expressed dissatisfaction with the current president of Taiwan however, and her party’s focus on independence. They felt that this has resulted in missed opportunities for Taiwanese businesses in China. Others noted that China was making very attractive offers to university professors at Taiwanese institutions to move to the mainland. Even during the short time we were in Taiwan, two events occurred that will impact Taiwan’s relationship with China. China announced a relaxation of the rules related to the travel of Taiwanese citizens to the mainland. At the same time, the Trump administration announced new rules related to the level of US government officials that can now travel in official capacities to Taiwan.  This was not received well by China.  The increasing economic power, according to many people I spoke to, is being used to pull Taiwan into the orbit of China.  And the attitude of even educated colleagues in higher education (according to one frustrated Taiwanese professor I spoke to) is an unyielding and uncompromising attitude and perspective that “the island belongs to the mainland”. In a region dominated this increasingly powerful and assertive historical adversary, the supportive role of the US is increasingly pivotal, but at the same time increasingly weaker and uncertain. 

In spite of these realities though, Taiwan continues to be a wonderful destination and partner for US institutions.

Conclusion

Overall, my stay in Taiwan was a superlative professional development experience and I am confident that what  I learned will also serve my institution.  I will continue to do my best to communicate what I have learned and serve as a bridge between TTU and institutions in Taiwan, opening the many doors of opportunity that presented themselves during my visit.

Managing editor: Cheng-Hsiung Lu 呂正雄

Richard Porter

Richard Porter

Richard has served in a variety of administrative roles at large public institutions in the US and is currently the Director of ISSS at Texas Tech University (TTU was a 2018 recipient of the Paul Simon Comprehensive Campus Globalization Award). He has also served in a variety of leadership and teaching roles in the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) over the years and earned a doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership in 2016.

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