A little over a week ago, I had the privilege to attend the discussion session for students that Tsai Ing-wen, DPP chairperson and the party’s presidential candidate for Taiwan’s 2016 election, held before the huge banquet event thrown in her honor by the greater Taiwanese American community of Chicago. Capped at roughly 100 attendees, we met in a partitioned off section of the banquet hall. No press was included. Four serious looking personal body guards aside, the session felt pretty relaxed. Tsai’s unprepared answers to questions that had not been pre-approved were delivered with a sense of thoughtfulness, authority, and the lack of the kind of dodging that I’ve come to expect from politicians and academics alike.

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The discussion session began with a question chosen by attendees voting on the Facebook event page:

對於在美 (或甚至在國外) 的台灣青年,現在台灣的就業環境與資源讓我們有些卻步。對於未來的產業發展與專業發展,小英有什麼樣的想法?
Regarding young Taiwanese who study abroad in America(or in other countries), we are faced with some setbacks when returning to the employment environment and resources of Taiwan. What thoughts does Tsai have on the future of industrial and professional development?

Tsai thought for a moment, and said a few sentences in which she recognized how important ongoing issues with Taiwan’s labor market for young graduates are. She then turned the question back on us.

“Who wants to go home?”

Lots of hands went up, including mine.

Photo credit: The Meadows Club, via public album on Facebook. Link to event photo album. Link to individual photo. I have cropped and color corrected the original image.

Photo credit: The Meadows Club, via public album on Facebook. Link to event photo album. Link to individual photo. I have cropped and color corrected the original image.

Tsai then surprised us. “Why do you want to go home?”

I couldn’t think of a way to put into words the need to be home in Taiwan that sometimes overwhelms me. That irrational love that makes even grimy urban sprawl beautiful because it’s Taiwanese urban sprawl, and makes the bugs and the sweat and the sometimes bad air and the stares all worth it. Even with its drawbacks, quality of life is so much better there. I can’t explain it now any more than I could put it into words last week.

A couple people around me simply yelled out, tautologically, “Because it’s home!”

Tsai’s responded with surprise of her own. “You’re all too young for that.” She said that she expected such an attitude from older people, those in their 40s or 50s, who had been away from Taiwan longer and naturally wanted to go back to comfort. But for young people who had chosen to leave, she found it surprising that they already wanted to go back.

[Note: I am paraphrasing from my notes here, as I had not yet started to audio record the Q&A at this point. As such, all errors, inconsistencies, and misrepresentations are my own, not Tsai’s.]

“Why do you want to go back?” she asked again, and then continued: “To fill a generic space at a generic company where someone tells you what to do all day? Jobs like that are not the future. Taiwan doesn’t need people like that. But if you want to go back and help get people moving, help getting people doing something new, then that is something we need.”

She talked more about developing an innovation based economy that benefits not only the quality of Taiwanese exports, upon which Taiwan’s economic successes were largely based in the past, but on innovation that creatively meets domestic needs for Taiwanese quality of life. Striking a little close to home for me, she pointed out that “Many people with abilities are locked up in academia.” She finished by summing up, “your responsibility is to become someone who has the ability to inspire and to get practical experience with your time abroad.”

It cut right through my selfish desire to go home, and got to the heart of something much more difficult to answer. What is it that I have to offer Taiwan if I do go home? I know what it is I have to offer university students here in America as a professor: cross-cultural literacy, a lifetime of translating East Asia for American audiences, and some pretty interesting (to me) research. But what do I give back to Taiwan when I am living there, relishing everything that I love about it? I don’t know. I’m still pondering that question.

There were far more questions from the floor than Tsai had time to answer, although she made quite the effort. The session ran well over its allotted time because she insisted that everyone who had lined up at the communal mic got the chance to at least ask their question and get at least a sentence or two of a response. People who didn’t even make it into the line for the mic were invited to write their questions down and submit them to a conference organizer who would make sure that they were noted, if nothing else.

I dropped one in the collection box at the event’s conclusion.

Yes, I have the handwriting of a poorly educated child. The same is true in English, at least.

Yes, I have the handwriting of a poorly educated child. The same is true in English, at least.

I can’t vote in Taiwan, so I made no effort line up with the questioners. The event was for Taiwanese, not for interlopers like me, so I contented myself with taking notes and feeling thankful for being included.

Photo credit: Yuan Lin, via Facebook. Used with permission.

Photo credit: Yuan Lin, via Facebook. Used with permission.

Does Taiwan need note takers? I can do that.

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7 thoughts on “Reflecting on Tsai Ing-wen’s Chicago discussion session

  1. This post makes me so happy! I’m on a pre-doc fellowship in MA this year and I drove four hours to see Dr. Tsai speak in New York last Friday. 1200 people showed up, at least a third of whom were mid-30s or younger. Lots of us had taken the day off work to be able to attend. The energy was incredible. I disagree with Dr. Tsai on one point, though. I think that people in their 40s and 50s, like my parents, started to lose faith in Taiwan’s future as an independent country during the wilderness of the Ma years. It’s young people who still have hope and who have led this incredible resurgence in identity and assertiveness. I know someone like you would have a lot of contributions to make :) Look at the recent controversy about changes to the elementary and secondary school history curriculum. College professors have a big role to play in dismantling and complicating those propagandist narratives.

  2. So great to hear that you made it to the NY leg of her tour!

    I’m with you on not really agreeing with the quip about 40-50 year olds. I think what she meant was that older people more naturally want to return home, but it wasn’t really clear. And if that’s the case, then that’s up for debate too!

    I love how you phrase the current changing landscape of Taiwanese politics: ” incredible resurgence in identity and assertiveness.” It’s so exciting that one almost dares hope again!

  3. As someone who is heading back after spending many years abroad, I do share the same sentiments that you and the previous commenter about the yearning desire to “go home” but a lot of what Tsai resonated with me as well — to return home and to contribute in some way was also a big reason why I ultimately decided to pull the trigger.

    However, I certainly don’t believe that one’s contribution comes only economically. Obviously in the context of the question Tsai had to answer the way she did but I think part of Taiwan’s challenge is more exposure to outside culture. By simply living and meeting people, I think overseas people who return can help broaden the horizons of those who have not had the opportunity to spend time abroad.

    • Greg, thanks for pointing out the non-economic side of contributions, and how the question led to obscuring those significant ways that Taiwanese who have studied or worked abroad can bring home things that benefit Taiwan in other sectors. It’s a good thing to think more about.

  4. Tsai’s remarks hits very close to home. However, I feel quite a bit different from the people in the audience. I am not ready to go back, I still have things I want to do and adventures I wish to go. One day though, I am going to be back. I want to do what I can to make it so that the next guy from there will have it a little bit easier, stand up a little bit straighter, and make it so that people like you don’t have to feel that you’re not accepted.

    From what I see here, I don’t think your story with Formosa is over yet. Great changes are afoot, we may find ourselves there sooner than we think.

    • Maybe I ought to write a real post about this one day, instead of just commenting about it here.

      Your comments (both here and on the identity redux post) made me think about the first Taiwanese person to actively accept me as belonging there, enough to get angry at other people for me when I was treated as an exotic curiosity. We met when I was 19 and he was 20 and were close when I was in college and visiting Taiwan every summer break. Drifted apart more once I started grad school – the last long conversation we had was back in 2008, in which he told me all about his participation in the Wild Strawberry movement and how he wished I could have been there to help out. He remains a vocal activist and I see TV clips about him every once in a while.

      He’s a huge inspiration for me to keep on top of what’s going on in Taiwan and help out when I can. But I always wish I could do more.

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