Showing Taiwan to the World in 30 Minutes
Concerned about his native Taiwan's obscurity, an MIT graduate launched an online platform that shares the overseas experiences of Taiwanese, showcases the island's talent and encourages more young people to go abroad.
Showing Taiwan to the World in 30 MinutesBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 550 )
Life-changing moments are often triggered by rather unspectacular discoveries. The life of 35-year-old Chuang Chih-chao suddenly took a new direction precisely because he stumbled onto an obvious but unnoticed trend.
Two years ago, when Chuang was studying for a master's degree at the Media Lab of the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he noticed that the number of exchange students from Taiwan was steadily declining.
"There were 25 at MIT in 2011, and just eight the following year. At Harvard next door, the numbers were going down too!" Chuang recalls.
This rather accidental discovery made the patriotic young Taiwanese conscious that a problem existed, and he began to search for a solution.
Chuang, an architecture student, had previously delved deeply into Taiwanese history. That's why he tends to look at developments from a historical perspective. "We once were the largest producer worldwide of tea leaves and camphor wood… and we have the kindest people too," he remarks.
Yet the positive sides of Taiwan are easily overlooked from a global perspective.
Almost every time Chuang talks about Taiwan with a Westerner, he goes through the same conversation:
"I'm from Taiwan."
"Wow, I love your food."
"You've eaten Taiwanese food?"
"Yes, Thai food!"
"No, that is food from Thailand."
Many Taiwanese have noticed that people from other parts of the world have problems distinguishing between Taiwan and Thailand.
Faced with dwindling numbers of Taiwanese overseas students and the blurred international image of Taiwan, Chuang asked himself, "While I'm living abroad, what can I do about this," other than complain and lament on Facebook?
With his shoulder-length hair and scholarly look, "Big Brother Chao," as his fellow students affectionately call Chuang, began to ponder how the downward trend in Taiwanese exchange students could be reversed.
When meeting Taiwanese students at home Chuang found that the majority of those asking for advice on going abroad were mostly studying at prestigious high schools, such as Taipei First Girls High School or Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, or top-ranked universities such as National Taiwan University, Cheng Kung, Tsing Hua, or Chiao Tung University.
Educated in both Taiwan and the United States, Chuang thinks that Taiwanese education focuses too much on "rankings," whereas MIT taught him the importance of "sharing."
"In Taiwan you have just one in every class who can be best in class," he says. "We expend a lot of energy to beat a whole lot of competitors. But MIT tells you, MIT is a unified whole, a brand, we should help each other be successful."
Seeds only grow in fertile soil. Therefore, Chuang joined hands with a handful of likeminded friends and established a not-for-profit online platform called IOH (Innovation Open House), which functions like a video library. They invited Taiwanese who study or work abroad to share their personal experiences in the form of videos.
Interlinking the Stories of Young Taiwanese
Using his personal network and a message campaign, he persuaded young Taiwanese around the globe to share their stories.
Yeh Ping-cheng, associate professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering of National Taiwan University, who is known for his unconventional approach to teaching, became one of the project's first "little angels" (supporters).
Upon returning to Taiwan from the United States a few years ago, Yeh strongly sensed how straitjacketed young Taiwanese were in their lives.
"From childhood to adulthood, the lives of Taiwanese children have already been decided by others. In their third year of university when they face the challenge of choosing a professional career, they are all very scared of failing," Yeh says. He believes that young people will have much more courage to realize their dreams if they get to understand early on how big the world is.
In what was an arduous, exhausting undertaking, Chen Chun-han from Taiwan recorded his personal video in his dormitory of Harvard University in April.
Chen suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that affects muscle movement. Upon graduation from NTU law school, he successfully applied for graduate studies at Harvard Law School. Earlier this year, Chen passed the New York State bar exam and became a Ph.D. candidate.
Since Chen can only move his mouth and eyes, it took him two hours to record a 30-minute video in front of a webcam. Taking a break every five minutes, his mother gave him a massage for his weak facial muscles and adjusted his listless head into an upright position before the next few minutes of video were captured.
In his video Chen shared details of his time at Harvard, what the school demands of students, and pedagogical trends at Harvard Law School. At the end of his video, he also said, "I want to tell the young people of Taiwan, be more ambitious, don't be content with things as they are at home."
Chen thinks that Taiwan has retrogressed in its international competitiveness but feels that the Taiwanese media are unaware of this development.
"What our enthusiastic Big Brother Chao is doing is very meaningful," he declares.
Like building bridges and paving roads, he is connecting the young Taiwanese that are scattered around the world.
Indeed, students around the world have now begun to share their unique experiences on the IOH platform.
There you can read or watch their discussions of topics such as, "How to become a Harvard student," "It's fun to work at Google," "Why summer internships are important," or "Learning through special projects."
These videotaped talks might not have the stage effects of a TED Talk, but they help young Taiwanese who are generally not that confident speaking in public to overcome their shyness and generously share their stories.
Handing Down Experience
They all do this free of charge. Neither the speakers nor those taping the videos are paid. What makes them put in their time and energy is their shared love for Taiwan.
Over the past year, IOH has collected more than 70 shared-experience videos, organized some 100 live talks, and uploaded about 100 lecture videos, attracting more than 80,000 hits. In comparison, just 30,000 Taiwanese students went abroad for further studies last year.
Chuang's initiative has doubtlessly sparked a small flame.
Thanks to the originality of his IOH project, Chuang won a NT$800,000 grant from the Keep Walking Fund of Scotch whisky label Johnnie Walker. The grants are awarded to people who keep dreaming and moving toward their goals. He is using the award to train volunteers and build a technology platform.
Nevertheless, as IOH keeps growing bigger, Chuang has begun agonizing over new issues.
Increasingly he feels bothered by the excessive concern shown by the older generation and society. Many cannot understand why he does not focus on making money first and then work for the public good. He feels lucky to have an understanding father who supports his venture by letting him use a study in the family home as the IOH office.
Still, Chuang is aware that the platform cannot be sustained by relying solely on the enthusiasm of a group of selfless fools.
Originally, Chuang wanted to start a company in the United States, creating a sharing platform similar to IOH, except that users would have to pay a fee. His dream is to found a startup, build it into a successful, moneymaking business and then go on to support IOH. However, these plans are in their preliminary stages.
Amid his efforts to launch a business that could support IOH, Chuang gets less than five hours of sleep per night. He thinks that the young generation can wait no longer, nor can Taiwan. With a note of urgency, Chuang says, "I feel there is this momentum now, that I need to kindle this fire and tell young people, you are not less capable."
An unspectacular discovery changed the direction of Chuang's life. He encourages everyone to selflessly "donate" their experiences by sharing them with the next generation.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz