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Public Service on the Rise

Taiwanese Savor Sweet Charity


Taiwanese Savor Sweet Charity

Source:Kuo-Tai Liu

Like many other places around the world, Taiwanese are discovering the joys of lending a helping hand, as the focus on “Me” gives way to a philosophy of “We.”



Taiwanese Savor Sweet Charity

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 364 )

The “We” Generation

In this uncertain age of rapid change, besides making money to survive, people need to have a happy existence that affords emotional connections.

As American-style capitalism obsessed with personal desire and gain spreads through galloping globalism, an alternative, softer wave of resistance has risen up to oppose it. From prominent entrepreneurs and Hollywood stars, to hundreds of millions of regular individuals, a new wave of public service is surging around the globe.

Sensing a real trend afoot, last year Newsweek declared that the “Me” generation has stepped down and given way to the “We” generation.

In 2001 the United Nations sounded the clarion call of volunteerism, announcing that the age of volunteering and public service had arrived. This public-minded spirit even began to stir in the emerging nations of Asia so intent on gaining wealth and status. Within just a few years over two million non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have appeared in India. And even under strict governmental control, over 2000 environmental and human rights volunteer groups were established in China, making it prime territory for global volunteer organizations seeking to meet the intense demand. Further underscoring the trend's momentum, 73% of top Indonesian university students surveyed chose to work for NGOs after graduation.

Long known for the warmth of its people, Taiwan has not sat on its heels and let this trend pass by.

The number of NGOs in Taiwan has more than quintupled over the past dozen years or so. According to Ministry of the Interior statistics, the number of people involved in volunteer service in Taiwan grew by 39% in five years, and last year 17.5% of the total Taiwanese population engaged in volunteer work. Initial results from the CommonWealth State of the Nation survey for January 2007 indicate that 40% of the public plans to engage in some form of volunteer work this year.

From Charity to Civic Involvement

Minister of the National Youth Commission, Li-chiun Cheng, an ardent proponent of the civic society, offers her analysis, saying that after years of experience the model for public service in Taiwan has shifted, expanding from charity to civic involvement. This in turn has prompted rapid growth in the number of volunteers over just a few short years.

“Charity (I give you things) and public interest (I thank you for the chance to serve) are different levels of public service,” offers Min-Hsiu Chiang, director of the Center for the Third Sector at National Chengchi University.

For decades religious faith has been the main force compelling Taiwanese to engage in volunteer work. Joseph Lin, founder of the law firm Lin & Shih and chairman of the Legal Aid Foundation, is an archetypical example.

Lin grew up close to the church, his father a Presbyterian congregation elder, his older brother a minister, and himself a church elder. Upon founding a firm 15 years ago with his wife, fellow attorney Sandy Shu-Chen Shih, Lin vowed to dedicate one-third of the law office's work to helping disadvantaged clients. This eventually led to the establishment of the Legal Aid Foundation three years ago, which sounded a call for other attorneys to join in the effort to provide legal defense services to the disadvantaged. To date, a full one-half of Taiwan's 15,000 practicing attorneys have joined the group.

To Joseph Lin, serving the public interest “is not about doing something noble, but a value choice. Pleasing God is the most valuable thing of all,” he asserts.

Vital Path to Spiritual Contentment

In the best-selling book A Whole New Mind, American futurist Daniel Pink notes that today's middle class lives in the most plentiful era of history. At a certain point, he claims, they must contemplate the value of life, and becoming a volunteer is a vital path to satisfying one's spiritual needs.

Lin Sian-fa, distinguished by his rectangular face and local Taiwanese style, owns a profitable accounting firm. Yet he never achieved satisfaction as an accountant, instead finding himself constantly searching for his true personal worth. A little more than a year ago, having never volunteered before, he heard on the radio that the National Science Council was recruiting science volunteers to work at Sihma Kusih in Hsinchu County's Jianshih Rural Township. Thinking to himself, “that's a dark-sounding name,” he decided to make a major change in his life.

For the interview Lin went out of his way to dress up in a suit and tie instead of his usual casual wear. Compared to the other applicants, whom he describes as “half my age with twice the education,” this experienced businessman appeared especially ill at ease, even making the head interviewer wonder if this middle-aged man would be equal to the task.

Having passed the “test” to become a volunteer, Lin Sian-fa drove his car once a month up into the mountains regardless of inclement weather or perilous road conditions to help the local aboriginal tribe establish a computer classroom. The more time he spent there, the more he lent a hand, putting his professional expertise to work by helping a local bed and breakfast keep their books and teaching them about tax law.

These experiences also prompted Lin Sian-fa to rearrange his personal resources and priorities. Seeing the community's staunch intention to establish a branch elementary school in the mountains so that the local aboriginal children could go home every day, Lin decided to stop putting his own three children in cram schools and after-school programs and began spending two hours a day with them. On weekends and holidays he took his children into the mountains with him to get them far away from television and computers. “Becoming a volunteer finally taught me how to teach my own children,” laughs Lin.

Ladies Love It

Another strong force for volunteerism is women. According to statistics from the Ministry of the Interior, female volunteers outnumber their male counterparts by 150%.

To her friends 38 year-old Huang Yu-ting is the kind of homebody that could stay at home for a month without going out. However, during a visit to Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the information management major saw first hand the frustration and longing of local Chinese trying to learn Mandarin. Without hesitation, she quit her job and started taking courses in teaching Mandarin at National Taiwan University, National Taiwan Normal University, and even Beijing University, with a mind toward one day returning to Cambodia as a volunteer Mandarin teacher.

While the Cambodia part of the plan never materialized, Huang's training has come to use right at home in Taiwan. A little more than a year ago, while working as an after-school teacher, she noticed that some of the parents had failed to fill out the students' family communications register. Concerned, she made calls to over a dozen students' parents, discovering that they were all foreign brides whose knowledge of Mandarin was limited at best.

Invested with a strong sense of duty, Huang Yu-ting became a volunteer always on call by the phone. As long as a foreign bride was able to get out of the house, with one phone call she would put her work aside and tutor them in Mandarin. She not only compiled her own teaching materials, but if the schoolteacher requested that the foreign mother come to school for a conference, she would accompany them. Huang, whose only form of recreation is volunteer work, gets emotional at the thought of her students' plight, exclaiming, “We can't allow them to be discriminated against because of a language barrier.”

In contrast to the high proportion of European and American youths that do volunteer work (at an average of three times the participation rate of adults), Taiwan's young people remain a source of rich potential for the public service movement. Yet slowly but surely a movement is stirring, as the number of young volunteers 17 and under has grown by more than 100% over the past five years. Over 50,000 young volunteers participated in the National Youth Commission's volunteer project last year; and Taiwan ranked fourth overall and first in Asia among 118 countries participating in Global Youth Service Day.

Young volunteers have found ways to put their ingenuity to work in public service.

Yu-chun Wang, director of the National Youth Commission's 4th Department, observes that Taiwan's young volunteers have moved outside the conventional charity model of helping the disadvantaged and relieving the poor and turned to various types of public service with added value. For instance, National Taitung University Parasailing Club volunteers worked with the local government on a plan for developing the tourism industry; and students in the Chung Yuan Christian University Information Technology Department helped create a Web site to aid a local aboriginal tribe in selling peaches directly.

Wang further observes that at first many junior high school student community volunteers were quite taciturn, but eventually became loquacious when discussing community development. “Volunteering not only helps foster self-confidence, but also helps build teamwork and improve attitudes,” notes Wang, herself a member of a service-oriented club as a university student.

Public Service Travel Goes Far

Public service travel, a trend in itself, can also be credited with boosting the popularity of public service among the younger generation.

Having proposed the concept of public service travel three years ago, Min-Hsiu Chiang began training volunteers at National Chengchi University. With 150 slots open per semester, all vacancies were filled up within two days. Li-chiun Cheng, who boasts a master's degree in philosophy from France, also agrees that Taiwan is equipped to emulate the European practice of a “gap year,” where high school graduates volunteer and travel abroad for a year before starting university, making public service travel an integral part of the teenage experience.

Wong Nai-wun, the 22 year-old daughter of seasoned news professionals, found the idea of public service travel immediately appealing. Now that she has had the experience, she has begun contemplating much more seriously how to devote herself to public service in the future.

As a university sophomore she became captivated with the tale of students her age traveling to South America as environmental volunteers to rescue tree frogs. Finding a New Zealand-based service organization over the Internet, she spent US$600 of her own money, plus plane fare, to go teach English at a public elementary school in a Nepalese village.

That month-long experience has stayed with her ever since. Pointing to a dilapidated brick house in a photo, she says, “That's our home.” The female head of her host family, a young woman her age, already has a child of her own. Rising daily at 5 a.m., she toils to provide for her family. Wong recorded her thoughts in a daily diary during her stay there, and reflecting on the scarcity all around her, woke up to the reality of how much she really had, wondering how she ever took it for granted.

Volunteers the Biggest Winners

“Actually, living happily is really simple.” Wong Nai-wun, who possesses the eyes of a classic Oriental beauty and chooses her words methodically, mocks herself good-naturedly about how stereotypically the experience has shaped her. Yet no matter howit may seem, her happiness during that month in Nepal was so genuine it made her feel foolish for carrying so much baggage in her mind.

Chang Chiungling, who leads volunteer groups abroad in her capacity as project manager at the International Youth Volunteer Service Center, offers her assessment, relating that some volunteers perhaps use the experience as a rationalization for running away from home. Many volunteers leave home filled with disillusionment, and sometimes see themselves more clearly after helping others in a strange land, finding a sense of self worth. Even though in the final analysis it is usually the volunteers who get the most out of the venture, the overall experience is positive for all.

Democratic Revolution from Within

Cheng Li-chiun, a member of Taiwan's student movement generation and a witness to Taiwan's democratization, suggests that if the current generation of youths grows up volunteering, those who enter politics in the future will better appreciate the meaning of public service, as opposed to just partisan interests. “It's really a democratic revolution from within for Taiwan,” she states emphatically.

Whether involved in charity, community service, or public participation, a sketch emerges regarding Taiwan's volunteers: they like to laugh, they're a bit romantic and passionate (and liable to go on and on about their volunteer experiences, given the chance), they tend to look at the positive side of things, they're easily moved, happy and contented, and above all they are “addicted to volunteering.” As they forge on along the path of public service, they approach the Holy Grail in this material world – a sense of true inner contentment. 

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman