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Reflexive Taiwan Series

Even In the Hardest Time, Engage and Listen


Even In the Hardest Time, Engage and Listen

Source:Chien-Tong Wang

Samuel Galler is a Harvard graduate and DPhil candidate in International Development at Oxford University. He shared with CommonWealth his experience in Taiwan and the importance of establishing understanding and trust in today’s unstable world.



Even In the Hardest Time, Engage and Listen

By Shawn Chou /Interviewed by Shawn Chou, Sharon Tseng and Fiona Chou
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(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in Chinese. Quotes are translated by the editor.)

“I quite like Intrigues of the Warring States (《戰國策》), the stories are about (Chinese) culture, about humanity.”

Once the winner of 2017 Mandarin Speech Contest for Foreign Nationals, Samuel Galler (hereinafter referred to as Sam) was a recipient of the Rhodes scholarship,  which is known as the Nobel Prize’ for college students, after graduating from Harvard University in 2012. Since then, he had studied in Oxford University and Tsinghua University (China), with his focus mainly on civil organizations and social trust. Earlier last year, Sam came to Taiwan to delve deeper into the language Chinese and Taiwanese at National Taiwan University. 

“I am from Boulder, a city in Colorado, not many Chinese appeared in my life before college,” said Sam. In 2008, he was elected as a delegator of the U.S. student visiting group formed by National Committee on U.S.-China Relation. That was the summer before he went to Harvard and the beginning of his journey to Chinese Culture.

Though already being able to have the whole interview done in fluent Chinese, Sam does not yet seem satisfied by his high proficiency in the language. To him,  language is only the means to  understanding a culture, not the end of itself. His curiosity for ‘the different’ pushes him to discover more about the philosophy and cultural values embedded in Chinese characters and literature.

“Why aren’t the great Chinese philosophers mentioned along with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle?” he asked.

From his point of view, education in the West is still predominated by Western culture, while Eastern culture is overlooked or even absent from academic disciplines.

Engage, Listen, and Communicate

These cross-cultural experiences led him to a fundamental question which is also one of the most critical issues in today’s society: How should we deal with “differences”?

“We need to develop the skill to engage and listen.” Sam stressed the importance of communicating with those who have different views or ideologies.

He firmly believes that if people cease to listen to each other, there will be no room for understanding, which means social trust will be losing its ground, leaving a growing cleavage in the society. “In terms of building up such ability to engage and listen, the education system plays a crucial role,” said Sam.

While interpersonal relationships are casting too often an overwhelming influence on the coming-of-age of youths in the United States, education in Asia has too often narrowed its purpose down to getting better grades.

“If you get straight ‘A’s in the States, sometimes you would want to hide your scores, rather than proudly announce them on a billboard as you do in a Chinese-culture-influenced society,” said Sam with a smile. “If you are a more ‘study-oriented’ student, there’s little chance for you to become popular among your peers, especially in high school.”

In Taiwan, grades are stressed, while in the States, popularity predominates. “It’s not a right-or-wrong comparison between the two education cultures, they’re just different,” he considered. The majority of students in Taiwan are faced with academic pressure, while academically excellent students in the U.S. are facing heavy peer pressure.

Taiwanese Youths Should be More Confident

For many Taiwanese youths, awareness of difference and competition can lead to a sense of inferiority. Especially in the face of young Americans, who are in fact often said to be ‘too’ confident, Taiwanese youths tend to become more uncertain about their own personal value.

“The young people I’ve met in Taiwan are very talented, but they don’t trust themselves enough,” Sam observed.

“I met a girl in NTU(National Taiwan University) who ranks top of her department. She is so smart and talented that she could probably do anything she wanted. Yet she wants to be a local high school teacher.” Sam added, “Instead of pursuing a Master's Degree or PHD, she said the world is too big for her and she does not know what strength she holds to compete and stand out from the others. It is hard to say what exactly had caused this ‘top of the top’ student in Taiwan to be this unconfident.”

Image: Chien Tung Wang

Branding—Let the World See Taiwan

Thus, we asked this foreigner who had previously lived in China and now in Taiwan, what are Taiwan’s strengths?

“Taiwanese deserves to be more confident in themselves,”  said Sam. “Tons of foreigners have come to Taiwan and appreciated the place a lot. However, when I tell people back in my country about the island, many of them have never heard of it.” This brought to another important issue for Taiwan—Branding.

Different cultural traditions might seem attractive to curious foreigners at first sight, and English may serve as a useful tool to introduce these cultural aspects to the world. Yet, carrying out the topic of cultural differences by using an international language to gain international traction is not sufficient. (Read: Speaking English Does Not Mean Going Global)

“You need a user-oriented strategy. You have to know how to capture people’s attention and how to communicate with your audience.” said Sam.

It’s the story-telling of the ‘context’ of cultural traditions that matters, for it is the emotions and spirits behind these stories that can actually move people and let them remember you, instead of simply presenting the material aspects of culture like dumplings, calligraphy or bubble milk tea.

Perhaps given Taiwan’s special international and geopolitical position, Taiwanese are faced with a greater deal of uncertainty. “Taiwanese should not limit themselves, even in an uncertain position, or especially in an uncertain position.” said Sam. For a future that might not seem promising for the time being, it’s even more important for the Taiwanese to be more confident in who they are, what they do, and what they can possibly achieve.

At the beginning of 2018, while Taiwan is facing a challenging ‘chill’ state of Cross-Strait relations, and the ongoing brain drain continues to threaten its academic and industrial prospect, it’s even more important for Taiwan to develop its own soft power. As one of the few ways left for Taiwan to break out of this conundrum, the people in Taiwan must be aware of their own strength, and be confident in themselves.

“Always dare to dream big, and remember to engage and listen.”

Edited by Sharon Tseng, Fiona Chou

【Reflexive Taiwan Series】
In Taiwan, some see a limit in the market, a lack of global thinking, and a lag in the pulse of the world. Some see a small island of people perching besides a large nation, huddling in their own comfort, blunting their wolf spirit. Some even see Taiwan as a ghost island, a jump board for those who leave, but a jail for those who can’t. Yet we also see many visitors in Taiwan, reminding us that Taiwan is good, genuinely good. Through a series of report, from a self-reflective perspective, we would see, would believe, and would achieve the richness and virtue of Taiwan.

Additional Reading

‘Farewell, Taiwan’
'Young People Can, They Just Don’t Have The Stage'
Forging a New Leadership Model