Friday, October 12, 2018

Taiwanderland, Day 3: U.S. Business Day, Futuristic School in the Sky, & 25 Years of Hawaii-Taiwan Friendship

Thursday, October 4
U.S. Business Day!  Eight American States have special relationships with Taiwan.  This sub-national diplomacy is a way for American States to knit themselves closer to Taiwan business, without driving the ire of China at a National level.  Wyoming just joined the club (no taxes, natural resources, opportunistic outlook), but Hawaii was still the first to do this back in 1993.

On this morning, our delegation proceeded to a soaring high-rise, where hundreds of officials had gathered to present and connect.  A number of manufacturing and tech firms were represented (e.g. Black and Decker); our Hawaii education delegation was there to offer support to our business colleagues.  Our job, essentially, was and is to sell Hawaii as a destination for trade, exchanges, tourism, and education.  We were primarily courteous spectators here as we clapped for the high-ranking suited officials promoting Hawaii and America in Taiwan

Back on the bus, we proceeded to Nanshan High School, possibly the richest and most famous private high school in Taiwan.  This 75 year old school near the river was awe-inspiring.  Over 4,000 students, multiple city blocks, an art museum, high-rise classrooms eight stories tall, an outdoor amphitheater dug into the central quad, a gym in the sky, and a gleaming glass and style science building occupying the top four floors of a high rise.  How could I sell Maui Prep to a school this rich, historical, and impressive?  Not only this, families were paying less than U.S. $5,000 per year for all of these things.  I was dumbfounded.

Yet the faculty, board members, and leadership were nothing but kind, and this school seems more ripe for exchange and partnership than any other I visited.

The school leaders took us for lunch in a modest alley at a place called Feng’s Restaurant, a Shanghainese place that looks unassuming but is one of the best in the city.  The Chinese Feast began, as course after course hit our lazy Susan, and we could only indulge.  Traveling in China as a distinguished guest includes a lot of eating and feasting, as Chinese hospitality is built around an abundance of food. There was and is always too much on the table, and everyone eats past the point of satiety. This we did!

We said goodbye to our generous hosts, and returned to our hotel to recover.  I hid out in Starbucks to catch up on some work and writing.  At 4 PM all the Hawaii schools hosted a student fair and trade show, where we all interacted with parents, agents, school leaders, and prospective students.  I delivered my 60 second commercial to the audience mostly in Mandarin.  They were very gracious, as the Taiwanese always are at any attempt to speak Mandarin.  Speaking Chinese is a blast, however difficult.

The student fair rolled into the most elegant reception of our trip, a celebration honoring the 25th anniversary of Hawaii-Taiwan relations.  All the people we had met on the trip were there, some 200 people in all, as well as some 25 Main Course dishes, a hula troupe, and a small army of indigenous dancers.  

We all circled the room and engaged with our new Taiwanese friends, and I sat with the contingent from Nanshan High School. After many speeches and warm words, the Amis dancers, all of whom were teenagers or early twenties, took over the stage for an hour in their bright, feathered customers. They whooped and yelped and laughed and sang, and by the end of the night, they had everyone in the room holding hands and dancing together.  It was a really special evening for Hawaii-Taiwan friendship.  My belly and heart full, I walked home in the warm darkness.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Taiwonderland, Day 2: The Ministry of Education, a Mountain University, a City High School, an Aboriginal Dinner

Motorbikes, Traditional Characters, Sunshine: Taiwan!
Wednesday, October 3

I roused early, still caught in some time zone halfway to Hawaii, perhaps Guam.  

Taipei Times and breakfast buffet was my morning ritual.  The Taipei Times is an excellent paper, capturing truly global news.  It’s refreshing to be in a country that doesn’t perceive itself as the center of the Universe, the End of History, the be-all and end-all.  Taiwan’s very existence depends on its connections with the world, and consequently the capital city’s newspaper features stories from everywhere.  Taiwanese are citizens of the world by necessity.  May my country evolve in that direction in future.
Taipei 101 Soars to the Heavens
I walked the one kilometer to the Sunworld Dynasty hotel where the Hawaii delegation resided.  The October Taipei streets were fresh, fragrant, warm.  October is the least cruel month; Autumn in the tropics is crisp and glorious.

I boarded our bus with my fellow Hawai’i Educators, and our driver navigated to the fancy, corporate, shiny part of town, just in the shadow of Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest and most impressive buildings. We picked up the four Senators from Hawaii as well as the Business  Officers, and proceeded to the National Ministry of Education.  We were ushered upstairs, where we were received a formal meeting with the third in command of the country’s school system.  

The Ministress of Education addresses us
This woman dressed in white was gracious, articulate, and insightful.  We arrayed ourselves around her, each of us briefly introducing ourselves, and sharing our hopes for increased student exchanges with her country.  I asked specifically if Taiwan could spend resources marketing Hawaiian education, in honor of our 25th anniversary of friendship. She said yes, but that we should contact the Los Angeles office for next steps.

Our Hawai'i Delegation 
Suddenly the Minister of Education crashed into the room like Kramer.  Shaggy-haired and gregarious, he greeted us all and invited us to take a picture.  He was busy meeting with the Governor of Wyoming and the University of Chicago, but he wanted to drop in to well wish us. Like virtually everyone of standing in Taiwan, he was a Ph. D.

Meeting over, we moved next door to a three story building full of Taiwanese curious, mementos, and crafts.  We did our duty to support the Taiwan economy, me finding a small silk purple purse for my beloved daughter.

Beautiful JinMen University
Our next stop was Jinwen University on the southern fringes of the city in the mountains. We cut through dense city blocks, across the Tamsui River, and up a river valley into the elevated campus of Jinwen.  This University specialized in culinary education and tourism among other things, with whole wings of the school set up like hotel rooms and kitchens, where students learned by doing.  Our hosts were most gracious, and the students were curious and friendly.  These University visits were always interesting, but not as helpful for me as I was looking for younger teenagers to join my school.

The Values of JinMen High School
We wound our way back into the city for an afternoon visit to Jinwen High School. This was a middle-class, private Taiwanese high school with thousands of students. I learned later that it had once been one of the best, until leadership had embezzled huge sums of money and the reputation of the school went into a free-fall. The school was building itself back up now, and it had re-ignited relationships with schools in New Zealand and the Philippines.  I wanted to put Maui on that list, though money was a factor.  As the Principal said, the students at this school were “middle class,” and Maui may be a bit out of reach for these kids, in a country where GDP per capita each year tracks around U.S. $32,000.

Me, Jinmen High School campus, and our colorful tour bus
As the sun dropped in the sky, our bus navigated to the political center of Taipei- the Japanese-built Presidential Palace, the National Theater, and the central plaza of the Chiang Kai Shek mausoleum.  These public places are grand, majestic, and stunning, and as Taiwan geared up to celebrate its National Day on October 10, the projection screens and parade grounds were being readied.

The Center of Taipei: Democracy Plaza
We were hosted for dinner by the Council for Indigenous Peoples.  Taiwan is home to some 15 indigenous tribes, who are the forebears of Polynesians and Hawaiians (Does this mean Hawaiians were once Chinese?  And weren’t we all once African?).  Like aboriginals across the planet, these people are proud, repressed, and struggling.  But tonight they were generous, amiable, and gracious.  At three round tables our delegation mixed with our hosts, who shared with us about their languages, their customs, and their aspirations.  This was a very special evening.
Who's angry for a Chinese Feast, minus Shark Fin?
Another full day came to a close.  The bus carried us home to SunWorld Dynasty, and I strolled the evening streets back to the Hotel Waikoloa.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Taiwanderland, Day 1: The Delegation Launches, Visiting the Best Public and Private Universities, and the Celebration Banquet

Sunday, September 30- Monday, October 1

Hawaii loves Taiwan.  Hawaii loves Taiwan so much that 25 years ago it was the first State to create a special Sister State relationship, in 1993.  Certainly China wasn't happy about this, and it's likely not happy that our Hawaii delegation is here to strengthen this relationship.  

Our Hawaii delegation is solid.  We have some ten admissions directors from many of the Universities and community colleges in the State, as well as me, the one representative of a boarding high school in Hawaii.  We also have four State Senators, and a number of representatives from the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT).  Many of us flew on the direct nine hour Air China flight from Honolulu to Taipei.

We took off in the afternoon from Honolulu; Chinese hospitality was immediate.  The stewardesses greeted me by name many times, brought multiple meals, served all the complimentary refreshments desired, and generally took care.  It felt like U.S. airlines in the 90's before every salty peanut was monetized.  .

The flight was smooth, except for my 200+ sneezes from my allergic reaction to dirty plane oxygen.  Fairly unpleasant for my neighbors and me. . .

We chased the sun across five time zones, and landed at 7:30 PM tomorrow.  So much for October 1st.  Our delegation navigated customs and currency exchange, and Alex, our man in Taipei, escorted us through the VIP entrance line.  A short bus ferried us from Taoyuan County into the city.  I stayed apart from the rest of a delegation at a hotel for half the price about a kilometer away from the Sunworld Dynasty, so I rolled my luggage through the warm evening streets to the Hotel Waikoloa.  

10 PM Taipei was bustling.  Noodle shops, 7-11s, speedy motorbikes, wafting incense, busy massage parlors, neon signs.  Welcome home to Taiwan!  And Wan An.

Tuesday, October 2

I awoke at 5 AM, thoroughly biologically confused.  I caught up on work in the morning light, read the Taipei Times over breakfast buffet, and walked to SunWorld Dynasty for the morning meeting.  Our full delegation of politicians, economic officers, and educators was there, joined by student recruitment agencies and representatives from the U.S. Commercial Service, a group of government agents who promote U.S. business in Taiwan. 

Introductions were followed by a country and trip debriefing, so we could all get to know each other and build relationships. All men in the room had a coat and tie except for me, on the encouragement of my wife (Coats are overrated!) and my Head of School (Does that represent Maui?).  Well, someone had to be the most comfortably dressed. . .

After breakfast we piled onto our Taiwan short bus to navigate the morning traffic.  The Hawaiian Senators and Business Officers went their way, and our education delegation went ours.  First stop, The most prestigious University in the country, National Taiwan University.  This leafy enclave in the middle of the City is the most complete research and professional University in the Country. It’s also a major landowner, holding title to 1% of the country, though most of that is in the high central mountains.  Smiling young students toured us through the dorms, campus buildings, student centers, and quads.  The whole campus has a turn of the century Japanese aesthetic, as the Japanese controlled Taiwan from the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 until the end of World War II in 1945.  It’s just beautiful.  

We were honored and distinguished guests, so we were received by the President of the University for introductions and discussions.   We were given name placards, tea, brochures, and token gifts; this would be a trend almost everywhere we went. The President told us the story of his remarkable University, and we all gave our elevator pitches for our schools and colleges.  There wasn’t much for Maui Prep at this stop, but it was great to hear all the Hawaii Schools make their cases for collaboration and cooperation.  I may have noticed the NTU President nod off a bit, but he is an old and busy guy, and in this case, the boss does it his way.

Back on the bus, we crossed town for a formal banquet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  We rejoined the Hawaii Senators and Business Officers here for a formal sit down ten course plated banquet.  Speeches of goodwill, appreciation, and friendship were made.  These were not rote or apathetic words. Taiwan’s political, economic, and existential survival depends on America.  Period.  And its friendships with the American States are critical, especially as other countries (Burkina Faso, Guatemala, other Central American Countries) crack under China’s pressure.  The Taiwanese officials were deeply and genuinely moved by our delegation’s presence, and we were moved by their hospitality.  I was especially moved by one of the sub-ministers, a man named Long Man, who was warm and hilarious.

Back on the bus, we settled in for an hour long drive across the city, over the Tamsui River, under the shadow of Yaomingshin Mountain, and out on the peninsula to the northwest.  

This exurb of the city was deeply historic, for good reason.  With steep, lush, jagged, green peaks tumbling into the sea, and surrounded by the river and ocean, this was a military fort where the Spanish, Dutch, and English all fortified their control over Formosa at various points.  As well as colonial military powers, a Scottish-Canadian missionary named Mackay established a Presbyterian boys school on mountain heights named Tamkang.  Not far away another father and son established a private college called Tamkang University, which is now the most prestigious private school in the country.  

Our first stop was the University.  We wound up narrow, dense, crowded streets to climb up to the University Heights.  We were received by the college administration in a circular conference room, where again we received brochures, tea, and chochskys.  They told us the story of their University, and we shared our stories.  I peppered my spiel with Mandarin Chinese.  It was so fun to dust off my Chinese skills. Simple as my abilities may be, it’s always a wonderful way to build a bridge with new Chinese friends.  

The University campus was leafy, new, prosperous, bustling, scenic, resourced, and impressive.  Like NTU, there wasn’t an obvious connection for Maui Prep, though it was fascinating to see these highly educated Taiwanese college administrators building bridges with Hawaiian colleges.

Back on the bus, we cut through the historic streets to Mackay’s Christian high school, Tamkang High School.  We met the foreign teachers and the Chinese administrators.  The school was incredibly impressive, with dormitories, expansive quads, a rugby team in training, a historic gym from the early 1900s, and lots of smiling and friendly high school students.  I exchanged brochures and business cards with some teachers there, and spoke of student exchanges, sister school relationships, and other partnerships.  This would be a fascinating school to partner with, though its deep Christian tradition (church almost daily!) wouldn’t exactly gel with Maui Prep’s secular roots.  

As we left the campus, we saw parents passing snacks and food over the fence to their students, who weren’t permitted to leave, even though it was 4:30. They had much more work to do!

We piled back into the bus, where we switchbacked down the foothills to the water.  We had another reception at a fancy high rise, this time with a cohort of parents, school leaders, and government officials resident in Tamsui, the historic and upscale neighborhood at the outflow of the Tamsui River into the ocean.

The conference room was packed with 100 people or more, all buzzing from the end of the workday.  Our delegation drank tea and snacked on cookies, everyone a bit frazzled after a packed day so far.  Our fearless Study Hawaii Leader Joel Weaver made the case for Hawaii to the Taiwanese crowd, who was a bit boisterous, though good-natured.  Lots of Taiwanese school leaders were in the room, including leaders from Tamkang University and Tamkang High School.

Back on the bus, we drove out to the “farm” of our host, Chairman Ling.  This is when things got a little weirder and more interesting.  The “farm” was actually a kind of kids camp with swimming pools, a beach, an equestrian farm, a climbing wall, a sort of wonderland. Some 100 parents, teachers, and school leaders were there to host us for a very typical Taiwan banquet.  Typical as in, the dishes we ate included bony chicken, sticky rice with pig’s blood, chicken testicles, and popsicles. That’s right, chicken testicles.  Did I eat them?  Isn’t the mystery better?

Our hosts also all appeared to be members of the KMT (Kuomintang), the political party that basically aspires to re-unify Taiwan with China.  It was an old school, traditional, Taiwanese banquet.

What a day!  We all took pictures with Chairman Ling, rolled back onto our bus, cut through the steamy October Taipei streets, and I walked home on my own.  I washed the day away, and soon drifted to sleep. . .

Monday, October 1, 2018

Taiwanderland: Return to the Ilha Formosa

What is this land of dreams, this Taiwanderland?  What is it to me?

I first traveled here in 1993 at 11 years old with my father.  Taiwan and I were both so different a quarter century ago.

Alishan Mountain 2003: The Highest Peak in East Asia!
Taiwan was still living under the Jade Curtain of the KMT (Kuomintang), which had ruled the island since Chiang Kai shek lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan with 2 million of his friends to found the “Republic of China.”  But the tiger economy, under America’s protection, had exploded since the 1970s, and by the early 1990’s the developing capitalist machine was humming.

My dad had secured a berth for he and I on a cruise ship touring the South China Sea.  He would present to passengers about financial planning when we were at sea, and in port, he and I would explore together the metropolises of re-emerging Asia.  Now that’s a good teaching job. . ..

Taipei was our first stop, and my childhood memories have long since faded into sepia tones.  What do I remember from my one to two days there?  Bus tours from the Port of Keelung, heat, snakes, incense-infused Confucian temples, the National Palace Museum, the Mausoleum of Chiang Kai Check, urban hustle, beggars, noodles, East Asian life.  

My Chinese Language Teacher, Xiao Zhong
My personal reference point of cookie-cutter Southern California suburbs hadn’t prepared my pre-pubescent brain for the human onslaught of Taipei, and I can still point back to that trip as a watershed moment in my life, when I realized that the world was much bigger, more different, and more interesting than I had imagined. . . .

I returned to Taiwan twelve years later in August 2003, this time to live and work on the “Ilha Formosa.”  Freshly minted as a college graduate, I dodged the consulting, banking, and finance pipeline to New York City, and took up a teaching position through Princeton in Asia at a private Taiwanese middle and high school in Taiwan’s third city, Taichung.  My goal at the time was to pay my bills by teaching English, learn Mandarin, and be a sponge.

My 125 CC Kymco, Mountain Rambling in the Palms, 2004
The year I spent in Taiwan was tumultuous, as my parents split up, my college girlfriend and I did too, and I navigated the transition from a learning community of friends to a whole new world with no familiar faces in a new land with a new language.  In many ways it was the best of times and the worst of times for me. 

 But my love affair with Taiwan grew, as I fell more deeply for the country, the people, the culture, the language, the landscapes, the food, the oyster pancakes.  Riding a 125 CC Kymco motor bike, living on a leafy University campus, windsurfing the Taiwan strait, hiking the mountains, speaking a completely foreign language. . . . the sweet memories come rushing through when I open that memory box.

Sunrise Confucius Festival, 2003
I left Taiwan in June 2004 to return to America, to find my foundation again after a year of transformation.  By the end of the year I found my home in Hawaii, which is more like Taiwan than anywhere else in America.  Coincidence?

15 years have passed since I moved to Taiwan after college, and I’m returning now to this magical island.  This time I come for work, to promote my school on this bustling island of 23 million, to recruit students, and to build educational relationships.

I keep coming back to this wonderful place.  
Surf Adventuring the Taitung Coast, 2003

The first time I was truly a child, learning for the first time about how big and interesting the world is, and never forgetting it. 

The second time I was a young man, paying my way with my skills, and not just visiting as a tourist, but living as a resident. 

Now, this third time, I return as an educator.  I’m coming full circle to this special place, that somehow keeps drawing me into its orbit.  

Let the adventure begin. . .

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Putting My Father to Rest in Massachusetts, 14 Months After His Passing

On Saturday morning June 13, at 9 AM, in Fall River, Massachusetts, we buried my father's ashes at the O'Riordan/Johnston cemetery plot.  Some thirty people came, family and old friends, as did the crisp New England morning sunshine.  My Grandmother Anita and my Aunt Karen organized the brief, soulful, and touching ceremony.  Speakers included my Grandmother, Karen, my cousin Kate, and Sister Barbara.  I took a few moments to share the following summary of my father's life, with a focus on why we brought him home to Fall River.

On February 13, 1955 my father was born to Anita Johnston and Eoghan O’Riordan on an English military base in Munster, Germany.  He was an Irishman born to Scottish and Irish parents.  However, more importantly, he was a New Englander.  He emigrated to Boston with his parents a fin 1958, and after working a residency at Boston City Hospital, his father Eoghan signed on as an anesthesiologist at the Fall River Hospital.

My dad’s formative and some of his most cherished years were spent here, in this town, in Fall River.  He lived on Highland Ave with his parents, his four siblings- Stephen, Karen, Brian, and Sean.  His beloved grandfather, Bob Johnston, worked in Boston, but unfailingly Bob drove down to Fall River to spend time with my dad, to cheer at my dad’s baseball games, and to be a part of my dad’s life.  Bob Johnston was a key paternal influence in my dad’s life, and one of his core role models for how a man should care for his children.

During these years, my dad attended the local private Christian school Bishop Connolly, and he roamed Greater New England with his rat pack of Vinny Faye, Kenny Boulanger, Mike Trainor, John Seguin, and others.  He made a lot of friends in his life, but his Fall River friends and their families were among his most cherished.

About every seven years my grandfather Eoghan would change jobs to a new town and a new hospital, and in my father’s late teenage years, Eoghan moved his family to Killington, Vermont.  Though the skiing was spectacular, this move marked an end to the Fall River chapter.  For many in the family, this era in Fall River had been one of the happiest.  The kids were young, the family was growing, Anita and Eoghan were ascendant in America, and the broader Fall River Community had embraced them.  

It is no accident that we are here today, remembering and celebrating the lives of my father Michael and my Uncle Stephen.  If the O’Riordan family has a piece of land in the world that is a home, it is here in Fall River, where Anita, Eoghan, and the five O'Riordan siblings firs established their roots in American soil.

My dad left the East Coast for California in the the mid seventies, and he stayed away for over two decades.  During that time he married my mother Holly, stopped drinking just as his father had done, had two children- me, Andrew, and my sister, Katelyn- and launched a career as an Insurance Agent with Prudential.  He put together his own version of the American Dream, as he worked hard for us, loved us, supported us, sent us to private Catholic schools, coached my baseball and soccer teams, took me to Padres Games, and played hooky from work and school so he and I could go skiing together in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Among my dad’s greatest accomplishments was being a great father.  During my most vital years, , he was present, supportive, positive, engaged, and loving.  With my mother he laid the foundation for a good life for me, giving me every opportunity I needed to make something of myself.  I am forever grateful to you, dad, for providing me with a happy, loving home and for being a good father.
My dad found his way back to New England around the turn of the century.  Before dropping me off at college at Princeton, he and I took a road trip together through Boston, the Cape, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and of course, Fall River.  He showed me his home, his schools, the park where he played basketball, the field where he played baseball.  He introduced me to his old friends.  He had returned

In the following years, he re-connected with his old buddies, he came back for Red Sox games, and he even purchased a second home in Swansea.  He said he was “coming home,” and he declared that he wanted to name his boat “Full Circle,” to describe his life path that had taken him away from Fall River, but had led him back again.  He always said that the people back here were “Salt of the Earth,” which I think meant that they had a connection with each other, a lack of pretense, and an authenticity he had found lacking in Southern California.

Sadly my father’s  life was cut short too early by Small Cell Cancer.  After some difficult weeks in hospital in San Diego, he died on April 19, 2014 at 59 years old.  A lot of us in the family felt like there was more living to be done, and we grieved the man we lost as much last the time that we felt he lost.

 However, one of my father’s later insights in life was that there are no guarantees.  He couldn’t expect, and really none of us can, to live the full term of his life.  He was lucky in so many ways, to have a mother and father who provided him with love, support, and opportunity; to create a happy, healthy, and cohesive family of his own; and to have people like all of you, “Salt of the Earth” people, in his life.  As I said in my eulogy for his father at a funeral service in San Diego a week after his passing, he had so many reasons to be happy.

Today we bring my father Michael and my Uncle Stephen home.  This is where they belong, in Fall River, Massachusetts, where they have truly come Full Circle, back to the place from where they came.  I know my dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

We miss you, dad.  Welcome back home.
After I spoke these words, my Grandmother delivered the following blessing:

An Irish Funeral Prayer

Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Everything remains as it was.
The old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no sorrow in your tone.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without  effort
Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was.
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.
All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting,  when we meet again.