BY WILLIAM FOREMAN
Taiwan was the first place I visited when I got my first passport. Just out of college, I had two goals: explore the world and learn Mandarin, which I thought would lead to an exciting career. Picking Taiwan as my starting point was one of the smartest things I’ve done in my life.
I arrived in 1988 with a big duffel bag, about $1,000 in traveler’s checks, and a plan to stay three months. Stepping off the plane in Taipei, this young man from the Midwest was immediately overwhelmed. I found myself in the middle of a sprawling Asian metropolis that I was ill-equipped to navigate. My outdated Lonely Planet travel guide was mostly useless.
Before my trip, Taiwanese friends in the United States had assured me that Taipei was so international that there was a 7-Eleven and McDonald’s on every block. But I quickly realized that the easy availability of a Slurpee or Big Mac wasn’t necessarily the best measure of how traveler-friendly a city is. Most of the information I needed was in Chinese. Signs, bus maps, menus – seemingly everything. Never before had I felt so helpless and vulnerable.
To be fair, I’m not faulting the Taiwanese. At the time, they were plenty busy turning the island into an export and manufacturing juggernaut – one of the world’s greatest economic success stories. Fine-tuning the tourism industry could wait until later.
But I still remember waking up on my first morning in Taipei filled with fear about stepping outside of my hotel room, facing the roar of thousands of scooters zooming through a chaotic city that seemed like a set for the movie Blade Runner. For breakfast, I ate a melted Snickers bar from the bottom of my bag as I seriously considered catching the next flight home. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for a global life, I thought.
That morning was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I eventually pulled myself together, embraced the challenge and ventured outside. Over the next few months, I immersed myself in my language studies, treating the project like a full-time job.
Friendships were formed with impressive classmates from South Korea, Belgium, Indonesia, and the UK. Many went on to successful careers in diplomacy, business, and academia. The deep affinity for Taiwan that we developed during those years made us enthusiastic brand ambassadors for the island. Soft power really works.
My plan to study for three months in Taiwan was extended to two years. Though far from fluent, I built a strong foundation in Mandarin that I continued to diligently expand as I started a career in journalism in the United States.
Nine years later, in 1999, I returned to the island to take up the post of Taiwan bureau chief for The Associated Press. Before I left my company’s headquarters in New York, one of my bosses said: “Good luck. We don’t get much news from Taiwan. I don’t really know what’s going on there. What does it look like? Are there mountains?”
Taiwan hit me with everything it had. A couple weeks after I arrived, the 921 earthquake rocked the island. A few months later, a political shockwave jolted Taiwan as Chen Shui-bian ended the Nationalist Party’s five-decade grip on the presidency on the island. Next came typhoons, plane crashes, tensions with China, legislative fisticuffs, corruption scandals, an attempted presidential assassination, and tech booms and busts.
After five years, I left the island feeling like I’d covered everything – except war, thankfully.
After a post-Taiwan odyssey that took me to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and the United States, I’m thrilled to be back on the island in my new role with AmCham Taipei. Of all the places my family has lived, Taiwan has long been our favorite, and we always hoped eventually to return.
For me, AmCham Taipei has always been the gold standard for business organizations. I’ve belonged to a few others, and they all had their strengths. But none provided the complete package that AmCham Taipei delivers. High-profile events. Engaged members. Fantastic staff. And the best business publication covering Taiwan in the English language.
The organization’s long history of shaping policy both on the island and in the United States is impressive and unique in many ways. For instance, AmCham played a key role in drafting the Taiwan Relations Act, which has been crucial to preserving the island’s security.
Since returning, I’ve been busy rediscovering the island, reconnecting with old friends, and meeting new ones. If I haven’t had a chance to meet with you yet, please send me a note and let’s find some time to talk. My email address is [email protected]