Christmas in Taipei is a Commercial Affair (but there are so many ways to be happy)

Holidays in Taipei - Gift Exchange at EPL Steakhouse

“How to Talk to Girls.” Thanks, coz.

Taiwan’s biodiversity really stands out. An active volcano lives next door to Taipei. There are evergreen forests up and down the central spine, and tropical beaches in the south. Almost everything is represented here, including real pine trees, but there are no real Christmas trees. Nearly all of the Christmas trees you’ll see in Taipei are artificial.

Holidays in Taipei - Christmas tree in National Taiwan University's social sciences library

Christmas tree in National Taiwan University’s social sciences library. (The Swedish flag is a nice touch)

Is this surprising? When you spend the holidays in Taipei, fragments of Christmas are everywhere. A sure sign this holiday means something different to Taiwanese people than Westerners.

Western products are everywhere in Taiwan. But as expats know, this is different than having Western ideas. In other words — Western things isn’t the same as Western culture.

No one is putting a Santa hat on Confucius. Also, Christmas and Boxing Day aren’t national holidays. Taiwan is open for business on Christmas Day, and so are the schools.

This means there are no days off, like you might get in Hong Kong. Last year, I gave a final presentation for a MBA class on Christmas Eve day. As one of my classmates calls it, “Fake Christmas!” Yes, and not exactly.

At least there’s no pretending. Christmas in Taipei is a commercial affair. Treat yourself to something 88 折 (12% off).

Taiwanese Christmas Spirit

Disney's Frozen Carnival with Elsa at Taipei 101

A winter carnival in Xinyi for Disney’s ‘Frozen’ with Elsa (Credit: TripAdvisor)

Where’s all the Christmas spirit? Most people know what it looks like. New Taipei City annually transforms Banqiao into a winter wonderland. Taiwanese people generally aren’t as familiar with the customs because it’s not linked with Chinese culture — other than red being a lucky color. Locals don’t go around saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” to each other, because people generally keep to themselves. This doesn’t change during the holidays.

Map of Religions in Taiwan

Religions in Taiwan (Courtesy: Taiwanball)

Christmas in a lot of non-Judeo-Christian countries is already about the shopping. And Taiwan, as a nation, is mostly devoted to Buddhist and Daoist temples.

There’s a clear line between Santa Baby and Baby Buddha. Christmas just hasn’t been integrated into the folklore or the educational system, in spiritual ways. The people miss out on certain aspects of the western version. This means Christmas gets respect, but not the same respect. It’s accepted, differently.

Christmas Tree Singing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

For example, most Taiwanese don’t know stories like the ‘Gift of the Magi‘, or, ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas‘ — seen above. No one knows Cindy Lou Who but everyone’s heard of Elsa. You know. Elsa, from Disney’s Frozen. Partly, it’s generational. Mostly, ideas about Christmas are passed along through pop culture and commercialization.

This statement isn’t totally fair. Western companies like Coca-Cola set the example by commercializing Christmas a long time ago. The biggest difference is Christmas in Taiwan doesn’t come with the history or traditions that don’t have to do with buying things. And for a holiday that’s so deeply rooted in both, the rituals become more important than the expectations. Getting thru Christmas in Taipei is finding something you recognize from home, and holding onto it for a couple hours.

Surviving Christmas in Taipei as an Expat

Holidays in Taipei - One could also go to church for Christmas spirit

Grace Baptist Church in Taipei

The big adjustments for this American Christmas refugee were the sub-tropical weather (no snow) — but even more, the smells, and sounds.

Mulled wine. The roasts. Yes, even fruitcake, to some extent. You find that Starbucks plays a lot of Christmas music and that’s about it.

There are no volunteers ringing red kettles for the Salvation Army. Which ironically, is also a form of commercialism. Charity drives is an industry of its own in America (Taiwan is catching on, though).

But I’m not the spokesperson for America, or Christmas. People have their own ideas of what that is, and there are so many ways to celebrate Christmas in Taipei. These are a few of the rituals that became valuable to me.

  • Friends volunteer at The PACK Sanctuary, a shelter for rescue dogs, on Christmas Eve
  • My first-year MBA students put together a gift exchange through They’re awesome.
  • Every year, I come up with a new holiday drink. 2017 featured a different take on the White Russian, with gin and almond milk.
  • To kick off the holiday season, we had a pot-luck supper at a friend’s bar
  • Some expats put on a Christmas cabaret production every year
  • Outdoor holiday bazaars, like Banqiao in New Taipei City. Taiwan definitely gets the shopping part right.
  • My friend does a Google Form to exchange real Christmas cards
  • Hosting a Christmas Eve get-together so no expat has to be alone
  • Saying thank you to people who are kind to you. Sometimes people are so practical that they forget gestures don’t have to have a value.
  • I’d like to rent a commercial kitchen – which there are a lot of – host an outing, and bake a few dozen kinds of Christmas cookies.

Next year, you’re invited.

Holiday Season 2017

Holidays in Taipei - “Drink Raki with flaming hot Cheetos, or else it’ll burn a hole in your stomach.” A night with new friends from National Chengchi University's IMBA program.

“Drink Raki with flaming hot Cheetos, or else it’ll burn a hole in your stomach.” A night with new friends from National Chengchi University’s IMBA program.

Holidays in Taipei - The Christmas tree in National Taiwan University's Student Activity Center

The Christmas tree in National Taiwan University’s Student Activity Center

Holidays in Taipei - My local "American" diner gets dressed up for the holidays

My local “American” diner dressing up for the holidays

Holidays in Taipei - Chocolate vodka - hot chocolate with vodka - being served at National Chengchi University's holiday bazaar

Chocolate vodka – hot chocolate with vodka – at National Chengchi University’s holiday bazaar

Holidays in Taipei - The new VP of Events for the MBA student council delivering pizzas to hardworking students in the lounge during the holiday season

The new VP of Events for the MBA student council delivering pizzas to hardworking students in the lounge during the holiday season

Holidays in Taipei - The Taipei 101 Christmas tree

The Taipei 101 Christmas tree

A Commercial Christmas in Taipei

Holidays in Taipei - How Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) does Christmas

How Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) does Christmas

Holidays in Taipei - Pose with Santa in a snow globe at Leeco Outlets

Pose with Santa in a snow globe at Leeco Outlets

Holidays in Taipei - Nothing says Christmas spirit like Microsoft Office for the holidays

Nothing says Christmas spirit like Microsoft Office for the holidays

Holidays in Taipei - McDonald's decorated their Christmas tree with empty apple pie boxes

McDonald’s decorates their Christmas tree with empty apple pie boxes

Holidays in Taipei - Wooloomooloo Cafe hangs ornaments from the ceiling to make a "tree"

Wooloomooloo Cafe hangs ornaments from the ceiling to make a “tree”

Holidays in Taipei - Heineken built a Christmas tree at 7-11 using neon light strips and Heineken bottles

Heineken’s Christmas tree at 7-11 using neon light strips and bottles

Why Get A MBA in Taiwan? Part 2 of 3: Dos and Don’ts of the Taiwan MBA

National Taiwan University Global MBA (GMBA) is an international Taiwan MBA program at the one of the top research universities in Greater China

National Taiwan University Global MBA (GMBA) is an international Taiwan MBA program at the one of the top research universities in Greater China

A MBA can be the best investment or worst decision for your career. The first thing a foreigner should know about getting a Taiwan MBA is there’s only one reason to do it. You plan on working with Asia.

Secondly, people here have different outputs for a Taiwan MBA than people in the West. In fact, most are operated as part-time programs with full-time students. Finally, many programs are still figuring out how to deliver an MBA experience. They’re lacking in areas that go beyond delivering core academics.

This is second in a three-part series. I’m writing this now because recruiting season is underway, so let’s Q&A. I’ve taken classes in Chinese and international MBA programs at two of the top schools in Taiwan. My comments are directed at the international or global MBA programs, which track more closely with western MBA programs in order to create a globalized student body.

  1. The business case for and against Taiwan
  2. Why you should and shouldn’t consider a MBA in Taiwan
  3. Why I decided to go for it, anyway

Before We Continue, the TLDR;

Do Maybe Don’t
Know What You Want From a Taiwan MBA Think of It As A Language Learning Opportunity Get a Taiwan MBA If You Won’t Use It In Asia
Manage Your Time and Make Time You Want to Write a Thesis Come to Discover Your Inner Passion
Embrace Your Core Classes Expect Asian Perspective
Have Your Own Strategy Believe Everything You’re Told
You Want to Change Careers
Expect Career Services

Don’t: Get a Taiwan MBA If You Won’t Use It In Asia

There’s nothing that keeps a Taiwan MBA graduate from getting a job anywhere else in the world. People just won’t know about your school. There are world class MBA programs everywhere else for the regions their students work in. And a lot of Asians getting degrees outside Asia. There’s a lot of competition.

For example, most people in the U.S. don’t know what’s special about St. Gallen, INSEAD, Mannheim, HHL, and other top European schools. They definitely won’t know Asia. Know who you’re marketing your degree to.

Also, Asian MBAs also tend to get a bad rap. In the Far East, having the diploma can be more important than the actual education, since a large portion of the opportunity structure is based on connections. Quality varies and you may have to do more work to compensate. The top schools have fixed their core curriculum, but holes remain.

Take mainland China. Let’s look at what’s going on with the crackdown on their EMBA program, the subject of a recent Financial Times article. There are cultural points for comparison, like how Chinese societies view education and its effects. Something similar can be said about Taiwan.

“I estimate that of  these 64 programmes (in China), perhaps only 15 are performing decently,” – Zou Yufeng, head of EMBA projects at Renmin University of China School of Business

So, only attend a top school, because most of them don’t meet the minimum standard. And put it to use it in the region where people recognize the brand of your school. Maybe for a Western company in Asia, or an Asian company in the West. Either way.

National Chengchi University established the first international MBA (IMBA) program in Taiwan. Courtesy: NCCU

Students from National Chengchi University (NCCU) visit Advantech, a global leader in Internet-of-Things devices (IOT). NCCU established the first international MBA (IMBA) program in Taiwan. (Courtesy: NCCU)

Do: Know What You Want From a Taiwan MBA

Here’s an important question. What do you want to do? A Taiwan MBA presents challenges that you may not have to deal with elsewhere. I’d ask myself:

  • Want to make new connections? You’ll have to invest time and money to bring people together. Many Taiwan MBA programs are small, with 40-60 new students each year. They are operated as part-time programs with full-time students, to recruit local executives. This means very little is done to help people network.
  • If you need the MBA to advance in your local job, great. Classic output. In Asia, some people use it as a credential for taking over a family business. These students may be less interested in networking because they already have their own group, and Chinese societies are made up of insider/outsider groups. For others, socializing (and not necessarily with classmates) is the biggest motivation.
  • Here to learn more language and culture? That’s something to pursue outside the MBA. Students tend to revert to their native tongue whenever they get a chance, so bring your knowledge of their language.
  • If you want international work experience, consider what it takes to get that. “Unlike 10 years ago, employers now don’t care much whether a candidate has studied abroad. Instead, they are more interested in those who have worked abroad or completed internships while studying abroad.” – Fu Yin, a senior headhunter

Regardless, set some goals of your own. Having a MBA is a differentiator, but it doesn’t do as much as it used to. This is especially true in Asia. If you’re on the outside looking in, you’ll distinguish yourself by what you set out to accomplish. How you achieved that.

“It’s crucial to know who you are and what you want.” – 25-year-old Sun Han

Life in Taiwan is pretty good, so a lot of people come here with the idea it’s going to be easy. But they eventually find out whether it’s about classes or not, it’s a challenge — because adjusting to a new environment can be overwhelming.

Define yourself based on why you are here, and do what you can to be true to that. You may have to revise them, but at least you’ll have a North Star. Being able to tell people what your goals are also makes you a lot more memorable when you’re introducing yourself to them.

Also, get this mindset fast. It’s going to happen because you’re going to make it happen. That’s how you find the resilience (or grit) to get what you want.

Don’t: Come to Discover Your Inner Passion

In the top schools, the professors typically have solid credentials. There’s real academic horsepower. Either they are visiting lecturers from other esteemed institutions, or professors with PhDs from prestigious universities. In my program at National Taiwan University, these schools include MIT, an adjunct lecturer who also teaches at Harvard, University of Southern California, University of Washington, and INSEAD.

Lesson Learned in China by U.S. Diplomat William Stanton

“Every U.S. President… Winds Up Toasting China in the End”

Professors are generally experts in concepts, but they’re mostly at the university to do research. Whether it inspires you might not be their goal. It’s still possible, but professors aren’t motivational speakers.

Schools sometimes have interesting guest lecturers, but is the university the only place you can see these people speak?

Here’s a more positive view. Taiwan MBA programs are much cheaper than MBA programs in the U.S., where I’m from. So you get access to professors with elite credentials at a discount price. How cool is that? Somewhere in that pool, somebody will give you a new way of looking at the world. But you also get what you pay for. Naturally.

Maybe: Think of It As A Language Learning Opportunity

I joke that I’m getting a degree in Chinese, with a MBA on the side. Learning any language is hard work, especially Chinese. Whether a class is taught in English or Chinese doesn’t really matter to me because people often speak Chinese to me anyway, and all slides in all classes are in English. Still, you should gauge how realistic it is to get fluent fast, or reach the next skill level.

Locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form… I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility. – Learning Mandarin Chinese is Hard

If learning Chinese is your priority, you might want to consider dedicating yourself to it for awhile. Chinese classes move fast, and assume you’re going to spend a lot of time outside class, practicing the material.

International MBA programs often advertise free Chinese classes for some period of time, usually a year. But, these classes have too many students, maybe 30-40, despite saying they only have 10-20 students (let this be a lesson). If you go to a language learning center, even at the university, these classes are capped around 8-10 students. That’s about right.

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard. Get it right.

Do: Manage Your Time and Make Time

Aside from taking MBA classes? Schools are generally short on specialized learning opportunities, social activities, career services, funds to go to conferences, opportunities to participate in competitions, which means you have to come up with your own. This goes for anything that has to do with applying what you’re learning while living or going to school in Taiwan.

I actually don’t know how this is possible, given that international MBA programs can cost up to 6x more than local MSc-style programs. My assumption, based on visiting Taiwan MBA programs in-person during the application period, was this situation was the exact opposite (another lesson). This means you need to be the type of person who can create their own opportunities. Program staff is often so busy dealing with internal affairs they may not have a point of view that comes from the outside-in.

Anyway. You can have all these things, but you need to be able to find them on your own — often, in Chinese. Incoming students should know this. If your’re looking for action, then you’ll have to provide the spark. Supporting your student councils will give you a better chance to access these opportunities.

Do: Embrace Your Core Classes

Core classes are meant to give you some direction for what you can do with your interests. Good Asian MBA (and top Taiwan MBA) programs deliver a solid core curriculum. The same core you get elsewhere, because it comes out of the same textbooks. It covers the basics of what you need to work with different functions of a business.

But, core classes are just core, they won’t make you experts in the field. It’s only the start. You’ll need more specialized education if you’re really interested in a particular area. Here’s where we run into some issues. You can get the basics of a MBA education here, but not really a MBA experience (one more lesson).

The key takeaway? Goal setting is most important. Taiwan MBA programs can enhance whatever existing credentials you have, but they won’t transform you into leaders or anything like that, unless you put in the work yourself.

Let This Be a Lesson. Don’t: Expect Asian Perspective

Why the red text? People don’t always say what they mean. A lot of programs advertise this to foreigners, but what they really mean by Asian perspective is:

  • You’re being taught by someone who is Asian
  • “There was a story in the news several years ago…”
  • You are in Asia now. Therefore, Asian perspective

It is generally not:

  • Learning methods and secrets of doing business in Asia. Things are rapidly changing here so it’s debatable how practical this information is.
  • Cultural how-tos, professional etiquette, opportunity structure, etc.
  • Asian case studies, those that are specific to the region. There actually aren’t many of these, period.

There’s no better place to learn these things than being here, but “here” is probably not inside the MBA program. It’s in the city you’re in, the people you introduce yourself to, and your own determination. It really is. Things that are observable are much easier to learn, a crucial factor in education. But sometimes visitors get it wrong if they don’t have the experience of living in a place.

Last summer, I met a student in a top American MBA program who insisted most people in China can’t read, and that’s why menus have  so many pictures. I had to correct them and say, those are actually just the menus they give to foreigners — who can’t read Chinese. Just one example of how people in the West will get the wrong idea of Asia.

Don’t: Believe Everything You’re Told

Tell the t_uth…

This entire bit about ‘Asian Perspective’ brings up another point. Getting people to be real is very difficult, partly because people want to save face.

In fact, the people writing this stuff may just be putting it out there because it sounds good. They don’t actually have some strategy or vision for making any of this happen other than to do things that resembles it, which is very un-MBA. They might not even really understand the meaning of what they write. But of course, they won’t fess up to that, because, face.

But it’s important to assume people are doing the best they can, with the time and knowledge they have. Assume good intentions. Or you will have a very difficult time trying to make sense out of nonsense.

Some of the things schools say they have lots of:

  • Scholarships. How many, how much, and for whom – foreign or domestic? Select countries? Need-based?
  • Resources. Name them, discuss how they’ve grown, and an example of how students use it.
  • Job Opportunities. What companies came to campus and which students in the program went to work for them as a result?

So, don’t just believe the sales pitch. People have a way of saying what they think you want to hear.  Anyone who’s done business in Asia can tell you that. This is not a Taiwan MBA thing. In one case I heard of, the school made up an alumni association (and the administrator who did it was asked to “resign”).

Also, Asian people generally don’t like to be directly challenged. But it’s your time and money, so you deserve an answer. Rather than entirely trust what you hear, or read on the internet, ask questions to a few different people. Talk to actual students in the program about how they make their time in the program work for their own goals. Ask them to share their strategies.

Do: Have Your Own Strategy

M.C. Escher diagrams the path of an entrepreneurial Taiwan MBA student

M.C. Escher diagrams the path of an entrepreneurial Taiwan MBA student

A lot of students, once-in, find themselves inside a box that they now have to solve their way out of in order to graduate, or protect their investment in time.

  • Some people let the small stuff stress them and they give up.
  • Or they clear the table, pick the option that sucks the least, and work with its flaws. This is actually very practical business experience.

It’s also why you see few strong testimonials. The people who succeed are thankful for their credentials, some of the people they met, see the potential of their programs, but credit themselves for their success.

Here’s the thing. If you don’t come in with goals, you may not find what you’re looking for. But when you go looking for something and don’t find it, you have to keep exploring. Find another way to get what you need, even if it’s not exactly what you want. This might mean you have to spend more time and money.

Don’t: You Want to Change Careers (Or Take Great Electives)

Most of the students I talk to in MBA programs around Asia say their core is okay, but electives are often off the mark. So taking electives might not be a solution. There are some great ones, for sure, but not enough to turn you from good to super in any particular area. You’d have to be a particularly motivated and resourceful person to get what you need.

It actually appears to be very difficult to deliver a decent core set. Quality electives and advanced coursework is a long way off for many programs, unless it’s the area they’ve chosen to make a name for themselves.

Last spring, I toured Europe with professors and students from National Chengchi University, who really invest in teaching sustainability across all levels. We visited company headquarters in Italy, Switzerland, France, and learned about leading sustainability practices. It was, an incredible experience.

That's our Bloomberg Terminal and you can't use it.

“Our Bloomberg Terminal and you can’t use it.” (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Another path is a specialized masters. Like a masters in finance. You can re-brand yourself with just a MBA, but don’t expect a Taiwan school to provide special resources for your quest. This may include a CPA club, or access to CFA Institute study materials.

For example. The masters in (XYZ department) people are busy taking care of their own professors and students. These departments manage themselves. In Taiwan, I’m told that being in these departments is like belonging to a small clan that has their own norms. They may even have their own databases and resources they don’t share with the school, because they paid for it themselves. Yes, same university, same college, but different clans. I mean, teams.

Don’t: Expect Career Services, Either

Unless your Chinese is tip-top, career services for local jobs don’t exist for international MBA students. First, these students are outliers to begin with. Career services serve the college at a broad level. But it’s not from lack-of-trying.

  • There aren’t enough foreign business students to justify creating a new function for them. Global MBA programs tend to be small, only half of which (20-30 seats) are foreign students.
  • Students’ backgrounds and skills are so diverse it’s hard to individually serve them. This is also true of schools in the West. Schools don’t have the know-how for doing this at a multi-cultural level. However, programs in Taiwan don’t seem to teach students how to be self-sufficient in this environment.
  • Finally, staffers may have difficulty having an in-depth conversation about students’ professional goals using English business terms. Similar to how business Chinese is a different skill level from conversational Chinese.

There’s not much help. In fact, because global MBA programs are more expensive than local programs, some professors will talk about how rich everyone in the class must be, and that they don’t need help. It’s a terrible joke in which you’re the punch line, and that’s all it is, a terrible joke. As most parents and professors know, kids succeed most when they learn how to help themselves.

Is all this wrong? No matter what, students expect more from a MBA program, in this regard. This is the way I look at it. People who are special know others may not or aren’t able to recognize this in them. Special talents must be able to use their unique abilities to get noticed.

Finding work opportunity for international MBA students in Taiwan is a team effort in which no one is quite sure how to be a team player. There’s good news, though. A new government initiative called Contact Taiwan helps find opportunities for international students in Taiwan. The fact that the government is needed to create this kind of service gives you an idea of how challenging it is.

Maybe: You Want to Write a Thesis

Writing a thesis (or in some cases, a substitute like a case study or business plan) is a requirement for graduate degrees in Taiwan. Putting out a good thesis can be an incredible asset. It shows how you think and what you’ve learned. It can also make up for other shortfalls.

But, you’re limited to how much time you will sink into this, and the expertise of the professors you can work with. Fact of life. It’s a big world and sometimes your school doesn’t have a professor who has the same interests.

NTU GMBA Professor: "I don't think that an MBA needs to write a thesis"

“I don’t think that an MBA needs to write a thesis”

Many professors might only be interested in writing a business plan or case study. Or that world-famous professor from another department is not interested.

There’s also a perception that students can’t write a solid thesis, because of the time it takes. It does take a lot of time.

From the perspective of someone who’s written a lot of business plans and case studies, you don’t need a MBA to do this. But, you can use your time in MBA to find business partners, ask professors, ask around the university, learn new things, while working on the plan. This is a big plus of being in school.

Summary: Pros and Cons of a Taiwan MBA


  • You need a regional credential. Something to boost what you already have.
  • The opportunity to network with and explore other areas of the business world, as a MBA student (on your own)
  • You want access to Western-educated professors. But, do not want to or cannot leave Taiwan.


  • You don’t know what you want. You are not the type of person who already knows how to create opportunity for themselves. This is where a culture of supporting each other becomes very important.
  • According to my own experience, few insights on doing business in Asia can be learned from the classroom. Cultural dimensions and financial management systems at the macro-level, for example.
  • Local career services for multi-lingual, non-native Chinese speakers

Three Things

  • What you get from a Taiwan MBA is up to you.
  • Be driven by your goals. Set some.
  • “Schools are generally short on specialized learning opportunities, social activities, career services, funds for you, opportunities to participate in competitions, which means you have to come up with your own. You can have all these things, but you need to be able to find them on your own.”

Soaking in Beipu Cold Springs

It is incredibly unlikely to discover natural hot springs, but the chances of finding a natural cold spring is even slimmer. Taiwan is actually just one of two countries with natural cold springs (the other is Italy). In Taiwan, Beipu cold springs 北埔冷泉 is along the Daping River in Hsinchu county. The west coast has its own, near the town of Su’ao in Yilan.

Philip Chang under waterfall at Beipu Cold Springs in Hsinchu, Taiwan

What’s So Special About Cold Springs?

Cold spring water, 22° Celsius or below, is good for the skin. The Japanese have an entire culture called “onsen” devoted to the health benefits of bathing in spring water. Some, like Tamagawa Onsen, draw cancer patients.

Selfie of Philip Chang on Daping River by Beipu Cold Springs in Hsinchu, Taiwan

“The springs are also said to be effective against other maladies, including nervous system disorders, high blood pressure and circulatory diseases.” A few people out there say there’s magic in the Beipu cold springs.

“Ten some years ago, my mom was not able to walk at all (due to aging), my brother carried her to the cold spring to dip into the spring water for the treatment. Believe or not, a month or two later, my mom regained her walking capability.” – David H.

The Beipu waters have some carbonation — so, bubbles! Since it’s very slight, I’m not sure anyone notices. Su’ao is the same, except what makes Beipu cold springs different is it’s in the open. It like you’re playing in nature! But there’s also a lot of visitors who leave their junk behind so water quality is up and down. I can tell you right now, you probably shouldn’t drink it.

On the other hand, the springs in Su’ao were commercialized long ago, and the public areas were damaged by Typhoon Soudelar. Beipu is free, the other isn’t. 

If you’re only interested in hot springs, you have more options. In the northern district of Taiwan – Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu counties – there are 13 hot springs. But cold springs is one of the truly unique phenomena in Taiwan. If you have the opportunity, you should at least go once.

Photos of Beipu Cold Springs

Public Area of Beipu Cold Springs in Hsinchu, Taiwan, by Philip Chang

Man Falling Over into Daping River near Beipu Cold Springs in Hsinchu, Taiwan, by Philip Chang

Golden hour on Daping River near Beipu Cold Springs in Hsinchu, Taiwan, by Philip Chang

Dusk at Beipu Cold Springs in Hsinchu, Taiwan, by Philip Chang

Clouds and Mountains of the Beipu region from Beipu Old Street in Hsinchu, Taiwan, by Philip Chang

Directions to Beipu Cold Springs

Lessons from William Stanton, U.S. Diplomat and Director of the American Institute in Taiwan

Between 1978 and 2012, where the U.S. was needed in the world, William Stanton was there. The Lebanese Civil War, Tiananmen Square in 1988, deputy chief of mission in South Korea, acting ambassador to Australia, and, Bill led the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Amongst worldwide posts around the U.S. foreign service, AIT usually ranks 1st or 2nd amongst most desired worldwide posts.

The new American Institute in Taiwan, designed by Moore Ruble Yudell

The new American Institute in Taiwan. One of director William Stanton’s contributions to the American presence in Taiwan.

What does AIT do? AIT represents Americans in Taiwan and serves as the de-facto “embassy.” Basically, the U.S. recognizes the independence of Taiwan. But, not as a nation separate from China. While he was at AIT, William was the first to fly the American flag at AIT, increased visits by high-level U.S. officials, and:

  • Oversaw Taiwan’s inclusion to the U.S. visa waiver program
  • Solved the beef trade dispute between Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan
  • Helped increase U.S. exports to Taiwan in 2011 by 43%

William Stanton and NTU International College

U.S. Diplomat William Stanton on Integrity

Bill just gave a talk at National Taiwan University (NTU) titled, “Lessons from a U.S. Diplomat, 1978-2012.” He’s here to head up NTU’s new International College, a move to grow the number of bi-lingual bachelors degree students. It’s rare for the university to bring English speakers to campus, so it’s good to see a faculty initiative that really supports these learning opportunities.

NTU needs this. After Jeremy Lin came two years ago, the 2016-17 school year felt short on this kind of international exposure. We tried our best. I’m part of a crew that brought Twitter’s head of Asia-Pacific, a co-founder of Sina, the head of HTC’s Vive VR platform, and the founder of Zhangmen Brewing to NTU.

Short of a superstar, we have to push to keep these events going. Most NTU students know some English, but not enough to sit thru an hour or two hour-long presentation. Otherwise, Bill’s auditorium should have been full.

Jeremy Lin at National Taiwan University

Jeremy Lin at National Taiwan University in June 2016. Not typical of the English speakers and local crowds who come out to these events!

Lessons from a U.S. Diplomat, 1978-2012

Expectations and reality of foreign service are two different things. Or in Bill’s case, four different things.

What Diplomats Do, according to William Stanton

To my ears, Bill went into foreign service for many of the reasons other Americans venture overseas for business reasons.

“I was tired of sitting alone in a room reading and writing. I wanted to see more of the world and to experience more of life. To do work of broader significance that might be of benefit to my country. And to be a witness to, and perhaps even a participant, in history.”

Lesson Learned in China by U.S. Diplomat William Stanton

“Every U.S. President… Winds Up Toasting China in the End”

Some parts of Bill’s work history might be controversial to people who didn’t live his life.

For example, you need to drink (a lot) in Korea. See? Sometimes, drinking is part of the job.

On China. “Every U.S. president, no matter how rhetorically tough about China at the start of an administration, winds up toasting the Chinese in the end.” This is the kind of power China has in the world.

For more hot takes, you should be attending his classes, or just come to more of these presentations. I’ll bullet point some general takeaways from my notes, and things Bill’s learned about Taiwan.

Career Lessons

  • Choose the life or work and be clear about the difference.
  • Many things can upset people in leadership positions, but nothing is really important except for the lives of people.
  • Policies can quickly change even as governments say their policies are firm.
  • Sometimes, nothing stands between what you write and what leaders say.
  • Constant stress is very bad for your health.

United Nations

  • The United Nations (UN) is no better than its members. True of all organizations.
  • Many members of the UN are neither democratic nor free. The UN General Assembly decided to hold a moment of silence in honor of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il following his death in 2011!
  • The Security Council remains unbalanced and unrepresentative. Among the Permanent Members of the Security Council who have veto power, there are no African or Latin American countries. Only the U.S., China, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia.
  • Reform appears very unlikely.


  • You must always try diplomacy first. Sometimes it succeeds! There were some high-level officials in Washington who wanted to halt the negotiations with Libya.
  • Protectionism is a powerful force in all countries. Leaders have a responsibility to take care of their own citizens.
  • Even with tough negotiators, you can make progress on hard issues.
  • Allies are not necessarily always friendly.

William Stanton, AIT, and Taiwan

  • There are some places in the world where the work is important and interesting, and life is good. ??
  • You can’t always rely on Taiwan media. When Bill began his post at AIT, different newspapers quoted contradicting statements about him.
    • “Stanton would be a controversial choice because he has a history of strong support for Beijing’s policies and had impeded internal reports critical of the Chinese regime.”
    • “One source… claimed Stanton was excessively pro-Taiwan.”
  • Taiwan is a great success story, but a story too few people know or understand.
  • Taiwan faces tremendous challenges. Perhaps Taiwanese do not worry about Taiwan enough, sometimes.

The One Thing

“Not enough attention is paid to U.S.-Taiwan relations by either the U.S. or Taiwan. Nonetheless, progress can be made if you are wiling to keep pressing both Washington and Taipei.” – William Stanton, 2017

Advice for New International Students in Taiwan: Make This Place Beautiful

Good Bones By Maggie Smith - You could make this place beautiful

New Initiates Adjusting to a New Country

Life and school overseas is a struggle for anyone with a different mental model on how their world works. I stayed up Friday night talking to a new student about adjusting to Taiwan — some things they’re looking forward to, they’re excited about, some things they’re frustrated with. I talked about my own adjustment and how that evolved. Ups and downs look a little more dramatic when you’re surrounded by people and behaviors and foods and feels you aren’t familiar with.

Taiwan really becomes a more beautiful country than you know, once you learn how to appreciate it. The trick is learning how. There’s definitely an ‘expat adjustment cycle’ you have to work your way through. When it comes to Asia, none of the pop psychology books are all that helpful. They were written for the West, by Western people, who are living in the West. You won’t find many of them in the bookstores here, anyway. You’re kind of on your own.

1) Find Something to Do, or a Relationship to Build

Make this place the best it can be,  for the people you are with.

6 a.m. New Day, New Year 2017 from Neihu

It’s simple to do something about it. You just have to work together to make this place the best it can be, for the people you are with.

Get involved around campus. Indulge your hobbies. Go out and have a ripping good time. Beach clean-up. Cafe-hop. Immerse yourself in doing things that connect you to who you are.

2) Know About Frame

So when I’m giving advice, some people say I sound like an inspirational speaker. I’m really just looking for a frame to give someone else. Something people on their way to self-awareness know. They know about frame. Frame is perspective. It’s learning how to live with yourself. Maintaining it is inner strength.

Hearing this student talk it out reminds me of ‘Good Bones,’ a poem by Maggie Smith about parenting. While Taiwan’s no sh*thole, it’s very different. Different isn’t wrong, and right is never perfect. The poem reminds me the kind of people we need to be for ourselves (and for others, if you do what I do) — to manage our perspective while our beliefs and assumptions are challenged.

“I am trying to sell them the world.” A little bit like the realtor who, “chirps on about good bones.”

This place could be beautiful, right?

We can make this place beautiful.

Taiwan Wants More Foreigners in its Universities. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth It?

Taiwan really wants to foreigners to come get a Taiwan college degree. The good news. Internationalizing Taiwan universities is a initiative led by the very top, and there’s already 110,000 international students in Taiwan.

“The world’s universities are competing fiercely to attract the best students. [We are] aiming to attract 150,000 students by 2020, that will account for 10% of the total college and university student population.” – past president Ma Jing-Yeou

The education system is strong by any standard I know of, especially on primary and secondary levels. The literacy rate is 98.7%. For college, Taiwan is the 5th most affordable country to study (the U.S. is the most expensive). Schools look more and more like modern institutions. This is Koo Chen-Fu Memorial Library at National Taiwan University, by architect Toyo Ito.

But the trouble with recruiting foreign students is supporting local students is still a big challenge. If Taiwan colleges can’t help Taiwanese students, then what about the foreign students? Now you’re getting it.

Why I’m Writing This Post

A funny thing happens when people start talking and drinking at the same time. They forget when to shut their mouth. I was at FRANK Taipei when a foreigner started saying,

“Have fun now, because when you graduate, you’ll find out your degrees are worthless.”

Dick move! Part of being student council president is having to say, everyone is here to support each other. Bring a productive attitude or maybe you don’t belong with us. It’s not like they’re the first person ever to dump a purse after a few drinks. I completely understand. They did have a point, though. Higher education today has shortfalls. But that’s everywhere. Taiwan has other issues. Some that were worse in the past, many which are similar to the U.S.

Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence.

Me being escorted out of the all you can eat Chinese buffetFor many, the system in Taiwan beats where they came from. Let’s appreciate that. Some of the best universities here are among the world’s top research institutions. Taiwan’s economy is proof of this.

There are also other reasons Taiwan is a great place to hang out for awhile. (Thanks for the laugh, Nick) ->

But the way Taiwan is setup creates under-served college graduates. Foreigners easily fall into this category, like in the U.S. Waiguoren 外國人 sometimes don’t think of the ways tables turn when they leave home. Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence.

Some issues predictably get swept under rugs (and out of brochures) because people want to give a good impression. Taiwan is recruiting students!

If you’re a foreigner looking at college in Taiwan, understanding the system might help you get more from it.

A Numbers Problem in Taiwan Higher Education

Taiwan has a ton of college graduates, and a lot of them are engineers. The 30% becoming engineers feels higher if you’re at one of the 12 universities (out of 160) with an engineering program. HOLD UP. Taiwan has 160 universities? And how did the U.S. get pulled into this?

Imagine 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.

There used to be very few universities in Taiwan. Then, Nobel Prize Winner Yuan T. Lee returned a national hero and talked up how universities are everywhere in America. So all the junior colleges were upgraded to universities. Classic example of a Taiwanese shortcut. Now Taiwan has so many university graduates! #NailedIt

“When everyone’s super, no one will be.” – Syndrome, not a Nobel Prize Winner

Just having a Taiwan college degree no longer makes you super. In some ways, Taiwan has more complex issues than the U.S. Imagine the effect of 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.

Over a period of several years, universities and university students have gradually become hot potatoes. Newly graduated university students cannot find a job, and even when private universities want to donate their institutions to the state, the state does not want them…

There are many, many good colleges in Taiwan, and I know a lot of very talented people who graduated from schools that aren’t considered the very best. There just aren’t 160 of them. Taiwan is now planning to close or merge 1/3 of these schools between 2015-2025. Joining forces is a good move for Taiwan. Going to a school that’s moving in the right direction is good for you.

… At the beginning of this year, Leader University ignited a potential trend toward disappearing universities, a trend 1 million college and university students and their families must confront.  — CommonWealth magazine, vol. 444

Quality is Job No. ??

More students and universities means more choices. But competition doesn’t always improve educational quality in Taiwan.

Many universities today are providing education with more of an eye toward profit than quality. The implications for educational quality and equity of opportunities tend to be less emphasized in the era of market-driven environments (Olssen, 2002; Mok & Welch, 2003)

Because the system is trying to serve as many students as possible, there are gaps. Lowering the university standard means students aren’t as ready — coming in or going out. From the same CommonWealth magazine article:

Another law department professor said he originally wanted to emulate a former teacher of his at National Taiwan University and fail about one-third of his students to force them to work hard. The school, however, blocked the initiative because of the Ministry of Education’s quota system for total enrollment. If too many students are flunked, then a bigger share of the fixed student body will be repeat students, and unlike new students who pay full tuition, repeat students only pay a fee based on credit hours.

Here’s how this affects the better schools. Where I’m from, there’s a saying about being chased by a bear. You don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the guy next to you. Since most schools have lower standards, top schools don’t have to push so hard.

Professors and Students Both Lose

More students means educators have their hands full. In general, schools with more academic freedom (to recruit professors) face a common dilemma of uneven quality. They expect things to balance out. Stacking this issue on top makes balance more difficult to achieve. Here’s how it works.

  • Some professors work even harder at teaching (great!)
  • Some teach to an acceptable standard (thank you!)
  • Others say as long as you learned something, it’s good enough (no!)

That’s one hell of a low bar. I learn something from a Uber driver every time I ride. I suspect this is one of the reasons why Professor YouTube is becoming a bigger thing than just digital learning.

Unfortunately, the school may not be preparing (international students) to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Finally, for the international students. Traveling students already come in with a more global perspective. Unfortunately, the school may not be preparing them to be competitive in the global marketplace. Good thing higher education is cheap, because some people are getting what they are paying for.

Sh*t. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth Anything?

Of course it is! As a foreigner, if you want to work in or with Asia, a Taiwan college degree makes sense. There are a lot of successful and smart people on this island who recently got a Taiwan college degree from all different schools.

On the outside (in my opinion), Taiwan degrees are better regarded than those from most other Asian countries because of its high-tech industries. Also, selective immigration of intellectuals to the West helped the Taiwan brand a lot.

Here’s National Taiwan University (#1) and National Tsing Hua University (#4) on top of the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for Greater China. ARWU is “the most widely used annual ranking of the world’s research universities,” says The Economist. Recently, National Taiwan University has fallen a bit, although it’s almost always in the top 5. There’s other schools that don’t show up on their rankings, mostly because they aren’t research-focused.

Getting a Taiwan College Degree: National Taiwan University is Ranked #1

And, Taiwan is one of the world’s most productive economies. Even if wage inequality is rising, so is GDP. Some people are doing some things right.

"Taiwan Is the Success Story, not China" - Cato Institute

But you need to reach the people who are making it happen, at their level. That’s tough to do without connections. Even tougher without skills and smarts. Metrics like an absurdly high literacy rate don’t happen by themselves. If you came without strong credentials and aren’t building them, you might struggle! Taiwanese people have innate abilities beyond KTV, whether they are using them or not.

Good Enough is not Global Enough

Some Taiwanese say the “credential” (Taiwan college degree) is good enough. Taiwan is a great country and attending a great university in a great country will help you make it happen in Asia blah blah blah.

In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global.

Maybe it’s good enough for the generation without 160 universities. Not today. This is the same message talked up by lower-tier schools in the West. A school could get away with this before the number of universities got out of hand, and Taiwan is slowly adjusting to reality.

You’ll even find this mentality at top universities. It’s not because they don’t care about quality, but because being on top of Taiwan – a country with strong nationalism – is where to be. For almost all Taiwanese, this is the competitive set that matters. But on top of Taiwan, on top of the world? Not quite.

How to Make a Taiwan College Degree Useful for Global Citizens

Anyone in Taiwan who is really serious about a global outlook has to do more than other top students — local or international. For example, some Taiwanese work very hard to improve their English. Many of them go abroad to get a more complete look at the world. 6,000 Taiwan college graduates go to the U.S. for graduate studies every year.

Foreign students need to explore possibilities. In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global. The traditional Taiwanese classroom is also not setup to integrate perspectives. Maybe find a more progressive school.

In my own graduate program, many professors now think of ways to discuss things that are going on right now in Taiwan. It’s typically at the end of lesson plans. But, international students should also go find people, on their own, who will speak to them about how Taiwanese get things done.

Why The Rush to Attract International Students?

Start by following the money. The Ministry of Education began offering universities a funding package to create programs for international students. This also counters brain drain. But then there was a rush that led to a lot of lousy international programs.

Why are so many of them below expectations? Existing mediocrity in the system. Sub-par bachelors degrees means people plug up the graduate ranks to stand out, which leads to the creation of sub-par masters degrees. That’s the “educational industry” in Taiwan and you don’t want to be a victim of it. I’ve heard of some Taiwan college degree programs which require only 24 credit hours. Factor in instructors’ ability to teach in English, and quality goes down another notch.

  • There are far fewer classes available in English, then there is in Chinese
  • Even in the English courses, an instructor is really only able to teach what they can communicate
  • Some university resources, like computer software, may only be available in Chinese. My own Chinese is barely enough to navigate Microsoft Office!

Seriously. Don’t just go to any school because they have an international program. Any college degree is only worth what you get out of it. This quote by an American-Born Taiwanese who came for her bachelor’s degree is a little damning.

“Many of these schools (not even yet fit to give Taiwanese students a proper education) are scrambling to “globalize” their student body & are drooling for foreign students like a fat boy and cake–has resulted in some horrible, horrible English-language programs. Out of all my exchange-student friends, I’ve never heard a single one that was satisfied with the quality of their exchange programs; citing crappy classrooms, imcomprehensible teachers (that can barely speak English) and a general lack of a stimulating classroom environment.” –

Addressing the Criticism

Work with it the way professionals do.

She’s not wrong. This is less of an issue for better funded “brand name” schools in Taiwan. For example, National Taiwan University likes to hire professors with Ph.Ds from English-speaking countries, and the school has enough money to make itself look good. For the most part.

Here’s an example of a problem students at struggling institutions may face. The library doesn’t have certain journals. No problem. Go online. Then you discover your school cancelled its digital access plan. So you borrow your friend’s student ID. Sneak into their library, check out the texts, and use their resources.

For niche areas, the brand isn’t so important, the school should be notable in its field. Still…

Crappy classrooms? Some older buildings look like they came from developing countries. You won’t find pictures of my university’s Teaching and Research Hall on the internet (on purpose). Good thing it’s being torn down and re-built. Across Taiwan, well-funded schools are doing the same.

Incomprehensible Teachers. The English ability of international students and professors is a moving target. The two have to communicate with each other, so it’s not really fair to criticize one without calling out the other. That’s un-possible? It rains bigly? These are some of the stranger things I’ve heard lately in “Taiwan English.” And some insist their English is 100%.

Here’s good advice. Don’t judge. Just work with it the way professionals do. This is the English language in foreign countries. Chinese learners will discover the same when they realize HSK Level 6 Chinese only gets you so far.

Asian English: “Do Not Disturb. Tiny Grass is Dreaming.” Courtesy: Etsy

Stimulating Classroom Environment

Traditionally, Taiwanese students just accept what is taught. Many classrooms aren’t open forums where people build on each other’s views. There may be little opportunity to integrate Asian with Western perspectives, before relating it to a concept. You’ll have to learn from your classmates.

At times, the professor doesn’t know enough about what they’re supposed to teach. Some topics are required so schools are meeting generally accepted standards. But their expertise is in whatever area they got their Ph.D. in, so they’ll gloss over the rest. Like, showing a YouTube video.

Taiwan is trying, though.

  • Bachelor’s degree classes started covering less. Unfortunately, it leads to students taking 25+ credit hours each semester. That tells you something about how much material they’re going over. Also, instead of having more comprehensive courses, students just have to take more courses.
  • Invite visiting professors from other nations to fill holes in subject matter expertise. Very clever!

What about integrating perspectives?

Foreign professors are more likely to let you expand on what is being discussed. The downside is they may not know much about the local environment. They can only offer what they are learning about it.

A lot of local professors are surprisingly progressive. It figures that people don’t always want to do things the way their elders did. It gives me hope to witness the enthusiasm of some professors towards the students who are here right now. After all, who’s going to take care of this place when they retire? Exactly.

Cliffs Notes: Getting a Taiwan College Degree

Not everyone who comes to Taiwan is part spiritual gangster, but I think it helps. If you know how to contribute to other people’s lives while taking care of your own, you’ll be in good shape. Here are some key takeaways:


  • Native-level Chinese. I have no reservations about a Taiwan college degree for this group. There are a lot of Malaysians and mainland Chinese here.
  • English-speaking. Unless you want to make a commitment to Asia, consider going on exchange. Exchange students tend to be better taken care of. Why? Because there’s a relationship with another university at stake. Also, course selection is limited.
  • There are more established bachelors degree programs in Asia for international students. See Waseda University in Japan.

Graduate students should only go to a top school:

  • Top universities (and their individual programs) have a better chance of surviving The Purge. Also, name brand schools tend to have more resources. For example, you don’t want to BYO specialized software.
  • Invest time outside the classroom. Figure out how what you’re learning is being put to work in Taiwan. Explore the local perspective. Consider the other pieces you need in order to be competitive.
  • The doctorate-level might be the most foreigner friendly of all (because many professors were educated in the West, the English level is higher), but it is its own bag of worms. The Academia Sinica is where the quality of the facilities and English is the very best.

Waiao Beach Cleanup After Typhoon Talim

Waiao Beach cleanup volunteers

As inclement weather likes to do, Typhoon Talim left a big mark, despite missing Taiwan on its way to Japan. Even when Taiwan gets a lucky miss, the winds still bring the junk. A lot of junk. So last Sunday, I headed off to Yilan 宜蘭 with Taiwan Adventure Outings for a Waiao Beach cleanup 外澳. Shoutout to National Chengchi University for joining the fun (and going surfing after).

Usually Waiao is in great shape because the locals farm the beach. There’s also a surf, paragliding, hostel, and pizza business. But a handful of humans can’t compete with typhoon-force winds. The local ghost, Trash Baby, will follow you home if you don’t pick up after yourself. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not (probably not). Although do you really want to test the patience of a baby? I didn’t think so.

Here’s a few photos from our Waiao Beach cleanup. If it’s watermarked, pretty much all of them, it’s Ryan Hevern Photography. (Buy a print!) For more about beach cleanup in Taiwan, here’s a little something I wrote around National Taiwan Clean Up Day. Read about it. And come with us next month to Jinshan Beach!

Polystyrene that washes onto Waiao Beach looks just like fish food

Polystyrene that washes onto Waiao Beach looks just like fish food

Fishermens' nets like to make themselves at home on the beach

Fishermens’ nets like to make themselves at home on the beach

Dustin Craft, one half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Dustin Craft, one half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

The Waiao Beach locals provide burlap sacks for collecting trash

Waiao locals provide burlap sacks for collecting trash

A pufferfish washed onto Waiao Beach

A pufferfish washed onto the beach. Also, finally — one of my own photos!

Ryan Hevern Photography - another half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Ryan Hevern Photography – another half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Waiao Beach cleanup bounty

Waiao Beach cleanup bounty

Meet Trash Baby, the local ghost of Waiao Beach. Pick up after yourself or it'll follow you home.

Meet Trash Baby, the local ghost of Waiao Beach

Adjusting to Life in Taiwan. After a Year in Asia, It’s Great to be Home in Indiana

The other side of the road at my country home in Indiana

The other side of the road at my country home in Indiana

Where I’m from, strangers say Hello, Good Afternoon, Thank You, and Take Care Now to each other. It was great to be home in Indiana. We have our own problems in the United States. But after living in Taiwan, charms of other countries I’ve been withstanding, it’s still pretty damn good to be American.

KFC Chizza

KFC Chizza

I missed little things. Chipotle, Jimmy John’s, non-watery avocados. Hugs. Pizza without corn (10 Crazy Asian Pizzas). Bread with texture.

There are some things I dig most in Asia. Bubble tea is best in Taiwan. KFC has this mutation called the Chizza which is a pizza with a fried chicken crust. But these are just things. Things change and they change as fast as the arrival of the next entrepreneur on either side of the ocean. For example, Costco is now a big thing in Taiwan, China finally started getting American beef (but then banned soft cheese imports), and bubble tea is all over American colleges. Culture, is way more difficult.

I missed big things. America’s “Have A Nice Day” culture. A sense of people taking care of one another. Just because. Our flights delayed, I sat in SEA amongst southerners, some Chinese, some not. Chatting it up, watching each other’s luggage, enjoying being humans in the same situation. (By the way, watch this video if you want to learn more about Chinese from the American South)

Helping strangers generally isn’t a thing other Asians in Asia do for each other. People wish each other well in Taiwan, but your problems are your own. For example, if you’re Asian and lost, good luck getting directions from people on the street. It’s not mean — just how people socialize. Conversely, if you’re white, people often go out of their way to help (it’s that obvious you need help).

Asian Fusion cuisine started taking off. Asian stuff started becoming cool. And then you started witnessing Asian Fusion in other areas, like interior design, babies, etc.

In my generation, Americans are more accepting of people who are different than themselves. Learning about world cultures, civil rights and debating that was a big thing in primary school. When Asians fly into the U.S. for college, there’s usually a Christian or Chinese students group ready to give you a ride home, help you find your way around, or be your new friends.

I also grew up in an era where Asian Fusion cuisine started taking off. Asian stuff started becoming cool. Sony. Nintendo. Stir-fry. Sriracha. Oriental Pearl Cream. And then you started witnessing Asian Fusion in other areas, like interior design, babies, etc. Americans started embracing Asia. My parents were pioneers who were a little too early, and so I felt more love from the community than they did.

Asian stereotypes were and are still a thing, but it’s not the issue it was. Instead, Asians in America tend to have a more difficult time with self-identity — especially those who are the children of immigrants. Thankfully, I got over these a long, long time ago. But now, I have to face them from the other side, in Taiwan.

Living in Taiwan is Difficult for American-Born Chinese

Philip Chang Hiking in Taiwan and Climbing the Spine of Wuliaojian

“Every next level of your life will demand a different you.” – Leonardo DiCaprio

Adjusting to Taiwan wasn’t easy. I’m not a tourist, I’m living there. There’s no help from a company because I’m not working here. I didn’t know anybody. Well, I have some family but they’re more well-wishers than team-mates. I had a crew of people that I studied intensive Chinese over the summer with, but they went home. Starting over a second time, I learned a few things about myself. As Leonardo DiCaprio says, “Every next level of your life will demand a different you.”

Sometimes you’ve got to be more resilient, you don’t have to be so tough, but you may have to be tough on local Taiwanese to get them to do what they’re supposed to.

Dealing with mold issues in my campus apartment, I spent the beginning of the school year in the emergency room. I ended it with a respiratory infection, coughing up blood in the morning. Sorting this out was difficult. Sometimes you’ve got to be more resilient, you don’t have to be angry, but you may have to be tough on local Taiwanese to get them to do what they’re supposed to. You’ll otherwise never sort out what can’t be done, vs. when a person in Taiwan’s super set of Chinese + island culture doesn’t want to be bothered. You can’t necessarily take people at their word, even though word is bond in Asian cultures.

Oh, and being a nice guy when you have a real issue doesn’t help a lot. You’ll probably just be ignored. But apologizing for the inconvenience goes a long way when getting anything done.

I’m a foreigner, but Taiwan classifies me a dual-national. Although locals know I’m definitely not from around here, I’m expected to fall in line and know what’s up, which requires adjusting.

Lots of cool people in Taiwan. Truly. I’m blessed to have met some awesome Taiwanese. But generally speaking, the idea of “cool” in Taiwan has more to do with looking the part and who you know, than being cool to other people. This is true in the U.S., but it’s differently balanced in Taiwan. People often avoid, instead of include or deal with it, partly because a big piece of Confucianism is taking care of your immediate group. Getting off to a fast start means BYO connections, since random people don’t just talk to each other. Sure, there’s ways I can avoid dealing with reality, but then, what am I learning from being here? I have to gut it out and keep building.

I’m expected to be a language native, though I’m not allowed to take the Chinese classes for foreigners at National Taiwan University. Because, I’m not technically considered a foreigner. That dual-national thing. No excuses. If you look Chinese, you must speak Chinese. That girl at the counter who giggles when your Caucasian pal speaks Chinese to her? She’s the same one who will look at you like an idiot if your Chinese isn’t at her level, even if it’s way above your friend’s. It’s cool, though. Like I’ve said, if you’re Caucasian in America and can’t speak English like the person on the receiving end, you don’t have to wait long for the funny looks. On the flip side, because my English is tip-top and I look Chinese, I get some great opportunities. I’ve had the honor of representing Taiwan to foreigners and foreign countries several times. Thank you.

There’s a bigger lesson to this story. Americans and American-Born Chinese (and foreign-born Chinese) will have a totally different experience. For those who aren’t Caucasian, learning Chinese beyond a functional day-to-day level will make life considerably easier. Trust me.

Finally, I didn’t make things easier. As student council president, I found myself dealing with complaints from all sides. Complaints are normal, but people were addressing them in totally ineffective and immature ways. We used systems thinking, which, unfortunately, is like a Robert Mueller special investigation — it reveals baskets of issues that were hiding in the bushes. Do I have experience solving cross-cultural issues? I definitely do, now.

Making Taiwan Work

What life’s about. Spending time doing things you like with people you love.

At a certain point, the stardust wears off. The most important thing is managing your perspective as your beliefs and assumptions are challenged. If you know how to live with yourself, you’re already a leg up on most people who decide they’re going to live in a culture that’s opposite their own. I’m a little heavy with the inspirational quotes today, but this one is really true for expats.

“People who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” – author Neil Galman

Philip Chang Hiking in Taiwan and Climbing Side of Cliff at Wuliaojian

“Managing my perspective” at Wuliaojian

It’s on you to find ways to be happy and ways to deal.

I made time to get outdoors and away from the city. It’s so easy to do in Taiwan. And instead of embracing people who won’t accept me anyway, I accept them anyway, while looking out for like-minded people who are enthusiastic about being human.

Like moving anywhere else, you need to:

  1. Double down on the core of what makes you, you
  2. Make room in your mental space to learn the way other people see things. Maybe you’re both trying to speak the same language, but you’re not really speaking the same language, 朋友
  3. Bring some of what you’ve learned into your own life

My advice? Make a habit of what you enjoy, and spend time with people you care about who care about you. Life gets much better. And to me, that’s what life’s about. Spending time doing things you like with people you love.

Welcome to West Lafayette, Indiana

The local watering hole. Harry's Chocolate Shop was a basement speakeasy in the 1920s. I'll tell you the password another time.

The local watering hole. Harry’s Chocolate Shop was a basement speakeasy in the 1920s. I’ll tell you the password another time.

Across the street from Purdue University's business school

Across the street from Purdue University’s business school, where some new lucky goofus gets crowned “Asshole of the Week” every 7 days

The Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue University. The first man on the moon!

Steak and eggs. Breakfast at the Triple XXX diner is a local tradition.

Steak and eggs. Breakfast at the Triple XXX diner is a local tradition.

Country barn at sunset, on my typical run in Tippecanoe County, Indiana

Soybeans ready for harvesting


Indiana wildflowers

Indiana wildflowers

People living in Indiana's rural areas have to be more self-dependent, so we're quicker to embrace technology like solar panels

People living in Indiana’s rural areas have to be more self-dependent, so we’re quicker to embrace technology like solar panels

Running thru corn fields is still one of my favorite things to do

Running thru corn fields is still one of my favorite things to do

Sunrise on a neighbor's farm

Sunrise on a neighbor’s farm

Why Get a MBA in Taiwan? Part 1 of 3: Doing Business in Taiwan

You’d like your career to be a more global experience. You’re thinking of getting a MBA in Asia. And, you’re ready to commit to living and working in the Far East. If so, than maybe a MBA in Taiwan is also for you. Because of its high-tech industries and educated workforce, business in Taiwan is a future direction for Asia.

Taiwan (Courtesy: CIA Factbook)

Taiwan (Courtesy: CIA)

Taiwan is like Switzerland, in some ways. Both punch above their weight class.

  • At $529B USD, Taiwan’s GDP is the global 22nd (Switzerland is 19th)
  • Taiwan’s GDP is bigger than Hong Kong’s $309B, and Singapore’s $293B
  • Comparing Taiwan to Japan, it’s almost as productive per square kilometer

I’ll go over considerations for a global career around business in Taiwan. This mostly means its links to China and Asia. I’ll avoid talking about personalities and culture shock. These are big topics and we already know Taiwan is a nice and safe place to live. In this series, I’ll discuss:

  1. The business case for and against Taiwan
  2. Reasons you should and shouldn’t consider a MBA in Taiwan
  3. Why I decided to go for it, anyway

Advantage: Taiwan, Greater China, and Asia

Taiwan has a few strengths other Asian economies don’t.

Getting a handle on Asia doesn’t have to mean going to mainland China, even if it’s the biggest piece not named India. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore are all their own things, for example. All of them have good business schools. Have their own culture and economies. And, deal with China.

If you’re looking for a stronger Chinese and Asian connection, Taiwan has a few strengths other Asian economies don’t. In fact, Taiwan gets a lot of credit for preserving Chinese traditions.

Taiwan is Chinese without China, but not more China than China. Figuring Taiwan out gives you a framework for accepting China. Relating to the average Zhou. But, this also means they are still two different cultures. Recognizing what’s what is key to figuring out how Taiwan fits in.

Advantage: Taiwan’s Chinese Role in Asia

Taiwan is more Chinese. Waves of Chinese immigrants have been coming to Taiwan for centuries. This is also true of other places in Asia. Singapore is one of the first Chinese colonies outside China. However, after the Communists won China after WW2, the exiled Chinese government set up in Taiwan. They are the Republic of China (R.O.C.).

In some ways, Taiwan connects to Asia in a way that China doesn’t. Japan-Taiwan relations are pretty good. Taiwan was part of China for hundreds of years, then part of Japan for about 50 years, before the R.O.C. came around. Japan-China aren’t doing so great. If you need to connect to the Far East, but don’t actually need to be in China, Taiwan is more business and investment friendly.

Taiwan can also provide a Chinese perspective from the outside-in. There’s a kind of nationalism and group dynamic (thanks, Confucious) in Asian countries that makes it difficult for foreigners to learn what’s really going on. It’s easier to figure out what you’re dealing with when you’re in the middle of things, and not the thick of it.

Your idea of China (and Asian companies) might actually be Taiwan. Major Taiwanese companies include Foxconn (they make your iPhones), HTC (they make other phones, and VIVE), TSMC, Viewsonic, Delta Electronics, the power convertor module in Tesla cars is made by Chroma, Pou Chen Group is the world’s largest manufacturer of branded shoes. So on and so forth.

Growth of Business in Taiwan

Taiwan GDP Growth, 2006-2016

This report by the Brookings Institute nicely profiles Taiwan’s international trade.

Advantage: Taiwan’s Business Legal Environment

More protections than China. The mainland has weaker patent protection, so innovations have a better chance in Taiwan. A typical strategy is a Taiwan company will build factories in China, but keep their most proprietary manufacturing in Taiwan. Bicycle maker Giant is one example.

Taiwan is now more open to foreign investment than China, even if it’s not quite sure how to get it. Leu Horng Der is a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Chung Yuan Christian University.

“In the past China’s approach to soliciting foreign investment was to ‘draw in’ capital. Now the approach is to ‘choose’ foreign investors.” – CommonWealth magazine

Government programs like Contact Taiwan and Invest Taiwan talk up strengths, even if they don’t present many real differentiators. There’s an underutilized Taiwan Entrepreneur Visa program. Taiwan is positioning itself as a gateway to Asia, and is pursuing foreign direct investment.

More freedoms than China. Like, being able to take U.S. dollars out of the country, and no Great Firewall. A free flow of information is important for knowledge sharing. Taiwan is also more open, politically. When Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement organized protests to demand free elections, they were advised by Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement.

Taiwan is also #1 in media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Media freedom isn’t the same as a commitment to media truth. This, and a lot of other moves, are steps in the right direction.

World Press Freedom Visualised

Disadvantage: It’s (like) China

Taiwanese may not seem as aggressive as mainland Chinese. But, much of what happens in China goes on at a scaled-down level here. Let’s just stick to some key points about doing business in Taiwan.

Taiwan talks up its capital markets. However, local accounting standards are very different from the West in generally accepted principles. Capital markets also serve publicly-traded firms — 70% of the TAIEX is family businesses and 10 families run 25% of itThis matters to you because Confucian societies are insider-outsider arrangements, and local capitalism works the same way.

It’s like X, but in Taiwan.” Venture capital often skews toward C2C (copied-to-China) or, copied-to-Taiwan ideas. This works way better in China, because Taiwan has fewer consumers. Proposals like these are easy to understand for practical, less technically sophisticated investors. While innovation can happen incrementally, there’s such a thing as inching the wrong direction.

The high-margin innovations Taiwan is known for require timing, patience, and risk capital. More than what investors are willing to give — but it’s possible. Apple’s OLED facility, for example. Government funds research. Family money. Some set up incubators, which leads to companies like Taiwan Mobile.

Pressure to deliver fast, if it’s not your money. Taiwanese sometimes take severe shortcuts. Like, New Taipei City’s — an online payment system for utility bills. If only wasn’t insecure and didn’t ignore basic protocols.

“ app does not send HTTPS traffic, sends plain text passwords and uses fixed IPs for traffic…” – Thomas Kuiper

In some cases, fast makes sense. A lot of business in Taiwan is high-tech and tech has fast product development cycles. However, being practical doesn’t always mean doing things the cheapest way possible. 

Disadvantage: It’s Not Modern China

People say Taiwan is the way westerners wish China were. But most Taiwanese haven’t been to China. So they don’t know. People might give you Chinese perspective, but it’s not based on experience. Taiwan also has its own quirks.

Taiwan is culturally ambiguous. Chinese and Taiwanese culture are patchworks of different groups. However, because of Taiwan’s 20th century, management styles run the gamut from Japanese tactics to Chinese habits to clan politics.

Taiwanese businesses don’t operate like Chinese businesses. They can’t, because the laws are different. You can’t directly apply what you’ve heard about Chinese businesses with Taiwanese businesses. This goes from land ownership to human rights to labor laws. Yes, there’s less rule-of-law in China, though plenty gets swept under the rug in Taiwan.

Getting past law enforcement, China changes quickly, and a lot of Taiwan businesses aren’t up-to-date on new Chinese requirements. Wenhsiung Tseng is with Deloitte China. “Taiwanese employers used to enjoy saying ‘I’m firing you.’ But this kind of phrase can’t be recklessly used in the future…” Now, if you fire workers arbitrarily, companies must pay twice the normal compensation.

Many large multi-national corporations (MNC) are zeroed-in on China. Earlier, we pointed out China simply has more consumers. The population and size makes a case for itself to shareholders.

Taiwan is a good proving ground or staging area. But for companies like Frito-Lay that spent years trying to figure out how to grow potatoes in China so they could sell chips to Chinese consumers, Taiwan’s a sideshow. Big investments in infrastructure and production were made, and they’re staying put.

Finally, Chinese government policy shapes economic development to an enormous degree. Every bureaucracy speaks its own language. In short, there’s no better way to get to know the Chinese government than being in China.

Summary: Doing Business in Taiwan

  • Taiwan is not exactly China. But, being there gives you a baseline and some tools for making sense of Chinese thinking and behavior.
  • The talent, companies, and connections for bringing any kind of high-tech idea to life, are here.
  • The good news. Legally and socially, it’s easier for outsiders to figure out what they’re dealing with. The bad news? You’re not an insider.

I have some solutions for you in Part 2.

‘Our Time Will Come’ (明月幾時有) and its International Debut at the Taipei Film Festival

Zhou Xu plays protagonist Fan Lan in Our Time Will Come (Courtesy: NYT)

Zhou Xu plays heroine Fang Lan in ‘Our Time Will Come’ (Courtesy: NYT)

I was invited to last night’s debut of ‘Our Time Will Come’ 明月幾時有, at the Taipei Film Festival. I’ll get to the point. I really enjoyed it.

A true story, the film is about the day-to-day efforts of resistance fighters against Japanese-occupied Hong Kong during World War 2.

Our hero is Fang Lan, an unassuming but rebellious primary school teacher who grows to become leader of a guerrilla unit. The film centers on Lan’s personal relationships with young fighters and her elderly single mother.

Neo Noir

Director Ann Hui – Hong Kong’s most award-winning filmmaker – took an approach that’s part documentary-style, incorporating interviews with people who lived the story. Including, many stationery shots from the bottom-up, to give the audience a sense of spying on characters (who are hiding in plain sight).

So this style isn’t out-of-place for films from the 1940s. ‘Our Time Will Come’ is a film noir played out in Hong Kong. Trust is a major issue. The central character is an anti-hero, the Japanese commander is an anti-villain. Even the documentary aspect is shot in black & white, and flashes back and forward. Hui hits a lot of other tropes of this genre. These are just the most obvious ones. There’s more you’ll spot in the trailers.

It’s also beautifully scored. That has nothing to do with film noir. I just felt like mentioning that.

If you can, see it in Cantonese — the language the resistance would have spoken. In Taiwan, Our Time Will Come is dubbed in Chinese, with English subtitles.

Our Time Will Come and Taiwan

The male leads are both from Taiwan. But why Taiwanese people should care is there aren’t many films covering life in Japanese-occupied Chinese (ethnically) territories during World War 2 (WW2). In these areas, it wasn’t daily business as usual. But people still had to do the same things they had to do. Residents weren’t always at odds with each other.

Those films that do, typically focus more on combat, love in the time of war, and have a very aggressive portrayal of Japanese soldiers. Hui made a character-driven piece, not a war epic. Identity, not international politics.

Anyway, what does Taiwan have to do with Hong Kong? Taiwan was also a Japanese-occupied Chinese territory, although for a much longer period of time. This topic is far more complex than I can give it space for. It’s also not really about Taiwan or Hong Kong or China or Japan.

The best way I know how to summarize it is how people’s sense of self and way of life is squeezed, when they feel like they are under the rule of an occupying force. Americans know this feeling (Brexit 1776, cough). People in Hong Kong and Taiwan have felt it at different times in different ways. I’ll leave it there.

The Resistance Against Japanese-Occupied Hong Kong

“The Hong Kong government has never officially recognized the efforts of the East River Column.” – Chang Sui-Jeung

Hong Kong’s WW2 resistance is a story that hasn’t really been told. Largely, only in local literature. And even then, mostly forgotten — try Googling it.

As Chang Sui-Jeung 陳瑞璋, author of “East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrillas in the Second World War and After” points out, the Hong Kong government has never officially recognized the efforts of the East River Column. This is partly because the group was supported by Chinese communist leaders.

It goes without saying that Hong Kong has a complicated relationship with communist China. Even today. Some believe recognizing the East River Brigade means acknowledging communist China’s role in freeing Japanese-held Hong Kong. I don’t like getting involved in politics. I do think it’s helpful for people to see that what once was true, wasn’t always, and may not be, in the future.

The most political the film gets is a scene depicting the smuggling of intellectuals out of China. A true story. Considering the Communist Party’s role in their own purge of many thought leaders, and the ups and downs of the Cultural Revolution, this is going to surprise people. Chinese history is complicated.

Some people mention there’s other Communist propaganda here. For example, our heroes, although spirited, are mostly tasked with ordinary things and honored for their bravery. Empowering young people with doing what is necessary, while encouraging them to come together for a common cause is a theme of films made during the Cultural Revolution. And, almost every other wartime movie ever made. I’m not a China scholar. It’s possible some people read too much into this. That’s just my personal opinion.

The Cantonese trailer for the Hong Kong market has more action:

Audience Q&A

Cast of 'Our Time Will Come' at Taipei Film Festival

Cast of ‘Our Time Will Come’ at Taipei Film Festival

A lot of the Q&A had to do with the film’s usefulness as a political tool. Is it a true story? What politics does it reflect? Is it really a true story? Understandable, since we’re on the lip of the 20th anniversary of the Chinese takeover of British Hong Kong. And, Taiwan has its own complicated relationship with China.

Filmmaking is an inherently political exercise. Although, character-driven movies are about people. Politics helps establish culture. The political machinery sets the scene. But this type of film is about the artistry revealed of the character’s emotions and decision-making process. This story is particular because of the protagonist’s courage. Sense-making. And strengths as an independent woman.

Sacrificing for each other while doing ordinary things at an extraordinary time.

A lot of people will be drawn to this film because of the war of that time, and the present debate going on over how Hong Kong should be ruled. However, people fighting for their everyday lives is a rich enough context, and this is where the film exists. Sacrificing for each other while doing ordinary things at an extraordinary time. Like ‘The Pianist,’ ‘Our Time Will Come’ is a glimpse into the treasure chest of forgotten stories from this era.

It’s controversial for a lot of the wrong reasons, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of other unintentionally “contemporary” themes here. The single mother. Lan’s refusal to get married for the sake of getting married. Maternal bonds. Parents just don’t understand. And a few others that are totally relatable.

Director Ann Hui and actress Deanie Ip share a moment

Director Ann Hui and actress Deanie Ip share a moment with the audience