Last January, I had the privilege of connecting with Ho Chie Tsai, founder of Taiwanese American.org who, without a doubt, is making a huge impact in a special community that is not often recognized. I met Ho Chie after he stumbled across my blog and contacted me just before I reunited with my birth family in Taiwan. He is chiefly responsible for welcoming me into the Taiwanese American community.
Ho Chie founded TaiwaneseAmerican.org in 2006, a website featuring many of the interesting people, events and organizations that make up Taiwanese America. He is passionate about connecting individuals and promoting those who identify with the Taiwanese identity, culture, and heritage. As a community leader, Ho Chie launched the first Taiwanese American Students Club at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also a member of the Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF) Board of Directors, a non-profit organization that hosts an annual summer conference for elementary and high school aged kids of Taiwanese descent. TAF is home away from home for many campers, alumni, and conference leaders who return year after year. I had the opportunity to experience part of the 2012 TAF conference as a speaker upon the invitation of Ho Chie, and I understood afterwards why so many return. The conference is more than just a “cultural camp.” It is a true community where character, leadership, identity, and genuine support of one another are nurtured. Recently, I caught up with Ho Chie and asked some questions about his role at TAF and his perspective on culture and identity. Read the full interview below and get to know Ho Chie, a man at the heart and soul of Taiwanese America. A big thank you to Ho Chie for taking the time to talk about TAF and what it means to be Taiwanese in America!
Who are you and what do you do?
I am a proud 2nd generation Taiwanese American on a mission to help young people discover their unique identities, explore personal passions, and realize their fullest potential. I am someone who believes that each of us has the power to make a lasting impact on the communities we care about and want to serve.
I am a frequent speaker at Taiwanese American and other Asian American conferences, and this opportunity to be an influential thought leader on various issues is something I don’t take for granted. In the Taiwanese American community, many know me as the founder of the website TaiwaneseAmerican.org, a portal site that highlights the amazing people, the numerous events, and the vibrant organizations that are relevant to our next generation. We see our mission as an important part of capturing and documenting the stories of our evolving community within the American historical context. Currently, TaiwaneseAmerican.org has the largest social media and web presence serving specifically the Taiwanese American community.
Professionally, I am a general pediatrician who lives and practices in and around the San Francisco Bay area. I do primarily urgent care and hospitalist work, and my schedule is flexible enough so that I can travel to various conferences and major events within the Taiwanese American community and work on projects for TaiwaneseAmerican.org. It’s almost as if I live two lives, but guided by a common personal mission.
How did you become involved with TAF?
Like many of the counselors, staff, and board members, I actually grew up with TAF, and because it impacted me in such a positive way, I continued to return year after year and assumed more responsibilities as I matured. Decades ago, I was a young high school student who attended because my parents “forced” me to go to this camp that they had heard of from their network of friends. Although I was resistant to the idea of attending an “Asian camp,” I quickly changed tunes once I discovered how open and welcoming the staff and other campers were. Connecting with so many other young Asian Americans helped me realize that the teenage issues I struggled with, through my experience of being Asian in America, was not mine alone. There was something comforting yet emboldening in understanding that my bi-cultural 2nd generation experience was, in fact, the common denominator for my fellow Taiwanese Americans.
In retrospect, it is so clear to me now what kind of impact it made on my life. As well-adjusted as I seemed to appear on the outside, in reality, I was a teen still searching for my personal identity and stronger sense of confidence. The atmosphere at TAF emanated a certain unconditional love and acceptance, and it changed me practically overnight. Unbelievable? Well, talk to many of the attendees, and many will share similar stories of their own. As I would learn over time, this environment and my experiences were not accidental. In fact, the core belief of “servant leadership,” or lifting others up and serving first, is a philosophy that the leaders at TAF have intentionally put into practice for over three decades. Effectively, it translates into excellent role modeling, influential leadership, and the creation of one of the most accepting and supportive communities I have ever seen. TAF has shaped my own personal mission and approach to life.
What is your role at TAF?
As I grew with TAF, the leaders who surrounded me and nurtured my teenage soul showed me that I could make a difference for others, too. After taking on some Coordinator level responsibilities during my high school years, I eventually took on the role of Junior (grade school) Program Director and served for about 10 years. By the time I was a college student, I was also invited to serve as a Board Member for this non-profit organization and have remained in that capacity to the present day. When I became a pediatrician, I assumed the role of Camp Physician. I have also been an occasional workshop facilitator or program speaker. During the past decade, I have actually been quite content just taking a more supportive role and learning from some of the most inspiring and dynamic speakers who guide the current generation of TAF campers–many of those speakers were once young kids in my Junior Program. They and so many “TAFers” who have ventured out into the real world with a servant leadership mentality have made me so proud to continue serving TAF today in any way I can.
How many campers attend?
Each year since 1980, the week-long Taiwanese American Foundation summer conference draws approximately 160-180 youth, most of Taiwanese heritage or experience, from across the United States. These campers between the ages of 7 to 18 attend one of the three full-week, overnight, parallel tracked programs: Junior, Junior High, or Youth (High School). An additional 45-50 college-level through young professional counselors, advisors, and staff support these programs.
What are the goals of TAF and how do the campers benefit?
The primary mission of TAF is “to foster personal growth and develop servant leaders in the Taiwanese American community for the benefit of society.”
This translates to programming and interactive sessions that help young people explore their unique identities at various stages of their personal growth through one of four rotating themes: Identity; Ethics & Values; Communication; and Servant Leadership. Through years of experience working on these real-life core topics, we have seen this camp produce generations of confident, caring, and fulfilled individuals who are well-adjusted to the often challenging world we live in. A majority of our leaders, staff and speakers grew up with the camp, much like I did. Although culture, history, and identity are important issues to us, the primary focus of the programs is personal identity and leadership development using an interpersonal and values-driven approach. The strengthening of the Taiwanese American identity follows naturally.
Over the years, we have gained expertise in dealing with a very broad age range of youth. Even kids as young as 7 years old who attend our Juniors Program have a great time learning from our talented counselors (many of whom are student teachers or have years of experience working with children) and do very well even when away from their parents for a full week. It’s a prime example of how our staff prepares the experience so that the kids just feel like they are lovingly accepted at this home-away-from-home starting on day one. As each program develops and “grows” their campers year after year, they understand their goal is to prepare the TAF camper for the next stage of camp. As the child moves from the Juniors Program to the Junior High Program and eventually on to the Youth (high school level) Program, we see that they gain more confidence and pride in their identity as well as a deeper understanding of their unique qualities and traits. By rotating through the four major themes in cyclic fashion, even a camper who has been at TAF for many years will be able to re-explore these issues further at deeper levels. Additionally, leadership roles as “coordinators” for various camp programs are offered to the high school level participants. Many begin to put actual servant leadership qualities and skills into practice, and that has a powerful influence on their peers and younger “sibs” in a positive and impactful way. And the icing on top of all this is that camp is all glued together by fun and entertaining activities. It is, after all, a summer camp experience.
We take great pride in our proven ability to help kids grow to their fullest potential and to know their greatest strengths. Our slogan, “growing people,” also suggests a more life-long mission in building up individuals and creating a community, a home, to nurture that process. TAF doesn’t end with youth programming; it’s the start of building family foundations and better relationships all throughout life. In fact, our weekend Parents Program brings together the youth and their parents in specially-designed sessions to help them better understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives. The impact is obvious and lasting: Take a look around, and one will find that many who have grown through our programs are now college students, young professionals, and even parents who return year after year to support our mission as counselors, staff, board members, speakers, volunteers, and financial sponsors. As we continue to grow, I have noticed that our programs now serve 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Asian Americans, including mixed-race children, adoptees, and children of previous campers. This is, I believe, a testament to our success in building a strong foundation in service of the Taiwanese American community for the benefit of the greater society we live in.
I think everyone’s personal journey through identity is different and unique, and recognizing that we own those differences can be empowering. Ask 10 people what it means to be Taiwanese American, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some will answer from an ethnic or cultural heritage perspective, and others will offer a more political or historical-based response. In reality, the Taiwanese American identity is complex, and not everyone will agree on the answer. With that said, for me personally, I identify as a proud 2nd generation Taiwanese American who recognizes and accepts the diversity of experiences that have shaped our immigrant community. However, because I grew up in the Midwest during a time and place where cultural diversity was lacking, I see my Taiwanese American-ness through the lens of the broader Asian American experience. I can relate to the experiences of my fellow 2nd generation Filipino American, Korean American, and Vietnamese American friends more than I can with people who grew up in Taiwan. As Asian Americans, it is as if we walk a tight-rope between two cultures, and that is where our struggle with identity begins. Being a proud Taiwanese American means coming to terms and finding a comfortable balance with the internalized values that two (sometimes conflicting) cultures bring, and using that knowledge and experience to bridge gaps wherever they may be found. I am so fortunate that my experiences helped me to embrace my unique identity starting at a young age, and I take pride that I can help shape the next generation of young Americans of Taiwanese heritage. As we influence more servant leaders and build a strong community together, I believe that we as Taiwanese Americans have a responsibility in contributing to and enhancing a more inclusive multicultural American society.