Climbing Jade Mountain, Taiwan’s highest mountain


~ by Russell Pierce Shean , 2019 Taiwan Scholarship Recipient~

For such a small island, Taiwan is a place with incredible diversity. From Hualian you can drive a short twenty or thirty miles from the ocean at sea level to Hehuan Shan at above 3000 meters. Just a short distance from the skyscrapers of Taipei, you can be in jungle covered mountains or looking at rice fields surrounding an old siheyuan courtyard house. Probably because of this diversity, Taiwan is a stunningly beautiful place. I am blessed to have been able to travel around a bit while I was here and no matter what kind of scenery I happened to be in at the moment, I never stopped being amazed by where I was.

The people who live in Taiwan are also diverse with a range of different ethnic groups and religions and an even wider range of political beliefs. Taiwan is also a place in transition; in just a few decades Taiwan has transitioned from a dictatorship with the world’s longest declared period of martial law to a flourishing democracy with a lively media landscape and seemingly daily political protests. Taiwan has become a model of democracy, human rights, and open society for east Asia and the world. There are Taiwanese people alive today who have seen the Taiwanese economic transition from a Japanese colony to today’s silicon chip and high-tech powerhouse happen in just one lifetime. Taiwan still faces major challenges, but Taiwan’s recent success with Covid control shows that when the people and government are committed to a course of action, Taiwan can and does succeed. Taiwan learned the lessons from the mistakes that were made in response to SARS, and made major reforms that led to it leading the world in COVID control less than twenty years later. I believe this commitment to reform, self-reflection and constant reinvention is a model for the world and is why I’m proud to have made Taiwan my home away from home for the last year and a half.

I am grateful to National Taiwan University and the Taiwanese Ministry of Education for the financial support they provided to me to enroll in a master’s degree program in Taiwan. It was because of their support that I was able to fulfill my goal of pursuing a graduate degree and learn the skills I need to advance my career. At National Taiwan University, I studied public health and the timing and location could not have been better. Because of Taiwan’s success with controlling Covid, I was able to travel freely and pursue opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. National Taiwan University was an excellent place to study because they gave us a first-hand window into Taiwan’s health policy and governance systems including multiple visits to government health agencies and guest lecturers from government officials in the field. National Taiwan University’s professors are experts in their fields and many of them played important roles in providing the evidence base for infectious disease control policies and consulting with the government about Taiwan’s Covid response.

Taiwan and National Taiwan University are also great places to study public health for reasons other than Covid control. Taiwan has a comprehensive national health insurance system and ambitious and aggressive systems for promoting early health screenings and community health. National Taiwan University is an exciting and academically stimulating place to earn a graduate degree. The skills I learned and new ideas I was exposed to will last a lifetime.

I would like to especially thank my advisor Professor Hsien-Ho Lin for his research advice, teaching, and for serving as director of the program I was in. Despite being very busy, he was always willing to make time to provide guidance. He has a unique ability to clearly explain complicated concepts and his passion for the scientific process is infectious. (It’s partially because of his research in infectious disease control that the only thing I was infected with while I’ve been in Taiwan is a passion for science).  I would also like to thank Professor Chang Chuan Chan for providing some of the early leadership to start the program I was in and for teaching many of the classes in the program. Thank you also to Professor Andrei Akhmetzhanov for letting me occupy a seat in his office for several months and for introducing me to several trail running groups in Taipei. To the many other professors and classmates I met at NTU, I apologize for not thanking each of you individually, I would still like to thank you all for the classes each of you taught and the advice, connections , and friendship each of you provided me. Lastly, I would like to thank the Hsinchu City Public Health Bureau for graciously allowing me to intern with them over the summer. They made time and space for me to see a wide range of public health programs and activities. Because of their generosity and flexibility, I saw public health in action in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.

I graduated in February and I’m still deciding what I want to do next. It’s a bit scary, but also exciting to face the prospect of finding something new to do with my time and career. My plan, for now, is to stay in Taiwan and look for work. One of the main reasons for wanting to stay is that I feel that there is so much that I still don’t know about Taiwan. Prior to this master’s program, I had been to Taiwan twice before and in total, I’ve spent 3.5 of the last nine years living in Taiwan.  I've been to a lot of places in Taiwan and seen a lot of things, but I still feel like, with the exception of things related to public health, my understanding of Taiwan is still mostly surface-level. Stinky tofu and mountains; 7-11 and night markets; this sort of thing. Each time I’ve come back I’ve learned progressively more, but there is still so much I don’t know about Taiwan, its people, culture, history, politics, values and governance systems. As an example, the recent train wreck in Taiwan and subsequent revelations about major safety oversights and lax contracting procedures at the national railway administration made me realize that despite having spent countless hours on trains in Taiwan, I knew very little about the organization running the trains. It also got me wondering: how is it that Taiwan’s government was able to lead the world in Covid control while at the same time seems unable to seriously implement safety reform at the railway administration? I don’t have an answer right now, but I want to explore possible reasons and the larger social and cultural context.

Therefore, in addition to working, I plan to spend my time in Taiwan investigating everything I still want to learn about Taiwan as a hobby project. The end product of this side project will be a bilingual (Mandarin-English)  interview-based Youtube channel and blog that examines my questions in greater depth. I plan on interviewing NGOs working in the field, experts advocating for changes, and anyone else I come across whom I can learn from. I will group interviews by issues and then start by looking for publicly available data,  summarizing existing news, and then requesting interviews from a variety of people with different perspectives on the issue. As an example of my approach; one of the first topics I want to pursue is road safety, so I’ll start by looking for publicly available data on traffic accidents, do a bit of my own analysis on the data and read existing news. Then I’ll visit dangerous road sections to observe, then seek interviews from the police, traffic engineering experts, NGOs working to improve road safety, and maybe even people driving too fast on mountain roads to gather a variety of perspectives on the issue. Following this pattern, I plan to look at a variety of issues including environmental issues, Taiwan’s media landscape, workplace, and transportation safety, foreign guest workers in Taiwan, the Taiwanese transition to democracy, human rights, aboriginal Taiwanese, and anything else that I find interesting. I’m doing this project mostly for myself, but everyone is welcome to explore along with me. At this point, the project is just a dream, but I anticipate having content by the middle of May. If you’re interested, the name of the project will be “Tulips for Taiwan”; starting about May 15th you can search for “Tulips for Taiwan” on youtube or google to see what I’ve been doing.