Expectations "blown out of the water" on Leadership Network's Taiwan visit

Exploring Taipei by bike, meeting members of the indigenous Pangcah people and getting insights into Taiwanese culture were just a few highlights of the Leadership Network's Taipei Hui for member Jamie Wood. In this article, Jamie writes about visiting Taiwan alongside 15 fellow network members and reflects on why the experience impacted her on a personal level.
Jamie and a fellow Leadership Network member standing with two indigenous women in front of black and white photos

The group travelled to Hualien to visit a village of the indigenous Pangcah (also known as Amis) people and learn about their culture and their struggles with colonisation

Nothing is more satisfying than travelling to a place where your expectations are blown out of the water.

Taiwan was one of those places.

In October 2023, I travelled to Taiwan's capital city, Taipei, as part of a delegation from the Foundation's Leadership Network. The group was comprised of doctors, finance professionals, educators, lawyers, political advisers, start-up enthusiasts and an AI expert, with each person there to gain a deeper understanding of Taiwan’s culture and the strength of its relationship with New Zealand. For some, it was more personal.

In among the bubble teas, too many spring onion pancakes (葱油饼 cōng yóubǐng) and shaved ice desserts, there were three instances that summarise and highlight the richness of the trip for me.

#1 Exploring Taipei on two wheels

Three Leadership Network members smiling for a photo while holding bikes in an open plaza

Cycling round Taipei revealed: "The concrete jungle, it turned out, was full of greenery."

At first, Taipei felt like a concrete jungle. This impression switched when we spent a few hours biking this beautiful city.

Taiwan has a shared bike system called Ubike, which works in a similar way to Beam, Mobike and Lime. I could not get the app working, and this must have been clear to those walking by, as it wasn't long before a local came up to me and helped me out — this was just one example of the kindness I experienced from locals during my time in Taiwan.

Once on our way, we rode past numerous green parks with people practicing tai chi and walking their dogs; others biked or ran along the river, or zipped silently by on electric scooters. The concrete jungle, it turned out, was full of greenery.

As the sun began to set, a loud drumming came out of nowhere. Suddenly a parade of people dressed as different gods came marching down the street – huge, beautifully decorated costumes, followed by a dragon dance performance.

Our guide explained that Taipei has many temples, each temple worships a god, and each god has a birthday, which is why so many parades take place. When we took moments to pause, we were confronted with culture.

#2: Understanding the resilience of the Taiwanese people

People watching a team performing a dragon dance on a city street, accompanied by the flash of fireworks

Cycling through the city, the group came across a parade featuring a traditional dragon dance  

Taiwanese people are hyper-aware of tensions with Beijing. Despite this, they get on with life. They are a remarkably resilient people.

All of Taiwan’s citizens are trained in basic healthcare and first aid to keep communities safe. In New Zealand, you might be lucky to find a token few people in each workplace that are qualified in first aid. In Taiwan, the majority are.

Without any prompting, a taxi driver asked if I had thought about the potential for Beijing to invade Taiwan – his demeaner as casual as someone asking about the weather. His lack of concern stemmed from being desensitised to the threat; it's something the Taiwanese have lived with for a long time. My driver had no choice but to continue living as normal, despite the threat hanging over the island. Living in fear is not an option. It would paralyze progress.

Taiwan’s next election will be held in January 2024. The relationship between China and Taiwan is such a big topic that there is little space for discussion on issues such as the cost-of-living, better education, or improving healthcare. Everything else takes a backseat.

This means the majority of social change in Taiwan comes from civil societies and local government. It is not the central government that has trained citizens in first aid, local groups have self-organised to deliver it.

The people are self-sufficient and take it upon themselves to drive change.

#3 Feeling grounded in a Kakita’an

A group of LeadershipNetwork members standing outside a traditional kakitaan building with elders of the local indigenous tribe

The Leadership Network members outside a kakita'an ancestral house with elders Prof Hsieh and Tina Wehipeihana-Wilson

We heard about (and witnessed) the links between the indigenous people of Taiwan and Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. And we heard how the Taiwanese indigenous peoples are inspired by Māori.

We were lucky enough to travel to Hualien on the east coast of the island to meet with Professor Jolan Hsieh at Dong Hwa University to learn more about the Pangcah people (also known as Amis) who are the most populous indigenous ethnic group in Taiwan.

The first similarity we noticed was the old house we were taken to, called a kakita’an, which looked almost identical to a Māori whare.

After a traditional ceremony of prayer and blessings, we were welcomed into the kakita’an by two elders. The large wooden carvings on pillars, just like you see in a marae, were hard to miss – ancient stories told through pictures.

A few of the network members present are on whakapapa reconnection journeys, so it was special to hear similar stories as our own of young people returning to their Taiwanese tribes to also reconnect. But it was gut-wrenching to hear the difficulty they had in doing so.

The island has been colonised multiple times. Each time brought a period of language restrictions, and their traditional names were banned.

Having an indigenous last name is a crucial part of being recognised as indigenous in Taiwan. So aside from the trauma that colonisation brought, it has caused intergenerational displacement and a challenge for indigenous people to reconnect.

Indigenous groups in Taiwan are fighting to save their language, their culture and their people – many look to Aotearoa New Zealand as inspiration.

Māori language academic, writer and broadcaster Scotty Morrison was mentioned by the elders in the Kakita’an as someone they admire and respect. This is a reminder that the world is watching us.

It is our responsibility to be inspired by the resilience of Taiwan’s civil societies and to show the rest of the world that we will continue moving forward, reconnecting to our whakapapa, and speaking Te Reo Māori.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network equips New Zealand’s next generation of Kiwi leaders to thrive in Asia. We provide members with the connections, knowledge and confidence to lead New Zealand’s future relationship with the region.