UBC PhD student Eric Lee is living proof that people who trace their roots back to Taiwan are not exclusively Han Chinese. He has some Japanese heritage and one of his maternal great-grandparents was from the Netherlands.
“My mom’s hair is a little bit towards red, which is really interesting,” Eric tells Pancouver over Zoom. “That’s because of the gene heritage.”
Both the Netherlands and Japan colonized Taiwan at different times, so this doesn’t make him unique. Eric spoke to Pancouver in advance of the Vancouver Taiwanese Student Forum, which was held on Sunday (September 17) at the UBC Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre.
The second annual event focused on how Vancouver students of Taiwanese heritage can contribute to Canadian society by embodying Taiwanese values.
The first Vancouver Taiwanese Student Forum focused on multiplicity of identity. This pretty much describes Eric, who was born in Canada to immigrant parents. He spent a decade living in Taiwan, mostly in the northern city of Hsinchu, which is famous for its major science park.
“I moved back here for university,” Eric says. “I’m doing my PhD in medical bioinformatics.”
He explains that this term combines biology with the process for storing and receiving data. He’s applying this emerging area of science to cancer research.
Eric was joined on the Zoom call by fellow Vancouver Taiwanese Student Forum director Peggy Lee. She’s an SFU undergraduate business student majoring in marketing and operations management.
Student felt like she lived in two worlds
Peggy says that she moved from Taipei to Canada when she was 14 years old. She tells Pancouver that after immigrating, she felt like she was existing in two worlds. Peggy was living in Canada but a part of herself remained in Taiwan. It left her wondering who she really was.
“The question becomes how can I be better with both of these impacting me in terms of my personal growth and professional growth,” she states.
Peggy says that the Vancouver Taiwanese Student Forum is intended to empower students of Taiwanese ancestry to be proud of who they are. Moreover, she wants them to feel confident to make use of their skills—whether it’s in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), business, or anywhere else—to create a positive impact.
She also feels that Taiwan’s history of colonization has given its residents a capacity to adopt the best ideas from different cultures.
This year’s forum included successful Taiwanese Canadians, including Asian-Canadian Special Events Association managing director Charlie Wu, Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra Maestro Ken Hsieh, and Lyra Growth Partners founder Charles Chang (who also founded the Vega line of nutritional products). The lineup also featured Vessi Footwear founder Andy Wang, UBC civil engineering professor Tony Yang, Chewy Inc. human resources business partner manager Eva Yeh, SFU director of investment and treasurer Jacky Shen, and STEMCELL Technologies field application scientist Wayne Juang.
“When we pick speakers, they have to be of Taiwanese heritage, because we’re a Taiwanese event,” Peggy says.
Eric acknowledges that students often don’t know exactly what they want to do for a career as they enter senior undergraduate years or even at the end of their graduate degree programs. So when he was president of the Taiwanese graduate student association in Vancouver, he wanted to hold a cozy forum for people to seek advice.
TECO offers assistance
He asked the Taiwanese Economic Culture Office in Vancouver if it would be willing to provide funding. The deputy director, Suzie Chen, suggested that Eric make it available for all students.
“I took on that mission and collaborated with TECO to create this forum,” Eric says.
He later found additional sponsors.
Eric points out that some Taiwanese students’ first language is not English, so he sought out speakers who can also speak Mandarin or Taiwanese to make the forum more relatable.
The Taiwanese community is still relatively small. Eric says that it doesn’t have the visibility of, say, the Japanese and Korean communities through local cuisine and music. But Eric is also well aware of Taiwan’s outsized role in the global economy as the world’s largest producer of semiconductors.
In addition, a member of the Taiwanese diaspora, Jensen Huang, created U.S.-based NVIDIA. Now worth more than US$1 trillion, it has made major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and semiconductors.
Semiconductors are not Taiwan’s only claim to fame. It also has a thriving arts and cultural sector, a highly rated health-care system, and outstanding education. The government has legalized same-sex marriage and embarked on various initiatives to advance reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples.
Eric says that you don’t see a lot of flag-waving in the local Taiwanese community, but its people have accomplished a great deal. It’s done this with a small population in comparison to its neighbours. Only 23.5 million people living in this country, which is slightly larger than Vancouver Island.
Project TINA has three phases
“When some students come to a foreign land, they really want to blend in,” Eric says. “But sometimes they don’t know how to leverage what already exists…
“It’s not nationalism at all,” he emphasizes. “That’s not what we’re trying to put out. It’s more like recognizing your strengths. And how your cultural background can support you to form your own unique identity in order to move forward to do great things and make changes to your local community.”
Eric says that he and Peggy have also created a British Columbia Taiwanese Canadian Student Organization.
Furthermore, this is part of a broader initiative that Eric calls Project TINA. It’s an acronym for “Taiwanese Innovate North America” and it has three phases.
The first is to get people thinking about Taiwanese values. The second phase is establishing the idea that the multiplicity of identity is important and recognizing that it’s an important part of students’ lives.
“The last phase is innovation,” Eric declares. “We’re not quite there yet, even though this year’s event is innovating from last year. We are advancing a lot of new things and introducing new ideas.”
He notes that this is going more in a cultural rather than political direction. The objective is to help people understand their identity and appreciate Taiwanese values.
“We’re not trying to transform things in a political world, but nevertheless, politics will come,” Eric acknowledges.
That’s because Taiwanese values include a belief in freedom of speech, democracy, and other basic human rights. And in Asia, as well as North America, those values are inherently political when some powerful players are trying to replace the ballot box with authoritarian rule.