By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter
The Chinese saying: "Hsiang Feng Chi Shih Yu Yuan," can be loosely translated as "each and every encounter is a matter of fate" and provides a loose framework for Eric Aldrich's experience with Taiwan.
One might say it was fate that brought him to the island in the early 1990s after taking a position as an English teacher at the Taipei YMCA for 18 months.
After more than two decades, Aldrich has returned to Taipei, to work in the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which represents U.S. interests in the absence of official diplomatic ties.
He is a cultural affairs officer in AIT's Public Diplomacy Section and also serves as director of the institute's American Center, responsible for strengthening educational and cultural ties between the United States and Taiwan.
Talking about his first trip to Taiwan in 1992, Aldrich told CNA that he took Chinese as an elective class in his first year studying history at the University of Chicago.
"Back then my Mandarin teacher whose surname was Chao was from Taiwan. He told me that I had to come to Taiwan if I wanted to learn more about Chinese culture and improve my mandarin," he told CNA in fluent mandarin during the Jan. 31 interview.
That was why Aldrich and his classmate and girlfriend (now wife), visited Taiwan between 1992 and 1993 to work as English teachers at the YMCA.
His girlfriend worked in Keelung while he was at the Taipei YMCA near Taipei Main Station close to the famous Puhsi Chieh or Cram School Street, visited regularly by students in Taipei to prepare for high school or college entrance exams.
Aldrich recalls he had 12 students in his class, which was made up of mostly senior high school students, some housewives and new college graduates.
"I remember vividly that the pressure for students to pass entrance exams to go to a good school was extremely high back then. But even so, they were all passionate about learning English," he said.
Before Aldrich left, he was touched when the students gave him a hand-made book filled with photographs and letters to express their gratitude to their teacher. "I still have the book at my mother's place."
While teaching at the YMCA, he stayed with a home-stay family in Wanhua District.
"The family shared with me some history of Taiwan and taught me to speak Taiwanese," he said. As a history-major, he learned a great deal about Taiwan that did not appear in textbooks in the U.S.
Other than enjoying Taiwan's hospitality during his stay, Aldrich also remembers the delicious local snacks, such as scallion pancakes and pepper pies.
Despite leaving Taipei in 1993, he has always retained an emotional connection to Taiwan as it was that year-long stay with the girl he later married that prompted him to become serious about learning Chinese and ultimately helped him a great deal in his diplomatic career.
"After living, working, and studying here, I became serious about learning Chinese and went on to do additional Chinese studies in the United States, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Knowing Chinese helped when I joined the Foreign Service," he said.
Before taking up the post in Taipei, Aldrich's first posting was in the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou (2006-2008) due to his familiarity with the Chinese language.
He has also served at U.S. embassies in Honduras, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Four of the six countries are diplomatic allies of Taiwan.
Back with a Mission
Returning to Taiwan after 20-plus years, this time with his wife and two sons, Aldrich said he immediately noticed the dramatic changes the island has undergone.
Taipei has become much cleaner and the traffic much more convenient with the building of the mass raid transportation system, according to the AIT official.
The other big change he has noticed is that Taiwan seems more proud of its unique cultural heritage.
"It seems like now there is a greater appreciation of the indigenous population and Taiwan's different communities, the Hakka community, for instance," he noted.
This time with a mission to promote U.S.-Taiwan cultural exchange, the AIT American Center head says he hopes his Taiwan experience will help him to do his job even better.
"I believe such experience can help me to be more aware of the uniqueness of Taiwanese culture and history, which are different to that in Mainland China," he stressed.
More specifically, the AIT official said he wants to increase the number of Taiwanese students going to the U.S. and Americans coming to Taiwan to study during his three-year tenure.
He also said the American Center will continue to introduce a wider range of independent American voices to people in Taiwan.
"Most people in Taiwan are familiar with some popular aspects of U.S. culture, I want to expose them more diverse elements from the U.S."
"Bruno Mars is important but there are lots of exciting independent voices in the arts to be introduced to the younger generation in Taiwan," he added.
Meanwhile, via the OneBeat project, the U.S. Department of State's music diplomacy program enables many talented Taiwanese musicians to visit the U.S. and engage in exchanges with their U.S. counterparts.
Despite the huge change in Taiwan over the past 25 years, Aldrich said one thing that has not changed is the hospitality of the people. He is determined to do his new job to the best of his ability as the best way to repay the wonderful hospitality he received in the 1990s and still encounters every day.
By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter