(photos available) by Deborah Kuo CNA staff writer Unlike most young Taiwanese men who passively accept the drudgery of compulsory military service, some conscripts have found bluer skies abroad serving as grassroots ambassadors under the country's alternative military service program.
Since 2001, when Taiwan dispatched its first group of conscripts abroad, these young men have served as Taiwanese Peace Corps volunteers in allied countries, mostly in Africa or Central America.
Chang Yuan-ming, who worked as a computer adviser in Swaziland in lieu of military service, said the 18 months that he spent in that southern African country was the freest time of his life and enabled him to get a broader picture of what it takes to make aid efforts work.
Chang was assigned to "narrow the digital gap" in rural Africa, but quickly found that to be an impossible dream.
"How can you narrow the gap if it doesn't even exist, " he said, explaining that most of the people he came into contact with barely knew what information technology was.
Without education and improving the overall environment, simply delivering PCs to their communities was not going to contribute to the development of digital infrastructure there, said Chang, who now works for an advertising firm in Taipei.
Despite his frustrations, Chang, like many others in the program, believes his diplomatic experience gives his resume a unique element and has helped him professionally since being discharged from the military.
Hsieh Poh-yuan, who performed his alternative military service in Kiribati as an aquaculture adviser, said he found the "simple" life he lived in the South Pacific island nation liberating.
"When your heart and mind are free of materialism and civilization, there's a lot of space to contemplate the true meaning of life. The simple life allows you to appreciate the richness of being," he said.
The vast majority of potential conscripts never figured overseas service could be so rewarding when the program was launched. There was little interest in the 35 openings made available in 2001 to perform alternative military service abroad.
Yet as word of the inspiring experiences of people like Lien Chia-en, known by some in the country as "Taiwan's Albert Schweitzer, " has filtered out, competition has intensified for the openings, which are divided into different skill groups. For people with medical skills, for instance, 40 people applied for the six positions available last year.
In fields like aquaculture, agriculture or animal husbandry, where job prospects at home are limited, going abroad can serve as a stepping stone to other opportunities and provide an edge in landing a desirable job.
A stint abroad also qualifies individuals like Hsieh to be recruited for future overseas aid missions sponsored by Taiwan's government, where monthly stipends can range from NT$200,000 to NT$300,000 a month.
A survey of the program's applicants found, however, that altruism remains the main motivator in looking to go overseas, with many inspired by the story of Lien Chia-en, who worked as a doctor in Burkina Faso in lieu of military service between October 2001 and June 2003.
The National Yang Ming University graduate helped drill wells and build orphanages in the sub-Saharan nation, in addition to practicing as a physician, a surgeon and a nurse.
During his time there, he also mounted a garbage-for-clothes drive in cooperation with a Christian group to help rid the countryside of discarded plastic garbage bags, which were causing cattle and other animals to choke to death.
The campaign turned him into something of a legend on the Internet, as people from around the world responded to his appeal by donating old clothes between 2002-2003 that were given to local residents in exchange for discarded garbage that they picked up.
After returning to Taiwan following a 20-month stint in Burkina Faso, Lien, a devoted Christian, chose to return to the African country for another year, saying he had not contributed enough.
Lien's sense of mission and appreciation for the dignity of the country's people was shared by Chu Hai-juei, who also worked as part of a Taiwanese medical aid mission in Burkina Faso.
Chu said that although the people struggled for survival, they displayed admirable qualities, including optimism, compassion, gratitude and hope.
"Some people may say I was assigned there to help people out, but actually I was the one who felt grateful for what I'd learned and received, which was immeasurable," Chu asserted.
Some of the volunteers, like Chen Chun-ju, have come away from the program convinced that Taiwan's aid efforts should be better targeted.
Chen, who took part in Taiwanese aid operations in Guatemala, said much of Taiwan's aid often ends up in projects linked to local politicians -- a practice that sometimes invites misunderstandings, and even corruption allegations -- and getting aid directly into the hands of the people is more desirable.
As the only one of the 2008 volunteers to major in business, Chen said he tried to use his business background to help local farmers find "cash cows" outside the program, and he suggested that Taiwan establish an independent foreign aid agency that only distributes humanitarian aid to those actually in need.
For now, though, Taiwan will continue sending alternative military servicemen to act as its people-to-people diplomats, which many have found to be a rewarding way to serve their country and enrich their own lives.