Lately, Taipei native Doris Hou (侯佳岑) has been considering some cold hard facts about her workplace.
“The tasks are not too difficult. What’s difficult is the people. It takes time to find a positive way to interact with each person,” Hou said.
It’s a tenet that could apply to plenty of professional environments. But Hou, 23, has a social relations puzzle that’s more complex than most. Her job is to help Chinese students at Taiwanese universities.
Her employer, the non-governmental organization Chinese Youth International (中華青年交流協會), runs extracurricular activities that let Chinese exchange and degree students interact with their Taiwanese peers.
“Before I got this job — this is my first job — I didn’t have much factual information about what Chinese students are like,” said Hou, a sunny personality with a confident frankness.
“At Wenzao [Ursuline University of Languages], some of my classmates went to China on cross-strait exchanges, but I never did,” she said.
“I suppose I had my own prejudices against Chinese students. I thought they were a bit backward and not very enlightened.”
Chinese Youth International has just three salaried employees including Hou, whose responsibilities range from writing grants to booking homestays to leading students on treks across mountainous terrain. For her, it’s been an eye-opening experience.
Contrary to her expectations, Chinese students in Taiwan are highly driven, Hou said.
“We try to do a range of events. There’s our annual debate contest. We run tours of Taiwan, host classes and lectures with guest speakers,” she said.
“If Chinese students want to attend an event, they will work hard to convince you. Sometimes they write a big essay about how much they want to participate. ‘If I don’t participate, I will regret it for the rest of my life,’” she said.
During classes, they can display a command of Taiwan’s history and news climate that’s “truly impressive,” she said. And when competing, Chinese students view defeat as “quite serious.”
“For example, if Taiwanese teams lose a debate contest they get a little bit sad. Maybe. They become reflective and say something like, ‘We shall do more research and work harder next time.’ But the next time comes around and they forget all about it, and they still lose,” she said.
“Chinese students come back the next year and win,” Hou said.
“Mostly what I hear from them is that Taiwanese students lack the sense of crisis. They think Taiwanese students are not concerned enough about their future and don’t care enough about international competitiveness. And compared to them, that is probably true,” she said.
Taiwan’s government opened up public universities to Chinese students in 2011.
According to the latest data from the Ministry of Education, 1,864 Chinese students enrolled in degree programs last fall, up from 928 in 2011.
But though enrollment has risen, results have been mixed. Chinese students have complained of bureaucratic hurdles and work restrictions that they say prevents them from fitting in with Taiwanese society. Meanwhile, the locals harbor unease of their own.
“I think Taiwanese still have prejudices about China,” Hou said. “I have been noticing more of that since starting up this job, because now I’m forced to look at my society from an outside perspective.”
NGOs like hers are an integral link in the cross-strait campaign, as they create opportunities for Chinese and Taiwanese to learn more about each other — and to devise the best strategies for communication.
“We try to have themed events based on special traits of Taiwan, like democracy, media culture, the environment and social movements,” Hou said.
Last year, for “democracy,” she brought students to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters in Taipei.
“Someone who worked there used zhongguo (China, 中國) instead of dalu (mainland China, 大陸). As in ‘Welcome, friends from zhongguo.’ And a [Chinese] student raised a hand and said, ‘Could you please stop saying that?’” she said.
This friction occurs with varying degrees of heat at some other events hosted by the NGO, as well as in college classrooms, on the streets and at other points of contact in Taiwan. Hou herself is still learning ways to approach the situation.
At the DPP headquarters, the staffer had reacted quickly.
“He said in a kind and civil way, ‘We are talking about the same thing. We just use different names for it.’ And the student was civil, too,” said Hou.
“It will take patience, and it will take time,” she said, referring to cross-strait communication. “But I think what happened that day was right.”