-- By Richard Wang

As a small island just miles off the coast of China, Taiwan could easily be insignificant. But the twenty-three million people (who collectively own a startling twenty-four million cell phones) who live on this island happen to be a lot like myself: they're Taiwanese. The 2002 Tsunah Tour, which took place from December 22 to January 1, turned out to be a chance to get acquainted with a bit of my heritage.

Tours are often horrible things. Traveling in closely confined quarters with people you have just met, you traipse through sites and landmarks by bus at breakneck speeds (usually with an emphasis on quantity and not necessarily quality) destined to get sick and understand only a paltry bit of the Taiwanese or Mandarin being spoken around you. Tsunah started out no differently.

From Ilan to Hualien to Kenting to Taipei, we witnessed the artifacts of Taiwan's multicultural heritage ¡V Dutch forts, Japanese Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, indigenous tribal villages ¡V alongside nature and wildlife parks, museums, hot springs, gorges, and waterfalls. We visited a biotech farm where orchids are genetically engineered and a beach at the Howard Kenting Resort with water so clear and blue green it could have been Hawaii.

Though the weather vacillated between heavy winds and rain in Kenting to beautifully clear weather in Taitung, we made sure to supplement our official tour with extracurricular excursions to sample Taiwanese nightlife, regardless of the weather. Owing to the undeniable fact that we were American, we got hit with the ¡§ABT surcharge¡¨ where vendors refused to bargain, taxi fares got hiked, and a bottle of vodka cost over $100.

Our travel group experienced culture shock to varying degrees. Some had never before set foot in Taiwan while others were regular visitors; but everyone found something that shocked them whether it was a squat toilet, a beheaded turtle in the infamous Snake Alley, an unidentifiable but tasty food, the taste of beetlenut, or the surprising number of Starbucks on every corner. Some things also delighted us: fruits like lembu (a delicious wax pear), dragonfruit (a fruit with a kiwi-like texture), and oranges (juicy and easy to peel), bustling night markets, tea eggs at the local 7-11, super cheap and plentiful boba milk tea, and beetlenut girls.

Meeting indigenous tribes turned out to be a highlight of the trip. We met the head of the Paiwan tribe, Sakinu, as well as his princess bride, who treated us to a lunch replete with kidney enhancing foods and breast enlarging soup. We also met the head of the Ami tribe at a festival that showcased indigenous tribal artists and culture in a promising effort to rejuvenate this dwindling population. At the Bunun Aborigine tribe in Taitung, travelers spent a night singing and dancing with tribe members.

No trip to Taiwan would be complete without the meeting of dignitaries. In our case, these included a former assistant to the Taiwan President and the General Secretary. Our inquisitive group asked questions about the upcoming elections, the international status of Taiwan in world organizations like the WTO and UN, and the future of democracy in Taiwan. Access to people in power proved its value when one Tsunah participant pointed out that an exhibit on Taiwanese history at the Taichung Museum of Natural History was labeled ¡§Chinese history.¡¨ The General Secretary duly took notes and promised to fix it.

Over ten days of travel, our group got to know each other pretty well. Sociologists claim that a group of people under duress will form a communal bond. Regardless, it's not often the case that one meets such a cast of Taiwanese Americans from all over the United States, from Conneticut to California, New Orleans to New Jersey. Dr. Chris Fan and his wife, our tour captains, made great efforts to get to know everyone who participated and when the time came for people to part ways, we felt just a bit like family. For its size, Taiwan has a staggering number of things to see and stories to tell. But the common thread is its unique and distinctive culture and a history of survivorship and independence, things that, directly or indirectly, forged friendships with our group. Let the post-trip emails keep coming.