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A Cultural Awakening

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Lew is traveling halfway around the globe to better understand his family back in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, Lew and 1,000 other young Americans of Chinese descent will meet in Taiwan for a six-week cultural and language program subsidized by the island government.

For many of the 18- to 23-year-old participants--more than one-quarter of whom are from the Los Angeles area--the trip is a defining moment: They travel far from home for the first time, arriving in a land where they are suddenly part of the majority. They discover the significance of their identity, what it means to be Chinese and American.

The summer study tour was instituted by the Taiwanese government in 1965 to strengthen ties with hua qiao--overseas Chinese--a diaspora that has scattered ethnic Chinese in the United States, Canada, South America and Europe. Alumni of the program include prominent area residents, among them former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo, actor Garrett Wang from the “Star Trek: Voyager” TV series and Monterey Park Councilwoman Judy Chu.

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“They learn more about their parents, people, land and history. They can talk to others in the same situation,” said Abraham Li, director of the Chinese Cultural Center, an unofficial Taiwanese consulate in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. (China regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Consequently, the United States does not have a formal diplomatic relationship with the island government.)

The program in Taiwan comes on the heels of President Clinton’s visit to mainland China. In Shanghai last week, Clinton declared that the United States strongly opposed the independence of Taiwan and would continue its support of a “one-China” policy.

Lacking international recognition as a nation, Taiwan has attempted to foster goodwill and interest in the island through the program. Besides watching Chinese opera and martial arts performances, students attended lectures on Taiwan’s foreign policy, economy and relationship with Chinese overseas. Some alumni considered the lectures informative, while others dismissed them as propaganda. But many agreed that the trip made them more aware of Taiwan’s fate.

On the humid, banana-shaped island 7,000 miles away, students study Mandarin with newfound friends and learn about their heritage.

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Lew, 20, has long dreamed of having a lengthy conversation with his 94-year-old great-grandmother, but Yee-Shee Wong understands only Mandarin and Lew speaks only English. By taking language classes and practicing with locals, Lew hopes to pick up the fluency that has eluded him. He already has the questions for his much-anticipated talk.

“I’d like to learn about her childhood, about her experiences,” said Lew, son of U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew. “I just want to get to know her better.”

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When the program started, a few hundred enrolled. Now, there are about 1,000 attending, housed on two campuses. And, as demand continues to rise, hundreds of others are turned away every year. Applicants learn of the study tour by word of mouth and advertisements in Chinese-language newspapers.

The program is staffed by members of the China Youth Corps and educators from Taiwan and the United States, who volunteer to teach Mandarin, sword fighting, dance and other cultural activities.

Attendees pay their plane fare and a $500 program fee, which partially covers room and board, and the Taiwanese government subsidizes the remainder of the visit.

Some critics in Taiwan have questioned the wisdom of supporting a program for nonnative students, arguing that the money would be better spent on domestic problems. In the past, Taiwan’s Yuan, or parliament, has cut spending to the Overseas Chinese Affair Commission, which administers the summer study tour. The program’s budget has since been restored, said Daniel Liao, former director of the Chinese Culture Center in El Monte.

“Through the program, youth see the people of Taiwan, they feel what the people of Taiwan feel,” Liao said. “Once back at home, they may support us with more reason.”

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After the summer, the bonds of the participants help create a network of friends that spans the globe. Reunions are held yearly in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities with Chinese American populations. Business ventures, such as the marketing firm Asian Buying Consortium in Monterey Park, have grown out of the trip.

Lily Chen, 23, a fifth-grade teacher in Canyon Country, viewed her 1994 trip primarily as a vacation. But, once back in the United States, she said, she started following the politics embroiling the island.

“It planted a seed,” said Chen, who grew up in Simi Valley and Northridge. “I’ve come back more informed and asking questions. I’m paying more attention to what’s going on between Taiwan and China.”

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The stronger connection with Taiwan is forged by the shared sense of experience, both with local residents and tour participants. For many, the program is a chance to complete the cultural puzzle of their identity.

Anita Chu, 22, grew up in La Crescenta and attended a high school with a predominantly Caucasian student body. Before Chu left last week, she said she looked forward to the trip.

“I’d like to meet more Chinese people, more friends in general. I’d fit in, be among people like me, other ABC,” Chu mused, referring to the acronym for “American-Born Chinese.”

Her father, Ben Chu, said the trip balances tradition with assimilation. “We are Americans, in the mainstream,” said Chu, a retired engineer from the Department of Water and Power. “But children should keep some of their own [Chinese] culture as well.”

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Bonding with new friends is a large part of the program’s popularity. In turn, many of the friendships evolve into romantic relationships--earning the program the nickname “Love Boat.”

Relationships blossom over shots of diluted snake venom at Snake Alley, an open-air market with live reptiles, on long bus rides touring cultural sites, or at dance clubs named Kiss and Fever.

Many participants have two or three relationships during the program, chuckled Wang, who plays Ensign Harry Kim on “Star Trek: Voyager.” “You’re among a large cross-section of your peers: geeky engineers, dorky girls, prom queens. Obviously, someone will match your level of coolness.”

But beyond the socializing and sightseeing is an important lesson on family: Living in the culture of their parents teaches tour participants what no lecture could.

Roger Hsu, 21, of Northridge, said he used to argue with his mother, who called him a jerk when he joked in a sarcastic manner.

“Now I understand that sarcasm hardly exists in that country,” said Hsu, a student at Cal State Long Beach. “I used to get frustrated, but now I can have a good laugh about it.”


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