BY DAVE WERTIME
It was Sunday night, our first. Heads ached with fatigue from the long flight just landed, and darkness sat thick upon the city. Most of the fifteen members of the Harvard Asia Law Society’s (HALS) annual delegation to Asia couldn’t wait to fall into bed and meet Taipei later when she awoke next morning. Only a few of us assembled in the silent hotel lobby and pushed defiantly into the inky night. We made our first acquaintance with the gleaming maze of tunnels connecting the city’s subway system and ended up at the ShiLin night market to nurse appetites riled by 24 hours of airline meals.
Even the simple errand of walking among tented food stalls set our senses ablaze: merchants came at us waving menus, brightly-lit displays of exotic fruits burst with color, and new smells and the sounds of a new language, Taiwanese Chinese, filled the market. We finally settled on one stall and scarfed down buttery Hibachi like it was our job. It didn’t matter how late it was, we realized – Taipei would always have something for us.
Many of the HALS delegates had visited Taiwan before to study or see family, but we explored Taiwan’s capital with all the zeal of first-time visitors. In a three-day whirlwind that started early the next morning, we gazed into the country’s legal and political system with a vision usually afforded only to the island’s richest and most powerful. On our first day, we met with the President of Taiwan’s top school, National Taiwan University, and made our first acquaintance with some of its students. We walked the floor of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s senate) and spoke at length with senior legislator Dr. Jih-chu Lee. One delegate asked why audience members in the balcony of the Yuan must sit behind a glass barrier, and Dr. Lee answered that it was to keep them from throwing objects at their representatives.
Our second and third day confirmed that Taiwanese democracy is alive, well, and often raucous. We met with two opposing presidential candidates, Xie ChangTing and HLS alumnus Ma YingJiu. Knowing that Taiwan’s future president will likely come from these two, we strove to avoid the appearance of making an endorsement on Harvard’s behalf in a country where politics are sharp-clawed and the name “Harvard” carries tremendous weight. Nevertheless, our meeting with Mr. Ma still showed up on the evening news and next morning’s paper, and our eyes swam with the lasting imprint of a dozen media flashbulbs. Later, three justices of the Taiwan Supreme Court, including its Chief Justice, spoke at length to us about their emotional and intellectual approach to hotly contested political cases.
By day three, work had segued into play. We met with scores of students from National Taiwan University (NTU) and NTU law school, and they amazed and touched us with colorful, detailed presentations in impeccable English, for which preparations had taken months. They were savvy about global politics and economics, and very eager to connect with us. We made fast friends and spent much of the next several days together, eating meals, hitting tourist spots, and going out for nights on the town (at least one karaoke bar in the XimenDing district will never be the same).
The students left a deep impression on many of the delegates, and not just for their obvious talents. We could clearly see both their genuine desire to invest themselves in Taiwan’s future, and their sense, articulated less directly but with equal force, that Taiwan is ultimately a lonely island, one that thirsts for ever more contact with the world.
We left Taiwan only because time ran out. Although we have re-immersed ourselves in the more prosaic pressures of papers and exams, memories like these tend to linger and beckon: Climbing the side of stunning YaMing mountain in the warm morning – gazing down at Taipei city from the top of Taipei 101, a building that shoots 1,667 feet into the air – getting hopelessly, deliciously lost in bustling markets and winding side-streets.
More broadly, HALS delegates left Taiwan with a bittersweet sense that we had left many kindred spirits behind. Not only can we delegates each claim a dozen new Facebook friends from NTU, but even those among us who had seen the island before were taken anew by its food, culture, and its people. Comments like this one from 1L Chieh-Ting Yeh were not uncommon in the days following our return, “Big thanks to everyone for making this trip one of the most awesome weeks of my life.” That says it all…all are encouraged to join HALS for its Spring Break Delegation to another country in Asia next year!