Summer conference season is over this year, but what a great time to highlight the reasons that many young Taiwanese American youth and young adults return to these camps year after year. On the West coast, Taiwanese Americans have the TACL and TAYL camps, and on the East coast, TAC/EC and SETAA.
The Taiwanese American Foundation, based in the Midwest, has been hosting its week-long summer conference for Taiwanese American grade school through college students since its inception as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1980. Now located in Manchester, Indiana, the camp draws approximately 300+ participants each year from all over the country. The mission of TAF is “to foster personal growth and develop servant leaders in the Taiwanese American community for the benefit of society.”
To understand the impact such an organization has made on the 2nd generation community, one only needs to hear the touching personal stories of the campers that have attended year after year. Below are some of the memories recounted by a few of this year’s “TAFers,” as they are fondly known:
The first year I attended TAF I was nine years old and already proud of my Taiwanese ancestry. It didn’t matter that I had very little grasp of what it meant to be Taiwanese, only that I was, and I should be proud of it.
I sat on the bus with a friend on our way from the airport to the large campus that was Calvin College. TAF has since relocated to Manchester College in Indiana. The front of the building had been decorated with bright, neon-colored balloons and the sidewalk in front of it proudly displayed the message, “Welcome to TAF 1998.” As we descended from the bus, there came a symphony of screaming, rushing and pealing laughter, all of it echoing off the walls of the buildings. I stood there uncertain, and removed until a counselor approached me and helped me settle in. Her name was Cathy and she was the first person who made me feel welcome. She ate dinner with me, introduced me to the other campers and made sure I was included when we played “get to know you“ games in the common room. Later that evening, my older cousin, Benjamin, came by and talked to me. My three older cousins had been TAF campers and counselors for years and I was the next in line. My cousin Chelsea joined us in 2000 and in 2002 Bronson became a camper. In 2003 my brother arrived and we’re currently waiting for our youngest cousin to attend. There are nine of us cousins and we have all participated in TAF with the exception of the six year old.
I still see the many new friends I made that year. That is what TAF is, a giant family reunion with friends, but there’s always some connection between everyone. I might not personally know the person but I might know a family member or go to school with the other person’s best friend. Just this year, for example, we met a girl there who happened to live in St. Louis, and as it turned out, her father had known our father when they were in college.
Time flies when we are at TAF but it changes too. First comes the excitement of another year, speculation and talk about who is missing and why followed by the easy but steady hum as everyone settles into a routine. Brightened by the water fight where everyone would end up coated in mud on Thursday, the parents will arrive unexpectedly like a harsh clash waking us out of our deep sleep, and suddenly, time will speed up, so that the final two days pass in a whirlwind until it is abruptly snipped off.
Never before have I met so many people who call themselves Taiwanese in the same place. Everyone is Taiwanese. Together we explore our own identities, the history of 228 and, along the way, connect in ways that are indescribable and not just a little bizarre. On the first night we dissolve into small groups that have been randomly assembled. As the week goes on, the people in your small group become your best friends. Secrets, personality quirks and sensitive sides are all revealed to those in the small group, but what is said there will never leave. Under the boiling sun outdoors and the freezing air conditioning inside, we sweat and shiver our way through Taiwan’s unique and colorful history, like the cigar seller who began a revolution, and our own barriers that keep us from each other. TAF is a place for bonding, for building bridges and connections, for exploring and discovering.
As I grew older, we had more discussions on our individual identities, digging deeper and questioning what it was about us that made us-us. Together we waded through the muddy and tangled mess that composed our surroundings. And later TAF helped me talk to my parents, to help me express some of what I was dealing with: growing up with two cultures, trying to cram myself into a space that I was not made for, and finally molding myself to fit who I wanted to be.
On the last night there are the performances on the towering stage in the spot light. And even through the glare and the dark that surrounds the theater I know who is making cat calls and shouting encouragements at those on stage. Nobody minds them because in the next minute we will be sitting down and calling out to the others who will be highlighted with the bright light. The slide show takes place last with the large screen lighting with all the happy faces that were captured, locked into the computer, over the course of the week. Here, at this point, sitting in the dark auditorium, next to my best friends, it will hit me. It’s over. And people will cry, silently and privately at first but the week teaches us to share and the grief spreads like a ripple until the last picture flashes across the screen and the lights come back on. We stand up and we hug and we wipe each other’s eyes before exiting to face the last dance and the last night in the familiar halls of Manchester College.
Every year I return to the same old faces, like finding an old teddy bear who holds a fountain of memories. Breaking curfew and getting caught wile getting to know each other again over a midnight snack of chips and cereal, I remember why I always return to TAF. TAF helps me learn and appreciate what I am and it gives me a support group who will always be there. Why? It’s simple, we attend TAF annually, like migrating birds homing in on a signal because TAF is not just a week away camp-it is my family.
Emmeline K, Age 17, Youth Program, 9 years at TAF
Memories of TAF
I remember those great games we played at TAF. I remember when those great games brought me in to a hole of desire to play them once more. The foosball banging back and forth. The pool balls clashing. The noisy air hockey table. Even the songs we sung and danced to. I remember those group games we played at TAF like stella, butt shuffle, hand games, scream, ride the pony, other great games. But most of all I remember the sound of laughter at TAF. The kids cheering and laughing. Wow do I wish I could play those games just one more time. But the real key to happiness is friends. You can never ever ever live without friends.
Kevin H, Age 10, Junior Program, 3 years at TAF
Taking TAF Back to Toledo
I moved to Toledo, Ohio in the summer of 2004. I was thirteen years old. I hated leaving my home in Houston, Texas. I had lived there for eight years. I had no idea how I would handle my life in this city. I had no friends and I was not accustomed to this.
My parents found out about TAF and decided it would be good for me to spend some time there to learn about Taiwanese culture. I was willing to go because I had nothing else to do in Toledo. When I entered Manchester College, I was pleasantly surprised. There were so many people with smiles on their faces, giving people hugs, greeting people, and helping them with their luggage. I had never seen so many people express so much joy and enthusiasm before. Immediately, I knew I was going to be part of something special. Throughout that week, I made new friends, bonded with my counselors, and learned about ethics and values.
TAF made a difference in my life that year. I walked into TAF with the mentality that I was a “new kid” and didn’t belong. Right when I opened the door to Manchester and participated in TAF games, I knew I was just like everybody else. We were all here to grow as people, appreciate our Taiwanese-American culture, make lifelong friends, express our personalities, and help others in need.
I took my experience at TAF back to Toledo. I walked into my new junior high as a different person. I did not think of myself as the “new kid” at school. I thought of myself as a unique person that had a lot to offer to my new school. I wanted to be confident in myself and be outgoing. It took me some time to make new friends, but in the end I did it. Without TAF, I would have been shy and reserved. I would never have taken the initiative to meet new people.
TAF has taught me to value my friends and family and treat others with kindness. It has taught me to be aware of my identity and to understand that I am a unique person with my own special abilities and personality. It has taught me to communicate with other people by expressing how I feel and listening to others. TAF taught me to be a servant leader that is willing to help others and set good examples for future leaders. Most importantly, TAF taught me to love. The greatest feeling in the world is to know that there are people that love me for who I am. I go to TAF every year to share that feeling with other people. I hope one day, everybody in the world will learn to love people unconditionally. That would be the greatest day of my life.
Justin Y, Age 15, Youth Program, 3 years at TAF
To find out more about the Taiwanese American Foundation, check out the organization website at tafworld.org! Look for registration information and materials each Spring for all the Taiwanese American summer camps occurring around the country!