As I walk in, I’m greeted by several familiar faces – friends I’ve met and connected with at various other recent events. There’s Erica Ling, one of the organizers of next year’s West Coast Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association Conference at UC San Diego, and Janet Chien, another student I met at this past year’s ITASA Conference hosted by University of Southern California where I was invited to be a keynote speaker. I’m also warmly welcomed by Amy Lee and Mendel Lin, who are both organizers for the newly formed Taiwanese American Organization at UC Irvine. Brian Tseng, the other TACL-LID camp co-director welcomes me as Jason Tsai introduces me to the rest of the crew.
Everyone takes a moment to say hello, but it’s clear I’ve walked right into some deep preparation for their southern California camp, which has been on hiatus for the past five years and is now making a comeback. These select leaders, who have been hand-picked after an interview/application process, are clearly motivated to bring some energy and excitement to camp. I comment to Jason how impressed I am with what I see. Humbly, he replies, “It’s not that Brian and I have the most experience or anything. It’s really important to us, that’s why we’re doing it. All the counselors have the passion for it. We want everyone to contribute… and things like that help everyone gain ownership.”
Warm greetings gradually turn into loud coordinated shouts of Taiwanese American pride as they head right back into a practice session for some of the camp cheers they have been working on. I quickly step to the side and take an observational role, appreciative that I can peer into the intricate behind-the-scenes planning that’s taking place here.
Like many of the other Taiwanese American summer camps and conferences across the country, TACL-LID camp has its own rich history, originally driven by the 1st generation Taiwanese American parents who helped to establish and support it, then carried on by the emerging 2nd generation leaders within our community. TACL was established in 1985 as a civic organization with the mission to enhance the quality of life for Taiwanese Americans by focusing on leadership, identity, networking, and citizenship programs. During the early 1990’s, a desire to organize more targeted 2nd generation programs prompted TACL to introduce a youth-focused summer camp. Originally known just as TACL (“tackle”) camp, it rotated around various college campuses in the southern California region. At its peak during the mid 1990’s, a winter camp was also established. As the camp programs became more refined and focused on leadership development, the LID camp branding also became more prominent. These days, the organizers simply call their program “LID camp.”
I ask Brian Tseng to give me more insight into why he finds LID camp so important. He tells me, “It was the first time I was at a camp where I was surrounded by other Taiwanese Americans, and that’s when I realized all the people around me were similar to me. Their parents brought them up the same way I was. It became the thing I did every year, and the bonds that I forged with these friends would be for the rest of my life. It was a really great program. That’s why Jason and I wanted to bring it back.”
Knowing some of the background as well as challenges TACL has faced in recent years augments my appreciation for this group of mostly new counselors. For whatever reason, LID camp was cancelled about five years ago, and with the loss of momentum and continuity of leadership, they’ve had a difficult time re-establishing the program. But through the leadership of some prior TACL camp staff and participants, now young professionals who remember fondly their formative experiences with camp, they are devoted to creating an equally inspiring experience for this year’s new LID camp. Brian, like Jason, is one of the handful of leaders in this group who remembers the original TACL camp. “I started in 2000, it was the first time I was a camper, eventually I became a counselor, but it died out before I became a coordinator. And at that time, I didn’t feel comfortable coordinating. But for the last few years, Jason and I have been talking about bringing it back, and finally our schedules worked out, so we’re really excited about that.”
Tuning back to the crowd in this artsy loft space, the counselors settle onto the floor space and engage in a large group discussion. Here, the tedious nitty-gritty details of camp planning take place as they spend a considerable amount of time dealing with potential camp scenarios. Clearly, they want the participants to get the most out of the camp experience, but realize safety and comfort of the campers is a priority. What if a camper is reluctant to participate or too shy to get involved? How will they handle the situation? The group discusses their various approaches, sharing their individual ideas, yet forming a group consensus on how they will make camp run most effectively. Jennifer Lam, one of the new counselors, assesses the preparation they’ve been going through, “I’m very happy with the counselor training. I’m already getting lots out of it, meeting a lot of different people from different areas. I’m also really excited about seeing the end of camp when it’s all successful – that will make me very happy.”
After watching them act out various scenarios, I can quickly see that their energy, humor, and empathetic personalities will be adored by their campers. I have no doubt they’ve already placed the campers, who they have not yet met, first and foremost in their minds.
As co-directors Jason and Brian organize the group for the next agenda item, I sit back and note how well this group works together. As I’ve often said myself, the best leaders must also be the best followers. Personally, I know many of these folks are leaders in the organizations they come from, but clearly they know how to work towards the same goals in the most effective way. There are no outliers demanding the spotlight when their appointed leaders are guiding the agenda.
Throughout various breaks and transitions, I continue to ask some of the counselors to share their thoughts and opinions. The answers I receive are clearly revealing, but maybe the one comment that puts it all into perspective is shared by another new counselor, Amy Lee. “In the process of growing up, it’s really important to learn about who you are and to connect with our community and grow from that.”
As the meeting closes, and we move on to an informal dinner, several thoughts run through my head. My first thought is that many of these leaders have found inspiration and examples from role models before them or from the Taiwanese American community programs that bring our 2nd generation together. It only reinforces the importance of creating and supporting programs such as this one so that we continually develop leaders who are committed to serving our community. As Brian put it succinctly, “I want to give this new generation of Taiwanese Americans a chance to become tight friends. I feel like everyone who goes to camps like these, if they see each other in the future five or ten years down the line, they just share this bond. Of course I also learned a lot about myself and my culture, but the bonding is what makes camp so special.” It’s a cycle of positive reinforcement that can only strengthen Taiwanese America.
My final thought is a little bit selfish. I’m a wee bit jealous that I’m not able to be a closer part of this group, too. I have my camp “families” that I work closely with at the San Francisco Bay area’s TAYL camp and the Midwest region’s TAF camp, but I’m also drawn to this crowd and wish I could be a part of this amazing movement to revive a much-needed camp. For now, I’ll just have to be there in spirit…
This year’s camp will take place from August 5-9, 2009 at Pine Springs Ranch in Mountain Center, CA. This 480-acre ranch is nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains. Know some middle or high school-aged Taiwanese Americans near the LA area? It’s not too late to register! Visit: http://lidcamp.org
Ho Chie Tsai, creator of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, knows the impact that these summer camps and conferences make on the 2nd generation. He used to run the grade school “Juniors” program at the Midwest’s Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF) summer conference and the Taiwanese American Conference / East Coast (TAC/EC) kids’ program during the 1990’s. Those memories and experiences remain one of his greatest motivations for continuing to build a stronger community for our next generation.