Taiwanese American Summer Camp: Does the 3rd Gen Need It?

At the beginning of the summer, I received a Facebook reminder that the early-bird registration discount for TAF (Taiwanese American Foundation—the largest and longest-running summer camp for children and teens of Taiwanese descent in the US and Canada), was ending in just a week.

Always a sucker for a good deal, I brought up the idea with my husband about sending our daughter. We both had attended the camp as teenagers and young adults, and considered it an essential part of our formative years. We still vividly remember the euphoria of arriving for the week, the intensity of our small group sessions, the emotional goodbyes, and the crushing, post-TAF blues.

Yet when our eldest child reached TAF-going age, we wavered.

“Do our kids have issues with their identity? Do they really need to boost their Taiwanese-American-ness?” we wondered.

Living in southern California, our children’s school was approximately 20% Asian and another 25% multi-racial, with many of the latter group being part-Asian. Most of our daughter’s closest friends were Asian-Americans like herself (indeed, sometimes we had trouble picking her out from the crowd), a stark contrast to my own elementary school, where the only other Asian girl in my year moved away in 3rd grade, leaving me the lone representative of my race.

Besides her current diverse environment, we had also recently returned from living in Singapore for the past six years; our children were not only bilingual in Mandarin and English, but also bicultural, able to fit in at the various local camps in Taiwan we threw them into every summer with little difficulty.

“Does she really need TAF?” we asked each other.

“What is it, like a match-making camp?” a non-Taiwanese friend of mine joked when I mentioned it to her.

“Only for the lucky ones,” I said back to her with a wink (yes, my husband and I met at TAF, but that’s a story for another day).

Formed in 1980, TAF is a volunteer-run, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to foster personal growth and develop servant leaders in the Taiwanese American community for the benefit of society. Every summer over 250 campers get together at TAF’s flagship event for a fun-filled week of learning about themselves and their Taiwanese heritage.*

My first year was the summer of 1991; I was 12, and at the peak of pre-teen insecurity, anti-parental angst, and self-identity uncertainty. After a week at TAF, however, I came home completely transformed—in mind and in spirit. I had never been around that many Taiwanese-Americans before, which was itself a novelty, but there was something about the energy, the fun, the connections, the shared experiences, and unreserved acceptance—in short, TAF promptly became not only the most important part of my summer, but of my entire life. I went on to attend TAF every summer for the next eight years, holding coordinator and counselor positions, and spending the rest of the year counting down the days until TAF week.

As expected, however, life got busy. In late college, I had summer internships that conflicted with TAF week; then, I graduated, got my first job, got married, had kids, moved abroad, and TAF got shoved into a “fond memories” box, along with my old camp yearbooks and name tags.

Then one day I looked up; we were back in the US, our daughter was 11 years old, and TAF was dangling an early-bird discount in front of us.

We made a quick decision and signed her up for the Juniors program. “What the heck,” I told my husband, “at least we’ll know some of the people in charge and can ask them to keep an eye on her for us, right?”

At drop-off, we checked out her dorm room, gave her a big hug goodbye and made a brisk exit, leaving her in a circle of campers and counselors who were playing “Stella Ola Ola,” a game I had played nearly 30 years prior.

The week passed quickly; she video-chatted with us every night, a mandate in the Juniors program. By mid-week, she had lost her voice, another aspect of TAF of which I was not unfamiliar. I asked her if she had talked about being Taiwanese in her small group at all (“No,” she responded) or spoken any Taiwanese words (“Bah-tsàng,” she said. “Oh, and boba, does that count?”). We returned for the weekend parent’s program, running into old friends whom we had not seen in decades, and remembering the bonds we had shared.

I remarked to one of these friends that my husband and I had not been sure if we should send our kids to TAF at all—listing all the reasons why they didn’t need it, and perhaps could benefit more from, say, coding or tennis camp. She was also married to a second-generation Taiwanese-American and had high school-aged children, and I asked her what her decision-making process had been.

She surprised me by saying that her decision had very little to do specifically with Taiwanese-American identity, but much more with wanting her children to learn about communication, leadership, and other “soft skills” that she herself had learned from her own attendance at TAF. “I learned all of those life skills at TAF,” she said, “not at any class I took in high school or college.”

I considered her words. I had read numerous media and research reports stating that the enigmatic EQ—as opposed to IQ—is what sets leaders apart from the rest, that the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions and identify the emotions of others, is what makes a smart person into a successful one. I thought about the rotating themes of TAF—Identity, Ethics and Values, Communication, and Leadership—and how this fit into the development of higher EQ.

As I continued to discuss the TAF experience with my friend, I, too, began to appreciate that so many of my strengths in being an effective leader, team member and even friend, spouse, and parent, came from skills that I had acquired and developed at TAF. Adapting to various styles of communication, how to build strong relationships, how to lead with compassion and respect, and understanding my own values—these are all concepts that I learned at TAF, and not in any textbook or syllabus of any course I took throughout my education.

After we got home, my daughter went through her own post-TAF blues depression (seemingly less painful, though, than what I experienced way-back-when, before text messaging and FaceTime existed). She names TAF as the BEST PART of the entire summer, and that’s high praise, considering her summer also included a class trip to China, multiple camps in Taiwan, and a week of eating chocolate croissants in Paris. Her little brother, after hearing his sister rave about her week, can’t wait to go, too.

In summary, TAF was the best part of our daughter’s summer. She learned valuable life skills that likely won’t be taught anywhere else, AND my husband and I get a week to ourselves.  In case there’s any doubt, just stating it outright here: we’re DEFINITELY sending both kids next summer.

Raised in Michigan and a graduate of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Stephanie Suga Chen is a former partner of a New York City-based investment fund. She is also the author of the Straits Times bestselling novel, Travails of a Trailing Spouse, and an upcoming yet-to-be-named sequel. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @StephanieSugaChen.

*Paragraph is from TAF’s website: https://www.tafworld.org/

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