Seven years ago, I was selected by my Rotary Club and our district to be the leader of a Group Study Exchange, or GSE, team to Bolivia in South America. Group Study Exchange programs send young professionals for vocational and cultural exchange. Programs typically last 4 to 5 weeks.
Last week, I was tasked with providing an itinerary for a visiting team from the island nation of Taiwan, off the coast of China. This nation, a third the size of Virginia, has 23 million people. Many Taiwanese have both a traditional name and an English name.
- Susan, the team leader, an elegant, always smiling woman with an abundance of service to Rotary. She’s married to a university president near their home in Pingtung and they have three children;
- Maggie, a trim, shy woman who worked for an immigration consultant company;
- Champion, a quiet, intense PhD student in computer science who programmed the animated tiger in the movie The Life of Pi;
- Billy, an outgoing young man who was marketing manager at a cosmetology clinic and who spent several years living in England;
- Brett, a boisterous, big guy with an infectious laugh, who worked in the biotechnology industry;
These folks were all house guests of local Rotarians; Maggie stayed with my wife and me. All of them spoke excellent English, which they learn in grade school.
My job was to line up five days of educational, cultural, and recreational activities for them, but I found that I enjoyed our visits as much as they did.
For example, at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, we got a tour of the Smart Road, including that awesome bridge over Wilson Creek in Ellett Valley. We heard about all the research funding they’re bringing in.
We visited the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke where they’re understanding the fundamental processes of human diseases and health and applying that understanding to better prevention, diagnostics, and therapeutics.
While in Roanoke, we called on Mary Miller, a former member of our club, who now directs the Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program, or RAMP, a start-up accelerator for emerging companies.
We also visited the Virginia Museum of Transportation to show off their collection of locomotives, including the iconic N&W 611. (Note: Taiwan has a bullet train connecting their two largest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung that shortens a 5 hour drive to a 1.5 hour train ride.)
Back in Blacksburg, we arranged tours of the Virginia Tech athletic facilities, including the coliseum, Lane Stadium, and the new football practice building. In Lane, we saw the press box, some of the fanciest private rooms and the broadcast rooms and even got to go on the roof.
We got a tour of the new drone cage on campus, and learned that it is less for drone design and more for drone usage. One researcher was attempting to determine whether a livestock farmer could see individual ear tags on his cows or sheep by drone. We got a great tour at the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where doctors are trained to serve rural populations.
We toured historic Smithfield Plantation and learned about early European settlements of the area and went to the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center where we had presentations from the folks that work on cyber security and a company that raises funds for non-profit organizations.
For fun, we visited Duncan Imports and Classic Cars in Christiansburg and saw their amazing collection of nearly 1000 vehicles. And we hiked the popular trail to the Cascades in Giles County.
Two things impressed me about our vocational hosts. First, there is cutting edge research in a variety of sciences in this area. Second, we were shown tremendous patience and generosity by the guides on our tours.
It seems part of the Taiwanese culture to be logical and science driven, whereas they mentioned what they found here put more of an emphasis on stories and human interests. I encouraged them to think about their presentations when they returned home, to make them less about an accounting of things they did and more about the subtleties of culture. For example, on a hike to a mountaintop before they arrived in our area, they encountered a couple who had just proposed marriage, something that would never be done outdoors in Taiwan.
“Your audiences will cling to your every word,” I suggested, “if you tell them stories about the people you met and how they interacted with you, each other and their environment.”
As a veteran of these GSE experiences, I have learned how quickly lifelong friendships are made. The world can seem an angry, dangerous place, filled with suspicion and mistrust. But when you spend time in the homes of strangers, they don’t stay strangers long. I truly believe that meeting foreigners, spending time with them, and sharing lives with them, will one day save the world.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.