Young Taiwanese opting for life-changing experiences overseas

Hung Sheng-kai (洪聖凱, left) and his patient in Burkina Faso. Photo courtesy of Hung
By Elaine Hou, CNA staff reporter
Teaching people in Africa how to take medicine properly and advising them to get tested for HIV are not the typical tasks Taiwan’s young men perform when they serve their mandatory, typically one-year military service after graduating from college.

Many of the men are allowed to serve alternative military service by working in government offices as clerical staff.

But for an increasing number of Taiwanese young men, going to less developed countries to help the people there is a preferred alternative to fulfilling their conscription duty in Taiwan.

Two Taiwanese young adults who recently finished serving their alternative military service overseas said they learned a lot during their time in Burkina Faso and Belize, respectively, and that those experiences have changed their plans for life.

Instead of serving ordinary military service in Taiwan, Hung Sheng-kai (洪聖凱) and Robert Wang (王柏荃) were among the 86 draftees sent overseas last year to serve alternative service to help Taiwanese foreign aid programs.

Taiwan has many programs to help its diplomatic allies in Latin America, Africa and the South Pacific.

During an interview with CNA, Hung said he chose to serve in the African country of Burkina Faso because he was inspired by the story of Lien Chia-en (連加恩).

Lien, a graduate of National Yang Ming University’s medical school, is known for his work in Burkina Faso, including helping build wells and orphanages, while he was serving alternative military service there in 2002.

Lien was among the first group of Taiwanese men on the program initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2001 to promote youth international exchanges and provide opportunities to cultivate talent for international cooperation projects.

Under the program, draftees who pass the selection process and have sought-after skills are allowed to serve alternative service overseas to help with Taiwan’s technical and medical missions, or other aid programs in the Latin American, African and the South Pacific countries.

Since it was launched, the program has seen more than 1,000 Taiwanese young men go abroad to provide assistance to local people in the fields of agriculture, medical services, public health and others, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Before departing for the country they will be posted in, they receive six weeks of training that include foreign language and culture courses, said Taipei-based International Cooperation and Development Fund (TaiwanICDF), which is commissioned by the ministry to organize the pre-departure orientation.

With growing interest in the program, the number of spaces available each year has been gradually expanded, from 36 in 2001 when the program first started to 86 last year.

Learning of Lien’s story, the 26-year-old Hung said he made efforts to follow in his footsteps: enter a medical school and serve alternative service in Burkina Faso to help people there.

After graduating from Tzu Chi University’s School of Medicine, he finally realized his dream when he departed for the African country last November and began his alternative service there.

Recalling his nine months there, Hung told CNA that the challenges he faced went beyond trying to help patients when there was only much less advanced medical equipment available.

While serving at a hospital in Koudougou, a city in central Burkina Faso, he encountered cases in which patients failed to take medicine correctly because the country’s rate of illiteracy was high and many people could not read the instructions.

After discovering the problem, he said, he started to ask his patients to come back to the outpatient clinic after obtaining the medicine from the pharmacy, and then he would “tell” them again how the medicine should be taken, to make sure they knew the dosage to take and how often they should take it.

Robert Wang (王柏荃, center) and his colleagues in Belize. Photo courtesy of Wang

Another unforgettable experience for him was when he found a local man suspected of being infected with the HIV virus. The man and his fiancee had gone to Hung for pre-marriage health checkup.

Hung told the man, in the presence of his fiancee, that he might be infected with HIV and that further testing was needed. The man, however, did not return for the tests, probably due to a sense of embarrassment, Hung said.

From that incident, Hung learned how to better deal with similar cases in the future in a way that avoided the risk of hurting patients’ feelings or making them embarrassed.

“I could have talked to the man individually that he might be infected with HIV virus, without the presence of his fiancee,” he said.

Despite the hardships and poorer environment he encountered in a less developed country, Hung was not deterred. His time in Burkina Faso, instead, sparked his desire to join Doctors Without Borders to provide international humanitarian assistance to refugees and other people in need.

Wang, who obtained a master’s degree in plant pathology and microbiology from National Taiwan University, was another Taiwanese man who learned valuable lessons from his alternative service.

The 25-year-old was posted in the Central American country of Belize to help with a program launched by TaiwanICDF to help combat the citrus greening disease, or Huanglongbing, which is caused by the tiny insect Asian citrus psyllid.

The disease poses a grave threat to Central America’s citrus industry, and could result in huge losses in the production of oranges, tangerines and other citrus fruits.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Wang said of his time in the English-speaking country of Belize from last November to August this year.

It provided him an opportunity to put what he learned at school into practice and apply his knowledge to help local farmers grow healthy citrus-bearing trees, he said.

Through working with local people on the program, he also learned to be patient with others, when being in a country of a different culture, Wang said.

But the most valuable experience was, perhaps, the confidence he gained from living overseas which gave him the courage to apply for a job with international firms that develop agricultural technology, such as Bayer.

“Before I went to Belize, I didn’t think about pursuing a career with big international firms and working overseas because my English ability is not that good,” he said.

“But now I think I can fit into a different culture in a foreign country.”