First published by Searchlight on August 17th, 2010
Listen to the interview
They were “tired” of their monotonous routine, but motivated by a love for volunteerism and an opportunity to realize their dreams.
They had never heard about St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) but the description fit for what they were looking for.
Consultations with former nationals, who had come to the Caribbean nation, allayed their fears.
“No problem. St. Vincent is a paradise,” they were told.
And so, they quit their jobs, shelved their plans for further studies, said ‘see you in two years’ to their friends and families, and took the two-day journey west to SVG.
“I feel lucky I served [for] two years here,” Taiwan Overseas Volunteer Henry Lai, 26, tells SEARCHLIGHT of his stint as Project Planner at the Ministry of Tourism.
“I won’t regret it. St. Vincent is really ‘the Caribbean you are looking for,'” he says.
Lai, along with fellow volunteers Shao-yi Wang, 33, and Smile Chiang – who is “20 years forever” – will leave SVG this month after two-years of unpaid public service.
Chiang and Wang, both pharmacists, were attached to the Kingstown Clinic and the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital (MCMH), respectively.
They also dispensed medicine at other state-owned pharmacies across the country, including in the Grenadines.
The trio came to the SVG under the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) Volunteers programme.
ICDF Volunteers have contributed to the promotion of world progress and prosperity, assisted Taiwan-friendly developing nations with economic development, and expanded Taiwan’s cooperative foreign assistance operations since 1993.
Two ICDF Volunteers were scheduled to arrive here last Saturday. They bring the number of ICDF Volunteers assigned to SVG since 2001 to 18.
“For me, it’s all positive,” Lai says, as Wang and Chiang speak of a generally positive experience here.
Chiang laughs embarrassingly and say she will miss male passers-by telling her “I love you” and calling her “sexy baby”, although she spoke of mentally ill people on the streets.
Before applying to be a volunteer, Wang, who became a Christian after coming to SVG, had thought “St. Vincent” was the name of a church.
“It was the first time I heard about a country named St. Vincent,” she admits.
However, subsequent research spoke of SVG’s support for Taiwan at the United Nations, something the volunteers “appreciate”.
This country, St. Lucia and St. Kitts/Nevis are the three remaining nations in the English-speaking Caribbean that still recognize Taipei as a capital independent of Beijing.
Formal diplomatic support for Taiwan internationally has dwindled to 23, in the face of an increasingly economically powerful China.
China claims that the self-governed Taiwan is a renegade province to be reunited with China, by force if necessary.
In SVG, both the government and opposition have expressed their committment to further develop the relationship between Kingstown and Taipei, which has continued uninterrupted since 1984.
Charged with overseeing those ties is Ambassador Leo Lee, who will leave SVG on Thursday, August 19, after a two-year tour of duty.
“[V]ery fulfilling,” Lee says of his time here, adding that talks of a “people to people relationship” by both Taiwanese and Vincentian state officials was “true” and not merely diplomatic language.
“Our staff, including myself, interface with the farmers, we also interact directly with NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations), especially on the environmental side.”
Lee mentioned the group of Taiwanese Youth Ambassadors who had a two-week cultural exchange with students at the Community College, last month.
He also stated that during his stint, the number of Vincentians who receive scholarships for degree and language programmes in Taiwan, have increased from five to nine annually.
But mention “St. Vincent” or “the Caribbean” to Taiwanese in Taiwan and you are likely to be greeted with quizzical looks or to be asked “Africa? Central America?”
Taiwanese often ask scholarship recipients why Taiwan’s government give scholarships to foreigners when Taiwanese have to finance their own education and receive few scholarships from overseas.
Lee says this “kind of culture” is “unfortunate”, explaining that the Taiwanese media place little emphasis on international affairs.
The Taiwanese government, Lee says, has been trying to increase, via state-owned media, the amount of information disseminated in Taiwan about its allies.
In making the case for SVG-Taiwan relations as opposed to ties with the communist China, Lee says:
“St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a sovereign country with [the] right to make friends with any country [it chooses]. But, the relationship [between Taiwan and SVG] is based on shared values: democracy, rule of law, [and] respect for human rights.”
The work of volunteers Lai, Chiang and Wang, happens away from these diplomatic goings on.
They travel by public transportation and interact with Vincentians daily, where they were exposed to what Wang called the “relaxed … slow tempo” of Vincentian work ethic.
“Taiwanese people are too nervous about the job,” said Wang who got over motion sickness since she came to SVG and has fallen in love with the mini buses here.
But while Wang and Chiang say their Vincentian pharmacist colleagues are well qualified and have pleasant personalities,
they claim that these Vincentians sometimes procrastinate reportage and the replenishing of medical supplies.
“There are maybe one or two. But you can see this situation,” she says. Lai speaking of his “dynamic” colleagues at the Ministry of Culture, said “Not only [have] I shared my Taiwan experience with them, I also leant from the Vincy realm,” he says, adding, “I also improved my English.”
Wang said the Milton Cato Memorial is a “nice hospital, better than I thought,” with a highly trained staff. She however acknowledged the State’s limited resources.
“If you don’t have enough medicine, even if you have a great doctor, the patient can’t be cured,” she says.
The volunteers laud the country’s natural beauty, including its greenery and coastline. “It is a treasure from … God. You should protect that,” Wang says of the lush vegetation.
They love breadfruit, roti and callaloo soup, especially when it is made with river lobster. But Chiang thinks that Vincentians should eat more vegetables and less meat.
“It’s for public health,” Wang adds. “Actually, meat is delicious; but meat [mixed] with vegetables is delicious too. You can try that.”
Ambassador Lee will travel to Washington, where he will continue his 28-year career in diplomacy as Taiwan’s Deputy Representative in that state.
The volunteers will return to Taiwan to continue their career and their education – their lives.
Wang is taking with her a new religion and a new dream. She hopes to study the management of non-profit organisations.
“That’s all because of this experience. That’s all because I came here,” she says.
“[Guys telling me] I love you is funny,” Chiang laughed.
“I will miss here,” says Lai frankly. “I hope to come back in the near future, take a cruise,” he says.