I am an impatient person, so naturally I dislike long commutes. I loathe the feeling of lost time and I detest inefficiency. Combine these anxieties with motion sickness, and they become downright unpleasant. When I signed on to work at the Taiwan Center for Security Studies (TCSS), I knew to expect a commute, but did not expect it to be maddeningly long. Alas, the bus to TCSS runs on an erratic schedule, and once I finally catch it I am still an hour from my desk. Cruel and unusual.

Fortunately, I’ve found an alternative route. The TCSS rests at the base of a small mountain range in Wenshan District, southern Taipei. Rather than return home directly by walking down the hill to the bus stop, I now turn the opposite direction and head uphill. After about 15 minutes, I arrive at the second station of the Maokong Gondola, which ferries visitors to a ridge where tea houses and farms overlook hiking trails, temples, and the Taipei skyline. Considering the extra exercise and the beautiful scenery, I would describe my new commute as definitely above average.

More importantly, on a hospitable day, the gondola is loaded with tourists – often from mainland China – who are willing to chat. While on a bus, the hustle and bustle of the workday leaves many local residents less interested in engaging with a foreigner, tourists delight in chatting with someone like me who speaks as well as a bumbling toddler.

This holds true with Chinese speakers I have encountered throughout Asia, including Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. One of the most pleasant surprises so far has been my ability to strike up a conversation in Chinese in unlikely places. One of my goals this year was to gain a high level of language proficiency, and I’m quite proud of my progress so far.

The TCSS is itself an interesting place. Ideologically, it is somewhat aligned with the Nationalist Party, aka Kuomintang (KMT), which is currently in opposition but has ruled Taiwan for long stretches of time since it lost a civil war to the Chinese Community Party and moved to the island in 1949. The maps on the walls of TCSS, produced as recently as 2006, candidly depict an alternate reality centered on a Republic of China that still incorporates territories including all of mainland China, even Mongolia and the South China Sea. An organization comprised largely of National Chengchi University professors and international fellows, it is a bit sleepy at times, but engaging with thinkers from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand during seminars and visits on issues of international security and learning their perspectives has been particularly eye-opening for me.

Beyond the TCSS, I have also continued my reserve military service by training with the Marine Expeditionary Force out of Okinawa, Japan. While I have only visited a couple of times, my experience there has been rewarding and augmented my outlook on Asia-Pacific Security. I work there as a civil-military operations planner, and assist my active duty counterparts with studies of the various humanitarian crises in the region, from North Korea to Bangladesh. The opportunity to continue serving as a Marine during the Luce year was unexpected but incredibly fortuitous. I am excited that my assignment there will last several years and allow me to continue engagement in Asia.

by John Phillips on February 20, 2019