Thursday, July 20, 2017

Taiwan ‘best assignment,’ American diplomat says

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Having served as a diplomat in several foreign countries and territories, a seasoned US diplomat who recently came to the end of his posting in Taiwan described it as the best, not only for himself but also for his family.

“I’ve been a diplomat for 25 years. And Taiwan is my favourite assignment,” said Joseph Bookbinder, who wrapped up his time as public diplomacy section chief for the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and returned to Washington last week.

Both he and his family felt that Taiwan was the best posting he has ever had, Bookbinder said, which is why he chose to extend his three-year term for an additional year.

His family loved Taiwan so much that they did not want to leave, he said, adding that his children enjoyed the Taipei American School. His wife, who is a keen mountain climber, also joined hiking clubs with her friends and conquered several local peaks, according to Bookbinder, whose overseas assignments have included stints in China, Hong Kong and India.

Asked about his favourite place in Taiwan, the diplomat named where the family lived in Taipei’s Yangmingshan area, although he said he has visited many parts of Taiwan. They had an organic garden at the backyard of the house, where they grew many vegetables and a papaya tree, he said.

For his job, Bookbinder also felt that three years were not enough to complete everything he wanted to achieve in his position at AIT’s Taipei office. The AIT represents US interests in Taiwan in the absence of bilateral diplomatic ties.

Noting that his main task was to reduce the distance between AIT and the people of Taiwan, Bookbinder noted the efforts made to boost exchanges with the Taiwanese people through social media engagement, such as Facebook, concerts and other outreach events.

Examples also included growing bilateral cultural and educational exchanges, by for example bringing more American young adults to work with Taiwanese teachers to teach local children English, he said.

Meanwhile, AIT has worked with several Taiwanese government agencies to promote bilateral educational exchanges, which have expanded to include a growing number of Taiwanese students studying in the United States and American students in Taiwan, he added. Beyond those exchanges, achievements made during his time in Taiwan also included the establishment of the American Innovation centre and the hosting of two hackathons in Taipei.

Speaking about the innovation centre, which opened in Taipei in January 2014, Bookbinder noted that it was part of AIT’s efforts to engage with young people in Taiwan.

The centre, a place for young people interested in science and technology, offers free classes and cooperates with local partners in an effort to improve the skills of young Taiwanese and introduce them to American technologies and products, he said.

The classes cover areas such as 3D-printers and robots, he added.

“We wanna expand Taiwan’s international space,” he said referencing Taiwan’s participation in US-organised global hackathons, in which Taiwanese teams performed well, despite being a first-time participant.

In June 2016, team “Akubic” from Taiwan was declared the global winner of the third annual Fishackathon, organised by the US Department of State. The team’s solution sought to control the population of an invasive species by using online real-time temperature and flow data to predict spawning times of Asian carp in the Great Lakes region.

In June this year, three Taiwanese teams also performed impressively in the final round of the 2017 NASA International Space Apps Challenge, the AIT said.

Among them, team Space Bar won first place in the category “Best Mission Concept,” one of the five main categories in the final stage of global competition in the NASA hackathon, it said. The team’s winning app, an easy-to-use tool, allows the public to obtain and understand landslide data by using NASA’s open data, and to contribute their own observations for use by emergency managers, AIT has said.

Having Taiwan participate in these events was “a way to expand Taiwan’s international presence,” Bookbinder said, adding that AIT is working to ensure Taiwan’s continued participation in the hackathons next year.

Looking back at his four years in Taiwan, Bookbinder said that one thing that makes Taiwan different from other places he has served in was the friendliness of the people. Citing his own experience, he said Taiwanese people often took the initiative in seeking to help those who appear lost.

Asked about his favourite food in Taiwan, he named breakfast foods served at little eateries, including sesame flat bread, deep-fried Chinese donuts and Chinese omelets.

They are “tasty and inexpensive,” he said. “I’m gonna really miss that.”

As for the development of Taiwan-US relations, the US diplomat said that Taiwan has many friends in the US, including in the executive branch, Congress and among the American people.

He believes that “strong, unofficial relations” will continue in the future.

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