Sin Chew Daily
Hailing from Klang in Selangor, Wong Lee Lan went to Taiwan to further her studies after high school at the age of 18, and later married a Taiwanese man at 27.
Having stayed in Taiwan for 18 years now, Wong has since developed a strong yearning to learn more about her home country, and this has prompted her to take up a postgraduate course in ethnic studies.
She is now a PhD candidate at the Institute of Anthropology at Tsing Hua University, and coach for the university's Malaysia Volunteer Team, taking students to serve at various rural areas across the country. She has also since 2013 taught the Malay and Indonesian languages at National Chengchi University and National Taiwan University.
After reading a report on her leading the volunteer team to Malaysia, Zhen Publishing House editor Low Wee Chia proposed that she pen down her experiences in a book.
Volunteering in Malaysia is a vivid account of three Malaysians towns the volunteers have traveled to and served: Gopeng, Sitiawan and Kuala Sepetang in Perak. The book offers a unique glimpse into the cultural differences between Taiwan and Malaysia.
While there are many Malaysians working and studying in Taiwan, Wong said Taiwanese in general know very little about Malaysia despite the government's ambitious New Southbound Policy in recent years.
One way of entrenching young Taiwanese's knowledge about a new country is to get them to join a voluntary mission there, as they will learn more about the local life after staying there for some time and meeting the local people on a daily basis.
Wong started to take Taiwanese volunteers to Malaysia since 2013 -- Gopeng for the first two years, Sitiawan for the following two years, and Kuala Sepetang in 2017 and 2018. In addition to Kuala Sepetang, Taiping was added last year and will again be the destination this year.
Wong explained that Taiwanese universities organize oversea service trips for student volunteers during each summer vacation. There are four volunteer teams in National Tsing Hua University -- two to Africa, one to South America and another to Malaysia.
The volunteer team's job is to preserve the local culture through field studies, interviews and observations.
Members of the team are mostly first year students.
Wong has traveled to these places several times and this helps her gain a better understanding of each locality, and in her course design in line with the needs of the local people.
"I am not a long-time resident of these towns, but I can serve these localities in my own way. While it may take me one full year to do everything on my own, we can achieve much more each time if I come with ten students from Taiwan!"
Each trip typically takes about 30 days and the size of each mission is kept at between six and 12.
"As we live in guest houses, we cannot bring too many people at one time for ease of management. We will jot down our stories, and take photographs to make into documentary films each time we visit the local people. In more recent years we also hold activities such as a picture book reading event at Kuala Sepetang."
Wong said she is more inclined to take students to places where someone has already started some form of cultural works, such as Gopeng with a local Chinese museum. She nevertheless feels that this alone is not sufficient, as there are a lot more stories of significant value yet to be recorded. And this fits perfectly into her plan for the students.
There are plenty of preparatory works that require months to familiarize student volunteers with the history and culture of Malaysia so that they are better prepared for the trip ahead.
"Many of them don't even know we are a multiracial country made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians and other groups."
Wong said she would rather let the students learn from their own experience and observation instead of telling them what to do.
"For example when ordering food, I'll tell them to observe what the locals eat and order the food courageously in whatsoever language they are comfortable with. They have to learn to overcome the unfamiliar environment in their own ways.
"It's just a Chinese coffee shop but they still feel nervous. However, if they manage to get past this, it will be a big step forward for them!"
During one such trip, she took advantage of the Muslim fasting month to take the students to a Ramadan bazaar, but instructed them not to eat the food before fast-breaking or Iftar. Some who unwittingly gorged up their purchases felt the instant cultural shock from the frowning faces around them.
"To them this is a cultural shock they will never pick up from any text book.
"By talking to the local people during their brief one-month stay in this country, the students manage to have an idea of their woes, problems, environmental issues as well as cultural energy of the locality, such as celebration of the deity's birthday.
Wong is playing the role of a bridge that takes foreign students here and sets the interview topics from which the students will gain some unusual new experiences.
"We only travel to small towns where the presence of a group of young foreigners will be instantly noted. The locals will normally nod with a smile to these visitors which the Taiwanese find unusual back home."
Several days before leaving for home, these students will showcase their stories, pictures and videos in a mini exhibition, including their visits to local Malay houses during the Raya festivity which many Malaysians don't even get to experience.
Wong said some of these Taiwanese students tend to feel uneasy with their identity until they discover that many local Chinese are actually familiar and very fond of Taiwan, besides the fact they speak Hokkien, watch Taiwanese TV dramas, and even talk about politics of Taiwan. Such amicable talks have somewhat relieved their initial tension and give them a whole new perspective looking at their own country when they get back to Taiwan.