A Rotary Friendship Exchange can be whatever you want it to be
By Nancy Shepherdson
Sometimes great experiences sneak up on you when you least expect them. One morning last year, I was at my club meeting when someone mentioned plans to go to Taiwan on a Rotary Friendship Exchange trip. Several spots were open. The cost seemed unbelievably low: $80 a day, including airfare, for a two-week stay.
Next thing I knew, goldfish were nibbling my feet.
Before this trip, I knew very little about Rotary Friendship Exchange. Since becoming a Rotarian in 2004, I had occasionally heard about one, but always after the fact. For some reason, finding one I could actually go on remained elusive. What I’ve since learned (along with the secret handshake) is that every Friendship Exchange trip is entirely the responsibility of the Rotarians involved. Decide you want to go somewhere, and you can make it happen.
According to Rotary.org, Friendship Exchanges can broaden international understanding, foster peace and service, and give participants a chance to learn about a new culture and find partners for projects. Groups can include nonmembers as well as Rotarians and can be as small as one person; ours numbered 17. Friendship Exchanges involve two visits, with each country hosting participants from the other.
Our trip to Taiwan involved five clubs in the United States and several in Taiwan, led by a new club, the Rotary Club of DaDu. After the Atlanta convention in 2017, Rotarians from Taiwan traveled to the Chicago area and stayed at homes in suburban Barrington and Schaumburg, Illinois. They wanted to see sights such as RI headquarters in Evanston and Rotary founder Paul Harris’ grave on Chicago’s far South Side, as well as several club projects. Group leader Uen-Hua Chao (who goes by the nickname Aircon) was particularly interested in a vocational scholarship program started by the Rotary Club of Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates at Harper College, and has since decided to start something similar in Taiwan.
“Any club or members can contact any other club to initiate an exchange, but it is most effective when there’s a connection,” notes Mark Gibson, president of the Rotary Club of Barrington Breakfast. In our case, that connection was Eric Lin, a Taiwan native who lives half the year in Barrington and is also a member of the Barrington Breakfast club.
Our group left for Taiwan for the second part of the exchange in November 2017. Before we left, we met several times to learn about what we could expect in Taiwan and to practice a song, called “The Moon Represents My Heart,” that we planned to sing in Chinese at every Rotary club we visited. We started out as acquaintances, even strangers, and quickly became friends. Nothing brings people together like murdering a song.
Eric and Mark worked together for six months to plan what we would see and do. Host families and Rotary activities were arranged by Aircon, who had just started the DaDu club specifically for younger people in his hometown of Dadu, an industrial suburb of Taichung, Taiwan’s second-largest city. As they planned, the exchange morphed into one that combined cultural experiences, a service project, and a sister district agreement. “Friendship Exchange is just a shell you can fill with whatever you want,” Mark says.
Of course, the most interesting aspect of the trip, from the point of view of the travelers, was the opportunity to stay with local families. Most of our host families were members of the new club and were carefully vetted by Eric to make sure they were committed to their hosting duties and to making friends with their visitors. We were advised to bring gifts; mine was a book of artsy attractions in Chicago. As it happened, my “host mom,” Amy, had been to Oregon as a girl and had always wanted to visit Chicago. And I had studied Chinese in college. I remembered how to say “eat” (chi fan) when she announced dinner, which helped loosen things up. We talked politics, language, and culture, laughing all the way. Amy translated the hard stuff for her husband, Jacky, and for me. It wasn’t long before I felt as if I had known them for years.
The service project deployed part of the group to an elementary school in Dadu. Six Rotarians spent four days at the school, helping students from kindergarten through sixth grade practice English conversation. “We had to assume that most of the kids wouldn’t be very good at English but that some might be, and we were mostly right,” remembers Marie Bolchazy, a Barrington Breakfast Rotarian and a retired teacher who developed the curriculum. Entertainment was paramount and included Halloween costumes, the Hokey Pokey (for body parts), “Old MacDonald” (for farm animals), and stickers.
The rest of the group spent that week exploring the Dadu area, visiting temples, museums, and parks. Some had only signed up for the homestay week, but the rest of us spent another week touring Taiwan, getting to know the culture – which was fairly foreign to the experience of most of us – and the people, who turned out to be exceptionally friendly. We went to Rotary meetings conducted exclusively in Chinese (although we couldn’t understand the words, the rhythms were familiar), ate huge amounts of foods we didn’t always recognize, gaped at mountain gorges and magnificent coastlines, and visited Dr. Fish Spa, where hundreds of little fish nibbled at our toes.
In the smaller cities and the countryside, we found 7-Elevens selling unfamiliar goods and neon-lit roadside shops selling betel nut, an addictive stimulant. The closer we got to big cities, the more likely we were to find (sometimes gargantuan) McDonald’s and KFC restaurants, along with Rotarians who wanted to welcome us, feed us, and generally make us feel welcome. In return, we sang them that Chinese song.
As we approached Taipei, the capital, we had a last-minute change of schedule. The governor of District 3481, Jenn-Pan Horng – known as J.P. – was eager to meet us. He wanted to renew a sister district agreement that was signed in 2012 as part of a Group Study Exchange. He was also interested in hearing about a project of our district that places X-ray machines in Guatemalan villages that did not previously have access to this technology. With the new agreement signed between J.P. and Suzanne Gibson, who will be 2019-20 governor of District 6440, J.P. pledged $37,500 to fund the purchase and installation of a machine.
“Rotary’s most powerful tool for building peace in the world is Rotary Friendship Exchange,” Suzanne said at the signing of the sister district agreement. And after everything that was accomplished on the trip, our group became believers. Bill Kelley of the Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates club spent most of the 13-hour plane ride back discussing his plans to build on what we had seen and done. “After Taiwan, I was incredibly excited by the possibilities,” he says. “I particularly admired the entrepreneurial spirit of local Rotarians. The trip opened my eyes to a whole new level of Rotarian involvement that is possible both locally and worldwide.”
Personally, I was looking forward to more productive brainstorming at the Rotary Convention in Toronto in June, where we planned to meet up. After a Friendship Exchange that resulted in an effective service project, a substantial donation, and a renewed sister district agreement, it’s easy to imagine great things in our future.
Amazing what friends can accomplish.
- Nancy Shepherdson, an assistant governor in District 6440, plans to make her next vacation a Rotary Friendship Exchange.
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