San Francisco Career Trek: "What's SAIS?"

A Taiwanese shuaige pose in Mountain View, CA, moments before being reprimanded by Google security. Over spring break, I participated in an energy, technology and finance career trek in the San Francisco Bay Area. We visited sixteen companies, including: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Pattern Energy, First Solar, California Public Utilities Commission, Google, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Tesla, McKinsey and the Federal Reserve.

The career trek was a great opportunity to visit the diverse workplaces of SAIS alumni. And for someone who had never left the East Coast, it was a mind-boggling introduction to the culture of Silicon Valley perks.

One of two smoothies shamelessly consumed at Dropbox.

However, the career trek was most instructive for another reason. In Washington, D.C., the SAIS degree is well-regarded: SAIS graduates dominate the World Bank, State Department, International Monetary Fund, and Massachusetts Avenue think tanks. In an article for the Atlantic, "The  Surprising Similarities Between Beijing and DC's Elites," a fellow at a Washington think tank visited the foremost research institution in China:

"It instantly reminded me of the fabled 'SAIS mafia' (this is probably too niche a term for those outside the beltway) that seem to permeate various facets of professional life in the American capital."

But in San Francisco? We were lucky to encounter a non-alumnus who had even heard of SAIS. Companies in the energy and technology sectors know what to expect from a computer science major or an MBA student. An M.A. in International Relations and International Economics, on the other hand, is much more difficult to grasp.

Yet SAIS students have a multidisciplinary skill set that matches or exceeds any MBA program. Students enroll in courses related to statistics, econometrics, corporate finance, project finance, economic development, renewable energy, environment policy, and regional history and politics. They gain advanced proficiency in a foreign language. They have a keen understanding of political systems, regulation and international trade, and can translate their understanding into opinion editorials or 40-page research papers.

The career trek taught us that we cannot take these skills -- or the reputation of SAIS -- for granted. We must learn to clearly articulate our passions, comparative advantages, and unique backgrounds. But we should also learn from MBA students: Many SAIS students cannot speak in the language of business, and struggle with case study-style interviews. Additionally, while companies like McKinsey promote the 80-20 rule -- 80 percent of the impact with 20 percent of the effort -- many SAIS students can become lost in the details, unsatisfied until they reach a 99 percent correct solution.

I accumulated some serious company swag in San Francisco. But my newfound perspective on my degree -- its advantages and challenges, and my own areas for self-improvement -- was the most valuable take-away of the trek.

Sampling San Francisco's infamous toast and Blue Bottle coffee.

Xiaolongbao at Shanghai Dumpling King after a morning of disc golf.

Not on the level of Din Tai Fung, but I'll take it!

Recycling Culture in Taiwan

The New York Times recently published an article about my favorite small, sweet potato-shaped island: "Short on Space, Taiwan Embraces a Boom in Recycling." According to the article, recycling rates in Taiwan are among the highest in the world, largely in response to limited real estate, as well as the valuable waste produced by technology companies:

In the boom days of the 1980s and 1990s, factories in Taiwan made products as varied as plastic umbrellas and high-tech electronics for the rest of the world. As production soared, the land-poor island of 23 million people began running out of places to dump its waste. [...] Mountains of fetid household waste rotted in the streets. Public and disused spaces became dumping grounds for some of the toxic waste from the industrial boom.

“There were mountains of trash on the streets," said Yeh Chun-hsien, the president of the Chung Tai Resource Technology Corporation, a recycling company based in Taipei. "The government had to do something." (New York Times)

During the island's first presidential election in 1996, the public demanded a solution. In 1998, the government introduced a fee for producers based upon the cost of recycling their waste. The fee (about $6 billion every year) was rebated to recycling companies, and then passed on to collectors and residents.

However, in many cases, recycling companies pay for the chance to collect the highly valuable waste produced by the island's technology companies. For example, the price of gold -- a component in semiconductor manufacturing -- recently reached $1,900 an ounce. Today, many recycling companies specialize in the lucrative collection and processing of precious metals and toxic chemicals.

Additionally, as a resident of Taiwan between 2011 and 2012, I observed a strong recycling culture, in which nearly all Taiwanese citizens conscientiously divided and disposed of their waste. Following our first Fulbright meeting -- featuring the national favorite, the lunch box (bian dang) -- our supervisors collected the cardboard lunch boxes, wooden chopsticks, plastic chopstick wrappers, rubber bands, and food waste, disposing of each in separate containers. I witnessed a similar scene after lunches at the elementary school where I taught English.

Furthermore, every evening, Taiwanese residents are greeted by a familiar tune...

The music blasted from vehicle speakers -- Beethoven's "Für Elise" in some neighborhoods, and Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska's "A Maiden's Prayer" in others -- signaled that the garbage and recycling trucks were approaching. The residents of my 20-story apartment building quickly gathered their waste and packed the elevators in a mad dash to the street. Paper, plastic, glass and other recyclable goods were collected on alternating days, while the trash truck (with separate bins for food waste) collected non-recyclable waste daily.

As Americans accustomed to tossing our trash and forgetting about it, my roommate and I were initially resentful of this ritual. But we soon found that personally disposing of our trash made us more conscious of the waste we produced every day. (Admittedly, I was considerably less receptive to the daily trash dash during monsoon season!)

Taiwan has established an admirable recycling culture, supported by public policy incentives and behavioral changes. Are we capable of the same in the United States? Or will it take "mountains of trash on the street" to inspire the same urgency for reform?

36 More Hours in Taipei, Taiwan

  Chiang Kai Shek Memorial

I spent part of my winter vacation traveling in Taiwan, where I served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant between 2011 and 2012. The island is like no other, with its packed night markets serving papaya milk and green onion pancakes, misty mountain hikes always within reach, and inexplicable fascination with all things cartoonish and cute. My China Studies friends joke that Taipei is "Asia Lite," given its modern infrastructure (including toilets!) and Starbucks stores on every corner. Yet the city is refreshingly free of Western tourists.

The New York Times called Taiwan "one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Asia." It published "36 Hours in Taipei, Taiwan" guides in 2008 and 2013, suggesting standard tourist sights like Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum, Din Tai Fung, and high-end shopping malls. Of course, these destinations deserve a visit. But if you are willing to be a little more adventurous, several one-of-a-kind experiences are within a half-day's travel from Taipei.

Scooter in Taroko Gorge

How to get there:

Take the Capital Bus from Taipei City Hall to Luodong (羅東) (120 NT/4 USD). Buses run every 10-15 minutes, so there is no need to purchase tickets in advance. (However, it is best to visit Taroko Gorge on a less-crowded weekday.) The bus ride is about 50 minutes.

After you exit the bus at Luodong Train Station, purchase a train ticket to Hsincheng (新城). These tickets are quite cheap, and the journey is about 1.5 hours, for a total travel time between Taipei and Taroko of 2.5 hours.

Finally, you can rent a scooter from a small shop beside Hsincheng Station. You won't miss it -- there is a large billboard titled "Motorcycle Rental" in English. You will need an international driver's permit (easily purchased from AAA) and your passport. A day-long scooter rental will cost 400 NT/13 USD.

Capital Bus from Taipei to Luodong

Capital Bus from Taipei to Luodong

What to do:

From the scooter rental shop, the Taroko Gorge is only a 5 minute drive away. Then, you can spend several hours exploring bridges, temples and scenic overlooks in the gorge. The scooter rental company will provide a map, but it's fairly straightforward -- just keep driving ahead!

Arriving at the Taroko Gorge Visitor Center

Arriving at the Taroko Gorge Visitor Center

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

A video of my first visit to Taroko Gorge:

Pingxi Scenic Railway

How to get there:

Even more so than Taroko Gorge, only travel to Pingxi on a weekday! The train ride can become unbearably crowded with Japanese and Taiwanese tour groups on weekends.

From Taipei Main Station, purchase a train ticket to Ruifang (瑞芳). After a 30-40 minute journey, you will arrive at Ruifang Station, where you should purchase an all-day Pingxi Line pass (50 NT/1.5 USD) at the ticket counter.

The Pingxi Line is a 13-kilometer scenic railway that travels through forests, rivers and waterfalls, stopping at unique villages along the way. The train arrives every hour, so take a photo of the schedule before you leave the train station.

What to do:

Houtong Cat Village

Houtong is a former mining town that declined in the 1990s. According to Amusing Planet, "Things took an unexpected turn sometime around 2008, when a cat lover organized a team of volunteers to give the neighborhood’s abandoned cats a better living environment. They posted the cats’ pictures on the web and received an overwhelming response from other cat lovers. Visitors' raves on local blogs drew more cat lovers to this place who came to photograph the cats or fondle and frolic with them. Soon Houtong became a hotbed for cat lovers and amateur photographers."

Houtong Cat Village

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Houtong Cat Village

Houtong Cat Village

Shifen Waterfall and Lanterns

At Shifen, you can purchase a rice paper lantern (250 NT/8 USD) and paint your wishes with black ink and a calligraphy brush. Then, shop owners will light the lantern and take your photo as you release it into the sky -- hopefully. When it's especially windy, the crowd oohs and ahhs as the flaming lanterns crash into buildings along the narrow alley, or careen into shrieking onlookers. "This is dangerous!" I told the teenage shop employee. "Nah, just fun!" he replied.

You can also hike along the railroad, crossing creaky bridges and waterfalls.

Shifen Lanterns

Shifen Lanterns



Huashan 1914 Creative Park

After these gorgeous -- but tiring! -- trips, you will have earned a relaxing evening at a coffee shop. I recommend exploring the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a collection of red brick buildings in central Taipei that house artistic exhibits, bars and restaurants. You can read more about 1914 Creative Park from Good Day, Taipei and Taipei 543.