Sixteen years. That’s the number of times I’ve attended the Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF) summer camp. It’s a long time to spend with anything (so long that I lost count and spent the entire week thinking that I was on my fifteenth year), and I found myself struggling with the question, how do you stay engaged in something after sixteen years?
It was wonderful to be back after missing last year and shooting a wedding instead. I loved seeing my former Juniors (elementary) campers who are now program directing and staffing at TAF; the speaker sessions that made you think deeply about relationships, identity, and ethics and values; and the truly goofy games that embrace group participation from everyone. It is incredible that I can still come to TAF after sixteen years and ruminate on how to get more out of my experience. But to be honest, this was also one of the most difficult times I’ve ever had at TAF. But rather than start with the full reflections on the week, we’ll kick it off with some of my favorite photos– and those who are interested can scroll to the bottom to read everything else!
This modified tank and driver game was hilariously divided into three rounds– one, gather as much fruit as possible; two, actually try to get rid of all your fruit; and three, now eat all your fruit as quickly as possible (including lemons and sugar packets).
The Thursday picnic and water fight are always photogenic favorites.
This year, I got up on a ladder, purportedly to take a camp-wide group photo, but also to distract everyone while the Program Directors ran over to soak everyone with water.
The shrieking reactions were great, but everyone seemed to be very good-natured about it, as this kicked off the water fight.
The “Night Market” was another highlight of the week for me. I am always blown away by the creativity that goes into these activity stations. First, we have a classic face painting station…
… but then we also have “make it rain,” which is really just a hyped-up, super exciting version of 52 card pickup. Two people are racing to pick up all the cards of their color, but Caleb’s card-dishing techniques and all of the backup singers and dancers really prove the power of marketing.
“Hear Yeh! Hear Yeh!” was another ingenious game. All that it involved was the two brothers Derek and Jason Yeh, saying phrases and having the players (with their backs turned) guess who said which phrase. It’s remarkably difficult to tell their voices apart, and watching this game was surprisingly entertaining too.
In “blind love,” two people are blindfolded across from each other, as their teammates tell them left or right and they walk straight forward in hopes of hugging each other in the middle.
This interesting version of bowling sometimes results in the “pins” charging straight at you.
At TAF, one of the punishments for being late is to serenade your TAF crush in front of the whole cafeteria. (But you get backup singers who help you out too). I’m not sure if this is more embarassing for the singer or for the crush.
And then, the finale of the week, TAF Night. As I sat in the audience, I realized that this was one of the first times that I had no idea what to expect on stage. I hadn’t watched any of the swing choir (choreographed dance) or the choir rehearsals. I was only half-involved in the slideshow. This became one of the best things about the week. How incredible is it that every single camper learns a choreographed dance and a choir song in less than a week? And what kind of a special space it must be for the audience to rally together so strongly, cheering and waving and yelling at the top of their lungs in support of their fellow campers on stage? It was like seeing TAF Night for the first time.
Campers let loose at the dance after TAF Night.
Mitchell made a deal with his campers that involved the reward of them shaving his head… which they won.
And just like that, the week was over. Here I am with Stanley and Andrew, two first-time TAFers from Taiwan who helped out tafLabs throughout the week by making Mandarin-language videos which were hilarious.
We drove back through the corn fields and farmland to Chicago where I stayed for a couple more days… and that was it for TAF 2013.
This year I learned how difficult it can be to have a meaningful and transformative experience at TAF, sixteen times in a row. I got to watch as the magic of TAF unfolded for campers and staffers, but the magic simply wasn’t there for me any more. There was nothing terrible about this year, but there was also not the familiar feeling of a week well spent by the end of it. The thought did occur to me, maybe this is just me growing up and outgrowing TAF. But then, I’ve always been too stubborn to surrender to that idea. And so rather than give up on TAF, I pushed on the question– Why have I stopped getting what I used to get out of TAF? If I insist on the potential of TAF to be an enriching experience year after year, then what is it that I was missing and need to find again?
Lesson One- Connection. One of the things I’ve always loved about TAF is the interpersonal connections that are made throughout the week. With small-group discussions, or Identity Dialogues or staff meetings, the programs are designed to create truly special, safe spaces for sharing. But with my role on tafLabs, we are a lot more casual about our interactions– most of us have been going to TAF upwards of 14 years and are friends outside of TAF now too. And we don’t have many program commitments, so it’s easy to sleep til noon or just float around, completely disconnected from the rest of camp.
This isn’t just a problem with Labs, but it generally becomes more and more difficult to create those types of spaces as we grow up. We are so easily consumed with tasks and pragmatism that these deep dialogues are often seen as superfluous. Yet, the desire for connection is a deeply-seated, human need. This was best illustrated for me in the days following TAF, as I got to spend time with some TAFers in Chicago whom I had known for years but never really connected with. In a matter of two or three conversations, it was as if new friendships had been kindled. But it’s a reminder of the importance of building those connections intentionally.
Lesson Two- Purpose. I started attending TAF as a camper, I then became a “coordinator,” helping with slideshow as a high school student, and then jumped to being a counselor at age 17 and Program Director from ages 18-21. In other words, I was always as engaged as I could be. Contrast that with now– I am basically taking photos and video, which I have done at TAF since I was in high school, and which I now do as a paid career. It’s hard to stay interested in what feels like busywork, and it’s also hard to take initiative to do other things– what would those things be?
I am learning, through both photography and my personal life, that both connection and purpose require structure. It’s not enough to do something because you like it. It has to connect to someone or something else. For Pointe of View, it was an aesthetic and a pursuit of my craft that drove the structure of my project. As a Program Director, I had schedules to run, staff to mentor, and campers to inspire. I was given a structure to operate within and could also see the immediate impact of my work on others. Because I no longer have a well-defined role at TAF, I am left feeling aimless. It’s not about having titles so much as being able to envision the ways in which you can contribute.
Lesson Three- Staying humble and staying hungry. I hate to admit this, but the mentality I kept getting trapped in was incredibly self-centered and cynical. I kept feeling like I had given back to TAF for so long, and I was working at TAF for free doing something that I now get paid to do, as if that meant TAF owed me something. In order to get back to a core mode of servant leadership, I have to find the humility to refocus on what it is that I can do for TAF.
In the rest of my life too, I have been through a number of failures and rough patches, but I have resurfaced with resilience, and for a short while now, I’ve actually hit upon a feeling of stability. I have a great job, I love living in California, and I get to travel all the time. It’s wonderful and it’s terrible. I think most of us crave security, but the danger is in settling. The minute you stop looking upward and forward, you can easily lose your way, either stagnating or even getting knocked off track.
So I think there is always a balance between staying humble and yet always fighting for more. At TAF, staying hungry is about believing in the enriching potential of TAF. It’s about constantly searching for ways to make that possible for myself and for others. It’s about stubbornly looking at my week and thinking, “I can shape this to be better” rather than thinking, “I should just give up now.” It’s a fine line to toe between this humility and ambition, but it’s a venture that I will have to meet again and again in business and in life.
I suppose the irony of this all is that I might not have had the same TAF experience I’ve come to expect. But in hindsight, this year at TAF has been every bit as revealing about who I am and where I am in my life right now as it always has. The lessons are getting more and more difficult to learn, but I am still here, along for and open to the ride.
Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is Taiwanese American and a midwesterner at heart and currently serves as Editorial Director of TaiwaneseAmerican.org. Follow her adventures on Facebook.