Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 11.12 – Taiwan Love Boat Doc Sets Sail, its Mind on a New Romance
I’ve been aware of the so-called “Taiwan Love Boat” since my college days. Many of my Taiwanese American friends went to Taiwan for “culture and language education” summer camps but this “study tour” had the reputation of being a way to meet romantic partners, and got its nickname from the 1970s TV comedy about a zany cruise ship. Now, it might be called Taiwan Tinder! Valerie Soe went on the study tour in 1982 [note: there is not actually a boat involved on the Love Boat]. Now a documentary filmmaker and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, she is making a film about the Love Boat and its participants. You can contribute to her Indigogo campaign at www.igg.me/at/loveboat. Soe was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.
Why is the Love Boat experience so compelling for you, as a filmmaker? What from that experience stuck with you all these years?
I went on the Love Boat when I was in college, which was during my formative years both as an artist as well as an individual. I’d been interested in Asian American community issues up until then but I didn’t know much about Taiwan until I went on the trip. Although my strongest memories of the trip are of friendship and romance, after the Love Boat I became much more interested in happenings in Taiwan’s sphere. The trip laid the groundwork for my ongoing interest in the relationship between the U.S., Taiwan, and the PRC.
How was and is the Love Boat important for Taiwanese Americans?
The Love Boat is one of those things that most Taiwanese and Chinese Americans of a certain age know about. Pretty much everyone over the age of thirty has either gone on the Love Boat or knows someone who’s gone, especially if you’re Taiwanese American, since that community is small and close-knit. So it’s pretty significant.
Both the Chinese American and the Taiwanese American communities have been marginalized in the U.S., despite the perception that they’ve only experienced successes here. The model minority stereotype of Asian Americans doing well in school and in their professional lives and not making waves or causing trouble doesn’t account for the many struggles that all Asian Americans in general and that Taiwanese and Chinese Americans in particular have faced. One of those struggles has been trying to stay in touch with their heritage and culture in the U.S., especially after a generation or two are born here. The kids grow up only speaking English, watching American television and movies, listening to American pop music, and following mainstream cultural trends. Oftentimes that also means marrying someone outside of your community, which further dilutes your cultural heritage. Lots of parents saw the Love Boat as a way to preserve that cultural heritage, or at least a way to introduce their kids to Chinese and Taiwanese culture in an immersive way. So that the kids are at least aware of that cultural heritage, even if they eventually marry out of the Chinese and Taiwanese American communities.
How many babies have been born because of the Love Boat?
I don’t know that exact statistic, I’m afraid! But I do know that since I started the Indiegogo campaign a few weeks ago that a half dozen or more people have contacted me saying that they met and married their spouse because of the Love Boat.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is total party and 10 is total scholastic, where did the Love Boat experience rank?
I’d say it’s probably about 2, meaning mostly party and not much scholastic. Though some of it is cultural, so that keeps it from being a 1.
I know other communities have had their own versions of cultural summer camps. The great narrative Seoul Searching explored the program in South Korea in the late 80s. There are Indo-American summer camps too. Why do you think immigrants (maybe particularly Asian immigrants) have turned to summer camps?
If you’re aiming for college students then the summer is the best time to hold these programs, since that’s when your target demographic can go. The Love Boat has a version for students from South America that takes place in January, since that’s the summertime in the southern hemisphere. It’s all about marketing and scheduling!
As far at the Love Boat is concerned, the trip itself is sponsored by the government of Taiwan, so it’s heavily subsidized. When I went in the 1980s I think it cost about $400 for six weeks, not including airfare, and even nowadays I think it’s only about $700 for three weeks. So it’s also a bargain, which of course hard-working immigrants don’t like to pass up.
But I think there’s a pretty simple reason why it’s so popular and has such an impact on participants. The program, and other summer programs like it, brings you over to Taiwan for several weeks with a whole lot of other college-aged kids, so it becomes a bonding experience. You’re away from home and your family in a new and different environment with a bunch of cute young people—what more could you ask for? It’s like the adventure of a lifetime.
As a young Indian American growing up in Detroit, I was very confused about identity. It wasn’t until I got to college and found the Asian American community that I felt comfortable and that I belonged with some group. Was that a common thread amongst Taiwanese Americans in your day?
Yes, I’ve talked with a lot of people who grew up in white-majority areas who had their first immersive Asian community experience in Taiwan. In fact, some of them were so transformed by their Love Boat experience that they then moved back to Asia to live. I’ve talked to several expats in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China who have said that the Love Boat was their first step to settling for good in Asia.
Do you think that’s changed? It seems like the Love Boat isn’t on quite the scale that it once was. Do you think that’s because of changes in the Taiwanese American experience?
I do think it’s changed to the extent that the Asian American population has grown. Before the 1965 Immigration Reform Act the Asian American population was around 0.5% of the total US population. Now it’s more than 5%, which is a huge jump.
Also, with the internet it’s easier to have a global consciousness and awareness of Asian culture, so Asian Americans can connect more easily to things going on in Asia. Whether that means watching Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai videos on youtube or keeping up with current events in Taiwan online, things aren’t distant, culturally speaking, as it used to be. We’re all a lot more transnational than we used to be.
Good luck with filming and have a great time in Taiwan! I look forward to seeing the film at a future CAAMFest!
Thanks so much! I’m really enjoying the process of working on the film, though filmmaking is an expensive habit. I’ve got a Fulbright Fellowship to help with living expenses but I’m fundraising for production costs. One day of shooting can around $2000 or more, even with a small three-person crew, and I’m hoping to shoot for about 20 days this summer.
Well, Valerie, you’re definitely the Captain Stubing for this adventure. Just make sure you and Julie don’t get crushes on the same guys or gals! And if you’relooking to cast Doc, you know who to call.
For more information and to support the film, go to the film’s Indiegogo campaign.
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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger, now available for free download. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.