(Editor's Note: Haskell Carter of Garden City is a project coordinator with the Minding the Millennium Project based in New York and is currently a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan.)
"Mr. Carter, would you like the filet mignon with tomato artichoke compote or the macadamia nut chicken with plum sauce?" a flight attendant gently inquired. I must have responded with a somewhat unsophisticated and rather perplexed look. Being addressed by name and then that meal selection, it was all simply too much to process at 35,000 feet.
I'm accustomed to flying in utter anonymity and at best being offered some miniscule packet of salted peanuts and the partial contents of a can of Coke. "Mr. Carter?" she said again before I could regain my composure. "I'll have the filet, thank you." If this was the life of a Fulbright scholar, all I could think was bring it on.
But before you less-government-spending types get all perturbed, let me inform you that the US Department of State, which administers the Fulbright program, does not lavish such travel expenses on its grantees. Rather, it was only through the good graces of my friend Donald who offered me his frequent flyer miles for an upgrade that I managed to avoid the deprivations of spending 20 plus hours in economy class.
It had only been three months since that all important registered letter arrived at my home informing me of my selection as a Fulbright scholar, providing me the opportunity to study and do research in Taiwan. The program is dedicated to increasing mutual understanding between American citizens and those of other countries. And considering recent events in the world, such a goal seems worthier now than ever.
The Fulbright program is one of those rare government endeavors that accomplish much with relatively few resources. The letter informed me that my selection meant I would be "joining the ranks of 225,000 distinguished scholars and professionals worldwide - leaders in the educational, political, economic, social and cultural lives of their countries." Wow, who knew?
The distinction of the award was certainly not lost on me. In fact, while preparing for my departure I found it stimulated in me an unrealized sense of gravitas. Sure the flight from New York to Taipei was long but now I was traveling as a Fulbright scholar. I would spend the entire flight meticulously reviewing and refining my research plans, reading scholarly journals, brushing up my Chinese and of course, as I'm told scholars are wont to do, engaging in deep reflection to ponder the more salient issues of the day. And I promise I had every intention of doing so. But the only thing that seemed worth pondering was the delicious dessert selection.
But alas, as we all know, all good things do indeed come to an end. "Mr. Carter, excuse me, Mr. Carter?" a sweet voice intoned, rousing me from a contented slumber. "We're preparing to land, please fasten your seat belt." A blissful 22 hours had flown by, quite literally, and I was about to arrive in Taipei as a Fulbright scholar eager for all the new experiences, opportunities and challenges the culture had to offer me.
I think this would be an appropriate time to reaffirm my intent to regularly share my experiences and observations while in Taiwan, whatever they may be worth, with you, my fellow Americans. After all, I figure since you helped send me here, it's the least I can do.