Students Report on Culture and Earthquake Shock in Taiwan

Contact: WPI Media & Community Relations

TAIWAN TRAVELERS -- Worcester Polytechnic Institute students, Matthew Lewis of Gloucester, Mass., Matthew Dahmer of Tiverton, R.I. and Fred Cassellius of Norwalk, Conn, from left. The students completed a project on earthquakes. Below, members of the WPI team join a Taiwanese friend in surveying some collapsed resort housing.

WORCESTER, Mass. - Last year on Sept. 21, the Chi-Chi Earthquake devastated an area of central Taiwan about 45 miles from Taipei. In October, Worcester Polytechnic Institute juniors Fred Cassellius of Norwalk, Conn., Matthew Dahmer of Tiverton, R.I., and Matthew Lewis of Gloucester, Mass., traveled to Taiwan to complete WPI's first Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) in Taiwan. The IQP, a curriculum requirement at WPI, challenges students to identify, investigate and report on a topic examining how science or technology interacts with societal structures and values.

Cassellius, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Bill Cassellius, is a civil engineering major. Dahmer is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Dahmer and a mechanical engineering major. Lewis, also a mechanical engineering major, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lewis.

Cassellius and Dahmer had never been to Taiwan; it was Lewis, whose family spent 18 months in Taipei 10 years ago while his father taught English, who came up with the idea of doing their required IQP in that part of Asia. An earthquake study was selected because the area is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. In an ironic twist of fate, the most powerful earthquake in Taiwan's history hit shortly before the team arrived.

Based in Taipei, the students worked at National Taiwan University (NTU) and lived at Tatung Institute of Technology. In November 1998, WPI President Edward A. Parrish awarded an honorary degree to the Institute's president, T.S. Lin, setting the stage for a partnership between the two universities. Chemical Engineering Professor Yi Hua "Ed" Ma, who received his B.S. from NTU, was among those who accompanied Parrish two years ago. Ma returned with history Professor John Zeugner as co-advisor of this IQP.

The following story has been co-written by the three students as an account of their unprecedented experience:

"Taiwan has a population of 22 million Asians; we were three Caucasian Americans half a world away from where we grew up. We learned to survive by trial and error. Public transportation was the first thing we had to learn to handle on our own. One night it took us more than three hours to make what should have been a 30-minute trip home.

"Lost in Taipei, walking the streets with a map and confused looks, we would have been out all night if not for a friendly native who pulled over on his scooter and pointed us to the train station.

"Eating was also an adventure. Nothing was familiar and everything looked scary to our unaccustomed eyes.

"Restaurants were always a challenge because the menus were in Chinese, making a lifetime of experience with a 26-letter alphabet completely useless. Ordering takeout Chinese food in America didn't prepare us for 'real' Chinese food. We'd ask what we were eating but the response was always, 'It's edible' or 'It's chicken.' So we changed our question to, "Is it edible chicken?' After adopting this philosophy we ate some interesting foods. Out of the sea and into our bellies went sea slugs, whole dried fish mixed with peanuts, eel, blowfish, octopus and other forms of 'edible chicken.' From the land we enjoyed cow stomach, pigskin, and other things (of which we remain ignorant). But everything was edible.

"Life in Taiwan was quite different from the academic atmosphere we were used to. In Taipei we were members of a small minority, noticed every time we stepped outside our room. As we walked down the street people would smile, wave and greet us. We stuck out like sore thumbs. In time, we got used to that; after a while the sight of other Americans began to strike us as odd.

"Our IQP focused on the socioeconomic impact of the 7.6-magnitude Chi-Chi earthquake, which killed more than 2,400 people and injured more than 10,700 others. Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Huge landslides were triggered and large sections of the infrastructure ruined-isolating several mountain villages and resulting in three weeks of power rationing in the northern half of the island.

"In addition to exploring the economic, political and social effects of the disaster, we compared the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake to the response of the Taiwanese government to this quake.

"As part of our project, we traveled to many of the areas that were hit hardest by the quake. It was a very emotional four-day trip-not only because of what we felt, but also because of what we saw. Some people walked by destroyed buildings with their faces turned away, as if trying to avoid the memories and thoughts that destruction brought to mind. Others came to see the damage, viewing the quake as a national event that should be understood by all. One man even earned money selling books and photographs of the destruction.

"We concluded that every aspect of earthquake mitigation and recovery should be analyzed by the government to determine what should be repeated in a future disaster and what should be changed. In our report we suggested:

  • reforming the nation's policies to include using government aid as a supplement to private relief assistance and reducing aid for preventable disasters;
  • eliminating corruption in the building code industry, enforcing codes more strictly, and punishing violators;
  • establishing a system specifically designed to deal with national disasters;
  • asking politicians to put aside their differences to work together for the benefit of the people.

"This earthquake affected Taiwan in many ways. In the end it will not be how politicians changed their slogans or how the National Taiwan dollar stood up against the U.S. dollar that will dictate how the country changes in response to the earthquake. People are the building blocks of a society and any change must start and end with them.

"The Chi-Chi earthquake was the largest disaster to hit Taiwan in the 20th century, but for all the economic loss and all the squabbling over political power, what will be remembered is who lost a father, a daughter, a friend. These are the true and lasting effects of the earthquake. Buildings can be rebuilt, new jobs can be found, political power can be gathered, and even the memory of terror can be faced, but nothing will change the fact that more than 2,400 people died. Each one had a family and each had friends. And it is that loss that will truly change Taiwan."

The three students returned to WPI's Worcester, Mass., campus in December. Founded in 1865, WPI is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.