Emotional Practices of Moral Resistance in Aceh, Indonesia

Figure 1. Tranquility in Takengon, Aceh.

There is a prevailing notion that violence is always a bad thing. Even when resistance to the state is justified, resistance should ideally be non-violent. However, political theorists are divided as to whether violence is ever justified, and if so, the conditions under which violence can be justified. For example, violence is typically understood to be justified under the condition of self-defense. However, what is included in the “self” of “self-defense” is typically up for debate: “the self” could be extended to include one’s family, community, political community, or others who are defenseless against tyranny. Moreover, there are often worse things than dying. Nevertheless, the non-violent bias motivates much empirical research on civil conflict.

One way the non-violent bias motivates empirical research is in the following research question: why do some people choose violent resistance as opposed to non-violent resistance? This was indeed my own research question going to Aceh, Indonesia. I asked: why did some Acehnese, given similar grievances, choose to become combatants, whereas others chose to become activists? The implicit normative assumption in this question was: why did some Acehnese choose “more moral” forms of resistance than others? The answer to this question of violent vs non-violent pathways, detailed in my previous blogpost, seemed rather banal: Acehnese who had access to GAM networks (Gerakan Aceh Mederka, the Free Aceh Movement) were more likely to join GAM; Acehnese who had access to student activist groups were more likely to become student activists. Many student activists, despite their adoption of non-violent tactics, were also likely to support GAM’s resort to armed resistance as necessary, and sometimes, even coordinating actions with GAM. One activist even described GAM combatants as like “heroes” (pelawan). For several activists, there was very little in their response that suggested a moral commitment to non-violence. This does not mean that the Acehnese I interviewed did not have some idea of what kinds of resistance was “moral,” but their idea of “moral resistance” did not hinge on whether one used violence or not.

So how can we understand moral resistance in Aceh? For many respondents I interviewed, there was a clear distinction between combatants who used violence as an act of revenge – an end in itself – and combatants who used violence instrumentally towards the protection of other Acehnese. I call the former “practices of revenge” and the latter “practices of pity.” No doubt many combatants used violence to seek out revenge, but many also used violence because they pitied victims of the conflict. Likewise, many Acehnese turned to activism because of the pity they felt towards victims of the conflict, but many were also looking for revenge through their activism. So what made resistance “moral” was not just the use of violence or non-violence, but how violence or non-violent activism was practiced – for revenge or for pity. Let me explain what this looks like, starting with combatants, then activists.

Combatant Activist
Revenge Violence as a weapon to punish and end in itself Demands for accountability as a way to punish
Pity Violence as a tool for helping Acehnese Humanitarian efforts that help Acehnese

Table 1. A Typology of Moral Practices of Resistance

In the case of violent practice of revenge, some combatants were clearly motivated by the desire for revenge – taking pleasure in killing as many Indonesian soldiers as possible. They were angry, even if they hadn’t themselves directly experienced any abuses by the Indonesian military. Notably, combatants looking for revenge were not interested in the preservation of life, especially civilian life. One ex-combatant I interviewed told me about how he missed his home village and was angry that there were seven military posts around his village, and then boasted how he had entered his village with his rifle anyways, which ended up with him getting shot at in the village. While he escaped unhurt, he had put his village at risk. Likewise, another ex-combatant I interviewed described how his unit had captured a local town for 14 hours – an important symbolic victory for his unit. The intention was not to hold territory, but to show their ability to drive out the Indonesian military from the town. When I interviewed civilians at the battle, many were terrified of being caught in the crossfire. Moreover, fourteen hours later, on Eid, the Indonesian military recaptured the town and subjected the civilians to intense security checks in case there might be GAM combatants hiding among them. These combatant practices of revenge prioritized winning battles or achieving symbolic victories over civilian life.

On the other hand, violent practices of pity look rather different. It may seem counter-intuitive that combatants may be interested in the preservation of life. Nevertheless, violence is not infrequently used instrumentally to minimize human costs. For one, such combatants emphasize the importance of keeping the fighting away from villages – which sometimes meant that they would forgo being able to go home. Another example, one ex-combatant explained how the most important role as a senior commander was to discipline his soldiers – including executing two of his men for raping a villager. Another ex-combatant explained to me that since the objective of guerrilla warfare is to demonstrate their presence to the Indonesian military, they would either choose non-human targets or shoot to injure, not to kill. In contrast to practices of revenge, the disposition of these combatants was always calmer, less angry, and more concerned about the suffering of others.

Figure 2. I would ask respondents what the definition of “peace” meant to them.

If there can be both moral and immoral uses of violence, there certainly can be both moral and immoral uses of non-violent activism. During my interviews, it was stark to me how different combatants could be from each other, and how different activists could be from each other. I found a similar pattern among activists – some were also motivated by revenge or anger and wanted nothing but to hold Jakarta accountable for past human rights abuses in Aceh. For example, one human rights activist explained how many activists would be so focused on extracting testimonies from victims in the pursuit of justice without realizing how the very act of sharing a testimony may cause victims to relive their trauma. Other activists were more practical and focused on what was best for victims. In Aceh, the term “humanitarian activists” was bestowed on those who were engaged in providing relief to internally displaced populations while also staying out of politics.

So, what counts as moral resistance need not necessarily be non-violent; and what counts as immoral resistance need not necessarily be violent. One can use violence and non-violence in moral and immoral ways. Just because the conflict is over does not mean that Aceh has attained lasting “peace.” Our lack of understanding of what motivates individuals to practice politics an all-or-nothing (revenge) as opposed to an open-ended dialogue undermines our ability to find solutions to both violence and non-violent forms of conflict. Understanding Aceh’s prospects for peace – not just the absence of violence, but the ability to negotiate and settle differences – requires an understanding of the (emotional) motivations (such as revenge or pity) how Acehnese practice violence or non-violent activism.

By Amoz JY Hor, Sigur Center Summer 2019 Field Research Grant Fellow. Amoz is a Political Science Ph.D. student at George Washington University. He researches on the emotional practices of violence and humanitarianism in Indonesia.

Between Violence and Activism in Aceh’s Struggle against Indonesia

The causes of civil conflict requires understanding why people would join an armed rebel group in the first place. I explore this in the case of Aceh, where an armed separatist group, GAM (Gerakan Aceh Mederka), waged war against the Indonesian state for 30 years until Aceh was granted special autonomy status in 2005. How was GAM able to recruit Acehnese to join its cause? If GAM were not successful, GAM would simply not survive as an organization. This is especially the case for GAM, a separatist organization that depended on its popular legitimacy for resources, recruits, and civilian support to function. Part of GAM’s success was its ability to naturalize the idea that Acehnese is a distinct nation that deserves independence from Indonesia. Yet, not everyone who supported Acehnese independence decided to join GAM. While some picked up arms to resist the Indonesian state, others chose to use non-violence methods as activists. Why did some Acehnese choose to become combatants, yet others become activists?

There are several prevailing theories as to why some people might join a rebel group, or not. These theories do not work well in the case of Aceh. In this blog post, I provide some evidence that suggest that existing theories do not work. Instead, my fieldwork suggests a much simpler explanation: Acehnese chose to become activists or combatants based on the networks they had access to and the skill sets they could offer.

Figure 1. 90 Interviews were conducted over local coffee and snacks

The first common theory is that: joining an armed group is a natural response to relative depravation or because they had experienced abuses by the state. This might seem intuitive: if one is poor enough or has suffered enough, the opportunity cost of risking one’s life in armed conflict is relatively low. One may also seek out violence in order to reclaim a sense of agency. However, many ex-combatants I interviewed were from well-to-do families, educated, and had never experienced violence personally. At the same time, I also had interviewed Acehnese who were poor, lived in highly unequal areas, and who had experienced violence firsthand, and still chose to become activists rather than pick up weapons. Something else must be going on.

A second common political science argument is that: people are persuaded to join a rebel group when political entrepreneurs are able to use propaganda to blame people’s seemingly trivial and petty grievances on the state. Since everyone has petty grievances, we should expect that those who participate in violence to be those who were exposed to propaganda that directed their grievances towards an enemy. In Aceh, it was true that support for Acehnese independence was higher in areas where GAM’s networks were stronger. However, on its own, this theory cannot explain why is it that some pro-independence Acehnese chose to become combatants, whereas other pro-independence Acehnese chose to become activists.

Figure 2. Perks of fieldwork in Aceh: the aroma of pandan/coconut of this snack (butai/buleukat silei in Acehnese) was ARRESTING.

So why would some Acehnese choose to become combatants rather than activists? First, contrary to the way political scientists (and myself) have understood the question of rebel recruitment, many of the respondents I interviewed did not think that the decision to become a combatant or activist were mutually exclusive choices. Many activists supported GAM, and some even wanted to become combatants, describing them as heroes (pelawan). Some activists eventually became combatants, and some combatants eventually became activists (though this change was considerably rarer if one was already black-marked by the Indonesian state). Many interviewees explained to me that violent resistance and non-violent activism were two paths to the same goal. Violence and non-violence were complements, not substitutes. For example, several respondents explained to me how both student activists and GAM combatants would work together to mobilize Acehnese to demonstrate and demand a referendum on Acehnese independence. This not only involved explaining the importance (mensosialisasikan) of the referendum to villages across Aceh, but also included cooperation on smuggling in weapons past military checkpoints into Banda Aceh, where the demonstrations occurred. Some activists also boasted how their campaign against the British sale of Scorpion tanks to Indonesia succeeded because they were able to show they were being used not for external defense, but internally against the people of Aceh. They told me that this was how they supported GAM’s military efforts. Some activists also told me that their activism was only effective because there was an armed struggle to begin with.

So if becoming a combatant and activist were complementary to the cause of Acehnese independence, why did different Acehnese choose different paths? In my estimation, the single two biggest factors that explains why some people chose to become activists and others chose to become combatants were the networks one has access to, and the skills one had.

First, on skills. As mentioned, several activists indeed told me that they were inspired to join GAM. They described to me secret coordination meetings they had with the chief commander, Abdullah Syafi’i, who told them that, given their status as university students (mahasiswa), they would better serve the dream of independence through their activism rather than as combatants. GAM understood that an essential aspect of their struggle was to gain international recognition that Aceh was a sovereign people that had suffered under abuses of the Indonesian state, and the student activism leant GAM’s efforts legitimacy. Because of this, university students were more likely to become activists. Here, education or the status of being educated was a useful skillset for activism. By contrast, it is popularly understood that GAM recruited less educated Acehnese. I was frequently told that this is because GAM would find it difficult ordering university students like soldiers. Nevertheless, even though GAM’s members were disproportionately less educated on average, many of GAM’s high-ranking combatants and early members were significantly over-educated. There were also important roles for educated GAM members. One GAM member described his role as a spokesperson – who provided GAM statements to the press, many of which sounded like the statements put out by student activists, but under the name of GAM. Not all activists were university students either, especially those who were not based in Banda Aceh, but working directly with affected and displaced communities. So skills (or education) can go some way in explaining why some Acehnese joined GAM and others became activists, but there is still some variation left to be explained.

Figure 3. Nira espresso: espresso with water from the branch a species of coconut, ijuk. Incredibly refreshing.

From my interviews, what explains the variation between joining GAM as opposed to joining a student activist group are the networks one had access to. If one was based in a village along the Northeast coast (GAM strongholds), it would be difficult to access the student activist networks based in the city. But one could easily access or may even have been actively recruited by GAM networks. Likewise, if one was a university student in Banda Aceh, one would naturally have been exposed to or recruited by the student activist networks in the universities. As a stronghold of the Indonesian military, it would also mean that one would have less access to GAM networks. Thus, some ex-combatants told me that they might have joined an activist group had they had the opportunity. Likewise, activists hence would tell me that while they had wanted to join GAM, many simply did not have the opportunity, at least initially. Instead, they were recruited by student activist groups. In fact, many student activists did not start out campaigning independence. Rather, they were part of an Indonesian-wide student network who were rallying to oppose Suharto, Indonesia’s strongman president for 31 years. Almost all these student activists told me that in the years following after Suharto’s fall, the full extent of human rights abuses in Aceh came to light. This prompted many of them to read up on Aceh’s history (typically written by Hassan di Tiro, GAM’s founder), and conclude that independence was the only way to right these wrongs and prevent further abuses. Many of them only considered joining GAM after this point. Some did. But it was typically easier to continue with activism given their education levels, experience doing activism, and networks with other activists.

What are we to learn from this? For scholars of civil conflict, it is important to not think of rebel recruitment primarily as a decision about the use of violence vs non-violence. Many activists who employed non-violent methods understood their actions to be inline with and supportive of combatants who used violence, and many combatants thought likewise of activists. Many activists and combatants understood themselves as Acehnese freedom fighters and part of the same team. These vocational choices were complements, not substitutes.

For aid, human rights, and peace-keeping practitioners, I hope the lesson is not to be suspicious of local activists just because they may be supportive of violent resistance, or that the best way to ameliorate civil conflict is to make it more difficult for potential combatants to network. The Indonesian state attempted this by setting up road blocks all around Aceh (called sweeping operations). This may have been somewhat effective, but occurred at the expense of the civilian population. Such an approach prioritizes the reduction of violence at all costs (zoe), but ends up securitizing civilian life to point that life becomes meaningless as well (bios).

In my next blogpost, I suggest that questions concerning violence vs non-violence is based on a normative bias that requires unpacking.

By Amoz JY Hor, Sigur Center Summer 2019 Field Research Grant Fellow. Amoz is a Political Science Ph.D. student at George Washington University. He researches on the emotional practices of violence and humanitarianism in Indonesia.

The Art of “Lalon-Palon”: Mothers’ and Grandmothers’ Perspectives on Raising Young Children and Utilizing Non-Profit Services in Kolkata, West Bengal

Kolkata woman’s drawing of her family

“Lalon-Palon” is a Bangla term for nurturing young children. This term sums up my main area of interest for my capstone project: how do mothers and grandmothers perceive the experiences, priorities, challenges, and goals they have in raising children in West Bengal in their early years? While I have only begun to look at the data in terms of general trends, my primary goal is to conduct analysis to see where there are generational differences, and how that may impact the way that service providers may work with families. As early childhood gains more recognition globally as a keystone for local and and national development, understanding the sentiments of caregivers is pertinent to overall policy making, and can have implications for all sectors from health to labor to transportation.

When participants were recruited for my interviews in Kolkata and Birbhum districts of West Bengal, I initially thought I would interview fifteen mothers and fifteen grandmothers affiliated with three different non-profits. I never thought I would actually be able to speak with fifty-five mothers and twenty-seven grandmothers affiliated with five non-profits! All of the non-profit programs were focused on young children and families, with some also providing additional health and vocational training services. The mothers and grandmothers involved in the care of young children were eager to share their perceptions in regards to the children’s’ health and well-being, safety, and education. A background on the purpose and theoretical foundations for my research can be seen in my previous blog post where I discuss my interviews with Santal families in Birbhum. Speaking with families at the different nonprofits in Kolkata was a departure from speaking to Santal families in Birbhum, mainly because the Birbhum families themselves were not only deeply familiar with each other, but a sizable amount of the mothers had been alums of the program themselves. In Kolkata, at the different nonprofits, many of the mothers and grandmothers alike had never received services that they had now enrolled their own children and grandchildren in, and the families were coming from various background to access these services. Most of the families were from low-income backgrounds but some came from middle class backgrounds. In addition to families from the state of West Bengal, families originally from the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha who have relocated to West Bengal were interviewed. The families mainly came from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, and included a combination of women who are homemakers and women who are working. The families represented a combination of joint families, nuclear families, and single mothers. While the families represented were diverse in the aforementioned ways, they all shared a common need to adapt to new settings and challenges and utilize local programs and services to be able to provide positive foundations for their young children’s physical, emotional, and academic development. The families all described how the services helped them to bridge a gap between what they did not know well about challenges for young children in Kolkata, and what they need to know in order to navigate those challenges and provide the best for those children.

                                                                                                      Kolkata woman’s drawing of her family

As I have been reviewing the data from these interviews, the following initial takeaways have emerged. While they may change or be elaborated upon as I continue to examine the interviews, the following points appeared poignant to the Kolkata context:


  • The awareness of and the determination in overcoming the limitations of poverty were predominant for mothers especially and were a major motivation for them to seek out the non-profit programs as a means of helping to grasp the educational landscape in the city. This finding was common for both mothers who had grown up in Kolkata and mothers who had grown up in other parts of the state and other states. One mother made a statement that summed up the sentiments of many of the mothers in “I am poor, I can’t teach my child very much but that is why I send my child to this program, because the teachers here know what my child will need to learn to be prepared for school. I want my child to learn what I could not learn.”


  • In the Kolkata context, the involvement of grandmothers with the programs was often facilitated through parents. This was common both for families where the grandmother was the primary caregiver at home while the mother worked or both the grandmother and mother stayed at home. Grandmothers were in any case active in the lives of their grandchildren, whether they were more involved in monitoring the child’s diet, schedule, and studies directly or if they were assisting the parents in making these decisions for their child.


  • For families who had relocated to Kolkata from other areas, they often are relocating from rural areas and are seeking access to educational, health, and economic resources not available in those areas. For example, one family came to Kolkata from a village in West Bengal so that their child with learning disabilities could receive appropriate instruction with teachers who were highly qualified in special education.


  • There was also awareness in mothers and grandmothers of health and safety risks for young children, especially for those families living in slums, and the mothers and grandmothers would make every effort to teach their children protective habits regarding safety and well-being. For example, one mother remarked that “times these days are different” and was concerned about child kidnapping; as such she would make sure to have conversations even with her very young children about avoiding strangers and reporting to either a teacher or her about any incidents.


  • Even for mothers and grandmothers who had not completed schooling or were not even literate, there was a desire to support their child’s home-to-program connection. Whether it was giving their child writing prompts, listening to their child’s stories and songs they had learned at school, or talking regularly to the program instructors, the mothers and grandmothers were invested in ensuring their child’s success and pathway to future school success. In addition to good health and academic building blocks, such as counting and letters, mothers and grandmothers did discuss character development and good reputation in the community as one learning objective they have for their children. In many ways, the mothers and grandmothers were knowledgeable about how home and program environments could influence their child’s growth and wanted to utilize that knowledge in a beneficial way.


Overall, the program instructors and leaders at each of the non-profits were seen as trusted resources that mothers and grandmothers could learn from to better support their young children. Given an increased focus in the early childhood space on issues for maternal well-being and family/community engagement, the presence of dynamic non-profits in Kolkata that are helping mothers and grandmothers appears to be crucial to assuring too that young children are well-nurtured. These women were amazing mothers and grandmothers reached out beyond the places and people they are familiar with – stepping outside their comfort zones – so they could provide better futures for their children; their collaboration with local non-profit organizations serves as a stepping stone to achieve their aims.

Summer 2019 Language Fellow – Why I learned Zhuyin (Bopomofo)

Why I decided to learn Zhuyin (Bopomofo)

Taking classes at National Chengchi University helped me to improve my Chinese pronunciation by far. Interestingly enough, I attribute most of my improvement to language exchanges that I did with local friends, especially with one who took up the task of teaching me Zhuyin. Zhuyin is the phonetic system that is used in Taiwan. Most Taiwanese people do not use pinyin as they are taught Zhuyin starting from preschool. Despite this, in order to match what the rest of the world teaches, Chinese language schools in Taiwan, such as the Chinese Language Center in NCCU, use pinyin. I was only able to learn Zhuyin through language exchanges with locals. There are several reasons that I dedicated dozens of hours to memorizing a new phonetic system.



Zhuyin helps fine tune pronunciation. Many Chinese learners make pronunciation mistakes with pinyin as they associate the sounds that they see with the English alphabet. Learning Zhuyin forces you to learn an entirely new symbol to which you can associate the right sound. Learning this system was also a great review of all the sounds that exist in Mandarin. Going over a new phonetic system allowed me to rehearse my Chinese phonics and more closely focus on hearing the difference between similar sounds. Many users of pinyin also never properly learn how to use pinyin. The use of the Latin alphabet often gives them too much confidence or the false idea that they know how to make the sounds in pinyin’s initials and finals.


Reading and Writing

The nature of the characters in Zhuyin reflects the philosophy of Chinese characters as they have specific stroke orders and a look that resembles Chinese characters. The format in which they are used also helps learners focus on learning characters. Zhuyin is often printed in between characters, smaller and to the right of them. This forces readers to look at the characters. Many Mandarin learners know all too well that it is very easy to skim over Chinese characters when using pinyin.

Local Adaptation

As someone who values learning outside of the classroom, I often practice Mandarin with locals. One problem that I quickly ran into with many Taiwanese was that they did not know how to use pinyin. When I asked them how to say something or to explain a new character, they would write in Zhuyin! Learning Zhuyin has also given me access to many more learning materials. I can now go to any children’s bookstore in Taiwan and practice short stories designed for Taiwanese children who are still learning their characters.

Looking at all of the benefits that could be attained, I genuinely feel that for new beginners, Zhuyin is a superior phonetic system to use to learn Mandarin. Schools in the United States should try using this system, and see if there are improvements in the pronunciations and reading levels of their beginner students.





Josh Pope, B.A. International Affairs 2021
Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow
National Chengchi University, Taiwan


Summer 2019 Language Fellow – A Brief Mandarin Language Introduction to the Circular Economy in Taiwan by Circular Economy Consultant Grayson Shor (邵世涵)

Taiwan and the Circular Economy (台灣與循環經濟)

A Brief Mandarin Language Introduction to the Circular Economy in Taiwan

by the American Institute in Taiwan Circular Economy Consultant Grayson Shor

Download and view my PPT here: Taiwan and the Circular Economy, by Grayson Shor: 台灣與循環經濟



Mandarin Text: 台灣與循環經濟

each paragraph corresponds to a slide in my PPT

    1. 第1頁
      1. 大家好!我的名字是邵世涵。我今天的演講主題是:台灣與循環經濟
      2. 你們知道「循環經濟」是什麼?你們知道台灣是亞洲循環經濟發展得最好的國家嗎?如果你不知道的話,放心吧。因為我現在立刻就要告訴你。
    2. 第2頁:
      1. 這位先生曾經說過:
          1. 「這個宇宙是有限的,它的資源有限。
    3. 第3頁:
      1. 他的意思是:隨著世界上的人口越來越多,大家使用的資源也越來越多。要是資源再不控制大家就不能生存了。
    4. 第4頁:
      1. 不過,這有什麼壞處?現在出生的人,當他們邁入青壯年時,就要面對稀有金屬匱乏的問題;到中年時更將面臨能源匱乏的問題。
    5. 第5頁:
      1. 再加上,隨著中產階級消費者越來越多,垃圾和污染也越來越嚴重。
    6. 第6頁:
      1. 為什麼情況變成了這樣?一般來說,大部分的產品的一生是:
        1. 首先:從環境裡開採資源
        2. 然後:用這些資源生產出產品
        3. 最後:當一個人用過了這些產品,想買新款的產品時,他們就會把用過的產品丟到垃圾桶。
        4. 這個做法對環境不好不說,消費者對資源的使用也缺乏效能。
    1. 第7頁:
      1. 這樣一來,我們應該做什麼改變?
      2. 我們應該改一改「垃圾」的定義 。再不改變我們的想法,我們的資源就要用完了。
    2. 第8頁:
      1. 循環經濟是一個讓資源可恢復且可再生的經濟和產業系統。簡單來說,循環經濟努力地讓垃圾可以再利用。
    3. 第9頁:
      1. 在台灣循環經濟發展得很快。
      2. 我要很快地介紹一些台灣循環經濟的個案研究
    4. 第10頁:
      1. 你知道台灣一天消費的咖啡豆高達30噸嗎?可是,咖啡豆的原料僅有2%成為咖啡。
      2. 台灣有世界上第一家用咖啡渣做衣服的公司,讓咖啡渣可以循環使用。
    5. 第11頁:
      1. 全台灣每年製造出15億個一次性飲料杯
      2. 這個公司租賃杯子,讓大家可以循環使用。
    6. 第12頁:
      1. 這家農場使用動物糞便生產沼氣
      2. 他們不但只用自己發的電,還減少了他們的溫室氣體排放量
    7. 第13頁:
      1. 在台北這座大樓,叫「EcoArk」是100%利用寶特瓶做的。
    8. 第14頁:
      1. 謝謝大家!希望你們能在我的演講中聽到一些對你有用的概念。

Grayson Shor

M.A. International Affairs, Specialized in Asia’s Emerging Circular Economy Ecosystem and Plastic Marine Debris

Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow

National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Summer 2019 Field Research Grant – Notes from the Field – Day One of Baseline Data Collection Training in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India

Background: In India, over half of women of reproductive age have anemia. Anemia affects both work capacity and productivity.  Therefore, reducing anemia could reduce gender wage gaps and women’s economic livelihood. In pregnant women, anemia can also lead to increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and maternal mortality. Iron deficiency during pregnancy and early childhood causes permanent reductions in children’s cognitive capacity and socio-emotional functioning that can impact their productive capacity across the life course. The RANI Project, is testing a novel approach to reduce anemia in Odisha, India. We are rolling out a social norms-based intervention that is trying to make taking iron folic acid a normative behavior in all women of reproductive age. Currently, only pregnant women take it but often only intermittently. To evaluate the intervention, we are conducting a cluster-randomized controlled trial. For the baseline data collection, I traveled solo from Washington D.C. to Bhubaneswar, India to help train over 100 team members from our data collection team. This was quite an involved training. In addition to hemocue testing (a finger blood prick) to test for anemia, we are also collecting 4,000 survey responses, taking height and weight measurements, testing cognitive abilities, and assessing physical activity changes. Anemia may affect all of these areas, so we want to monitor them during all three data collection waves.

Tuesday, July 16th – The Red Cross building in Bhubaneswar, Odisha

Cognitive testing day. Soumik, our local partner and Technical Advisor, discussed why we’re conducting cognitive tests, which we are simply calling “games” with the participants. He explained that anemia affects cognitive abilities so we want to measure and compare differences in the treatment versus control group over the course of the one-year intervention. He showed the team how to conduct the Simple Reaction Time Test and the Simon task on the computer. We also created physical boards for the Corsi block test and chose simple words for the word span test (two computer tests and two manual tests in case women feel uncomfortable using a computer). I practiced both manual tests with Soumik and Manoj, our research partners, in English and then they trained everyone in Oriya, the official language in the whole state of Odisha. It would have been too confusing to add English words into the mix. I was happy to help because most other days I’m just observing and our data collection partners are leading the show. All day was dedicated to learning and practicing these four tests “games.” They had fun doing them. Overall, the team is bright and brightly clad in kurtis. The Red Cross training rooms are big with AC and a steady stream of chai and biscuits. They keep trying not to let me see the kitchen, but today I went in and it’s pretty rustic with shirtless men stirring huge pots of daal and making chapati for all of the groups that eat at the canteen. The food is delicious and mostly vegetarian to respect the different goddess days where people chose to forego meat as a sign of respect to a particular god or goddess.


Image: Practicing the Corsi block test to examine memory function

Paving the Path to Balance the Traditional and the “Modern”: Perspectives from Santal Mothers and Grandmothers in West Bengal

Santal woman’s drawing of her family. This drawing marks traditional feathers and hair ornaments they wear.

When I learned that I would be an Asian Field Research Fellow with the Sigur Center for Summer 2019, I was elated for many reasons; one of those reasons was tied to my own personal upbringing. For decades, members of my family have volunteered to support the Santal tribe in Birbhum district, West Bengal. The Santal are an indigenous group (characterized in India as adivasi) with a large presence in the country’s eastern states. I’ve visited programs serving the Santal people since I was a little girl; some of these programs include an academic program to prepare children for admissions to Bangla-medium formal schools, and vocational programs for adults to train in various occupations, such as beautician and electrician work. These programs were aimed at diversifying economic opportunity for the Santal people who have typically been involved in agricultural labor in the mainstream economy. Previously Santal children had not enrolled in large numbers in West Bengal’s mainstream schools for various reasons, such as language barriers and family obligations. I’ve seen Santal children and youth benefiting from these programs to gain more economic stability and also attain formal schooling, with members of this community increasingly pursuing secondary school completion and higher education. Santal individuals are now involved in running these programs as well. As I learned more about access and empowerment, I began to wonder about the best ways to enhance existing programs and services for the Santal community as they continue to integrate with mainstream society while maintaining the cultural values and traditions of their tribe. This question stayed with me throughout my work experiences and studies in education in the United States and on a couple of international education projects, and throughout my studiesat GW in international education including on indigenous populations. Receiving this fellowship meant I had an opportunity to delve further into understanding the current needs of the Santal community. In this post, I will discuss past experiences with the Santal people, and introduce the research I am conducting involving both Santal women in Birbhum and urban women in Kolkata.  

Santal woman’s drawing of her family.

I am not an expert in Santal culture, but personal experiences with the Santal tribe from childhood taught me to appreciate their beautiful ways of respecting nature and their greater kin. I have seen their customary song and enej performances on many occasions, with the women gracefully holding hands and dancing in a line while wearing matching sarees and flowers in their hair, and the men playing the dhol and showing their warrior dance in a captivating display of strength. I’ve seen the intricate tattoo designs that the Santal people wear, some on their arms and some at the base of their neck for example. I’ve visited their homes, generally constructed of mud and incorporating domestic engineering, such as kilns built into floors. I’ve also attended a religious ceremony of theirs held in a neighborhood forest, occurring in parallel with Diwali/Kali Puja. In addition to seeing their long-established ways of life, I have seen their steps taken towards participating more in mainstream education and economic systems. One particular memory I have of visiting the academic preparatory program as a child was seeing another small, chubby-faced Santal child receiving some writing utensils, examining them with detail, and delicately placing the utensils into her pencil case, and then into her bookbag. My father commented to me how the Santal people, conventionally minimalist, showed great appreciation and care for whatever material goods they did have. Little did I know then that I would one day be speaking to some of the children in that class as adults, asking them about their own experiences raising their children! Yet that is exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago in Birbhum; it was the only place where I could immediately identify some faces that are now grown women and where I was called by my daak naam (family nickname) instead of my good name.  

For my capstone project, I am seeking to learn more about mothers’ and grandmothers’ perceptions of early childhood development in West Bengal, specifically focusing on the contexts of Kolkata and Birbhum districts. In addition to speaking with Santal mothers and grandmothers, I also spoke to mothers and grandmothers who receive nonprofit services in Kolkata; I will write more about my experiences with them in a follow-up blog post. Early childhood is a wide-ranging field with key priority areas for raising young children as reflected by the World Health Organization’s Nurturing Care Framework good health, adequate nutrition, opportunities for early learning, security and safety, and responsive care-giving. The practice of asking mothers about their child-rearing practices has been cemented on an international scale through data collection initiatives, such as the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster (MICS) Surveys. My open-ended interviews with mothers and grandmothers were influenced both by the Nurturing Care Framework and the MICS Surveys, plus my own interests on inter-generational perspectives on early childhood and play-based learning. Hearing the Santal women’s perspectives on early childhood with these questions as guides was a unique opportunity for me to learn how this Santal community in Birbhum district has adjusted to socio-cultural and economic changes around them – not only in the state of West Bengal but in India overall, as well.

Santal woman’s drawing of her family tree.

At this particular site, Santal mothers and grandmothers whose young children/grandchildren attend the academic preparatory program were interviewed. The group I spoke with included a combination of women who had themselves attended the program as children and those who had not. There was also a combination of women who had completed secondary schooling and those who had not. The women I interviewed were very confident in discussing their involvement, concerns, and hopes in raising their children. While I am currently in the process of analyzing the data in-depth, a few takeaways have stuck with me so far from the interviews:

Both grandmothers and mothers see the importance of girls’ and boys’ education, and note that this current view is different from past views on formal schooling. In some ways, they view encouraging their children to perform well in formal schooling as an extension of a Santal value of looking out for kin, especially the youngest members. One mother stated that without formal schooling, they couldn’t expect their children to contribute to family life, gain employment, and get married.
There appears to be a high engagement of Santal grandmothers in children’s schooling, even in just making sure that the children attend school – especially if both parents are working.
In regards to formal schooling, formal schools in the area appear to be working more to to address barriers to school attendance than they did for previous generations; for example, one grandmother noted that while she worried about sending her own children to school because she was not able to provide them with a school lunch, that her grandchildren can attend schools where they do provide lunches and that gives her peace of mind.
Even more than learning Bangla, some mothers commented that learning English is necessary for their children to earn a livelihood when they are grown up.

I should note that this group represents a smaller sample from the larger Santal population in the area; my study is more exploratory in nature, but more investigation could also compare this particular Santal community to other Santal communities in the eastern region of India or compare the views of families from this program to other families participating in different programs serving the local Santal tribe.  Continue reading “Paving the Path to Balance the Traditional and the “Modern”: Perspectives from Santal Mothers and Grandmothers in West Bengal”

Summer 2019 Language Fellow – Why I came back to Taiwan, Why I came back to National ChengChi University.

Last year, I began learning Chinese at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan. Here is a vlog where I explain why I decided to go back.


Josh Pope, B.A. International Affairs 2021
Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow
National Chengchi University, Taiwan

Taiwan Outside of Taipei

The Taichung Skyline Behind Me

I have been very lucky to have been able to travel to two other cities in Taiwan during my time here so far, spending a weekend each in Taichung and Tainan. These travel experiences were a great supplement to my Chinese language learning in the classroom in Taipei. In both of these cities the dominant languages are Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien, and English speakers are much less common than in Taipei, which has a large expat community. On both of these trips I was joined by fellow Sigur Grant recipient Josh Pope.

My experience in Taichung was quite interesting, as my local friend who was showing me around the city had to take care of his 8 year old cousin that day, so we brought her with us. Below are a few pictures of the places we went in Taichung:

Taichung Park. From Left-Right: Cindy, Me, Josh, Vince
Taichung Botanical Gardens. L-R: Josh, Me, Cindy
Playground in Taichung Park

On this day in Taichung, we went to the Botanical Gardens, The National Art Museum, Taichung Park, and walked around the downtown area.

A park in central Taichung

In Tainan, we visited some of the oldest temples in Taiwan, went to one of the  largest night-markets, and saw the ruins of a 17th century Dutch fort.

Taiwan’s First Confucian Temple

Tainan is also known within Taiwan for having excellent food:

Oyster Omelette
Mango Shaved Ice

As the supposed birthplace of Taiwanese Oyster Omelettes and Beef Noodles, the food did not disappoint. Tainan cuisine tends to be very sweet, and this is reflected in their preferred version of soy sauce- more of a soy syrup. Additionally Tainan’s tropical climate has the perfect weather to eat shaved ice desserts, like the mango one to the right.


You may have noticed that the 3 cities, Taipei, Taichung, and Tainan, all share the name Tai- with the island of Taiwan. This is because they are located in the north, middle, and south of the island respectively, and the second half of each name denotes the location. My Taiwanese friend Vince joked about the lack of creativity in city-naming here, but I find the naming convention amusing and hope to visit the other two Tai- cities (Taitung, and Taixi, which is actually a small fishing village according to my friends here who were very confused when I brought it up).

Overall, this experience in Taiwan has greatly improved both my Chinese language abilities and my understanding of Taiwanese culture.

Summer 2019 Language Fellow – The International Chinese Language Program (ICLP): Why You Shouldn’t Study Here

The International Chinese Language Program (ICLP)

Why You Shouldn’t Study Here

I am entering the finals week of my second quarter at the infamous ICLP intensive Mandarin program in Taipei, Taiwan. I’ve been going back and forth for a while whether or not to write a review of this program. The reason is I have a very, very, poor opinion of this program and I wanted to be sure this opinion was valid and justified before I wrote a review of a program that I once so highly regarded. After six months of 20 hours of class per week at this institution, I feel qualified now to write such a review.

My bottom line up front is this: ICLP is a language center which prioritizes profit over students and teachers, is not worth its outrageously expensive price tag, and has likely only survived as a popular institution because of its name brand recognition. Now, this is a bold statement but I am not the first GW student to write a blog post here with this same feeling (read here). This other blog post states, and I quote:

“ICLP advertises an immersive environment to study Mandarin Chinese. The program also offers students individualized study plans with small class sizes (2-4 students), with an additional one-on-one class tailored to your specific interests and difficulties you face in learning Chinese. Unfortunately, from my own experiences and those of other students, ICLP’s benefits seem to end there…I made great friends at ICLP and my Chinese improved over the summer, but overall, I felt the program did not live up to its reputation. All I can say is you do not always get what you pay for.”

To retain brevity in this review I am going to respond to a few misconceptions I had (as have many others) prior to attending ICLP.


“I can learn faster at ICLP because each week I have so many class hours and the class sizes are small”

ICLP is focused on cramming as much Chinese into your head in as little time as possible and does not adjust the speed of the class to meet students’ learning style even if all four of each classes’ students don’t understand anything. I think a fitting analogy to ICLP’s teaching philosophy is this: break open a fire hydrant and try to drink as much water as you can. In reality, not only are you wasting water (time) but also you’ll end up barely drinking any water (information). I tend to think less is more- I would rather master and truly understand what I am learning than just rush through three to four textbooks each week and learn 100+ new words and grammar structures each day. On top of this, ICLP’s demanding course schedule does not allow for review… like absolutely NO REVIEW! I am not sure how one can retain hundreds of new words a week if they have no time to review these. This is because ICLP teachers are required to finish teaching their assigned textbook by the end of each quarter, which often takes precedent over making sure students understand the content of the text.


“It is expensive, but it is worth it!”

Do the math, it isn’t. ICLP charges more per hour than any other Mandarin program I have researched in Asia, including IUP in Beijing. Why? It isn’t because teachers are paid well, a they aren’t. It is because ICLP pays roughly 30% of its revenue to the National Taiwan University (NTU) to pay its overhead as well as maintain its status at the school. See, ICLP isn’t actually a real NTU program; it is renting the right to use the NTU name and building. There is a tiered system at NTU for programs like ICLP. The more money you pay the more your students can have access to the things real NTU students have. For example, I have an NTU student ID because I go to ICLP, so I can check out books at the library, but because ICLP does not pay the full fee to be a tier one program I cannot use the NTU campus WiFi. More bang for your buck would be reached by attending the Mandarin Training Center (MTC) program at the National Taiwan Normal University. It has larger class sizes but it is roughly a third the price and you can pay for additional 1-1 tutoring hours, which are cheaper than ICLP’s tutoring.


“ICLP can teach me Chinese other programs won’t”

Well, not exactly, but there is some truth here. There are 6+ language ability levels at ICLP. For levels 1-3 (complete beginner to intermediate) the core textbooks are all from ICLP’s main competitor, the MTC program. Do you find this weird? So do I. Why not just go to MTC, the school that wrote the books and pay 1/3 the price? Now, if you are level 4+, ICLP actually does have some good textbooks it has written that will discuss interesting topics, such as AI or prisons in Taiwan. I think ICLP has some value at this point, IF you come in at a high intermediate level. Don’t waste your time coming here to start learning Chinese.


“But I heard ICLP can increase your Chinese level by one-academic level per quarter, right?”

This is BS. Sorry, it just is. Besides the rushing through textbooks as I mentioned before and then saying students are at the next level when they aren’t, ICLP has gained this reputation for this reasons: Most students who come to ICLP are young (in college or just graduated high school), for many this is their first time abroad. Many of these students say how great ICLP is and recommend it but have never had a Mandarin class beyond their home country before. From what I have seen, they are confusing attending ICLP with attending a language program in an immersed language environment. After talking with many of the older students at ICLP (26+ years old) who have lived in Asia for a while (as have I), nearly all say ICLP isn’t worth the money and isn’t a good school.


“I can choose my own classes and language level”

No, you can’t. ICLP assigns you to a language level and classes based upon making sure that each class has all four seats full. I’ve seen people be placed at levels lower/higher than they actually are as well as be put in courses a year or more below their level by the accounting department to ensure that all classes are full and there won’t be any partially filled classes, which would require taking a loss on a teacher’s salary. If you don’t believe me, ask the teachers who have quit working at ICLP. I’ve spoken to nearly half a dozen and they all, without me asking about this, brought this subject up. Lastly, ICLP is quite inflexible when asking to alter your schedule or classes. You find out on the Thursday or Friday before you begin classes the next Monday what courses you are in and might have a schedule like this: 8am-9am, 10am-11am, 3pm-5pm.


“ICLP has a long institutional knowledge of teaching Chinese”

That was the case until about three months ago when all the senior management staff quit to form their own separate school. Personally, I think they see the writing on the wall for ICLP and that’s why they left.


“ICLP offers student’s good dorm rooms”

The average price for a good bedroom in an apartment in Taipei including utilities is approximately $15,000 NTD per month. ICLP charges its students over $22,000 NTD per month to stay in the Taipei Paradise building. I do think this is a nice building with good staff and a convenient location. I think it is worth the money, especially if you are staying for just one quarter. However, ICLP makes a nice profit off of renting to students and this itches me in the wrong way. After talking with the building manager, I discovered that ICLP agrees to a contact with the building every two years, in which rent is locked in. Yet, the price ICLP charges for the dorms changes each quarter. For example, students in the summer term pay a bit more than they did the previous quarter yet they DOUBLE the amount of people in each dorm. Yes, a room with one person becomes a room with two people. Additionally, ICLP charges an unspecified amount for “administrative purposes” which is subtracted from each student’s apartment deposit. I’ve asked many time how much this is, as I didn’t want to give them my deposit before I knew and they refused to tell me and said that I needed to pay ASAP or else risk losing my spot. I am not making this up. Shady? Yes. Transparent? No.


Look, I could go on and on but I will cut myself short here. The take away here is that you should truly reconsider going to ICLP if you are dead-set on studying there. If you are a high-level Mandarin speaker, then I DO think that ICLP can benefit your language skills, otherwise- go somewhere else. Also, if you value transparency and flexibility in a program you are spending USD $4,500 – $4,700 every ten weeks to attend, then ICLP isn’t going to meet your expectations. I wish I knew this all before I decided to attend ICLP and I hope you find my opinion above valuable.

Grayson Shor

M.A. International Affairs, Specialized in Asia’s Emerging Circular Economy Ecosystem and Plastic Marine Debris

Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow

National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Summer 2019 Asian Field Research Fellow – Field Tales: Designing, Outreach and Reflections by Abhilasha Sahay

Field Tales: Designing, Outreach and Reflections

When I learnt that I have been granted the Sigur grant, I was both excited and nervous. Excited because I could now finally undertake fieldwork that I had been planning for, for almost a year! Nervous because I now had to transition from the comforts of secondary research desk-work to diving into primary data collection on the field.

Often, it takes a village to accomplish goals, cross milestones and finally reach our destination. Acknowledging the benefits of collaborative work, I set out on the path of reaching out to local partners and NGOs that had established relations with communities. In the process, I met many interesting people, who had similar research interests, alongside immense hands-on experience. Specifically, I got on board 2 young researchers who had received formal training in qualitative research and had previously conducted fieldwork across multiple regions in India. Together, the three of us set out on the path of implementing the envisioned qualitative survey.

The survey has 3 components and this blog focuses on the second component (SC2 hereafter). Under SC2, we seek to collect information on behavior and attitudes towards reporting of Violence Against Women (VAW) – an issue that is subject to considerable stigma, shame – and is consequently under-reported. We planned to interview men and women in the age-group 18-30 years old from districts[1] across Delhi. Given that responses on VAW could suffer from social-desirability bias, we utilized indirect methods of questioning, such as vignettes that could induce truthful revelation of opinions on VAW. In other words, the questionnaire depicted hypothetical situations on cases of VAW and sought the respondent’s opinion on what should be done next.  Below is an excerpt from our questionnaire, for clearer illustration,:

Now we will present to you description of some hypothetical situations on crimes against women. Each description is followed by four options. Please choose one option, which you think is the best choice. There is no right or wrong answer to these questions – please be honest. If you wish, you can provide brief comments to explain your choice in the space provided.

Aditi is the eldest daughter of a lower middle class family. Her father has recently retired as a clerk from a government job, her mother is a homemaker and she has two brothers who are studying. Aditi is a nurse and the only earning member of the family. One day, one of the doctors at the hospital sexually harassed her. Aditi is very disturbed and feels like quitting her job. But given the circumstances, she is in a dilemma. What do you think Aditi should do?

  1. Confront the perpetrator(s)
  2. Seek help at the location of the incident
  3. Call a friend/family member
  4. Report to police 

Please provide brief comments to explain your answer.

The first and perhaps the most challenging aspect of executing SC2 was recruitment of subjects. A part of the challenge came from the fact that VAW is a very sensitive topic and people are not particularly comfortable talking about it. Given that, we were focusing on a younger demographic, we decided on contacting coaching centers where young professionals come to take classes on aptitude exams, such as GRE and GMAT. However, most coaching centers turned down our offer to collaborate, primarily because these centers are driven by profit motivations and were unable to realize the benefits of collaborating on social and behavioral research, devoid of any financial transactions. After 2-3 weeks of reaching out to almost all coaching centers in Delhi, we realized that we would not be able to get sufficient number of centers on-board and that we needed to re-strategize.

Feeling quite dejected, we started thinking of alternative outreach strategies and there came the Eureka moment! During one of our team meetings, I came up with idea of contacting vocational centers run by the Government of India. These centers, referred to as National Skill Development Centers (NSDC), provide training to young men and women on a range of skills, including data-entry, office documents, electronics technician, beauty and wellness, etc., free of cost. These centers were seemingly more aligned with social objectives; they aimed at providing vocational training to people who have completed education and are looking at enhancing their employability but are unable to afford niche training provided by private centers. After contacting coordinators of NSDC centers, we received a much more welcoming response. This was quite a boost to our newly-found outreach strategy – a much-needed lift after the fall-out with the coaching centers.

The second step was to conduct a pilot to adequately test the survey instruments. This step was particularly exciting! We had been working on developing the instruments for several weeks and finally, it was now the time to test them in a real-world setting. What soon unfolded was a serendipitous moment. Much to our surprise, the first training coordinator we contacted (in a small village called Devli in South Delhi) was extremely supportive of our research endeavors and invited us for a meeting the next day. My team and I prepared for the meeting and were hoping for the best outcome, i.e. fix a date to schedule a formal roll-out. But as luck would have it, when we went in for the meeting, we were asked to roll-out the survey that day itself! It was truly good fortune that we got the opportunity to conduct a pilot on 80 respondents (almost 15% of the target sample size), however, on very short-notice. Nevertheless, excited to seize this opportunity, my team and I immediately started preparing. We translated the questionnaires from English to Hindi, which was the primary language for most respondents, and rushed to make copies of the translated questionnaires.[2] What followed suit was a smooth pilot rolled out to 80 young men and women from varied socioeconomic backgrounds. Although we were initially not prepared to pilot on the same day, our teamwork made it possible.

Research is a fairly iterative process. The pilot gave us several useful insights on improving the design and execution of the survey. Over the next month, we rolled out the survey in 16 centers, across all districts in Delhi, grossing a total sample size of 636, against our target of 550 (i.e. 50 each from the 11 districts).

Each roll-out was unique in its own way and we learnt something new each time. Several respondents told us that they enjoyed being a part of the research study because it was on a socially-relevant and relatable topic. One of the respondents from Vasant Kunj (Southwest Delhi) district mentioned that she liked responding to the survey as she felt that the ‘situations’ described as vignettes were very ‘real.’ Another respondent from Badarpur (Southeast Delhi) said that the comments section of the questionnaire gave her an outlet to express her latent emotions and feelings on the issue.

But there were also few people who weren’t satisfied with the research objectives and were dismissive of our endeavor. During our roll-out in Madhipur village (West Delhi), one of the respondents was irritated that we had chosen such a ‘silly’ topic to study. He said that there were more ‘important’ things to study than VAW. He also urged us to look into the effects of tobacco (‘gutkha’) as it was causing a lot of harm to the youth. Such comments were also important and rather telling of how the severity of VAW as an issue may not have resonated much with some people. This in itself is an important takeaway and reiterates the need for greater sensitization among youth on VAW.

While, the data analysis is underway, our initial reflections from the survey as well as the overwhelming support received from training coordinators and respondents reaffirms our belief in the underlying motivations of this research. With this in mind, we continue to strive towards conducting socially-relevant research that can create meaningful impact.

[1] Administrative unit, similar to US counties

[2] Big thank you to Google translate for this.


Abhilasha Sahay, PhD Economics 2020

Sigur Center 2019 Field Research, India

Summer 2019 Field Research Fellow- A Tale of Experiences and Learning by Abhilasha Sahay.

A Tale of Experiences and Learning

Violence against Women, a topic which has recently generated a lot of conversations in the Indian society, is the base of our research study. The Indian feminist movements have been seen to rise in waves, carved by various cases of violence against women, from the Bhanwari Devi case, Roop Kanwar’s immolation, to the most recent Nirbhaya gang-rape (brutal gang-rape on a moving bus in Delhi). Such cases have seen the uproar of masses; leading to the judicial system taking a step forward towards a less paternalistic state, like the introduction of the Vishakha Guidelines, influenced by the Bhanwari Devi rape case, and the introduction of fast track courts, post the Nirbhaya incident.

In the pursuit of our research study, we sought to understand the masses’ opinions about crimes against women, their sources of information about such crimes, along with the police force’s understanding of the changes in the system in recent times – thus tracing a trajectory of crimes against women from the heinous Nirbhaya rape case, up until now. In trying to do so, our team engaged in conversations with people from the police force and those from urban slum clusters, and surveyed the youth of Delhi. This wide sample was chosen to give us a holistic view of what crimes against women means to people in Delhi, the national capital of India.

We started out with understanding what the youth think of violence against women (VAW), especially reporting of VAW. After developing survey instruments entailing vignettes, we dipped our toes into the field with the pilot in Devli (a small village in South Delhi), after which we were ready to immerse ourselves fully. The pilot at Devli came with a lot of unexpected twists; we went in for a pleasantry meeting, and ended up conducting a pilot survey with 80 students (details provided in part 1 of this blog). However, this pilot gave us confidence to conduct the surveys in the proceeding days, and reassured us that we could overcome any challenges that the field throws at us. What followed suit was a series of rollouts across regions in Delhi.

My favorite experience came from two such rollouts; one in the Delhi Cantonment area in New Delhi district and one in Vikaspuri, in West Delhi. As I entered the Cantonment area of Shekhawat Lines, this unknown realm reminded me of ghost towns, with dilapidated buildings covered in moulds, and lawns with dried grass. An eerie silence engulfed the whole area with not a single person within eyesight. However, in the middle of the Cantonment lay an extravagant, lush, gated area called the Aahwan Centre.

Out of all the vocational centers that I had gotten the chance to visit until then, it was safe to say that the one in the Aahwan Centre was the best. The two courses taught there were beauty and wellness, and computers. The laboratories for both the courses were equipped with the best instruments, the classrooms complete with detailed charts about the coursework, and projectors for visual aid. As I explained the nature of the research study to the trainers at the centre, I was forewarned that no such crimes occur within the cantonment area, because of which respondents may not be able to relate to the questions. However, it was later found that the students seemed moved by the situations presented to them and could recall incidents that were similar to those they were reading about in the questionnaire. I was told by one of the respondents that they found the survey thought-provoking because such situations are the harsh reality of being a woman in Delhi.

The rollout at Vikaspuri was scheduled with a centre of PMKVY, which caters to people with hearing disabilities. As I reached the location of the rollout with a sign language interpreter, I was warned by the Centre head that instead of the estimated 40 minutes given to complete the survey, the students may take anywhere up to 2-3 hours to complete it, because of the situation-based questions and the low reading abilities of the students. This meant that every word of the questionnaire needed to be interpreted to the students in sign language. However, the coordinator was very impressed with the questions and was keen on administering it to her students, because they never get to talk about such things. She also expressed interest in incorporating such themes into their course syllabus to create awareness amongst her students about the issue of violence against women. This thought itself was quite motivating and rewarding for us!

After getting acquainted with the Centre head, we went on to administer the questionnaire. It was a massive task for the interpreter to individually address doubts of 40-odd respondents, who had many questions of their own about the survey. The students, however, seemed quite moved by the situations presented to them. To be able to effectively translate the questions into sign language required a lot of minute attention to detail, along with immense amounts of patience. We set out with the aim of being done with the survey in the usual one hour timeframe, but ended up spending about 3.5 hours administering the survey. This made me think of how I’d taken for granted the reading abilities of 18-30 year olds, while on the other hand, people with hearing disabilities lack proper schools or funding for schools from the government, which results in readings levels of primary school students. Nonetheless, their enthusiasm to participate in the survey gave us energy and optimism, and thus we were able to carry out the survey effectively.

The field experience that I have gained over the last month through this research study has acquainted me with nooks and crannies of Delhi that I had never been to despite residing in Delhi for more than two decades. Having grown-up in the quintessential city life of Delhi, I was embarrassingly unaware of these other ‘Delhis’ that existed in my own backyard! While each such Delhi was distinct in its own respect, what connects us all is the call/urge to mitigate VAW across spaces and communities…

Abhilasha Sahay, Phd Economics 2020

Sigur Center 2019 Field Research Fellow, India

Summer 2019 Language Fellow – The Taiwan Experience

My time in Taiwan is reaching closer and closer to an end. Time has gone by rather fast considering that my experience began in the middle of May. I am pretty confident that I have gained some sort of lasting tangible knowledge in Chinese given that there has been a class every day for 3 hours. Additionally, I have picked up on some of the cultural behaviors in this area. Lastly, I have eaten a whole lot of food that would be rare to find in DC.

In terms of learning a new language, the class has been rather consistent. With a solid block of time set aside to learn Chinese, there have been definite improvements in vocabulary and grammar. Not only is there 3 hours for class, there is also the additional time for studying and just general usage to get by in life. The efficiency/effectiveness of the pursuit of language acquisition is much greater, especially when just focusing on a single subject.

While learning Chinese through a classroom setting is beneficial, the use of it outside of class is arguably just as important. The constant reading, listening, and speaking do wonders in reinforcing what is learned in the classroom and facilitating greater learning outside of the classroom. Communicating with people about multiple subjects that are not covered in class obviously expands the source of knowledge. This also applies to the reading of signs and whatnot when getting around the area. 

Lastly, and most importantly to myself is the exploration or recollection of eating traditional Taiwanese food has been great, plus the price of items here are much more affordable than in DC. It has been interesting to eat dishes that incorporate the whole animal, which is more often done than in the US. Such dishes include the use of the insides of pigs, ex. the heart, liver, blood, etc. On the other hand, the more popular treats, such as bubble tea and potstickers, are always refreshing as well. 

All in all, the study abroad experience so far has been very positive. I have continued to hit the main goals of learning Chinese and picking up on the culture. 


Ander Tebbutt, BAccy 2022

Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow

National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan

Summer 2019 Field Research Grant – Can Rigorous Research Methods & Buddhism Coexist?

I traveled across oceans in three planes, cars, and shuttles to reach the Nawalparasi district of Nepal. I had one sole purpose for this trip – to conduct cognitive testing of a gender norms scale that I’m developing. Gender norms are a sub-set of social norms that describe how people of a particular gender are expected to behave, in a given social context. Cognitive testing is a fancy word for making sure that the questions that we plan to ask make sense to participants. In measurement jargon, this is called “content validity.” For example, one of my questions is, “In most families you know, women’s parents pay a dowry when their daughter gets married” with answer choices ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” I need to make sure that participants understand the word “dowry” as it’s translated in Nepali and that they understand that we’re asking about “most families,” not themselves. To do so, we asked open-ended questions about how they answered the question and what the dowry practice is like in their community.

A scale is a compendium of multiple items (survey questions) that as a whole represent a latent construct; they measure beliefs or attitudes we expect to exist as a result of our theoretical understanding of the world, but cannot directly measure. Different from measuring height and weight, gender norms cannot be directly measured. Creating and validating a scale helps to ensure that we are truly capturing this concept. Oftentimes, researchers simply hire data collectors to conduct cognitive testing. However, being present in Nepal allowed me to be a part of burgeoning questions about how to improve each question for clarity. For example, participants had a hard time differentiating between two important concepts, descriptive gender norms and injunctive gender norms. Perceived descriptive norms are what people are actually doing (e.g., most parents in this community pay a dowry when their daughter gets married) and perceived injunctive norms are perceptions about what someone should do (e.g., people in this community know that they should not pay a dowry and that it’s illegal but they still do it). One of the data collectors, Minakshi, suggested that we provide an example around hand washing to differentiate between the two types of questions. She suggested we add this example to the instructions, “we all know that we should wash our hands with soap and water before we eat but not everyone actually does that. For the next set of questions, I’m going to ask about what you think families believe they should do, not what they actually do.” Adding this vastly improved comprehension – a critical difference for this scale. By working closely with two data collectors for four days, they will be able to train the rest of the team on the questions, the importance of the scale, and how to answer questions, before the next round of data collection this fall.

Of course, another benefit of crossing oceans is that I get a glimpse into the lives of the women, or similar women, who will be helping to validate this scale with their responses. Since I don’t speak Nepali, I hang back with the driver as the data collectors conduct each interview. We sit in green plastic chairs under kind people’s roofs. Everyone welcomes us in. One family placed two water bottles and a bowl of sugar in front of me. I asked the driver what the sugar was for and he said that it’s a common welcome gesture for guests. The woman offered it to me directly and as I picked up the spoon to place some sugar in my palm, I realized there were tiny ants all over it. I was already midway to ladling the ant-infested sugar into my palm and the whole house was watching me so I just hoped that the ants didn’t hang on tight. I put a little in my mouth and kept the rest of the sugar tightly clenched in my fist for the next hour until the interview finished. When I was about to get into the car, I opened my palm to let the rest of the sugar fall to the ground but it was mostly melted into my clammy hand at the point. All in the name of science! The next day, sitting under a restaurant overhang, a family put me to work rolling and stuffing momos (Nepali dumplings). My dumplings were smaller and lopsided compared to the rest but they were patient with me and happy to have the help – or at least the entertainment.

Men, women, and children spend the day cooking, cleaning, washing, and selling things but life didn’t feel as harried as it does in Washington, D.C. The slow, languid pace in the Newalparasi District made me feel guilty when I’d open up my laptop to crank out the methods section of a paper while I waited for the data collectors to return. But this is what I know – checklists, accomplishments, efficiency. The Newalparasi district where we worked is only 35 kilometers from Buddha’s birthplace. Originally, Buddha was a Brahman man named Siddhartha Gautama, who left all of his possessions, money, and family to explore. He wanted to understand the world outside of his sheltered, privileged life and in the process, found enlightenment and internal peace. Buddhist philosophy may not include cranking out methods sections and keeping a list of how many publications I’ve produced. Rolling momos and sitting with families, albeit mostly in silence, is probably more Buddhist.

As a social scientist, I am proud of methodical attention to detail and I want to contribute a sound, rigorous gender norms instrument that the field can use to reduce gender inequity. At the same time, I want to slow down and appreciate the immeasurable part of life. As always, travel and a glimpse into another way of living helps me remember that.


Language Exchange in Taipei

Coming to Taiwan has allowed me to practice and improve my Mandarin by leaps and bounds. The immersive experience goes beyond the classroom and allows me to be learning 24/7. However, what many students do not consider is the practice of language exchange. Language Exchange involves two or more people that help each other practice languages that they are learning. This can be a great help to students on a budget as participants teach their partner their native or fluent language instead of charging money as a tutor would. I found many partners through Facebook groups as well as sites like tealit.com that focus on language exchange.

I was very lucky to meet a few Taiwanese locals who have helped me learn and practice more than I could learn in the classroom. I was able to work on fine-tuning my pronunciation, learn about Taiwanese culture, and much more. Through meeting language partners, I was also able to explore new parts of the city and try new foods every time I met up with a language partner – I’ve made some of my best friends in Taiwan this way. One language partner in particular even went to the extent of teaching me Zhuyin (also known as Bopomofo), which is the Taiwanese equivalent of Pinyin. It’s a feat in of itself as many Taiwanese people do not know how to use pinyin. Learning Bopomofo has helped to improve my pronunciation as well as allowing me to access more resources as children’s books often use Zhuyin. Language exchange allowed me to improve my speaking speed and learn more casual expressions that younger people will more often use. It has given me the liberty to design my own plans about what I wanted to learn and dive into topics that my classes may look over, such as  movies or music that were trending in Taiwan. From talking about the work of Hebe Tien to Jay Chou, I discussed song lyrics and the clever ways that artists use Mandarin. I was also able to pick up on some Taiwanese (Taiyu) and Hakka words that have infiltrated into everyday Taiwanese Mandarin conversation to better appreciate the many regional variations of Mandarin. I learned about the many views on the upcoming presidential race and the controversial KMT candidates that have been stirring heated debate among the Taiwanese public.

It also felt great being able to help so many people learn English and achieve their goals as well. While there were some meetups that were awkward or boring, after meeting a few people I quickly found that most people looking for exchange were friendly, engaging, and offered a lot to learn from. I’ve done exchanges with fellow students, as well as people who were in their 60’s. I was able to meet and have intriguing conversations with people from different workplaces and political views. I am grateful for the opportunity to take intensive classes at National Chengchi University but also grateful to be surrounded by so many partners who help push me to the goal of fluency.


Applying language skills. Also, cats





My Bahasa Indonesia has improved significantly. Per my instructors, I have already reached the CEFR B1 level. In general, I find myself better able to converse with people in Indonesian and do so regarding more complicated topics. For example, I can now talk about political or cultural topics with relative ease. In my remaining month here, I hope to continue the progress at the same pace, but even if I don’t, I will have still have opened up many doors that were previously locked up tight.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the most salient experiences I have experienced since my last blogpost were all directly related to my advancing language skills. I finally feel comfortable enough to haggle at the market, even if I still end up on the worse end of every exchange. Being able to hold my own in a conversation played no small part in easing the stress involved in applying for a visa extension, a process that included multiple trips to multiple immigration offices and fun bureaucratic wrangling.

This weekend I will finally get the chance to travel a little outside the Jakarta metro area (specifically Bali), something I hope to do a couple more times before I return to America.  In other news, soto ayam – a soup composed of chicken, noodles, and potato – is quite tasty and is best consumed by the street alongside a menagerie of motorcycles and stray cats.








Summer 2019 Language Fellow – Marine Debris Beach Cleanup in Taiwan

Marine Debris Beach Cleanup in Taiwan

Marine debris not only adversely affect marine animals when they ingest or are entangled in the them (i.e. the viral video of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose), but also threaten food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism. Moreover, marine debris risk destabilizing the economic livelihood and health of the nearly 2 billion people who rely on the ocean for their primary source of protein.

The most hazardous and wide-spread marine debris are plastics. Plastic waste makes up 80% of all the waste in the world’s oceans. How did this happen? Well, in short- we produce a lot of plastic! Plastic production has been exponentially increasingly since it became a commonplace consumer good in the 1950s (i.e. Tupperware, shopping bags, and candy wrappers). In 2015 alone, the amount of plastic produced was nearly equivalent to the estimated mass of 2/3 of the entire human population. Of all this plastic waste, it is estimated that only around 10% has been properly recycled, with the rest entering landfills, incineration plants, and natural environments.

East Asia and the Pacific Region account for 60% of the global total of marine debris. Therefore it is no surprise that Asian countries make up eight of the top ten marine debris-polluting nations. Thus, I’ve come to Taiwan not only to increase my Mandarin language skills but also to conduct intensive research on finding/developing sustainable business solutions and emerging technologies that can be leveraged to reduce plastic marine debris. My research has been fascinating so far, and I am already assisting various organizations to adopt Circular Economy business models and technologies to reduce their waste generation while increasing profits at the same time. The best solution to addressing the plastic marine debris issue is to make solving it an easy and profitable decision for businesses, especially large corporations which heavily influence global supply chains.

Below is a link to a video produced by my colleague Matt Girvan of a recent beach cleanup we documented in northern Taiwan. While beach cleanups do not solve the marine debris issue, they are immensely valuable as an educational and community building activity to increase awareness of this rapidly evolving global challenge. Enjoy the film!

*video credit: Matt Girvan Media; https://mattgirvanmedia.com/


Grayson Shor

M.A. International Affairs, Specialized in Asia’s Emerging Circular Economy Business Ecosystem and Plastic Marine Debris Solutions

Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow

National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Taiwan Do’s and Don’ts for Dummies

Despite being halfway through my summer in Taiwan, I still find myself failing to abide by all of the cultural norms that run deep in Taiwanese society. There are the standard rules such as, “Don’t eat or drink on the metro!” or “Always watch for cyclists and motorcyclists.” However, what I want to talk about are the infrequently discussed faux pas to watch for if you are ever traveling to this country.



Don’t: Set your bag(s) down on the ground.

Although we had a fairly large group, you can see in the front there was still a chair set aside for backpacks.


This was a norm that I learned from my Taiwanese roommates. Of course, you are not always obligated to find a place to set your bag or backpack, but the Taiwanese culture values cleanliness. Restaurants will sometimes even bring you an extra chair to set your belongings on top of while dining. Thus, placing your backpack on the ground is not something that is commonly practiced and might earn you a couple of stares. 



Do: Bring gifts for your co-workers during your first week at work!

A small pastry from my co-workers, later they also gave me a couple of mangoes and zongzi [sticky rice].

If the country of Taiwan took the “Five-Love Languages” test, the overwhelming resultant would be that of gift giving. In order to introduce yourself and show respect to your co-workers, gift giving is the chosen practice in the workplace. Unfortunately, this is a lesson I learned a little too late as I did not realize this until week 3 of my internship with the Democratic Progressive Party. Nevertheless, I still brought some boxes of candies and pastries to work and it was, for the most part, well received by my co-workers, who probably gave me a pass as the resident foreigner. 



Don’t: Be abrasive or loud; being discrete is key.

During this night (and many others), we were told to keep quiet, as we were disturbing the other customers.

For every mainland Chinese stereotype of being loud, direct, and unconcerned with personal space, the exact opposite is true for the Taiwanese. When I first noticed this Taiwanese tendency towards quietness in the metro, I quickly ran through my recent experiences in public spaces, such as the bus, in shopping malls, and in restaurants. I found that I couldn’t recall anyone laughing or being as loud as my friends and I had been. Thus, if you do not want to stand out as a foreigner, in any public setting keep your voice low and do not get too rambunctious. 



Do: Ask for help when needed!

If you accidentally left belongings on the Taiwanese metro, fear not because you will most likely see it again.

The majority of Taiwanese citizens will treat visitors with compassion. If you ever find yourself lost in the city, do not be scared to approach someone to ask for directions. They will usually gladly assist you in whatever capacity they can. Furthermore, if forgetfulness is something you have been cursed with, you needn’t fear. People I know personally have lost their phones, wallets, and laptop chargers in the city but they have all found ways to find their belongings once again. 



As I was leaving a coffee shop one day, I was astounded when a random couple chased me down across the street to tell me I had forgotten a pencil back in the shop. These little acts of kindness are very common in Taiwan. Additionally, they have begun to affect the lens in which I generally view strangers and tourists. I want to be able to bring back this habit when I head back to the States, especially regarding the plethora of tourists that come to Washington D.C.

Remembrance of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

On June 4th, 1989, hundreds of Chinese student protesters were gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army for expressing their discontent in the government. This year, I was able to experience the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in a country that is able to easily empathize with the horrors of an authoritarian regime.

At the Tiananmen Memorial

There was a Taipei memorial event being held in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. Stalls and booths surrounded the area informing the attendees of the different social and human rights issues people were facing today. A documentary of the infamous “Tank Man” was playing on a screen in the center of the memorial.

A booth promoting the Uyghurs

People walking further into the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial will notice a large, inflatable depiction of the “Tank Man” photograph. A podium in front of the display explained the artist’s intent to promote remembrance of the danger of the Chinese regime.

Inflatable Tank Man at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

This event hits close to home with many Taiwanese citizens, not only because of their current, precarious situation with the Chinese Communist Party, but also because they experienced their own version of Tiananmen Square, which they refer to as the February 28th incident, or “228.” On a tour of old town Taipei, our tour group was able to hear about Taiwanese history concerning the Chinese regime.


Our tour guide explained that the 228 incident was sparked when an elderly, Taiwanese woman was heavily beaten by a couple of officers of the ruling party, the Kuomintang from mainland China, for selling cigarettes in order to survive. A citizen who came to her aid was subsequently killed, sparking a gathering of protesters the following day. Without warning, the protesters were shot upon, leaving many dead and marking the beginnings of indiscriminate killing of Taiwanese known as the “White Terror”.

Memorial for the 228 Incident that we stopped by on our tour (photo credit to My Quan)

It is important to understand the culture and politics of Taiwan or of any other country you might visit in order to be respectful if discussing touchy subjects. Within the first week, CET Taiwan has already done a great job making sure each student is better educated in these areas, leading us to further our understand of the new world and culture around us.

First Month in Taipei

Since arriving in Taipei 5 weeks ago, time has flown by faster than ever. For my first post about my experience here I thought I would explain why I decided to study at National Taiwan University (NTU) this summer and how my time has been so far.

Lobby of NTU’s Language Center, home of the Chinese Language Division

My reasons for studying at NTU’s Chinese Language Division this summer are twofold. First, I wanted to improve my abilities in the language and there is no better way to do that than being constantly surrounded by it. Secondly, I wanted to learn more about Taiwan’s unique cultural and political environment.

I have had an interest in both Chinese language and international affairs for a long time, and so when I decided I wanted to go abroad to continue studying Chinese, I was quickly drawn to Taiwan. Taiwan’s complex political status and its ties to the US have made it an important element of US-China relations and I was fascinated by the opportunity to learn more about it by living and studying there.

Those were my reasons for applying to this program in Taiwan, but upon arriving I have only gained more reasons that I would use to recommend others to apply for the same program. NTU has a beautiful campus that is conveniently located within Taipei City. The classes themselves are extremely well taught and interesting. The people here have been very welcoming, encouraging, and helpful in improving my language ability.

National Taiwan University Language Center
National Taiwan University Main Library

My classes here meet every weekday afternoon for 3 hours, and with a singular focus on the language, I have already felt great improvement in my ability as well as confidence in using it. I have 4 classmates and everyday our teacher, 程老師 (Cheng Laoshi), teaches us through lectures and activities.

My textbook for this program.

In addition to my classroom experience, my language learning is supplemented by hands on experiences living in Taipei, and by regularly meeting with Taiwanese friends for language exchange. Through this combination I have developed a deeper appreciation for the Chinese language as well as Taiwanese culture.

Language Exchange Activity

In my time here so far I have had the pleasure to try great food at restaurants and night markets around the city, learn about the history of Taiwan, and become friends with other students both international and local. I’ve had particularly interesting conversations with many Taiwanese people about their views on Taiwan’s political situation, and I have learned a lot more about the island’s internal political scene, as opposed to just its relations with mainland China and the United States.

In front of the Raohe Night Market and Ciyou Temple

I can’t wait to experience what the remainder of the summer will bring.


Max Kaplan, B.A. International Affairs 2021

Sigur Center Asian Language Study in Asia Grant Recipient Summer 2019

National Taiwan University, Taiwan



A Jakarta road with a motorcycle before some storefronts

Early Thoughts in Jakarta

I’ve been in Jakarta, Indonesia for a couple weeks now. The jetlag took a few days to get over, but I did eventually get used to being 11 hours ahead. Luckily, it did not take as much time to acclimate to the weather, since it is very similar to Washington, DC this time of year: hot and humid.


I arrived in Jakarta in the midst of the Eid holiday celebrations. As such, for a few days after I arrived, the city was almost empty, as people left the city to see their families or just to take a holiday. Soon after, however, citizens returned from their holiday and the city returned to its bustling self—including its infamous traffic, which came back with a vengeance. The city just broke ground on its first underground rail transit system (the MRT) and, according to a number of Jakartans I’ve spoken with, has made efforts in the last year to expand the number of sidewalks. Nonetheless, Jakarta remains a motorist’s city.


Arriving in Jakarta during Indonesia’s biggest holiday is an interesting experience. The celebration of Eid seems to manifest itself in varying levels of jubilation, piety, and commercial opportunism that I usually associate with the month of December. It’s also been a couple of months since the Indonesian presidential election—and only a few weeks since the post-election riots that rocked Jakarta—but, at least on the surface, there does not appear to be much evidence of political rancor.


My language studies are progressing well, I think. My instructors suggest that I will be ready to begin intermediate level Bahasa Indonesia within a couple of weeks. Without the generous grant from the Sigur Center, I would likely never have had the chance to devote so much of my time to improving my language abilities. All in all, I look forward to continuing my journey exploring Jakarta, Bahasa Indonesia, and Indonesia itself.


Michael K, MA, International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow
Language Studies Indonesia


Grayson Shor Announced as Finalist in Taiwan’s International Presidential Hackathon and Invited to Meet with the President of Taiwan this July

A few weeks back my team and I were announced as Finalists in Taiwan’s international Presidential Hackathon. We were selected for our digital platform, known as Madaster, which creates a digital ledger of all the building materials existing in designated infrastructure. In July 2019 we will be meeting with the president of Taiwan as well as various ministers and CEOs of Taiwan’s leading environmental and technology institutions to demo our platform and compete with the other five finalist teams from across the world. I’ve received countless requests to share our Hackathon application, so in the spirt of the event’s focus on open-data and civic responsibility I am posting our application publicly below. But first, I must explain, “what is the Taiwan Presidential Hackathon and its challenge theme this year?”.


According to the Hackathon’s website:

“In line with the needs of the country’s social development, the Taiwan Presidential Hackathon, launched in 2018, is an initiative designed by the Taiwanese government to demonstrate its emphasis on open-source, open data, and related best practices to address the needs of the country through social innovations and economic development.

This event aims to facilitate exchanges among data owners, data scientists, and field experts to tap into the collective wisdom across government, industry, private and public sectors. Ultimately, it aims to accelerate the optimization of public services and stimulate inclusive social and economic growth for all people.”

The challenge theme of the 2019 international track of the Hackathon is to make a working platform which facilitates sustainable infrastructure development. Without further ado, our application is below. Enjoy!


2019 Taiwan Presidential Hackathon: Enabling Sustainable Infrastructure

Project Name: Enabling Sustainable Infrastructure The Madaster Platform for Material Identity



We want to solve the problem of waste. In our vision, waste is material without an identity. We can eliminate waste by giving materials and products applied in the construction sector an identity through detailed registration and documentation through material passports. Our focus is specifically upon addressing waste generated from buildings and infrastructure, a sector which globally produces 40% of all waste annually, in order to promote sustainable and circular materials management.



Our planet is a closed system, meaning that all our resources are limited editions. Still we throw away valuable resources – limited editions – as waste. And we don’t have to, as waste is material without an identity. With Madaster we want to give identities to materials applied in the built environment. Madaster created a register to safely capture all material and product data, within the limitations of privacy and security. Registration of materials contributes to the transition towards a circular economy, as the identity data of products and materials provide necessary insights in the potential reuse. The Madaster platform indicates to what extend circular characteristics are applied to a building and encourages circular design. Financial valuation of the materials in a building provide transparency in the potential financial benefit of reuse. With a register like Madaster, the potential of the material stock in real estate, infrastructure and regions can be identified and a transition towards a circular economy can be facilitated.


1st: Material related data: source files (BIM/IFC or Excel) are the basis of a building in Madaster. The building information models gives insight in the metrics (volumes) of materials and its characteristics. This is the basis for the material passport.

2nd: Pricing data: this data gives insight in the historical, actual and expected future value of materials. The transition towards a circular economy requires that we do not only give an identity but also a financial valuation to materials.

3rd: external product data sources for enrichment of the registration.

4th: building data, such as land registration details, images, quotations, assembly instructions etc.

5th: circularity data: to indicate the re-use potential


The platform is linked to external product data sources to enrich the registration and has an interface (API) for automated exchange of data with partners. Data Partners provide data and services that enrich the Madaster Platform and enhance data reliability. Examples of the data provided by Data Partners include financial, circular and material- and product-related data.

Globally we require additional data partners to enrich the platform the same way we did for the Dutch construction market. For Taiwan we need for example environmental data and price data in order to support the financial indicator and product data to enrich existing building registrations.

Because the working methods in Taiwan differ from those in the Netherlands, it is important to implement a local demonstration project. For Taiwan we have sought cooperation with Taiwan Construction and Research Institute (TCRI) to create a local proof of concept. We are convinced that if we can carry out a demonstration project locally we can convince Taiwanese businesses and the government of the added value of Madaster. This way potential customers, investors and data partners can be attracted.


Globally we want to digitize all applied materials and products in the construction sector. Through documentation we can provide insight in the potential of existing material for reuse in a circular economy.

For Taiwan we want to demonstrate:

  1. The efficiency of applying existing information (BIM models) for registration in Madaster and the realization of the Madaster functionality (including materials passport, circular and financial valuation).
  2. The necessity of having detailed material and product data available for the realization of a circular economy and the way in which Madaster can realize this.
  3. The potential of a database with a public objective in which all products, materials and buildings are registered for the development and application of – new – circular business models such as market places, certification companies, financiers and builders.


Madaster is a concept that has already been tested and proven to work. Since our launch in 2017 in The Netherlands we’ve registered over 2 million square meters in our database.

In 2018 we came in touch with two Taiwanese delegations from the construction sector. This introduction revealed the interest in the Madaster platform and the possibilities to facilitate the transition to a circular economy.

In November 2018 we visited Taiwan together with a Netherlands Circular Economy Mission to Taiwan. We visited the local governments of Taipei, Taoyuan, Tainan, Taichung, and the Taiwan Sugar Corporation (TaiSugar).

In March 2019 we signed an agreement to work together with TCRI as our local partner in Taiwan. This marks a unique opportunity to evolve and internationally expand Taiwan’s domestically-founded green building certification, EEWH, the world’s first green building certification designed for structures in sub-tropical regions. We also signed an agreement with TopOne International Consultants for a demonstration project of 167,772 m2. TaiSugar introduced their planned project for Yuemei Sugar Refinery (500m2) and another in Shalun (30,000m2). Furthermore, at this moment we are registering into our platform Taiwan’s first-ever circular building, the Holland Pavilion of TaiChung World Flora. All the materials and products of this building will be re-used by TaiSugar in future construction.



Madaster has the ambition to realize a local ecosystem that consists of:

  1. a) a not-for-profit foundation that stimulates and oversees the transition towards a circular economy supported by the Madaster Platform and
  2. b) a Taiwanese service organization that develops and operates the Madaster Platform in Taiwan.

The outcome of the project and resulting platform will be used to kickstart the realization of the Taiwanese circular economy ecosystem.



Globally and regionally we trust using the anonymized metadata of the platform is a way to help cities and governments better track and trace and understand their Resource Banks. Furthermore, this data can be used in conjunction with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze infrastructure and human settlements in a way which has never been done before. Specifically, this will allow for the analysis of the distribution and make-up of materials in human settlements which can in-turn provide profound data-driven indicators for the analysis of environmental and socioeconomic factors (i.e. inequality, environmental change, and sustainable communities). Importantly, this data can be used to understand the barriers to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how to most effectively overcome them. The complete data set on the platform is supervised by the Madaster Foundation, a Dutch non-profit organization, in order to guarantee the privacy, security, and public availability of the (anonymized) data.

Madaster Taiwan will provide insights to construction owners, stakeholders, users and regulators in the potential of existing materials and products applied in the built environment. This potential can be monetized through reuse of materials and reduction of risks. Most of all, Madaster Taiwan will facilitate the elimination of waste through providing identities to all applied products and materials so they can never end up as anonymous waste.




https://www.madaster.com/en or https://www.madaster.com/cn



Grayson Shor

M.A. International Affairs, Specialized in Asia’s Emerging Circular Economy Ecosystem and Plastic Marine Debris

Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow

National Taiwan University, Taiwan


First Impressions on a Semester in Taiwan

I have now been in Taipei, Taiwan for about a month. I currently go to school at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. Although it is comparatively more difficult here, I am pretty sure there are immediate and long term positive effects. What makes it more difficult is the certain changes in the environment that requires time to get familiar with. 

One such change is reliant on the fact that I am located in a college for learning Chinese as a second language. So, instead of English being the connecting language between the students, it’s Chinese. This, of course, contributes to the pursuit of learning Chinese. Especially with such a diverse population of backgrounds in Hispanic, South East Asian, Caribbean, European, etc.  

The second change is the increase in the difficulty of the subject. Not only are the classes only in Chinese with no English supplementary learning, but there is also the added hurdle of picking up on traditional Chinese characters. Despite the seemingly inane reasoning behind the increase in complexity of characters, at least in the future, the writing can not get more complex.

Lastly, there is a change of pace in the classroom that does not accommodate for the difference in familiarity. Even if theoretically, this sounds daunting, the actual execution makes way for faster learning and renewed efforts to learn. Even if I currently do not have a very thorough experience under this new environment, I am pretty sure that I am learning at a faster rate now.

All in all, I feel like this summer semester in Taipei will provide me with valuable opportunities to practice Chinese. Especially when considering the factors that facilitate language development, I have little doubt that I would reach a higher fluency in the given time. Additionally, with so much time in Taiwan, there is also the opportunity to build cultural knowledge that would lend itself to understanding the intricacies of the Chinese language. 


Ander Tebbutt, BAccy 2022

Sigur Center 2019 Asian Language Fellow

National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan

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