National Chengchi University
Stephanie Huffman is not a typical graduate of International Master’s Program in Asia-Pacific (IMAS). While many IMAS students are interested in pursuing careers where they can pull the strings that influence global policy, Stephanie is interested in pulling a very different kind of strings — puppet strings.
Stephanie used to be an undergraduate at Portland State University where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts. While this may seem like an unlikely match for NCCU’s IMAS program, Stephanie says that due to the flexibility of the program she was able to incorporate her background and interests into her research. This resulted in a thesis project, titled Taiwanese Glove Puppetry as a Tool of Cultural Diplomacy, looking at the traditional Taiwanese puppetry form of “Pò͘ Tē Hì”（布袋戲: literally translating to “cloth bag theatre”. For Stephanie, Taiwanese puppetry was a conduit to a deeper understanding of the local culture. “While I love both Chinese and Taiwanese puppetry, it was Taiwanese glove puppetry that captured my heart. In particular, I love Pò͘ Tē Hì from the 1970s,” she said.
Stephanie said that her thesis advisor, Associate Professor of NCCU’s Graduate Institute of Development Studies Dr. Wei Mei-Chuan, was supportive of her project from the outset and that initial gaps in her knowledge were quickly filled by the course content. “Though my focus wasn’t on government, policy or international relations, classes on those subjects educated me on things I previously knew little about, … [and] understanding Taiwan’s political history proved vital to my thesis research” she said. She also encourages prospective students to get in touch with previous graduates of the programs in Taiwan that they are considering. Getting this kind of first-hand advice from past students helped her a great deal.
Stephanie was first attracted to Taiwan by her partner, Joshua Samuel Brown, a travel writer who has written multiple books on Taiwan. “When our relationship became serious he gave me what he called ‘The Talk’”, she said. “Basically, he told me that he would always love Taiwan, and that he would have to return for periods of time and that I was welcome to accompany him.”
And so, she did. Stephanie and Joshua travelled extensively throughout Taiwan in a journey that culminated in the publishing of their book Formosa Moon in 2018. In the book the duo documented their adventures across the island: riding hot air balloons, numerous festivals, and their encounters with several Taiwanese artists.
It was after Formosa Moon was published that Stephanie began to look for her next adventure, and she found it in NCCU’s IMAS program. Stephanie was awarded the Taiwan Ministry of Education (MOE) Scholarship. She is humble about the recognition of the MOE scholarship and the opportunities it provided her, saying that without it she wouldn’t have had the chance to study in Taiwan. She also expressed gratitude for the help she received from the MOE and the NCCU staff, and hopes to allay some of the anxieties of new students applying for NCCU programs or scholarships. “If I could go back and talk to my old self, I’d say don’t be anxious about applying. Both MOE and NCCU staff were very helpful during the application process.”
Stephanie now lives in Oregon with Joshua, and aspires to establish a sister city relationship between her town of Pendleton and a city in Taiwan. She is currently working on expanding her craft business “Twilly23”, where she produces small stuffed animals made with recycled sweaters, using bright colors and themes that were in part influenced by her time in Taiwan.
For those interested in dipping their feet into the Taiwanese Puppet Dramas, Stephanie says that there is nothing like attending a live show for themselves. Seeing that such an option is not always available to everyone, she recommends that people check out the options available on Netflix, particularly a show called PILI Fantasy: War of Dragons (《刀說異數》) that has English subtitles. “PILI has such amazing puppets and their puppetry skills are incredible,” said Stephanie.
Due to Covid-19, Stephanie has no immediate plans to return to Taiwan, but she is confident that she and Joshua will return eventually. “One thing I often tell people is that no matter how long you visit Taiwan, there’s always so much more to explore on this “Beautiful Island” (“Ilha Formosa!” in Portuguese).