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An American dream interrupted, by compulsory military service

This story originally aired on October 20, 2018.

Growing up in Taiwan, Dean Huang always knew he wanted to study abroad, especially after visiting cousins that had immigrated to Boston. “It’s just that Taiwan is really small, and I feel like I can maximize my potential and challenge myself to receive a different education.”


When he turned 18, Dean was accepted to University of Washington in Seattle, and shortly after that became an American citizen. He was active in a group of fellow Taiwanese immigrants, and also made lots of friends with people from other places like Mexico and Japan, people he never would have met if he’d stayed in Taiwan. For a decade Dean took full advantage of living in Seattle by spending his free time hiking, swimming and rooting for Seattle sports teams. He met and fell in love with his girlfriend, bought an apartment, and got a solid start in his career. All was well.


Until Dean got a message from his family back in Taiwan. “My parents received a summons letter from the military. This is the final warning, this is not just a notice to start thinking about joining, this is the final call because you have been missing for years.”


You see,Taiwan is one of several countries that conscripts young adult men into military service, and Dean still retained his Taiwanese citizenship. Between the ages of 18 and 34, Taiwanese men are expected to serve one- to two-year military terms. This service can take many forms, but is required by law. Failure to comply could mean jail time; in Dean’s case, he would not be able to return to Taiwan to visit his family, lest he be arrested for draft dodging.


Dean had a choice to make. He could ignore the summons once and for all, commit to the life he was building for himself in America, and never return to Taiwan. He could try to take some dubious advice he read on the internet to change his legal name and hope Taiwanese customs wouldn’t notice. Or he could risk everything he’d worked for in his new home -- his relationship, his career, his apartment and car -- and return to serve his country of origin.


Dean ultimately decided to return to Taiwan to serve his term. “All of my family, my parents, my siblings, a lot of my friends are still in Taiwan. It’s not a wise decision to give up on your family just because you think you have a better career here … It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”


Dean returned to Taiwan and reported for duty. Boot camp was rigorous, curfews were rigid,  and Dean soon missed the freedom he’d grown accustomed to as an adult in the U.S. But it wasn’t all bad. He reconnected with old friends, and got to see his family often, something he hadn’t been able to do in the decade he’d spent living abroad.

Credit Dean Huang
Dean Huang at 2017 Summer Universiade


Taiwan offers soldiers the option to serve Substitute Military Service, meaning they can serve their term while doing civilian work like teaching or firefighting. In Dean’s case, his term happened to overlap with what he estimates was the largest sporting event Taiwan had ever hosted: the 2017 Summer Universiade (think of it like the Olympics for student athletes.) Fluent in English and a lifelong sports fan, Dean was able to serve his term working on the planning committee and as a translator in the athletes village. Despite the curfews and rules imposed on him as a soldier, Dean grew to love his time in Taiwan. “I don’t think I would trade that year for anything, honestly.” After his year of service, he returned to the United States and picked up where he left off.


Today Dean lives in Boston with his girlfriend and works in biotechnology.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.