We’ve all experienced it. The conversation generally goes as follows: “So where do you go to school?” You answer. “Oh, I see. Williams and Mary.” An ego depletion to us all, we’ve generally come to accept the fact that even many of our friends in the Northeast have no idea where our college is located. But there is a way to escape, a place where we can run to when we graduate where people would both know of and look very favorably upon our college of choice. No, this haven is not Pittsfield, or North Adams or even distant Springfield. The land is the faraway and delightful realm of Taiwan.
We can credit this eminence to Lee-Hom Wang ’98, by far the most famous Williams alumnus that you’ve never heard of. With sponsorships from Sony, Yamaha, McDonald’s and other large multinational corporations, the Chinese pop star’s face is ubiquitous on the streets of Taipei. “Literally, he was like omnipresent – on posters, billboards, television and products,” said Genevieve Loomis ’10 while recounting her time in Taiwan over Winter Study. “People would see our Williams sweatshirts and immediately associate us with Lee-Hom.”
Loomis was part of a 10-student group that journeyed to this far off land in an effort to experientially bolster their understanding of Chinese and Taiwanese culture. The trip, listed in the course catalog as Chinese 025, is a biyearly endeavor led by Department Chair Cornelius Kubler, a scholar of Chinese linguistics and pedagogy. “The month-long Winter Study period really offers an ideal opportunity for students to study together, live together and travel together,” Kubler said.
Every day, after the students finished their three-hour morning Chinese classes, Kubler, who also holds the esteemed title of Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies, led the students on a plethora of exciting excursions throughout Taipei. Using his immense connections, or guanxi as they are referred to in Mandarin, Kubler granted students rare access to the embassy in Taiwan, the home of a billionaire businessman friend of his and even a paintball arena where Kubler himself competed alongside his students.
The incontestable highlight of the trip had to be the much-anticipated encounter with Lee-Hom Wang. “He took us all out to a nice restaurant for dinner and we talked about Williams and what not,” Nancy Dong ’11 said. “I was a fan before going on the trip and I couldn’t believe how laid back and cool he was in person.”
After a delicious dinner at a Japanese fusion restaurant that Lee-Hom had opened especially for the Williams group, the former member of the Springstreeters led his guests to a karaoke club where they sang the night away. “It was so cool to hear him sing some of his own songs, with his own music video playing in the background,” Loomis said. “There was even one video from when he was a student that was shot on the Williams campus.”
When not singing, Lee-Hom made an effort to talk to everyone and genuinely took an interest in the ways in which his alma mater had changed in the decade-plus time that had elapsed since his graduation. Dong, one of the few students who listened to Lee-Hom prior to the trip, was ecstatic about her opportunity to talk to the celebrated Chinese pop star. She had been somewhat impatiently awaiting her turn to talk to him when she unexpectedly ran into him on a trip to the bathroom. “I came out of the stall, and was like Ã¢â‚¬ËœOh!’ I managed to compliment him on his music though,” Dong said.
As the night progressed, Lee-Hom shed his inhibitions and danced on a strip pole that was conveniently located in their posh karaoke suite. “I guess it’s pretty standard there, but he actually got up on the pole and twirled with one arm down the pole,” Loomis said. “He’s really skinny, but so strong!”
After a wonderful night spent with the relaxed and jean-clad Lee-Hom, the group returned to the university only to discover that their previous night had been surreptitiously documented by photographers from www.wangleehom.com, one of the numerous unofficial fan sites created to follow the every move of the Williams alumnus. One shot displayed on the website features the singer, walking in stride with Robert Kim ’11, Loomis and Professor Kubler.
Due to Lee-Hom’s extraordinary stardom in China and Taiwan, it’s no surprise that many international students hailing from the region writhed in agony over the missed opportunity to meet the pop star. Chengjia Jin ’12, an international from the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, conceded that “As a teenager growing up in China, I often had dreams about Lee-Hom.” Jackson Lu ’12 of Beijing said that he “was miserable for the whole day when he found out that he wouldn’t be allowed to go.”
Unfortunately, it seems that Jin, Jackson and many more of us Ephs will have to patiently await our turn to visit this land where Williams is renowned and strip poles are mysteriously not frowned upon. For a trip like this though, most of us will be more than willing to wait.