Alana Nichols and I are about to meet up at a vegetarian restaurant in Taipei’s Da An District. Though we’d worked together on an episode of her show, Follow Alana, a few weeks earlier (we’d explored coastal Hsinchu by bicycle, learned the finer points of rice noodle making and gotten in a kite-flying session) this will be our first time hanging out off set.
Still mid-spring, I’ve already grabbed a table outside across from a park. Alana walks towards me smiling and waving, her radiance almost as much a trademark as her catchphrase, “Follow Me!”
“How may I be of service to you,” she asks with a twinkle in both eyes and voice.
Feeling like we’re already old friends, it seems appropriate to eschew the usual first softball question of the interview for something a bit harder.
Who is Alana?
“So, who is Alana?” I ask.
“What, you mean who am I in terms of as an existential being?…I think this is the sort of question that Buddhist monks spend their lives meditating on.” She answers with a laugh, adding “Ask me a better question!”
So I do, asking the question that, though complex, really needed to be asked if one is to understand Alana. Because Alana is a deeply complex person.
“So, how did a person who was born profoundly deaf and doesn’t speak Chinese wind up hosting a travel program in Taiwan?
“Better!” Says Alana. “But the answer is a bit long.”
I start on my salad while Alana begins her story.
“I was born with something called common cavity malformation, which is a strange name because it’s actually not a common form of deafness. My parents took me to doctor after doctor, and they couldn’t find a solution for my deafness. Every doctor that my parents saw said the same thing, namely that I’d never hear and never speak. But my parents refused to give up. Eventually, they were able to find a doctor willing to look into an experimental solution, an implant which allowed me to hear for the first time.”
Alana pauses from the narrative to describe the exact moment in which the implant was turned on. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have gone, with the flick of a switch, to be plunged from a world without sound to a world with sound.
“For months, a passing truck would startle me. I would flush the toilet over and over again, just to hear this sound I’d never experienced before.”
This experimental implant would change Alana’s world in more ways than one, leading eventually to Follow Alana. But that would come later.
Having been given the gift of hearing, Alana now faced the challenge of having to learn how to hear and communicate. Despite now being able to hear a limited array of sounds, the implant (combined with Alana’s own form of deafness and her being past the typical tonal acquisition age) did not allow Alana to distinguish the all-important tones of Mandarin. (Lip-reading has similar limitations when it comes to tonal languages.)
For this reason, her parents decided to immerse her in an English language education at an international school in Taiwan rather than having her attempt to integrate into a Chinese-speaking environment. As a result, though Taiwanese, Alana is unable to communicate effectively in Mandarin, speaking English almost exclusively.
“My parents were incredibly grateful that this experimental technique had given me hearing, so they wanted to pay it forward by starting a foundation to help other deaf children, the Children’s Hearing Foundation. Through this foundation, I did a lot of public speeches and workshops. My experience with the foundation gave me tools I needed to host this show. Additionally, growing up I did not have any role models that were deaf, speaking English, and on television in Taiwan.”
And thus, Follow Alana was born.
“Actually, the name itself was a group effort. My team and I were brainstorming, and Follow Alana seemed to flow really well. It also connects to my catchphrase Follow Me!” Alana says.
Tackling Social Issues in Taiwan
For the host of a travel show, Alana has dealt with a lot of social issues on her show. She’s a vegetarian, so nearly all the food components of any particular show reflect this part of her philosophy.
I ask her which episodes she was most proud of; again, she answers my question with one of her own.
“Do you like dogs?”
I tell her I do, and her eyes light up.
“We did two wonderful programs on dogs last year. One of them was about a group working on helping to find homes for dogs, everything from stray puppies to dogs purchased at pet shops and then abandoned by their owners for being imperfect in some way. This is a pretty big social issue in Taiwan, as you know. I was really proud to be able to highlight the issue with Follow Alana. And we also did another dog-centered episode in which we explored how guide dogs are trained. We went to a guide dog training school in Taipei, and they put a blindfold on me to demonstrate how seeing eye dogs do their job.”
Our conversation turns towards some other social issues in Taiwan, and Alana tells me she looks forward to using her show as a catalyst to make a positive impact on several social issues.
Favorite Spots in Taiwan
We pause for a bit to eat our lunches, Alana having a vegan pizza with nut-based cheese and me a veggie burger. Afterward, Alana tells me some of the highlights from the past four seasons of Follow Alana, and in doing so reveals some of her own favorite spots in Taiwan.
“We went to Alishan (Ali Mountain) to do a show on the cherry blossoms, but for me the most magical time was at night when the fireflies came out. It was amazingly beautiful. We’ve gone out to the outer islands, Xiao Liuqiu and Green Island. Both spots are known for scuba diving, but I just went snorkeling because of my ears.” (Read more: Alishan: Where the Sun Starts Its Day – A Journey into High-Mountain Alishan National Scenic Area)
Alana tells me that it’s hard to predict which shows will be the most popular with viewers. Though she’s taken the show all over Taiwan, including some pretty out of the way places, one of her most popular episodes was one she filmed just an hour out of Taipei, in the mountains beyond Wulai. (Read more: Heading out to the mountains)
“The theme of the show was camping out in the wild, no tent. So we went with a naturalist in the mountains not far from Taipei, where we all learned how to make shelters from the natural surroundings. We spent the night under the stars, and I woke up just covered in bug bites. Ant bites, spider bites, mosquito bites, and bug bites that nobody could identify. In a team of 10-15 people, I was the primary bait for the critters in the forest. Anyway, this is still one of our most popular shows.”
I guess viewers like watching me suffer,” she adds with a wry smile.
Though from the viewer’s perspective she’s living the dream, a ton of work goes into putting together any given episode, with an average day starting for Alana between 4:30 and 5:30am. There’s getting to the filming spot, makeup, various creative rituals and lots of reviewing of scripts. No matter what else is going on, Alana tells me, you have to be professional and positive on camera.
“I had one experience shooting a show in the mountains of central Taiwan. Beautiful forest, really remote. I had the flu that day, and I’d sprained my neck the day before so I couldn’t move my head in either direction. I hadn’t slept the whole night, and to top it off I was battling the onset of a stomach ache. Canceling work isn’t an option when you have an entire film team counting on you, so I just powered through with a smile on my face.”
Following Alana Beyond Taiwan
In its second year, the program has thus far stuck to its Taiwanese roots, growing its base locally through both broadcast television and its YouTube channel. But as of this summer, all of that is going to change as Alana’s fifth season takes her – and the show – down under. I ask Alana about her plans for Australia, and if she’s nervous about spreading her wings.
“Nervous? No. Australia is going to be a big exploration for us. We’re going to be doing 14 shows in Australia and after that, well…we’re planning some more international trips but at this point, the destinations are top secret.”
When I ask her what she likes about Taiwan, she responds, “I love the friendliness of the people, the convenience. Taiwan has an amazing system that you don’t find anywhere else.”
On the subject of Taiwan, having deflected my first existential question with philosophical charm, Alana asks (and then answers) another, equally difficult question of being and something-ness on her own.
“You know, it’s funny. People are always asking me where are you from?” She says “It’s one of the most difficult questions. I was born and raised in Taiwan, but I don’t look the part, and due to my deafness I can’t speak the language. But legally, I’m Taiwanese in every qualifying way. If I were a man, I’d have to serve in the army.”
Alana pauses to finish her smoothie before adding
“I guess you could say I have a complicated relationship with Taiwan.”
Having long had a complex relationship of my own with Taiwan (though not nearly as complex as Alana’s), I have to laugh.
In Taiwan? Watch The City of Wind, the episode Alana and your humble narrator & Taiwan Scene editor Joshua Samuel Brown did together on the following dates:
* June 16 (18:30-19:00 on TVBS channel 56 and 21:30-22:00 on CTIETV Channel 39)
* June 17 (11:30-12:00 on TVBS channel 56 and 16:30-17:00 on CTIETV Channel 36)
* June 23 (18:00-18:30 on TVBS channel 56 and 21:00-21:30 on CTIETV Channel 39)
* June 24 (11:00-11:30 on TVBS channel 56 and 16:00-16:30 on CTIETV Channel 36)