a couple months ago, i took the train from taitung to keelung, a port city on the northern tip of formosa. the uncle and a few cousins of one of my friends in a’tolan live there, and they had expected me. earlier in the year i visited with my friend, who told them about my work on men in the far ocean fishing trade. the diaspora ‘amis community in keelung was, in its early years nearly 50 years ago, a product of the trade; my friend’s uncle had been on the boats, visiting ports in the south pacific and the indian ocean, for about ten years before settling in keelung permanently. for him, like many men upon retiring from the trade, economic opportunity at the docks and proximity to the capital city of taipei made keelung a good choice
i had thought that i would visit their neighborhood in keelung to interview; but as it turns out, everyone had been mobilized for the dragon boat races that weekend. i joined the group to cheer for the rowers from their community. when the team won, the ensuing party meant that the stories of the men would unfold in the community leaders’ remarks about the history of the community at the victory party and informally in discussion. as expected, i performed several ‘amis language songs at the party and MCd part of the event. it was good to make the informal, human contact, to hear their stories recounted for the community and not the researcher. and i knew i would have to return
when time permitted, i went to keelung on another occasion. because the community is at some distance from downtown, with irregular bus service, i took a cab up to “pacific community,” as their community, which overlooks a fishing harbor, is known. often when taking cabs in taiwan, the drivers begin to discuss politics or my language ability; the former can become as tiresome as the latter, but at least it’s often good for research. so it was a relief that the driver made no comment on my speaking taiwanese to him when giving directions. as we began to reach the community, however, he said,
“are you sure you are going to the right place? everyone who lives up there is a huan-ah“
well, it’s not like i had illusions that that particular derogatory name for taiwanese indigenous people no longer circulated. one still hears it frequently, particularly when the speaker believes that it’s safe to call taiwanese indigenous people savages and not yuanjhumin. when speaking in taiwanese, that sort of belief might be hard to stem; it’s a kind of insider speech, a bit conspiratorial, a “we know the rules, but among friends will flaunt them” sort of practice. however, the question did leave me speechless for a few moments: just who did he think i was? and why question my sense of where i wanted to go?
the question, it seems to me, is why the cab driver felt that a taiwanese speaking foreigner–perhaps any foreigner–would have no possible reasons to visit an entirely indigenous community in keelung. perhaps he thought that i would be better directed to the hostess bars of this harbor town, or other places where foreigners are known to frequent. perhaps it would be better for me to find my way to a hoklo taiwanese community, perhaps one of those coin operated karaokes or small bars frequented by taiwanese men. whatever the logic of appropriateness behind his question, he asked me again: there are two communities here, and that one is all yuanjhumin, are you sure it’s the right place?
now he changed his terminology. but the question was the same. obviously, he thought it highly improbable that a foreigner would visit an urban ‘amis community. his assumptions concerned both ethnicity and class. a foreigner might visit indigenous villages as a tourist or perhaps as a priest, but those are both in rural areas, places with local color. there was nothing scenic about pacific community; the community is a collection of drab cement buildings of six or seven stories, a coin operated karaoke, and two small general stores. unless one has an ‘amis perspective, one would likely miss the proximity to the pacific and the covered places to sit, which resemble taluan, shaded rest places that one finds in fields or near the beach along the east coast home places of ‘amis. to hoklo, members the majority ethnic chinese population, such as the driver, the community probably looks like an impoverished, dirty, and disorderly place. nothing a foreigner would come to see
clearly i’m not a tourist. true, but long term white residents of the island tend to collect in predictable places–tianmu, the east district of taipei, and more recently taitung. other than taitung, with its surfer, bohemian feel (at least among the majority of japanese, european, and north american expats), these places tend to be air conditioned and glossy. in many ways these districts feel as if they are on taiwan but divorced from it; if not completely anglophonic, they still resemble the smoothed out spaces that marc augé famously called “non-places.” which is to say that it is more than the comfort of similar persons that causes foreigners to congregate in the east district. rather, because these places lack features other than generic ones (pub, dance club, boutique for example) they offer no resistance, no shock, no friction that would cause one to feel out of place. in addition to ethnicity, then, we can see the indelible mark of class practices, particularly in their global form. given taiwan’s precarious international situation, these kinds of spaces tend to be celebrated. moreover, nearly everyone knows that foreigners belong there. they are one of the attractions
one can understand the driver’s question. however, i remain disturbed not so much by the racist language, but the assumptions behind his question concerning urban ‘amis communities. these communities are not the cosmopolitan zones where foreigners can be expected to concentrate–it is a mistake that you are going here? are you in trouble?–and by extension, yuanjhumin are not “global citizens.” they have no passport to tianmu. the question suggests in addition that urban ‘amis communities also lack cultural value; they are not places that a foreigner might visit to see local colour–the buildings are too grey. so the question equally suggests perceptions of who appropriate yuanjhumin are: they are not denizens of cosmopolitan spaces (no, they are too local and too poor for that) but they are also not “local” enough! no, they are living in an urban settlement (what did mary douglas say about “matter out of place”?). obviously, foreigners should have no business in an urban ‘amis community
i told the driver that of course i knew where i was going: they are my family, i said. he glanced nervously in the rear view mirror and fiddled with the radio dial: a political talk show. the taxi pulled up. my friend’s aunt saw the taxi and ran to the door as i opened the window:
a-te, a-te you’re here. pasomowal kako ci-faki-an, faki is over there itira i taloan niyam
see, these are my family, i said to the driver as i gave him two hundred NT bills. he backed up and sped away
Too many incidents just like this in my life – that look of unsettled shock, the double-take of both surprise and disgust when they realize you are NOT participating in the insider talk. Most recently, had it happen on Skype, in a chat room supposedly about sustainable gardening of all places.
Is there a taiwanese language equivelent to “y’know what I mean?” That’s usually the tipping point – they say something racist, rounding out the statement with a conspiratorial “y’know what I mean?”
and I stiffly reply “No. No I don’t.”
@zhara i don’t know if there’s a direct equivalent; it’s usually a tone of voice or gesture that accompanies such statements, which expresses the bid for insider statements. michael herzfeld has a book that makes a connection to this sort of phenomena, _cultural intimacy_. don’t remember whether he writes about the pragmatics of trying to create this sphere–the “y’know what i mean” moment