“if they won’t go on the boats, then we’ll just go far ocean fishing ourselves!” said one of the women of my kapot.
“that’s right…” says another of the women, “i keep telling my man to go far ocean fishing, but he won’t listen. we’ll just have to make our own boat. hey, a-te, you should be our ‘fishing master’.”
“huh?” i ask. my age mates, for the most part, work in construction; a few have desk jobs, one is an artist, another a policeman. one of them recently left on a boat out of kaohsiung and will be gone for three years in the south pacific, fishing for tuna. three years is a long time to be away from home. his wife tries to remain busy by helping a relative in an election campaign, but being busy and dressing well does little to hide her sadness. the two of them married only three years ago and were inseparable. what was he to do on land, though? he could not work construction. there are not many jobs around ‘atolan these days for a man in his late 40s. he was asked if he wanted to work on the boats with the possibility of becoming an officer on a second tour, and so he left. the past few days he would call three or four times a day from kaohsiung, as he was taking classes there for the fisherman’s license before heading to manila and thence to the marshall islands.
“right! we will go on the boats ourselves. our men are far too comfortable here. and we want to make more money. you know that fishing master who lives nearby you, X? he came back a couple weeks ago and bought a house south of the village on rt 11. more than 10 million NT!” chimed in the first woman.
“yes,” said the second, “he killed a water buffalo to celebrate coming back.”
i was around for butchering the water buffalo. it was large enough to feed just about the entire community, and the party lasted a couple days. besides which, the fishing master had been picking up the bill for drinking around the village and even in taitung city for several days now. when i talked to him about coming back to ‘atolan, he said that now he was in his fifties, he could probably, with good health, take another three tours before retiring. it’s true that he made much more money than would be possible on land, most of the time. yet, fishing did not guarantee profits–it depended on whether they brought in enough fish. what’s more, what was he to do after retirement? so it was best to invest the money by buying land. the house was not the only real estate purchase. and that house! it is a mess. it will take a large investment to fix it up. his sons have all come back to help out with the work. one might go on the boats as an apprentice.
the women know about the insecurity of the far ocean fishing work. it is dangerous. some men go out on the boats and do not even return as a corpse to bury. well, that’s the worst possibility. maybe the boat has trouble and the three years go by without enough profit. the man could end up in debt to the company. happens. in that case, one would only get the monthly family allowance, enough to live on, but not enough to build or buy a house. is it worth the gamble? yes; there are three fishing masters in the community who have made very large sums of money. my neighbor asked me outright: “how much do you make as a professor there in padaka, a-te?” i was embarrassed to tell him. it would take me more than 15 years to make what he did in three on the boats, and he knows that. “you don’t make that much, and you have a ph d. so what would i do, with only a middle school diploma? i had three kids when i went on the boats. never made enough for us to live. if i make money now, it’s because i spent many years scraping by, working my way up from the bottom.”
the woman whose husband is embarking in a couple weeks has started crying, so our jokes have to pick up more intensity.
“i wish that my man would go on the boats for three years. he isn’t doing much good for me around here. he doesn’t make that much money, and he certainly isn’t useful at night!” says one of the women. the others agree.
“we are going to make our own far ocean boat! it will be a pirate fishing boat and a comfort boat!”
“right, right, a comfort boat! we will pull aside the fishing boats as they work and say, ‘hey, fishermen! are you lonely? come over for refreshment!’ they can pay in fish. whatever tuna they have in their freezers, bring it over!”
“you…you….who would want it? you think that those men…?” says one of my age mates, married to one of the ‘comfort boat’ proposing women.
“cut it!” she says in reply. “if you still were useful, you’d want it.”
“we have experience. besides, those men on the boat, after a month or so….”
“a-te! a-te! you have to be our ‘fishing master'”
“um,” i say, “that way, wouldn’t i be a, um, pimp?”
“a-te! you don’t have to be so direct!”
“come over come over, hey you lonely fishermen. our ladies might not have perfect figures, but they will definitely give you satisfaction! come over and visit! quickly, our boat will be moving on soon, and you’ll have to wait until you are in harbour!”
the women start to thinking about who will construct their boat. they’d suggest their husbands, but most of the men, my age mates, are in construction. concrete houses. so any boat they’d make would be strictly ornamental, of the empress dowager’s stone boat kind. we wouldn’t make it out of the harbour before we’d sink….
the woman whose husband has gone to kaohsiung to prepare to be on the boats laughs a little. the idea of a comfort boat is a bit preposterous; but of course, the wife of one of the fishing masters does fly to majuro or ponhpei when he pulls in to harbour. when she embarks, some will say that she has gone to be a comfort woman. staying in the town, women with men on the boats have to be careful about what they wear and the places they frequent. the fantasy of a comfort boat, of women going far ocean fishing, is not so much about the money but adventure, the freedom of harbour towns and high seas. and although the women call their men useless–after all, men should go out and bring outside value, particularly money, back home–they might privately admit that three years is a long time for anyone to endure loneliness. and so, there are many stories and songs of women who have also “gone far oceaning on land”–women who picked up and traded an empty house for an uncertain future. the fantasy of a comfort boat satisfies a desire to identify with women who run off, while poking fun at dominant gender ideologies, in which women should remain fixed to the land.
“if we launch soon, we might even catch up to his boat! you can see him when our boat pulls aside theirs!”
–senior men joking with me about my significant other running off. october 2014 party at the catholic church in ‘atolan a niyaro’. recording djh.