sometimes the process of writing requires pieces that clear the mind or set an intention. i will admit that perhaps these pieces might err on the side of self-indulgence. for anthropologists, they are likely to be either overly abstract theoretical statements, fragments of description, or far too sentimental remembrances of people close to us in the field. nonetheless, i wonder whether these writings inform what follows after these provisional pieces have hit the cutting floor. at any rate, what’s wrong with sharing a bit of my process here? with that in mind, here is something that motivates my current writing project
for my kapot
In 1985 I left home for school and in 1987 crossed the Pacific the first time. At the time, I did not know you nor did I know that Taiwan had an indigenous population. I had never heard of ‘Amis, and did not have any impression of Taitung. I only knew that it was on the other side of a mountain range, sometimes accessible by the three treacherous roads that then traversed the island. The train did go across the northeast corner to Ilan. That was about it. I hitched a ride once to Taitung and even passed through your home village. It left an impression, but my set of interests and graduate school would pull me toward Lukang, a Paylang city–for awhile one of the most important trade harbors–on the West Coast. I was in college in Taichung or living in Lukang, and had many indigenous friends from my work in the Mountain Service Team of Tunghai University. The former head commissioner of the Indigenous Peoples Commission remembers Mountain Service Teams fondly. Do you? Maybe not
It’s true that I lived in Taichung and even visited Taitung. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I wouldn’t have met you, though: you were on the open ocean working a long line boat or in Taipei working construction. Life pulled both of us away from home. Now that I have heard many of your stories, I wonder whether I had perhaps sat beside you on a bus or walked past the work site where you lived on some weekend trip I took to Taipei. I might have noticed you if I did; from your pictures, I can tell that you were very good looking in those days. I also wonder about the circumstances that led you to sign up for the fishing boats when you were 16. You have told me the stories, I know. But it is up to me to imagine how we were contemporaries, the white boy trying to hide his rural, working class background, venturing to Taiwan where he learned to drink espresso and eat sushi, fish that you might have hauled in your rotating two hour shifts, you sleeping two hours working two hours sleeping two hours working two hours, calling in Las Palmas where you had a girlfriend, tempted to jump ship but wanting to return to your family, your mother particularly. You who told me that your parents sold you to the company to pay a debt. Years of work on the boats and in construction as I spent months in archives, years of writing papers. When I meet your children you encourage them to overcome their shyness and speak to me in English. “I was always good in school, too,” you say. I wonder if I should turn off my microphone.
O pinangan no fa’inayan, this is the way with men. There is always a home whose needs push one away from home. Back in the village, we would get together and spend days diving at the ocean, a few days before you would return to Taoyuan and work building the MRT, your salary going toward your children’s school and other expenses. You say, “I don’t have many needs. I can live on next to nothing, really. I don’t need nice clothes or much to eat. And it’s right that I give everything to my children. That is what a man should do.” You tell me that maybe this is the year you will finally move home. I wonder, however, if this intention is like your desire to build a beautiful poured concrete house for your mother, something that might never happen. The children are still young.
We arranged once for me to bring my mics and record your stories, but I usually kept the mics off or turned them off after only a few sentences. Much of what you tell me seems too personal, not just in terms of your own stories, but also the way that your stories are always bids to deepen our friendship. We both know what it means to have to leave home, but our itineraries are so different. And although I want to document your stories from working the boats, you would rather I study what you learned in the niyaro’: how to address the mountain when one goes to hunt, songs to sing when alone and missing one’s loved ones, the right phrases to use when giving a formal speech. These are the knowledges that cause you to stop and tell me to turn on my mics. As for your stories of far ocean fishing and growing up in the niyaro’ in the 1970s, they are good only for sitting around a table drinking with age mates. They are not “culture.”
But here I am. You have told me your stories–some to titillate and to shock, perhaps; others to teach me something about how I might be a better man–and it is up to me to face the blank page, weaving from your stories something that might do justice to your experience and those of other men, many our older brothers and fathers in the niyaro’. You have told me to write with a happy heart and also with longing for home. And so, I try to think of you, at 20 after four years on the boats, what you might have told the 17 year old me who for completely different reasons needed to leave his niyaro’. Maybe what I imagine will not enter the book. But it will be what inspires me now, thirty years later, as I try to make your experience meaningful for those who have never heard of ‘Atolan.