this piece works on material with which my readers might be familiar, but in a different way. i’ve been wondering whether a mode of writing might be to create an ‘amis songbook of sorts with accompanying stories

I thought that ciLafin meant only to request a song that he had taught me a few weeks previously. Always ready to correct my articulation or rhythmic feel, he could, at gatherings under his thatched roof patio, also boast about my progress as I learned songs from this and other ‘Amis communities. One of the sixteen recognized indigenous peoples of Taiwan, the ‘Amis speak a Malayo-Polynesian language. Most ‘Amis consider singing a vital mode of communication; and, far from being a diversion, song preserves and transmits histories.

Handing me the guitar, ciLafin said, “in A minor.”

O siataw sa no ‘Atolan ko ka’iwilan ako
Anohacowa a karateng to ko alofo’ no mako?
Wangawang sa kiso, ina, mararom ko harateng
Anohacowa a karateng to ko alofo’ no mako?

The bus stop of ‘Atolan breaks my heart
When will my pockets be heavy?
I see you waving mother; sadness fills my thoughts
When will my pockets be heavy?

I hadn’t reached the second verse before ciLafin and his brother wept. Should I stop singing? No, said ciLafin. He wanted to remember. Like many ‘Amis men now in their 50s and 60s, Lafin’s brother, ciAyaw, spent several years on the far ocean fishing boats. The boats trawled every ocean, provisioning Japanese sushi markets with tons of tuna. ciAyaw embarked the first time in 1976. He was fifteen years old.

“My parents sold me to the company to pay a debt,” he once said about his seven years on the boats. And yet, he also told me that he longed to leave school early, even forging his parents’ permission, to get an early start on the boats:

“It’s in the way of a young man,” he said, almost singing, “pinangan no fa’inayan,

“What else could I have done here, with younger siblings and a father in debt, already on the boats?”

In those days, representatives from the fishing association and the major companies visited middle schools, where a graduate who returned successfully (or so it looked from the stylish clothing, shoes, and watch) talked about his experience on the boats. Boys interested in joining the fleet upon graduation received free physical examinations. ciAyaw and other men his age remember as much, but they might not know that recruitment was an explicit Ministry of Education policy in the mid-1970s. Similarly, health bureaus and planning commissions rated indigenous villages on the quality of their housing, traditional constructions receiving low marks. This confluence of official recruitment, debt, and desires for concrete houses pulled ciAyaw and others toward Kaohsiung where the boat companies waited.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t just the debt, the promise of a windfall, or the pressure to build a concrete house. The men who returned boasted of adventure–and romance–in port cities in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. They returned with melodies and a kind of worldliness; that is, if they did return. ciAyaw and other men found a perspective on ethnic relations on Taiwan informed by experiences in apartheid era Capetown, and spiced their conversations with anecdotes of life abroad.

In 1978, CiAyaw came home briefly and took to the ocean again. There was still the new family house, stopped for lack of funding after they had laid the foundations. ciLafin had just graduated from elementary school and fretted over ciAyaw leaving again. His oldest brother was stationed on a military base far from home, his father working a boat somewhere in the South Pacific. What if ciAyaw did not make it back from Capetown, Las Palmas, or Abidjan? ciLafin resolved to see Ayaw’s boat disappear over the horizon as it left Kaohsiung.

“To see the last speck of it disappear over the horizon,” says ciLafin. He and Ayaw weep some more. ciLafin was twelve. He lifted the bus fare to Kaohsiung from his mother’s hidden savings and managed to take Quemoy Line over the mountains, back in those days, an eight or nine hour journey. This trip was the first time he had ever left Taitung. He had never been in a city. Fortunately, a couple of men from a nearby village both discovered him and disclosed his whereabouts to his mother, who was left worrying at home. She would come on the following day’s Quemoy Line. His older brother, risking disciplinary action, also left the military base. Through their different paths, they all made it to the harbor as ciAyaw embarked.

O minato sa no Takaw ko ka’iwilan ako
Anohacowa a karateng to ko alofo’ no mako?
Wangawang sa kiso, safa, mararom ko harateng
Anohacowa a karateng to ko alofo’ no mako?

The harbor of Kaohsiung breaks my heart
When will my pockets be heavy?

“It’s true, my little brother ran away from home to see me off,” says ciAyaw.

ciAyaw did finish building the house, where he now lives with his mother, wife, and children. “The Bus Stop at ‘Atolan,” which ciLafin requests again, borrows its voice leading from Enka, a 20th century Japanese popular music still popular on Taiwan today. The song thus demonstrates Taiwanese indigenous accommodation to, and adaptations of, settler colonial culture. The lyrics provide little more than place names: ‘Atolan, place of heartbreak, Takaw (Kaohsiung), a bus stop, a harbor. Stitched to Lafin and Ayaw’s experience, however, the song is a context for encounters with local memory.

ciLafin tells me that I’ve begun to sing it with flavor. I hope that as a context for cultural encounter, it might also provide some means for those who have not had the experience of brothers and fathers in the far ocean fishing trade to feel their way into the sentiments that would drive a twelve year old to journey over mountains, to see the last bit of his brother’s boat disappear over the horizon. O ka’iwil, o ka’iwil….