Fiji Time...

by on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 Comments


I went into this trip with certain unconscious preconceptions about the idea of ‘aborigine’ and what an ‘indigenous culture’ should be. This preconception consisted in the idea that they should be the naive, artless minority amongst a corrupt majority race of ‘latecomers’ - the Hoklo and Hakka migrants to Taiwan. Their way of life has often been portrayed in documentaries as a healthy and balanced, essentially good way of life on the brink of extinction, thanks to the evil oppression of colonialism, whether cultural or imperial.

Essentially I had set up a dialectic in my head - whatever the Western/Chinese hegemony represented, aboriginal culture was the opposite. Looking back on this, this preconception resembles a lot of what I detested about the average Irish-American’s romanticised view of Ireland was: they came back to Ireland, not to visit a modern, independent European nation, but rather they came to see the diametric opposite of the US. If America for them was modernity, the future, capitalism, corruption and power, the Irish by necessity lived primitive lives in touch with nature, their poverty and ignorance making them victims of the imperial ambitions of England. As I got to know the aboriginal students and the teachers involved in the exchange I quickly realised that this was a very simplified view of things, and that this kind of narrative was actually damaging for the aborigines themselves, however, they didn’t seem immune to this view of things themselves. Some of the students seemed oblivious to certain problems with the amount of power in indigenous hands and the relative disenfranchisement of the Indo-Fijian population of the island, and perhaps wantonly ignored some of the problems inherent in the traditional system - excited perhaps by seeing the tribal system incorporated into modern governance, whereas in Taiwan it was a fossilized husk of what it had once. One example of this was that Indo-Fijians had to live in settlements which were not conferred the same advantages as Indigenous Fijian villages.

As the trip went on I noticed that certain words kept coming up, mostly put forth by the documentary film maker who was accompanying us on the trip - an interesting case for discussion himself, in that he had ‘become’ an aborigine, but had been born Han, and now lived amongst the Amis tribe (his behaviour and obvious enjoyment of his role in the Amis age group hierarchy brought to mind a description I once read of the Anglo-Irish as being more Irish than the Irish themselves in language and custom), he often used the word “inauthentic” to describe the culture that was being displayed to us in Fiji, or suggested that it was ‘for European and American tourists’ (though clearly the wizened, incorruptible Taiwanese holidaymaker would see through it in a flash). This is an idea that he brought up with the students several times, essentially suggesting that certain elements of what we were seeing in Fiji were “real" and others were “for show”. With this in mind I thought it interesting that almost half of the students were more interested in the 5 star hotel that we visited than in the tribal villages when the documentary film maker polled them half way through the trip. As much as this might seem anathema to the director’s interests as an ethnographer and film maker - I could understand it in the same way I understand the desire of Irish people to go to starbucks or a concert as opposed to donning their Aran sweater and going down to talk to the old men with their pipes at the smoky bar to sing about leprechauns with shamrocks filling every pocket Essentially these were young people interested in job opportunities, and the experience of meeting Simon, an indigenous Fijian manager who showed us around the 5 star hotel and could speak fluent Japanese after spending years in Japan, spoke more to some of them than seeing the villages or “the authentic village way of life” as the documentary director would probably put it. This boils down to what one of the students stated in his essay as the dangers of essentialism: for whatever reason, for the purposes of documentary film-making, one needs to view aboriginal society and the modern world as diametric opposites, as the oppressed and the oppressor. Indeed, a lot of the background information about the history of Fiji provided by the tour guide in the theme village, including a reference to polygamy and to head hunting was dismissed by one of the teachers who accompanied us as an over exaggeration to please Western tourists. Although the Western tourist in me was thrilled by what we apparently are normally pleased by - sex and death - I thought that this instance was a concrete example of an underlying feeling I had had all along: essentially that there was an unwillingness on behalf of certain members of the team to challenge anything that was traditional in aboriginal culture, is essence, because they had demonized the modern world, and Han society along with it, traditional aboriginal culture was then, in contrast, completely good. I can understand to some extent what his intention was, in that it’s hardly the first time that other cultures have been portrayed as savages compared to European and American “civilzation”; but the dismissal was a little too quick, and the scoffing at the ‘inauthenticity” of anything outside the villages reflected an unwillingness to see how Fiji had incorporated modernity and didn't seem to be based on anything but conjecture and comparison with Taiwan.

Although I risk generalizing here, the division among the students seemed indicative of two different attitudes as to what aboriginal identity consisted of, which also reflected the variety of the backgrounds of the students. Although it wasn’t strictly divided down these lines, I noticed certain differences in the points of view of the students, among those who had moved away from their tribal villages from a young age, there was an attempt to idealize a static imaginary of aboriginal culture, and reject any negative portrayals of it, essentially the essence of aboriginal life was defined by certain customs and relationships within the tribe; whereas others saw indigeneity as a dynamic part of a larger identity, useful in as much as it could benefit themselves and their community in terms of more practical issues like employment, education and equality. This obviously coloured how they experienced the trip, some demanding “authenticity”, comparing culture on a yardstick to some unknown standard, others accepting the realities that modern politics has imprinted upon traditional culture in the context of the contemporary world. This static view of culture and a blind insistence on the revival of traditions was one of the most repulsive features of the Celtic Twilight in the newly formed Irish Republic, and there is a risk of pigeon- holing oneself, whether it be as Irish or as an “aborigine”, the dangers of the individual getting lost in the muddy waters of nationalism are outlined below by the great Flann O’Brien:

 

‘To be decently ashamed of where one was born is the civilised attitude […] rejecting parochial affiliations […] repudiating the national attachment’; propose ‘statutary denationalisation’ so that ‘the man irretrievably born Irish and thoroughly unproud of it [is] accorded some gentle and statutary exit’; ‘Why is there no legal provision whereby an Irish person can divest himself of Irishry? Why does not Irish Oifigiul […] contain in each issue a list of ex-Irishmen, decent souls who find the game no longer amusing? (Pray heaven, reader, am I saying the wrong thing again?) Why is there not a decent and entirely honourable quiettus available to those of us who have - let us be quite open about this - never entered into the sweaty conspiracy known as the Walls of Limerick? Is the disease then […] incurable? My own submission is that it is not - that if taken in time wonders can be done […] You will be aware of the formula prescribed as the preliminary to civil marriage. You must publish a notice in the papers, certifying that your name is so-and-so, that you have not attended a place of public worship for so many weeks, and so on. Similar renunciations … should entitle a man born here to statutory denationalisation … to be a person, completely unaware of nationalistic neuroses is a very fine ambition.’ (The Irish Times “Cruiskeen Lawn” column16 May, 1944.)

Photo by Lin Yimiao - Simon, a young Fijian manager who spent several years in Japan

Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇)

Born in Belfast. Just finished his Master from the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University (NTU). Currently lives and works in Taipei. 

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