Lu Xiaoyun: International Exchange and Aboriginal Representations

by Lu Xiaoyun on Friday, 02 November 2012 Comments

I belong to the Paiwan tribe, we live in a tribal village in Pingtung county. My indigenous name is Limuasan, which I inherited from my vuvu (female ancestor). Since I wasn’t raised in the village, I didn’t always have a strong sense of ethnic identity. I also suffered racism from my schoolmates during my elementary school years, so I’ve always felt rather negative about my ethnic identity. It wasn’t until I met several indigenous friends in high school that I regained a more positive view of my ethnicity. This changed even more when I entered college and participated in the Taluan university society. The Taluan Society is a society for indigenous people. We organize trips to aboriginal villages to engage in community service there, which in turn enables us to learn more about aboriginal culture. These experiences made a deep impression on me and I can say now that I am proud to be a Taiwanese aboriginal person.

I was deeply intrigued by this exchange program, which I learned about through some of my friends who had participated in this program before. Two years ago I enrolled in a similar program, a course held by NCCU ethnology professor Wang Ya-ping that included a three-week field trip to Aceh, Indonesia. This fruitful experience tuned me on to international cultural exchanges.

Walking down the roads of Fiji, you will always meet brisk smiles and a warm welcoming “Bula!” Whether in the city or in the village, the Fijians all love to give heartwarming hellos. The facial contours of the Fijians bear a lot of resemblance with the Paiwan and Lukai tribe, so there’s also a sense of kinship between us. Compared with the Fijians, the Indo-Fijians seemed more reserved and less communicative than the Fijians.

During the trip we visited four different villages that presented to us different aspects of Fijian life. The most interesting aspect of the experience in my opinion is how we always brought Kava, a local plant, every time we entered a village. The Kava is presented to the chief in order to show our respect and to initiate our the ritual by which we were welcomed into the village. This ritual is called sevusevu and symbolizes that we as outsiders are welcomed into the village. Only after the ritual are we allowed to move freely within the village. The whole ritual is carried out with great solemnity and shows the strict hierarchical structure of Fijian aboriginal society. At the end of the ritual we would drink the kava ground and mixed with water. The kava water numbs the mouth and wasn’t pleasant to drink at first, but I gradually learned to appreciate its peculiar taste.


I noticed how many kids in the villages bore wounds or scars on their bodies, some of which were even swollen and infected. The lack of medical resources is still a huge problem in Fiji. If anyone suffers a serious illness, they can only receive medical care by taking a plane to Australia or New Zealand because there are no big hospitals in the local area. This problem exists through out the country and is even more serious in small villages.

We also visited a Paiwan tribesman Mr. Shih, who moved from Taiwan to Fiji in pursuit of his hairdressing career. He did extensive research on the hair textures of different local ethnicities and developed different hair products accordingly; so far he has been very successful. On his human resource management, Mr. Shih appropriated the disciplinary skills he learned from his vuvu , which effectively increased his business efficiency.

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On the 5th day we visited the University of the South Pacific which had a big impact upon us. We had various talks upon tourism and ethnic identity in the South Pacific as well as ecological problems in Fiji. In addition, we participated in a Taiwanese aboriginal song and dance cultural exchange. he most moving part of the day was in Professor Tuimalealiifano’s class, when we were exchanging our views on identity and identification. We were talking about the linguistic similarities between Austronesian peoples. To demonstrate this fact, we chose the Paiwan tribe as a representative of Taiwanese indigenous peoples and compared our vocabulary using numbers as an example with the Fijian students. We counted from one to ten and found a lot of similar pronunciations and we were all very surprised. This reminded me of a similar game we played in Indonesia. We had a member of the Tao tribe in our team, and found out that the vocabulary from one to ten in Indonesian was hardly any different from the Yami language that the Tao tribe spoke. We were exchanging language with coffee farmers at that time, and their astonishment was every bit like the Fijian students that we were engaged in exchange with right then!

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I signed up for the Cultural Arts group within this program and was to observe Fiji in terms of cultural arts. There is no doubt that there is a very rich repertoire of local arts, whether it be traditional architecture or handicrafts . Unlike the diversity of Taiwanese indigenous tribes, Fiji is a homogenous ethnic group, so it is relatively easier to preserve their culture and language.

The Taiwanese indigenous peoples consist of 14 different tribes, each with their own signature songs and dances. When we came to Fiji, we more or less expected the same in their traditional performance. However, when we arrived at the villages, we found out that there wasn’t much variety in terms of song and dance. We only saw a small song and dance performance at the village of Navala. Other villages only sang for most of the part, though their singing was accompanied with slight physical swaying. The musical tones of Fijian songs are also slightly different from what we usually hear. Perhaps its because they are surrounded by the sea; even the melodies sound as joyous and casual as the waves.

We also visited the Ministry of iTaukei (Indigenous) Affairs. The whole building was organized into separate departments such as the iTaukei Institute of Language and Culture and the Native Lands and Fisheries Commission. I found it interesting that there was also an iTaukei Affairs Scholarship Division. We spent the whole morning learning about their administration. Currently the Ministry is engaged in a language conservation program of the 300 dialects in Fiji and the establishment of the Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights. I feel that the problems faced by Fiji and Taiwan are more or less the same, although the government’s attitude in each case in regards to resolving these problems are quite different. In the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs, the whole staff is made up of indigenous people. Aside from the benefits of increasing job opportunities for indigenous people, I think it is definitely advantageous to hire indigenous people in a Ministry that manages indigenous affairs. In Taiwan, indigenous people only make up around half of the Council of Indigenous People, according to the 2011 human resources statistics. Are non-indigenous people really better than indigenous people at solving indigenous problems and fighting for indigenous rights? I think there will definitely be a discrepancy in their sense of mission.

Afterwards we arrived at the Pacific Harbor Arts Village in Deuba. It immediately reminded me of the Taiwan Indigenous People Culture Park. In the Arts Village we got to see the traditional form of Fijian villages, with real indigenous Fijians demonstrating the lifestyle of their ancestors. There are two tour options in the Arts Village. One is to tour the village via boat; along the river coast dotted by straw huts, we could see real indigenous people drilling wood to make fire, or making bark cloth. It enables the tourist to directly observe their traditional lifestyle. The other option is to let a tour guide lead you through the villages and learn about the cultural history of Fiji. They also lead you into the hut to perform the village entrance ritual and they even put on a little theatrical performance, which was very impressive. Last but not least, there was also traditional food as well as a song and dance performance. Compared to the Arts Village, the Taiwan Indigenous People Culture Park has better hardware equipment, but there is still a lot to be learned from the Fijians in terms of how the tour is organized. We also display ancient artifacts and give performances in the Culture Park, but it can be hard for non-indigenous people to grasp how these artifacts were used back then, or to understand the history and culture of different tribes. I hope that the Culture Park can make the tour livelier, so that more people will be intrigued to learn more about the indigenous people in Taiwan.

It has been a month since I returned to Taiwan, everything that Iexperienced in those eleven days, including the jetlag, is still lingering inside me. During our trip, I was asked one question: “how much mass has your life gained so far?” This question stuck with me ever since. How much mass do I have right now? It had become my source of motivation. In foreign countries, the most important thing is language. This trip made me realize the importance of English. Without language, a lot of opportunities to communicate with others are lost. After my return to Taiwan, the most urgent thing for me is to improve my English.

Also, I’ve grown interested in diplomacy after visiting the Trade Mission of Taiwan to the Republic of Fiji and the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs. In Taiwan, aboriginal diplomatic representatives are rare, but in other countries there is a wide variety of indigenous staff members. I think the cultural history of the indigenous people and how they cope with modern society is something that Taiwan can learn a lot from. I hope that I, as a Taiwanese aborigine, can bring more knowledge back to Taiwan for the betterment of our people. I believe that our policy-makers lack a certain international vision, which may distract them from seeing the real issue when they decide policies related to indigenous people. Although I am still unsure about the future, perhaps I might really go into diplomacy if I had the chance and made up my mind.

In addition, I was asked to make a photo album for this trip due to my interest in photography. I was thus always snapping pictures of interesting landscapes. Through these pictures, our crowds and our stories shall spread and reach other people. I suppose that is why I like photography so much. Since this trip my photographic techniques and vision have advanced immensely and I hope that I can produce better pictures in the future, to introduce a different world to my viewers. In this sense I believe this journey has been a great help.

During our trip, we visited four different villages. However, it’s a pity that we just stayed for a couple of hours in each. One of the major focuses of the ethnology course I took two years ago was fair trade coffee. Our professor made an arrangement with local farmers and we were able to live in a farmer’s house for four to five days. We lived according to their daily schedule and went with the farmers to local markets and into the coffee fields. Even though we only stayed there for a couple of days, we had an in-depth understanding of the daily lives of the local coffee farmers.

In Fiji, we witnessed various traditional lifestyles and cultures of the Fijian indigenous people and had lots of joyful exchanges with the villagers, but I still wish that we could have been given more time to understand local village life in Fiji. For example, we could learn what the daily life of a Fijian indigenous person was like by staying with the villagers for one, two or even three days. Thus, I hope that the next time that such an exchange is organized, we can negotiate with the locals and stay at their villages for a longer period of time, under the condition that we do not disturb their daily life. By completely immersing ourselves in to their lifestyle, I’m sure we will be able to observe more nuances of other cultures.

In the space of those eleven days, I learned more than I ever could imagine. Before the event, I had qualms about my intentions of joining this trip. It was only after I stepped upon Fijian soil and started this journey that I found out how answers could only be found during the process, and I believe I’ve found my answer. I hope that I will never forget all the memories I’ve had in Fiji and the new faith I’ve gained. I also hope that I will continue to persist on fighting towards my goals.

When I compare the situation of indigenous people in other countries with our own, I see that most indigenous people in the world are facing similar problems: The dispersal of the young population, the problem of conserving traditional culture, language and crafts. Each country also provides different solutions in dealing with these problems, hence the value of international exchange. What’s important is what we do with the knowledge we’ve gained afterwards. We must share it with others, starting from our family, our friends, our clubs at school and with our community. I believe the ripple effect of knowledge holds the power to change.

I am grateful to the people I met in Fiji, the Council of Indigenous People and the Ricci Institute who made this trip possible, our instructor Mr. Guan and finally my fellow team members; everyone of them who participated and helped. This is not the end of the 14th Taiwan Indigenous Students Cultural Exchange Program. This is just the beginning….

 

 

 

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