Langus Lavalian Crossing the Kuroshio into the Skies of the Southern Cross

by on 週一, 05 十一月 2012 評論

In mid April of 2012, I joined FISION International Exchange—The Aboriginal Youth New Vision Team—and embarked on an adventure that was to take me away from the limitations and constraints of my native Taiwan. Only a few of my teammates were members from my student club at school, most were fresh new faces.

Fortunately, my sense of anxiety disappeared after a few preparatory meetings had taken place. The fact that we were all aboriginal together gave us a feeling of familiarity and sincerity, and we quickly formed ourselves into a team in the truest sense of the word. Being that we lived far apart, we had little opportunity to meet very often, and usually had to have “marathon” meetings of six or seven hours at a time that lasted until one or two in the morning, so that we were all exhausted by the time we went home.

We ran into quite a few problems while we were doing research on Fiji. One of these was the language barrier, and another was that little information could be found on Fiji in Taiwan. The resources we found on the internet were mostly travel and tourism information, and at first we really didn’t know what to do. At the beginning, we were anxious, frustrated, and bewildered.

Nevertheless, after we received much needed help from many of our teachers and made our best efforts to conduct our own research, we began to gain a better understanding of the cultural, geographical and historical conditions of Fiji, and it was then we started writing our formal project proposal.

What we didn’t realize was that writing proposals was no easy matter. Innumerable changes had to be made, from our project theme, structure, and content, down to organization and editing. The proposal was rejected and revisions had to be made countless times even after we sent it to our project advisor, and we were often genuinely discouraged by the tediousness of that procedure.

One of the incidents that occurred during our interview made us reflect more deeply on the meaning of our cultural exchange trip. One of the interviewers asked us, “You are the elite of aboriginal people, but do you have any real tribal experiences? How do you expect to engage in cultural exchange with foreigners?” This question was a shot to the heart, but it also prompted us to think. If we didn’t have any true sense of belonging to our tribes, or regarded this expedition as merely a chance to “go abroad,” on what kind of basis could we be said to be practicing cultural and emotional exchange with the people of a foreign village? We thought long and hard on this issue and had many discussions among ourselves, and it was thus that we embarked on our trip across the Kuroshio and into a land under the skies of the Southern Cross, full of unresolved questions about both Fiji, and about our personal experiences.

Finding a Homeland in the Garden of Eden

During the British colonial period, even though the British brought in lots of Indians to work on the sugarcane plantations, they protected the land of the Fijian aborigines from being sold to merchants, so that Fijian aboriginal people still own about 80% of the land of the entire nation. Even now, tribes must give their consent before the government or business enterprises rent or utilize their land. Tribes make decisions on whether or not to let their land only after consultations and meetings have been made, and land use purposes must meet with rigorous environmental evaluation standards. The conditions regarding land use and ownership are vastly different from that of Taiwan, here businesses may easily purchase (or rob) land from aboriginal tribes, and it seems futile to rely on the assistance of environmental evaluations.

Our impressions of difference were even more pronounced once we entered the village! The village belongs to the chief, to the villagers, to the entire community. Village residents maintain the right to choose to develop eco-tourism or not. For example, the Navala’s insistence on the preservation and continuation of traditional housing (bures) have allowed them to continue to preserve their traditional residence structures and living spaces. Koromakawa’s efforts at preserving traditional song, dance, and rituals have enabled them to develop tourism boasting these cultural assets. Village chiefs and important leaders are responsible for managing tourism proceeds, and usually these proceeds are used on village developments. In comparison, touristic activities within Taiwanese aboriginal tribes are mostly controlled by the government or by business enterprises, causing profits to be allocated to the privileged few, undermining the original intentions for developing aboriginal tourism.

An instance of village autonomy may also be seen in the ways in which they maintain and make records of their local biological knowledge. For example, the Muaivuso collaborated with Professor Randolph Thaman from the University of the South Pacific to record Fijian names, functions and cultural meanings of all plants to be found in the village. What I learned from this process is how traditional local biological knowledge of the villages may exist within a living sphere and affect the lives of the residents. Many types of crops are grown together on a small piece of land, and from low to high there are the segments of kasava, taro, and pandanus for making woven mats (voi), bananas, as well as taller species of trees. No piece of land is planted with only one single crop, and crops are rotated according to the seasons so that the food supply is ensured. The academic term of “biological multiplicity” is actually not an unfamiliar concept, if we think about it, aren’t the vegetable gardens in our tribes planted according to the same concept? Here and there are scallions and garlic, patches of leafy vegetables, with some sweet potato or pumpkins along the side, and that is enough to provide food for the family or even for friends and relatives as well. Yet the time came when large chunks of tribal land began to be plowed into mass plantations, all the trees were axed, leaving the ground bare and barren. Large quantities of staple crops were planted, corn, plums, cabbages, tomatoes, or bell peppers… Usually, it was the merchants, the market, who decided what to plant. When these crops were ready they were shipped to urban areas and sold for profit, and the money was then used to buy daily bread. All of this caused a profound change upon our food source and our mode of consumption.

From Tribal Tourism to Consumer Culture

From village to city, what I saw was a highly developed tourism industry, stunning landscape that can be found in movies and travel programs: luxurious hotels, sandy beaches, seashores dotted with swaying coconut trees, friendly waiting-staff at one’s beck and call, the ultimate of all indulgences. As a matter of course, the tourists are all Westerners. All one’s fantasies regarding travel could be fulfilled here, one could relax, be at leisure, distance oneself from daily cares, then return to normal life after a full recharge. The stereotype of how “tourism” should be is so deeply imprinted on people’s minds that it was hard for me to shake off the questions asked by Teacher Tsai Cheng-liang during one of our itinerary meetings. He asked, “If you were a tourist with an unlimited budget, would you choose to take a vacation at a five-star seaside hotel, or participate in an eco-tourism program in a remote mountain village?”


The question seemed to me a difficult one, because the first thing that came to my mind was to choose to spend my vacation at a fancy hotel, but after I made the choice, I began to feel uneasy and to suspect that it’s wrong to make such a choice. If one takes up the issue, why is it exactly a difficult choice? I think it’s because we have such a stereotypical concept of what “tourism” should be, that we unconsciously consider that vacations mean shaking off all daily cares and responsibilities. What kind of contribution does this form of consumerism bring to the local economy? We have the ability to choose what kind of tourist we want to be.

When I visited the city, I also encountered the fishing villages on the outskirts of the city. In the early days, the chief of Suva (the capital of Fiji) and the villagers of Korovo reached an understanding, and moved the capital to where it is now, on the southeastern shores of Fiji. However, under current administrative divisions, Korovo is not a valid administrative region, but is instead an illegal community. What used to be a valid traditional mutual agreement is now unrecognized and unlawful, which made me think of the similar situations and instances in Taiwan. Aside from land issues, villagers also face the problem of poverty. Once they enter the ruthless rush of the capitalist market system, they have no choice but to engage in low-paying jobs of labor to make a living, or else earn their daily bread by selling cheap handmade bark cloth. However hard they try to succeed, tribal living standards are always below the poverty line. Yet what exactly is poverty? Are our notions of poverty also structured by our conceptions or misconceptions of Western ideology? The outside world often regards Fiji aboriginal people as lazy good-for-nothings with no understanding of finance and saving, which in turns causes them to be poor. If we look at our own fellow tribesmen, they are more often than not regarded as living in poverty, neglect, and are socially disadvantaged, but it is really true? Is this how we see ourselves? Is the poverty financial or spiritual? There is no simple answer to this question, just as there is not simple solution as to whether poverty is a social issue or a way of living.

In our trips back and forth between villages and cities, superficially it would seem as if we observed many of the conditions in which Fiji aborigines lived, but most of the time, what I really try to do is to rebuild my perspectives of aboriginal society out of these fleeting impressions. These include how tourism has been shaped by the rampant materialism of a neoliberal society, how aboriginal education is trying to find its footing under the rigid superstructure of the Taiwanese educational system, as well as random musings on social psychology such as what it means to be content in life and in spirit.

Aboriginal identity issues and conflicts

Due to its colonial history, there are now roughly the same number of aborigines and Indo-Fijians living in Fiji. It is fully evident that Fijis and Indian Fijis lead vastly different lifestyles and are settled in different regions. This has a profound impact on the politics and economic conditions in Fiji, and also serves to accelerate ethnic division and conflict. Indo-Fijians, since their removal to the island during the colonial era, have become very different from other Indians living on the mainland in terms of lifestyle and culture. They have even come to regard themselves as Fijians rather than Indians, but are often hampered from directly declaring themselves as such. As for Fijian aborigines, their traditional culture has been so deeply affected by modern economics and capitalization that cultural heritage has become problematic, making an impact also on their sense of aboriginal identity, especially with regard to aborigines living in urban areas. This is true not only of Fijians, but also of the Taiwanese aboriginal people.

After we returned to Taiwan, our most important job was to carry on doing our work. We must preserve and continue all that we learnt, felt and gained from our experience in Fiji. Out of this exceptional experience, we have derived a mutual wish: to sow the seeds of hope and experience we took from Fiji, and it is especially important that we share our knowledge with our very own tribesmen. For example, from September 21st to 23rd, the entire team shared our knowledge of the ecological environment of Fiji in the tribe of Tafalong, the tribesmen were immensely interested in the ethnic plants, seaside creatures, and tribal housing styles in the photos we brought. We saw how tribesmen participated in animated discussions in the event, and I felt that this could be the beginning of something wonderful and far-reaching. We are all the children of the southern islands, birthed by the same Mother Ocean.







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