The author of three books on Taiwan (including Vignettes of Taiwan and two editions of Lonely Planet: Taiwan), Joshua Samuel Brown has returned to his adopted home after four years away to begin work on a new book, Formosa Moon (follow him on twitter @josambro and click over to www.josambro.com for more details).
He’ll be traveling extensively over the next few months, blogging frequently, podcasting (so he tells us), and contributing articles on the fly to Ketagalan Media.
Last year a magazine I write for regularly asked me for a lighthearted article about traveling in Taiwan’s tribal areas. The idea appealed to me for two reasons. First, President Tsai Ing-wen had just issued an official state apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, making the subject quite timely. And second, earlier in the year I’d found myself on a “tribal village visit” with a busload of tourists from Guangzhou.
The visit began with a cooking lesson and a rehearsed song-and-dance number, and ended with me and the Cantonese travelers posing for selfies while wearing hastily assembled faux-tribal headdresses. Though it had all been arranged by some extremely gracious members of the Atayal tribe of southern Yilan, I still found the experience somewhat undignified. I felt an apology may be in order.
White liberal guilt? Perhaps.
From this experience, I wrote an article called Tribal Tourism Without Apologies and turned it in. But the editor decided not to run it in its original form; not because he didn’t like the tone (Not funny? Overly judgmental? You decide.) but because management felt that issues like “politics” and “alcohol” were best avoided.
So I was happy to be invited to submit the article to Ketagalan Media readers. KM’s mission of “facilitating the movement of ideas and trends between Taiwan, Asia and the rest of the world” fits well with my own personal mission, and far from shying away from politics, KM embraces it.
Also, my more recent travels researching Formosa Moon (an upcoming book about love finding itself in Taiwan) have brought me into deeper contact with indigenous peoples from Taipei to Taitung. One group of Amis ladies in Taitung dressed my partner Stephanie and I up in (this time far more lovely) tribal clothing, including genuinely beautiful headgear, before setting us up on a pile of stones for a round of pictures.
Missing from this round of visits were the busloads of Chinese tourists, reduced to a trickle all around Taiwan since Beijing put the spite-squeeze on tourism from China following the election of Tsai Ing-wen. While none of my indigenous hosts expressed any anger towards Tsai for the negative impact that Beijing’s current hissy fit is having on the local economy, I got the definite sense that a bus disgorging a few dozen reasonably behaved tourists from anywhere, China or otherwise, wouldn’t be an unwelcome sight.
I came away feeling more strongly than ever that tourism can play a major role in the preservation of tribal culture, autonomy and dignity in general.
So without further ado….
“Tribal Tourism Without Apologies”
2016 witnessed an unprecedented event, an apology issued to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples by President Tsai Ing-wen, which was intended to acknowledge years of colonial treatment at the hands of previous governments. In addition to being a major step towards the acknowledgement of abuses and restitution of land rights and cultural autonomy, Tsai’s apology also highlights the importance of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples within the overall cultural fabric of Taiwan, both in the past, and, perhaps more importantly, in the future.
One sector in which Taiwanese indigenous communities are increasingly involved is tourism, with tribal communities around the island capitalizing on their reputation for hospitality, opening their doors to visitors from both around Taiwan and around the world. No serious traveler should consider their exploration of Taiwan complete unless they’ve spent some quality time among the people who’ve called the beautiful island home long before Portuguese sailors coined the term Ilha Formosa.
Done right, tourism can benefit tribal communities, and not in just the most pragmatic sense of bringing the people living there much-needed income. It also incentivizes younger members of the tribe to practice and preserve traditions. A decade ago, a common complaint among indigenous parents were that their teenagers felt compelled to leave their villages for the cities due to a lack of opportunities to earn a living at home. These days, tribal teenagers have a practical financial incentive to learn how to make traditional dishes, practice traditional crafts like weaving, and perform tribal songs and dances – skills which otherwise might become forgotten.
Visiting tribal areas can be mutually beneficial cultural exchanges, and sometimes even result in lasting friendships. However, often times they can seem like staged exercises that call for tribal members to transform themselves into a kind of caricature for the entertainment of tourists who, while curious, often leave with an inaccurate picture of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. This can lead to stereotyping, misunderstanding, and possibly behavior necessitating future apologies. In the interest of promoting mutually beneficial of cross-cultural respect and appreciation, I’d like to offer a few tips for travelers looking to explore and interact with Taiwan’s pre-Han landscape and peoples.
Alcohol is a sensitive subject, as Taiwan’s indigenous communities suffer disproportionally from alcohol related illnesses (as do many indigenous communities around the world). Still, alcohol is a part of many native cultural traditions, and you may be offered to partake with your hosts (especially at ceremonies).
- Do take a drink if offered, unless your personal code dictates otherwise.
- Do not attempt to out-drink the father of the bride at a wedding, no matter what your code dictates. (Trust us on this one. You will lose.)
- Do visit the local museums, restaurants and shops of aboriginal communities.
- Do not enter the homes of villagers without invitation. This is not as uncommon as you might think, as some visitors assume they’re in a museum of some sort. (“I’ve had tourists come in my home before,” a friend in Lanyu told us. “I asked her to leave when she started trying on my makeup.”)
As with much else in travel, attitude makes all the difference. Another common observation made by members of tribal communities is that outsiders sometimes seem to have a paternalistic, even culturally superior attitude. This, of course, is best avoided. Should you find yourself actually feeling culturally superior, a good cure is to go on a week long hike with your hosts deep into the Central Mountain Range, attempting to live off the land as they do. If this doesn’t cure any lingering illusions of cultural superiority, nothing will.