How do I find a Taiwanese Aborigine?

For Taiwan Culture Portal

Multiethnic Taiwan? That slogan seems to be rather odd for Westerners like me who from kindergarten on are used to socializing with immigrants from all over the globe. How many non-Han Chinese sit there in the morning on the same subway train I take? Sure, there is the occasional Caucasian English teacher, an Indonesian maid pushing a senior citizen’s wheelchair, and once or twice a month I can spot a group of Japanese housewives on their way to the National Palace Museum. But Aborigines? I have never met any. What do they look like? Would I even notice an Aborigine if one happened to cross my path?

I do have a car and I do speak Chinese, so, consumed with curiosity, I at long last decided to embark on a field trip: I wanted to find an Aborigine, and see how he or she is doing in life.

“Head for the East coast”, I was told by my Taipei landlady that very morning, “drive through the Xueshan tunnel, along the serpentine road towards Hualien, stop at the first red light, then go into that mom-and-pop shop there, buy a beer and ask the clerk.”

Well, that isn’t exactly how she has said it, but that is exactly what I did; I got to the shop, put my beers on the counter and asked: “Excuse me, sir – how to find an Aborigine?”

It couldn’t possibly have been any less trouble: the place I found myself in was called Dongao, Dongao has just one road, on the left of that road live the Han-Chinese, or ethnic Chinese Taiwanese, or however that part of Taiwan’s population wishes to be called; on the right side live the Aborigines. This concept was simple enough for me to understand; I thanked the friendly shop owner and walked over to ‘the other side’.

Dongao has just one road. The Aborigines live on the right, and the Han-Chinese on the left.

I must say, it did look a bit different there in that tribal part of Dongao, not a great deal, but a bit. And so did the people there sitting on their porches. Not very different, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to tell any of these people apart from the commuters I see in the mornings in Taipei. The circumstance that struck me as remarkable, the circumstance that somehow convinced me that these people belong to an ethnic group of their own, was that they sat together; they sat in groups of ten or so and that without apparent reason, like, say, a ceremony or a party.

The tribal village. The people living here belong to the Taya tribe.

I grasped that I had found what I was looking for, but somehow I was disinclined to make any form of direct approach. I had in mind what it means to walk on a stranger’s porch uninvited in my native Germany: a faux-pas that nearly amounts to physical assault. I walked to the beach instead, which wasn’t far. I lit up a fire, finished my beers, counted more shooting stars than I had ever before and called it a day.

Dongao bay is remarkably clean. Every typhoon, every earthquake leaves its mark in the rock formations.

The next morning was a good one: the turquoise waters of the Dongao bay, the sheer mountain range behind me, and, a rareness in Taiwan, about two kilometers of beach without garbage. I walked back towards where my car was. The walk felt much longer than the night before, but two dogs followed me, so I was actually quite well entertained. I saw something huge and unsightly I hadn’t seen in the dark: the Dongao ‘Lucky Cement Factory’.

Feeling to some degree like a curious old woman prying into her neighbors’ affairs, I then cruised through the Aboriginal settlement with open car windows, since I was well aware of the fact that I still hadn’t accomplished my mission, my mission to find a Taiwanese Aborigine to talk to.

How long can you drive up and down in a village with thirty houses and five (!) churches? I suppose not too long without risking to seem like either a burglar or an Interpol officer. Behind the village was a road leading into the mountains. I drove along it for a minute or two, and then, all the sudden, an old woman stood there in the middle of the road. She looked as Aboriginal as Aboriginal can be with her short woven jacket, a machete and a bamboo basket stuffed with leaves she carried as if it were an oversize backpack. It took me a second to understand what she wanted me, the driver, to do; she wanted me to stop and give her a lift – how lucky I was: she was hitchhiking!

“Americano”, she called me, and I didn’t mind. “Tayaka”, she said is her tribe, “Sakura”, she said is her name. “Why do you happen to have a name that sounds so Japanese”, I asked, slowly steering the car up the narrow mountain path. “I am sixty-six years old – I had a stroke in August – I have three sons, and thank you for bringing me up the mountain, my scooter isn’t strong enough to get where my geese are.” She didn’t exactly answer my question.

“The leaves in the basket are for the geese”, she went on, “I don’t know English; do you know Japanese?” She spoke way too loudly like old people do, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless, since I found her quite likable. I then heard that Sakura had worked in Japan in a food factory during the seventies.

She spotted some guy who seemed to be busy fixing a water pipe that, I assumed, supplied the settlement with fresh water from the mountain range. Sakura told me to stop the car, and she shouted something that I didn’t understand, and the man replied something I didn’t understand either.

“You have your own language here, don’t you?” I inquired. ‘Taya-language’, is what her tribe speaks, plus Mandarin, she explained, unlike the people on the other side of the main road, because they speak Taiwanese. “Is it that you people don’t like the people on ‘the other side’ much?” I asked, a hint too frankly. She shrugged. I knew it was a stupid question.

We got to where she kept her geese in a plywood shack. “Thank you, Americano”, she said, and she even made a little bow. I helped her get that bamboo basket and the machete from the back seat, and wished her a good day. But wait! Wasn’t there something of utmost importance I had forgot? Yes, that’s right, “a photo of you and me with my camera”.

The camera wedged between two twigs, delay timer set, Sakura and I brought into a favorable position; my mission was accomplished with the ‘click’ – I had found my Taiwanese Aborigine.

Sakura and me – I have finally found a Taiwanese Aborigine
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