Indigenous: what does it mean on an island full of Chinese? Were you even aware of indigenous people in Taiwan? I wasn’t. Had I done any research I probably would have, but rarely do I before visiting a new place. I like to arrive with no prejudgements and make my own discoveries.
Wanting to get out of the heavy rain this evening, as I forgot my trusted umbrella (usually used for sun protection), I walked into a vegan restaurant called Farmers’ Kitchen in Hualein. Finally I hoped I would be able to find some food, not pork and without MSG or sugar which coats almost every dish in Taiwan; not good news if you’re diabetic or have a high blood pressure or like me just don’t like extremely salty sweet things.
Quite by chance or because of the rain, I started talking to Nina who once she’d advised me on the menu and I chose ‘meat balls’ (aubergine really but looked like meat balls) with pasta in tomato sauce, we started talking about travelling and what we notice. I was far more interested in her. She’s the daughter of indigenous parents, who lived in the south of the island, whose ancestors for centuries have lived in these regions living off the land as hunter gatherers or fished in the lakes or sea, little or no education, and if they needed to buy anything they would barter with something they had produced. They had their own language and own ways of doing things with using traditional cultural practises. They had no need of money nor did they know about it.
But things changed for Nina’s family. They moved north and learned what money was for. Along the way Nina as one of the fortunate minority, has received a high level of education and travelled to the USA to improve her English and a number of other countries. She regrets that the traditions of indigenous people are being forgotten and is trying to teach herself the language so she can practise with her parents. She does set herself apart from the Chinese Taiwanese who are a little unsettled with current political goings on between the China and Taiwan.
The Taiwanese original inhabitants, or aborigines are made up of 16 indigenous tribes, collectively known as Austronesian. They make up 2% of the 22 million people in Taiwan. They were living on the island way before the Chinese immigrants moved in in the 17th century. They are linguistically and genetically linked to other Austronesian people’s living in the Philippines, Malaysia, Madagascar, and Oceania. Each tribe has it’s own language and cultural traditions. Each has it’s own naming traditions; some might have a given name with a clan name, a family name or the name of their mother or father.
Over the centuries indigenous people have suffered from loss of lands, identity, language and cultural knowledge as a result of colonisation. They’ve been suppressed.
During the first 30 years of the Japanese colonising (1895 to 1945) Taiwan they adopted certain strategies of dealing with the native aborigines by forcing them onto reservations. There were beheadings at school events, poison gas bombings, hangings, burnings. Today you’ll find native people living in places to look like tribal homes, wearing native dress selling native crafts and beadwork and ‘folk art’ very similar to those you’ll fine created by the Australian aborigines.
Nina pointed out she looks different from most Taiwanese. She has no Chinese features either facially or physically. She has darker skin and a petite stocky body with a shapely bottom. Chinese tend to be flat bottomed, tend to get quite bow legged as they age, possibly from all the squatting!
Sadly I didn’t take any photos of this really interesting, proud young lady, though very happy to have spent some time with her.
To read more about the Taiwanese Aborigines press here