After I returned from Taiwan I had some time to reflect on what I had been able to achieve, what I had failed to do and what I learned. I could write an essay on this topic but I'll try keep it down in length. Firstly, I should explain that I headed out to Taiwan with a whole bunch of mobile phones. I expected to be able to get a bunch of Saisiyat people to record different genres of natural language, respeak and translate those using the mobile phone app Aikuma. The point to this is that it's a 'scalable' method, that is to say that if I just recruit more participants and get more phones, I can do more work. I simply had no real idea about what it was going to be like to establish an environment where that could be done. I wasn't even sure if it could be done with Saisiyat. I was prepared to go elsewhere, to a larger aboriginal tribal group, if it wasn't working out. So on balance, the best I can say is that I anticipated that things would go wrong and it might be hard to get anything working at all. On the other hand, I was fundamentally unprepared for the challenge of establishing a linguistic fieldwork environment at all; that is, meeting people, explaining my work, recruiting people to do help and so on. Not to mention finding a place to live, how to get around, how to cope with disasters and how to document everything I was doing so that I could actually learn from it...
It's interesting to reflect on my choices of field gear in retrospect. Pictured is my valiant steed, a 125cc Kymco scooter that did roughly 1,600km. That's not a huge amount in Australia but in Taiwan, a lot of that was up and down mountains.
Everything I own is packed onto that scooter. One of my T-shirts has been bungied to the tripod on the back to dry it out after some last minute washing. The amazing thing is how much you can carry on a scooter by sticking a large duffle bag between your legs on the floorboard. So anyway, about the gear...
Here's me pulling a sad face when I handed back my scooter to the rental outfit. After 1600km of occasionally rough terrain, I felt like we had been through something together. As a foreigner, I'm legally able to drive/ride for 30 days after landing by using an international permit. In reality, most foreigners don't bother doing anything else. I'm going to be here a lot so next time I go back I'll get a proper licence, it's not terribly hard. Anyway, the bottom line is this: riding a scooter in Taipei is madness and no one should do it. Seriously. Next time, I'll go straight to Nanzhuang by bus and rent a bike from the local shop there. It'll be safer and cheaper. Having a scooter is just a wonderful thing out in Saisiyat country. I could go anywhere I pleased at any time. In an ideal world I'd prefer a bike that was a little newer and less prone to mechanical issues, definitely one with a bigger rear tyre like the Yamaha Cygnus X but the reality is I'll be riding whatever jalopy the laoban has in Nanzhuang and I'll love every minute of it.
DongHe village is located a few kilometres East of Nanzhuang. Across the river, and up the top of a mountain, is another village called Xiang Tian Hu, or heaven-facing lake. To get there one takes a winding passage back and forth as we climb up to around 800m elevation. Xiang Tian Hu is the traditional place where the Southern Saisiyat conduct Pasta'ai and any number of other events. The town itself is largely devoted to a significant tourist trade with a large coach park, a Saisiyat museum and a number of market stalls selling local produce including vegetables, honey and millet wine. I had been here before, in a thunder storm, at a time when my main phone and navigation aid died so I was pretty stressed trying to revive it. I didn't think a great deal of the museum.
While I was up in Xiang Tian Hu, I heard of a BBQ in DongHe. Sure enough, I ride past and a massive party is kicking off. It's to celebrate the Chinese mid-autumn festival (中秋節). DongHe is an inspiring place in so far as Saisiyat maintenance is going on but at the end of the day, Chinese culture is completely pervasive. Each family sat down at their own charcoal BBQ. Entertainment took the form of karaoke and a delightfully impressive song and dance routine from some youngsters.
n my culture, when you go around someone's house you will often bring some supplies to offset the inconvenience. Usually beer, or wine, at least in my experience. In Saisiyat country I faced a dilemma which bothered me considerably. How could I contribute when I'm invited to people's home? Any talk of me paying for meals was politely but forcefully dismissed. This picture represents the perfect clumsy effort of an Australian trying to come to grips with this. I would show up with a six pack of beer and stick it in 'oemaw's fridge.
Saisiyat people have a range of different surnames. In the past each family had traditional responsibilities such as the titiyon clan being responsible for the Pasta'ai event. I had seen a number of different accounts of the families and so on one rainy day I tried to synthesize them into one table. This picture was my first effort. Later on, my pal 'oemaw, who is something of a keeper of Saisiyat tradition, told me that a number of these were actually the same. I have an outstanding task to check those claims with someone else. If they agree then I'm happy to call it thus.
At some point the Saisiyat names were given Chinese names. The middle column here represents the range of those. The majority of people I met were baba:i', with some kabaybaw, titiyon and Sawan. A couple of minrakeS and hayawan.
One curious point: I find it much easier to remember Saisiyat names than Chinese names. I think this is more generally that I find Chinese names particularly hard to remember. I don't know why.
Maya and 'Oemaw sing the beautiful Saisiyat song Maytata' Ki Tomnon. With extremely minor assistance from a certain Australian wood drum (木鼓) player.
wa'ila ta paytata - 來舂米, - come pound rice,
wa'ila ta tawbonila - 來打糯米糕, - come make rice cake,
wa'ila ta iyanila - 来接苧麻線, - come join rush grass,
wa'ila ta bisitila - 來織布。- come weave cloth.
kolon - (舂米聲) - (sound of pounding rice)
tonon - (織布聲) - (sound of weaving)
I'm working at my computer, I can hear Saisiyat being spoken. My elderly host Maya has a friend over. They are chatting away in Saisiyat. My camera was on a tripod ready to go. I tried my best to explain to them that I'd like if they could just introduce themselves and their lives, speaking to each other and not me. I much prefer to capture conversation like this rather than speaking to camera.
While my Mandarin has been improving, I still find I have a lot of difficulty communicating with elderly people. In the end I thought understood, but I ran around the corner so they wouldn't try speak to me (which doesn't work because I haven't a clue what they're saying). I could hear them chatting away, so I thought all was well. I thank them, take notes* and don't think anything of it. Later I check out the video and I'm pretty sure they're just chatting about the strange foreigner staying out back.
* Notes: So as usual, I mark the time and date, names and rough contents of the material being recorded. I found this quicker to do on paper. Some days later the second major typhoon hits Taiwan. The window is open in my room, all of my notes and lots of other documents were thoroughly drenched for an entire day and ended up becoming one large paper pulp. This was a disaster that I spent the rest of my trip attempting to recover from.
The day after Sunday's activity, 'Okaya hooked me up with her husband's brother 'Oemaw (武茂). 'Oemaw is a wonderful guy who cares deeply about his Saisiyat identity. His home has a Saisiyat themed common/public area out the front with an ice cream shop. The windows had Saisiyat family names written on them associated with their Chinese characters. One of the first things he did for me was record those names, and then a list of common given names for men and women also. He'd clearly done this before, going through a list and reading them twice. So here I was benefiting from previous linguistic researchers.
It's hard to describe the enormity of meeting 'Oemaw. We immediately got work done. I had recordings of names, a very long mythical story about the thunder woman, a number of traditional songs. I took pictures of song lyrics, lists of names, all sorts of documents and pages from old books, Pasta'ai festival organisation, maps of distribution from older Saisiyat culture books and so on. All of which made me happy but as my experience the previous day showed me, I realised that that I also need to work on is just better skills gains through experience. 'Oemaw's son was one of these experiences. He was a delightful but thoroughly naughty chap of about two and a half years old. He seemed motivated to do whatever would be annoying or disruptive. I'm not kidding. If I left stuff around he would pick it up and throw it. His dad has a rugged phone based on a principal of survival of the fittest. I do not... At one point this triggered a half hour search for a lens cap. At another point he grabbed my beer, ran off and guzzled a load of it with me and his father chasing him, then got diarrhoea as a result. Another time he grabbed a different beer and mercifully only poured it down the drain out the front of the house. If you weren't absolutely vigilant about stuff being out of reach, you would pay.
I don't have children and really I don't have any experience with them but for some reason I didn't find him annoying at all. I felt that this was reality of fieldwork and I need to deal with it. At one point while 'Oemaw was telling his lengthy story to my camera, I was pushing his son on a trolley cart up and down the street outside. This came unstuck a little when an elderly customer emerged from a nearby store looking for her trolley. Haha! She was a good sport about it.
Mat in Taiwan
Field testing tools and methods to document endangered Formosan languages in Taiwan