Critical Ecologies: learned from participating

By Winna Go (Philippines)

It has only been three months since I arrived in Taiwan but I learned a lot in a short span of time. The interdisciplinary classes and immersive learning experience differ from what I am accustomed to. This way, I am learning from a different perspective that helps expand my horizon. A class that I really enjoyed taking during my first semester as an IMCCI (International MA for Cultural and Creative Industries) student is Critical Ecologies, which is a project sponsored by the “Shared Campus” program, cooperatively launched by seven arts institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kyoto, London, and Zurich. Aside from this, it is also a University Social Responsibility (USR) — “hifiveplus: International Art Platform- Indigenous Peoples from the Plains of Beitou to the Mountains of Pingtung”.

At first, I had some hesitations on whether I should pursue the Critical Ecologies class or not because I was still stuck in the Philippines. Since the class is immersive, I was afraid that I could not keep up with the requirements. Fortunately, the instructor is mindful and understanding. Since the class had guest speakers from the different campus partners, we would have zoom meetings almost every other week; and my professor would send me the link so that I could join the seminar. Aside from this, the classes were also recorded so that those who are not on campus can join the lecture. I appreciate the gesture and inclusivity that the lecturer observed. During the first meeting of class, we were told that we will be going on a trip to Taitung and Hualien in order to spend time with the indigenous people. So the lectures and readings we had were in preparation for the trip. This is to give us a better understanding of the culture and traditions of the people residing there. Since my background is more focused on new media and painting, the lectures and readings about performance art and dance helped in compensating for my lack on knowledge. Moreover, it was surprising to see how the culture and traditions of the indigenous people revolve around performance art and dance. This is inspiring for me because I could see that the indigenous people are born as an artist. They do not even need to try because it is deeply rooted in their daily lives. Something that I learned from them is that you can gain inspiration from anything, everyday.

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Introducing everyone by singing their names (photo by me)

Accordingly, the classes were not only a one-way kind of learning; since we had to read articles and books, present the topic that was assigned to us, and discuss about it in class. With this, everyone gets to share their own perspective and positionality. I appreciate this type of learning because we get to acquire knowledge about the culture of each and everyone. Aside from having foreigners in class, Taiwanese also have disparate cultural backgrounds and perspectives. Personally, the reading I enjoyed the most talks about the positionality of an indigenous researcher. Perusing the book felt like I was seeing the world through their lens. It never would have occurred to me how they are having difficulties in negotiating their position in the world because of the constructs that invalidates their kind of research. This also causes a dilemma in their identity seeing how they have to negotiate the spaces between two cultures in order the balance the two. Aside from the new found perspective, I enjoyed the book because it is not only applicable to an indigenous researcher, but to each and everyone of us. Consequently, all of us have our own positionalities in this world; and we are under the subjugation of globalization. This creates a dilemma in identity because a person has to constantly balance being local and international at the same time. Sometimes, one practice is contradictory to another; therefore, stirring up confusion in one’s standpoint. Furthermore, what I enjoyed about this reading is the concept of having different positionalities which helped me situate myself better in the trip. Not only am I an outsider since I am not an indigenous person, but I am also a foreigner in Taiwan; therefore, it adds up to the complexity. The last thing I want to do is offend someone because of cultural differences.

The purpose of the trip is to immerse ourselves to the culture and traditions of the indigenous people. This is why we spent our new year’s eve and new years there. On the 30th of December, our entire class headed to Taitung. Our first stop was at Bulareyaung Dance Co. where a weaving workshop was conducted. It is no surprise that the locals spoke in Mandarin so it was challenging for us foreigners to understand. I am thankful for our teacher assistant because he had to translate everything in English so that we would understand what was happening. My classmates were also kind enough to step in and translate what the locals were saying when the TA is tired. So for the first stop, we were taught how to weave a bracelet using a rattan (黃藤), and make a coaster using dried leaves (月桃). It was really challenging to do since weaving requires precision, and the teachers made the process look effortless which is amazing. Moreover, the workshop showcases the significance of these sustainable materials in the daily lives of the indigenous people. They often use rattan for baskets, ropes, and even furniture because of its durability. I know how difficult it is to collect and grow rattan because I was able to watch a documentary about it back at home. Rattan working is a traditional occupation of the Filipinos so a lot of locals are dependent on the rattan sector for their livelihood. This material is not easy to collect as it grows in mid-high altitude, and takes around five to six years to harvest. This session taught us how to appreciate the labor and intricacy of handcrafted materials. Afterwards, we visited TTMaker that was being managed by a TNUA alumni. Established last 2016, TTMaker provides services such as shared space, entrepreneurial tutoring, and startup subsidies. It also lives up to the idea of “Indigenous Culture & Innovation Come Together, Art & Culture Soar Together”. Later that night, we had a Sabayan dinner that was followed by the Puyuma flower crown making. This activity was extremely fun to do because we had to wear our creation in the ceremonies to attend for the subsequent days. After completing our flower crowns, we spent the night singing and drinking until the bonfire died out. For me, this was a new experience because I have never joined an indigenous tribe celebrate an intimate event even in the Philippines. The way the indigenous people bonded is also unique. Singing was an important medium of expression to them so the indigenous people introduced each and everyone of us by chanting our names in a melody they created. After being called, we wore the ID tags that they gave us, and drank the shot of liquor that they prepared for us. Overall, the indigenous people were accommodating and warm; and everyone enjoyed their night away.

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The following day, we headed out to the Beinan Cultural Park in order to greet the men that just came back from their hunting trip. This is an intriguing tradition because I was told that it was also a place wherein a single woman, who is of age, can look for a suitable partner. Their skirts are color coded in order to show their relationship status. I heard that wearing blue underneath the patterned skirt symbolizes that they are single. This is in contrast to the Filipino tradition wherein the guy approaches a girl he is interested in. At first, the guy needs to ask permission from the parents of the person he is interested in. Afterwards, he proceeds to courting her which we call ‘panliligaw’ in Tagalog. This is his way of expressing his affections with the hope of it progressing to a romantic relationship. Usually, the guy will go to the house of the girl and serenade her all night. This custom is known as ‘harana’ and if the guy is good, then the girl will open her windows and watch him sing for her. However, this custom is rarely practiced by the youth these days; but the concept of a guy asking the girl out is still prevalent. This is why I appreciate the tradition of the Puyuma tribe wherein the ladies can express their feelings by giving betel nut to the one they are interested in. Someone from the tribe gave me and my friends betel nuts to give to the men coming back from the hunt. I had some leftovers and my friends urged me to taste it. It left a weird sensation because of the bitterness and rough texture but I enjoyed the experience. Subsequently, the male hunters entered through the arch and into the center of the park wherein they completed a ritual together. Since this event was mainly for men who came back from hunting, the women were the ones organizing the event, assisting the visitors, and preparing special meals for everyone to eat. Curiously, the meals were a mixture of native cuisine, Han Chinese cuisine, and Southern Fujian cuisine. This may be due to modernization and intermarriage between Minnan people and the Puyuma. The most memorable food that was served was the drunken chicken soup. My friends and I were kidding about how soup was actually rice wine with chicken in it because the broth tasted just like alcohol. It was enjoyable and the soup kept our bodies warm. Another interesting custom of the tribe was watching the men, who were holding a flag, run around the elderly people as they walk. This shows how much respect and love they have for their seniors. Despite the cold weather, everything felt warm because of the hospitality of the tribe. After this heartwarming lunch, we proceeded to Palakuwan for the Coming of Age Ceremony. This place is a key location of governance for Puyuma males. Aside from this, it is a venue for military, administration, education, and worshiping rite. When we arrived to the place, I was surprised to see topless takubakubans teenagers joining hands and dancing around the circle they formed despite the cold weather. Afterwards, they joined the larger circle that was composed of older males and females. It can also be seen that the takubakubans were serving alcohol to the elderlies that were seated in the middle of the circle they formed. After this celebration, we were given the choice of whether we wanted to celebrate the new year’s eve at A-Mei’s concert or a more intimate celebration. Since my friends were excited about A-Mei, I decided to go with them even though I have never heard about her. Before heading to the concert, some of my male friends were invited to perform for Wan Sha Lang, a renown singer, that requested baojiayin (to go caroling). Based from what I understood, the request was sudden and they were lacking the people to perform the ritual with. The custom was basically the males entering the house, singing and chanting for the one that requested it. Sadly, Wan Sha Lang is ill and he wanted to experience baojiayin before passing on. The moment was extremely moving, seeing how the singer was crying out of joy, making everyone present tear up as well. For me, this moment is the most unforgettable part of this entire trip. As we head out to A-mei’s concert in order to celebrate new year’s eve, I was not sure whether I will enjoy it since I do not know anything about her. Surprisingly, I left the venue as a fan. Her songs are really catchy even though I do not understand most part of it, and it didn’t take a long time for me to join the fandom. Her Taiyu songs are the ones I like the most because it is similar to Philippine Hokkien so I understand the lyrics better. The countdown and fireworks were also a fun way of ending the night with great company. It was a spontaneous plan but after the concert, we were told that we can go to the beach in order to watch the first sunrise of the year.

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Beinan Cultural Park (photo by the local guide)

Despite feeling homesick, I started the new year with a positive outlook because of the good experiences that came along the trip. For the third day, the itinerary was less hectic as compared to the previous days. The first stop was going to the Chien-ho community where we witnessed the Swing and Wrestling Competition. Accordingly, there is a huge swing and the goal is to swing the lady sitting on it as high as possible. The wrestling competition was entertaining because the announcer was fooling around with the younger contenders. At the end of the day, the event fostered healthy competition and sportsmanship. For the fourth day, our class departed Nanwang in order to visit the Saksakay Traditional Lands and Kakita’an Ancestral Lands. During this part of the trip, we were able to witness the respect that the indigenous people have for their ancestors. The moment we arrived at the land, the first thing we did was pay respect to their forefathers. A ritual was performed by the local and rice wine was offered. Afterwards, we visited Langasan Theatre where we danced and sung communal songs with the locals in their usual circle formation. The fun part about this was dancing around the bonfire and drinking alcohol that was being passed to us. We also learned more about what the theatre does. Finally, our class heads to Hualien which I was looking forward to since the seniors in my class find the city beautiful.

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Wearing the Ami Traditional costume (photo by the Kuo-Shin Chuang Pangcah Dance Theatre staff)

Finally, the trip is coming to an end as we reach the last day of the tour. Personally, I enjoyed the fifth day the most because the activities were more immersive. We started the day by attending a workshop at TAI Body Theatre. Here, Watan Tusi, the artistic director of TAI, demonstrated how to weave and how he pursued this passion of his, despite the stereotypes of having females weave instead of men. Furthermore, he showed us a mouth piece that he personally carved out of wood which can be utilized as an instrument. With this, I see how the indigenous people take a lot of inspiration from nature because the sound it produces reminded me of a sound that we can hear in the environment. We stayed for lunch and the people there were kind enough to share their meals to us. It is no surprise that drunken chicken soup was served once more. Soon after, we headed to our final destination where Ami Songs and Dances were discussed to us. This was followed by a commendable dance performance. It was interesting to watch because the dancers performed twice and changed costumes that is more suitable to the vibe of the choreography. Afterwards, we were invited to try out the Ami traditional wear. Not only was the experience memorable, but the layers of clothes, the details of the materials, and the symbolisms made us feel as if we are connected to the Amis’ ancestors. This actually inspired me to paint a Kao Ka costume, composed of layers of clothing article, for my final presentation for Critical Ecologies. Aside from this, we were invited to dance with the locals so we formed a circle and danced with them while wearing their traditional costume. It was so fun and definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip. Altogether, I’m glad I took Critical Ecologies because I learned a lot through the readings and the immersive experience that came along with it.