desire for the other

marc augé has said that the discipline of anthropology actually studies “other anthropologies,” that is, the various ways that other groups of people have talked about what it is to be human, including their notion of human similarity and difference. it’s in this regard that the phrase maeden a samaanen, pinangan no finaiyan (what can be done? it’s the way men are), which appears in song lyrics such as those to lu ching-tse’s “sentiments of a fisherman” (盧靜子“海上捕魚的心情”) as well as ordinary conversation, might give us a clue to an ‘amis anthropology that emerged in the context of the far ocean fishing trade

culture or political-economy?

“hey, caraw, you know that ‘amis were the first indigenous people to settle in the city–both here in kaohsiung and in taipei,” said the owner of a small restaurant and beer hall near the fishing harbour in kaohsiung as he brought a couple bottles of taiwan beer to my table

his friend, a presbyterian minister who brought me to come talk with him, agreed. “back then, we were the only indigenous people working in any trade in kaohsiung. first as fishermen, then in construction. paiwan, rukai, bunun–none of them knew how to do any of that work or tried to come to the city until we ‘amis had been here awhile.” i was surprised by their assertion; after all, in the 1960s and 1970s travel between coastal taitung and kaohsiung was difficult. certainly, paiwan, who live in the mountains surrounding kaohsiung, would have more readily traveled to the city

the restaurant owner explained. unlike paiwan or rukai, who have reservation land and thus could remain in their mountain villages, ‘amis lands fell prey to speculation or other forms of alienation, often as the result of foreclosures on loans or family disputes. without land and ready access to the ocean, ‘amis people could only engage in wage labour, usually in the cities. but in addition to the political-economic reason for migration to kaohsiung, the restaurant owner offered a cultural explanation: migration to kaohsiung or work in the far ocean fishing trade fits pinangan no ‘amis. ‘amis men, he says, always desire to wrestle something from the outside, particularly the ocean! his wife adds that ‘amis can work through just about any hardship. and, she says, they have a taste for seafood. now that ‘amis live all about taiwan, they have mapped out all of the good places for gathering urchins or adipit. that some of these places are very distant from coastal taitung and hualien doesn’t matter: “‘amis men cannot stay away from the ocean long.” their conversation reminds me of my friend who worked construction in taipei during his 20s. on the one day a week he could leave the work site, he would head north to places where he could cast nets or dive. eating the fish wasn’t even the point; it was a need to touch the ocean, which he considered too important a part of his being to neglect

desire for the other

if to the restaurant owner and his minister friend political-economy seems to provide a context for the working out of a potential already suggested by ‘amis masculinity, narratives from the far ocean fishing trade reinterpret an explanation of ‘amis enlistment in the far ocean fishing fleet. the men went on their stints on the boats–some as long as three years–because of a lack of money; however, apart from this desire for cash income or concrete houses, the men often frame this need in terms of another desire for cosmopolitan experience

this framing is implicit in narratives about experience on the boats. these narratives might take two forms: first, they might be narratives of hardship and serve as a moral exemplar for young men: and so, the moral of the story is that one should work hard in one’s youth and not be afraid of setbacks and difficulties; second, the narratives focus on encounters, often intimate, with various others

many men who have worked the boats can relate what i will call the “spanish girlfriend” story. in this narrative, the ‘amis man met the daughter of a man who owned a business connected in some fashion to the harbour. the ‘amis youth impressed the businessman for his diligence, and the businessman welcomed the youth’s attentions to his daughter. the daughter wanted to marry. the businessman also hoped that the ‘amis man would stay. however, he had eventually to return to taitung. avoiding a confrontation, he resolved to leave quietly. the night he left, the ‘amis youth left a few thousand u.s. dollars underneath the woman’s pillow

overall, the narrative is formulaic and has an interesting feature apart from its description of a romance: the man is offered marriage in a distinctly ‘amis way; that is, the businessman wants him to “marry in” to the family as an ‘amis man would among ‘amis, who practice matrilineal kinship. yet, it also seems that marriage into the family would have defeated the purpose of travel, which was to bring something valuable back home to taitung. in effect, for the narrative to work, the romance has to be real but also rejected. because the romance is real and rejected, moreover, it can both describe qualities of the other and perform an erotic depiction of masculinity, which confirms men’s desires for outside goods and experiences. this erotic depiction of masculinity reappears in other narratives of encounters with spanish beggars, singaporean transvestites, or south african women

these narratives, which foreground the men as cosmopolitan, are central in this cohort’s sense of ‘amis masculinity, yet activists in taiwanese pan-indigenous movements often disregard these men’s experiences, viewing them largely as exemplars of “culture loss.” indeed, from the vantage of those working on taiwanese indigenous culture, these narratives seem degrading. anthropologists working with taiwanese indigenous people have largely followed suit. but in response, we might ask how these narratives and their underlying anthropology (that is, their description of men as erotic, traveling creatures) might talk back to anthropology: how might anthropology better incorporate other desires for the other (and not just our own, which we often shamefully deny) within the purview of our discipline? what would it mean to examine these desires as part of a contemporary formation of indigeneity?

maybe just to ruffle some feathers, i would argue that the spanish girlfriend story can actually teach us more about indigeneity than any production of the preservationist crowd

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