looking like a foreigner

How might we see concrete houses as something other than ruins, as haunted by something other than settler projects?


I suggest that we juxtapose the haunting image of the mother waiting amid the beautiful ruins of her village for the return of children with the equally haunting image of one of my age mates, who went on the boats to Guam and the Marshall Islands in the mid-1980s: “When I returned from my time on the boats,” he told me, “I looked just like a foreigner.”

We are sitting in the family compound shared by a row of four solafo, enjoying a relatively cool evening after a day of work. “Amigo, have a beer,” my age mate’s uncle turns to me to say, reminding me that he learned Spanish on Las Palmas back in the 1970s. His Spanish calls to mind a photograph of him on the beach decked out in white bellbottoms and a flowery shirt, hair long from months on the boat without a haircut. “My hair has those natural waves, no perm,” he was quick to point out. The photograph sat beside other photographs of work on the boats, the men all in matching, tiny red shorts; studio portraits in port; a family photograph from which he was absent, in front of the old house his fishing money would later replace. Amigo, my friend bebamos. My age mate shares the family compound with this faki. He adds to the faki’s performance of an embodied connection to other spaces:

When I came back from Taiwan, you see,” he tells me, “I looked like a foreigner. The immigration people took a second look at my passport, told me to cut my hair. I looked like a foreigner–long curly hair, bleached red by the sun. I was in really good shape then from work on the boats. I didn’t look Chinese.

In the image from “My Mother’s Name is Melancholy,” indigenous people are trapped between the demolished past and their failures to be modern, the loma’ empty because the mother has sold her children. Concrete houses can serve as neither an ethical nor affective nexus in this image, because all movement in this image can only appear as alienation. The second image does not permit any simple reading. There is, indeed, something alienating about “looking like a foreigner,” but also a possibility, an imagination that the three-year sojourn on the boats might offer in its uncanny transformations into something other than normative “Chinese” looks, a means to assert indigeneity within an expansive context–a shift beyond the trope (and trap) of waiting in ruins.

Looking like a foreigner embodies a cosmopolitan stance articulated in relationship if not in opposition to prevailing discrimination against indigenous people as “savages” and official discourses of “mountain people” needing assistance to reach full Chinese citizenship. If trying to pass as “Chinese” marks indigenous bodies as necessarily failed, “looking like a foreigner” produces the indigenous male working body as valuable, operating at a scale more expansive than Chineseness. This value of looking like a foreigner still coheres 30 years after my age mate’s time on the boats.

Yet it is unexpected and a bit embarrassing: should indigenous people take pleasure in looking like a foreigner?


houses and the reworking of kinship

CiPutal’s foreign look might be compared with the more enduring product of far ocean fishing, solafo, steel-rebar reinforced concrete structures. The name solafo, an ‘Amis rendering of a Japanese borrowing of the English “slab,” bears traces of the networks through which these houses came to the niyaro’–as do many words pertaining to their construction. These terms contrast with the nomenclature surrounding the construction of traditional thatch structures. Nonetheless, both solafo and thatch houses are loma’, houses, meaning both an architectural body (patirengan) and a kinship unit. Upon close examination, they reveal figures like that of ciIway’s “looking like a foreigner” as a way of being ‘Amis.

Although the houses stand as testimonies to years spent in fishing labour, very few of the men who worked on the boats participated actively in constructing them. Women–mothers, sisters, and wives–managed the household allowances and shares of profits disbursed by the companies, sometimes playing rotating credit associations but generally saving money in the farmers’ association or Catholic Church run credit co-operative. Women hired the contractors and had a hand in the design of the houses. The contractors were often relatives of the women, ‘Amis men who were among the first to learn building trades in Taipei or at vocational schools.

So women were the ones who built and managed the houses, often mothers building the houses into which daughters in law would marry, ending virilocal residence. ‘Amis kinship would thus shift but retain a kind of matrifocal resonance

settler arrogation of kinship? a successful mimesis

In ‘Atolan as in other Coastal ‘Amis communities, both men and women describe uxorilocal residence in terms of the relationship between gender and subsistence agriculture. In the past, when ‘Amis all farmed for a living, women held all real property. Men and women had been conscripted for wage labor during the Japanese colonial period, constructing transportation infrastructure and irrigation systems. However, this work was considered supplemental to work on the land. Women owned houses and fields, generally in large family holdings requiring much labor. In this time “before ‘Amis had money” men married into the women’s family. Men’s incomes from wage labor, goes the typical narrative, let men convince women to marry into their family. Men’s mothers seem to have played a major role in this transformation, managing far ocean fishing money and building the houses into which the women would marry. This narrative suggests that people perceive loma’ as a peculiar ethical nexus tied to the cash economy, labor migration, and other relationships with settler society. And yet, when asked about what it means to be ‘Amis, they will–without recourse to the past tense–say, “well, we ‘Amis are matrilineal.”

what does that mean, however, now that household registration information shows children carrying their fathers’ surnames, in villages that look just like any other Taiwanese–that is to say, settler–community, at least on the surface? What are we to make of this successful mimesis of settler form? how does it connect with ‘Amis projects of expansive survivance?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *