There are many islands strewn across the Pacific, they withdrew from the world, and hoped never to be found. The footsteps of the Han quietly snuck up upon them however, their persuasive words laced with the rhetoric of modernity and development. From Orchid Island to Yap, what does the trajectory of these footprints tell us?
Islands Spirited Away
Rumung, a name that doesn’t appear on any Chinese maps.
The islanders don’t like outsiders, so Rumung is also nicknamed the Forbidden Island – because outsiders are forbidden to set foot there.
Northwards from the Forbidden Island is Sippin, the Sunken Island. Rumour has it that the islanders were so reluctant to being discovered by foreigners that one hundred years ago, at the beginning of the modern era of world history, they decided to disappear into the watery depths together. To this day, Yap islanders who fish in that area can still hear roosters crowing, dogs barking and human voices. Looking northwards from the Forbidden Island, one can even see smoke from cooking fires rising underneath the low lying clouds.1
They hid themselves for fear of being discovered. Several hundred years ago, the Yap islanders were already proficient enough in the art of illusion, that they were able to conceal the entire island from the Spanish as they explored the Pacific. Compared with Palau, which from the 19th Century onward was to become the headquarters of the German and Japanese Empires for the Pacific region, Yap, “discovered” by the Portuguese as early as the 16th Century, seems, like a pebble, to have skimmed along the surface of world history, watching impassively as the fleets of ships passed by, quietly praying that the outsiders never discovered their island, that they never docked there.
“Field Research” or something like it
After the defence of my thesis proposal, I set out for Yap in Micronesia to carry out my doctoral field research.
Wading through the mud of taro fields there, I often wondered how my classmates carried out their field research? “Observation” seems to be a synonym of “”skiving off”. Apparently French structural anthropologists in the 1970s always carried out field research in small work teams: the botanists would focus on collecting samples, psychologists would employ their erudite techniques to divine the psychology of the native peoples, and the economic anthropologists went about measuring the surface area of the fields and the daily food consumption of the residents and so on. They would stay for no more than three months. After collecting enough samples, they would up sticks and leave.
Of course there was also Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), who anglophone anthropologists look up to as creating a bench mark for field work; if his return journey hadn’t been delayed by the First World War, a paradigmatic approach involving long term individual field work might not have been created, the indigenous people, I fear, would not have been endlessly pestered by the solitary Pole in his gold-rimmed spectacles and the tribal mountain villages of Taiwan would not be brimming with graduate students, naïve or seasoned, dull-witted or passionate, thinking back to the great anthropologists that preceded them over the last hundred years, while struggling to survive in the field.
Nor would the leader of the anti-nuclear campaign, many years later, on an island named Orchid Island by the Han, called the Island of Men by the islanders, have asked me with gravity, ‘As the ethnic group you are researching and that have treated you as one of their own, reach a critical juncture between survival and extinction; how do you deal with the fact that, whether you’re aware of it or not, your research shall be used as a reference for development projects by government agencies or entrepreneurs?’
(The friendly nature of the islanders prevented them from saying ‘Actually we hate you anthropologists above all, above everyone.)
Eight years ago, I was weeding the fields of a little island that locals call the ‘Island of Men’ and that the Han call ‘Orchid Island’. It was for a period of just under six weeks. Every day I would put on sun cream and follow an old couple into the fields, listening to an Mp3 of ‘Country Road’ whilst I weeded. After listening to the melody around forty times on loop I could make my way back home. Or perhaps it was even longer than that? Memory tends to fail me.
One day my father asked me what I was actually getting up to on the Island of Men? I replied truthfully that I was weeding, moving taro, and carrying out interviews.
Due to my father’s swarthy skin, I was never able to read his emotions on his face, but I knew at that instant that his expression had darkened just then.
“If you like working in the fields, I have a one hundred square yard patch of land near our ancestral home in the south, I can give it to you to plant vegetables on.”
“If you like taro so much, you can even plant taro there.”
“Actually, I really quite like taro.” my father would say.
I knew what my father had prevented himself from saying.
I’d already complained to my friend on the island. “My high school classmate is studying English Literature at Cambridge. Why am I here weeding the fields?”
My friend gave a chuckle, probably wondering where Cambridge was. Although he was only three years older than me, my friend still perhaps found it hard to understand the mindset of islanders from mainland Taiwan, just as I, even though I followed in their footsteps everyday as they came back and forth from the fields, found it hard to understand why the old people went to inspect and weed the taro fields and to make sure they were well irrigated, day in, day out – or rather, I only understood it rationally, just as I “knew” that their kinship system was bilineal with patrilineal tendencies. As the old people looked anxiously at the stalks and leaves of the taro plants and the rotten bodies of the taros themselves, inside I was just desperate to clarify the principle on which the social hierarchy was based.
“The taros have gone bad,” one old man said.
“The taro haven’t been good since the nuclear station came.”
Silence. Between my friend and I.
‘It was your own choice, no? You could have studied English Literature too.’ he said.
‘No one asked you to choose to come here to weed the fields of Orchid Island. You can choose not to weed if you want.’
The naïve graduate students like me, who think back to the grandeur of Malinowski while forgetting they are Han, the same Han who devoured the land and the dignity of other ethnic groups like locusts; of course our motives would be questioned on the Island of Men.
Once, in my over eagerness, I wanted to clarify the land ownership records, but I completely forgot about all of the past strife between the Island of Formosa and the Island of Men. How can I trust the Han who took away my dignity, and made me live next to a stockpile of nuclear waste? Even in the guise of a naïve looking Han student? A young man of the Island of Men who was around my age with a look of sincere determination set on his face once told me unsparingly:
“We would never show you the land records. We couldn’t be sure what you would use them for. The land is our life blood. You Han have done too many things on this island of ours. Even if I were to take you on your word, I couldn’t be sure whose hands your research would fall into, and who would take responsibility when it came to down to it? I couldn’t be responsible for that, neither could you.”
That was many years ago, and I still admire him, he was around my own age.
“Perhaps the end of the world is coming.”
Four years ago was my first trip to the Western Pacific to the ancient island of Yap, which means “close to the earth”. That’s what the mother of the family I was staying with told me.
“Fathers commit incest with their daughters. Brothers marry sisters. 13 year old girls get pregnant. Funerals. Funerals. Endless funerals. People die young. Before, Yap islanders could live to the age of ninety or a hundred. Before, we ate taro and fish. Now, Yap islanders eat rice, canned beef, and canned mackerel. We eat lots of oily food. Everyone has become fat. They die in their forties or fifties.”
The mother was a Seventh-day Adventist. However, the idea of the apocalypse is deeply rooted in the heart of each islander, whether they are religious or not.
There was insecurity hanging in the air of spring 2012. At the end of 2011, a group of developers from Sichuan had their sights locked on the island of Yap, and they were touring the island in droves promoting a large tourist development project that would change the face of the island. After agreement from the state legislature and the Council of Pilung (Council of traditional chiefs), ninety per cent of islanders were still against the project, but without any way of knowing how to find out the details of the development project, the majority of their voices gradually sank into silence, despite the fact that it would be the silent majority that would lose their homes, who would leave the taro fields, the forests and their fishing grounds, and would have to move to apartment buildings knocked together for the purpose. Unable to plough the fields, what would the islanders depend upon for their livelihood? Subsidies. Subsidies that would quickly burn a hole in the residents’ pockets.
David and Goliath
“We’re so weak. Our population is so small. The pressure to modernize is so strong. We need to change. But no-one knows what we should become. What’s more, China is a superpower.”
Sitting on the mat in the baking heat of the concrete building, the phone is scorching to the touch. It’s an evening in March, it’s very cold in Taipei. The dusty island without summer or winter is always blisteringly hot. I was talking to an elder from the church on the phone. We talked about the Chinese entrepreneurs who were fixed on the development plan no matter what the setbacks might be. We talked about it for a long while. The receiver was getting hot. There was sweat dripping from the lobe of my ears, forcing me to switch ears every now and then.
“Our culture no longer fits the context of reality. It’s extremely lacking in modernity. It’s destined to be eliminated by the shifting times.” I listened. I thought back to the prediction my language teacher had made to me. The elder’s tone of voice was calm, warm and deep. It was just like that of the dusty islanders, never revealing his underlying emotions.
“No. The war is just starting. The investments are too great. There are just too many factors involved. No matter what part of island life you talk about, the consequences of large scale tourism would be dire, not something that this island could cope with. Moreover, if more and more people are thinking the same thing, the situation will take a turn for the better, the majority of people can push in the direction that they want to see Yap develop towards.” The youthful exuberance and urgency was ever present in my voice back then, like the surface of a turbulent sea.
The Seventh-day Adventist elder, accustomed to using the bible to explain everything (sometimes I suspected that they’d learned the entire bible off by heart) smiled faintly. Like most Yap islanders past their fifties, he was quite soft spoken: “It’s like the story of David and Goliath.”2
In the summer of 2012, the Chinese Jiaolong manned submersible reached over seven thousand metres deep into the Mariana Trench, a feat which garnered much praise and excitement amongst mainland Chinese. Towards the end of June, the success of the Shenzhou 9 manned space mission, the first manned space flight to successfully dock with the Tiangong 1 space station, and the success of the Jiaolong manned submersible, seemed to be spurring each other on and wishing each other well from the bottom of the oceans to the far reaches of space. This news, however, hadn’t made great waves in Micronesia. The Yap islanders were of the opinion that, with ninety per cent of the population against the Chinese developers, the Exhibition & Travel Group, the project wouldn’t get off the ground. The reality of the situation was, however, that the senior officials and some of the chiefs, disregarding the opposition from the majority of the people they represented, were determined to participate in the drawing up of the tourism development project, even resorting to excluding the legislature from negotiations as it had expressed its dissent from the very start. At the beginning of August, the chairman of the tourism development project was preparing to fly to Yap, with the intention of signing a development agreement with the state government. The legislature, which from the very beginning had expressed its doubts about the scale, legitimacy and legality of the project, after being excluded from negotiations, expressed its rage: “How can one be rational, when one has fallen into a swamp full of crocodiles?”
China wouldn’t give up. I realized deep down. Even if the majority of the islanders had doubts, or were against it, even if they got together to protest.
Because Yap is the closest patch of land to the Mariana Trench.
Rumung, the Forbidden Island.
North of Rumung, the Forbidden Island, is the Sunken Island, which is called Sippin.
To this day the islanders from the dusty island can still hear the sounds of roosters crowing and dogs barking, and catch glimpses of the smoke from cooking fires. The island is temporarily hiding itself because it doesn’t want people to discover it.
The islanders of the Forbidden Island don’t like visits from outsiders; although they once graciously consented to let an American anthropologist, David Schneider, to set up camp there for one year.
From 1946 to 1947, around the time period that my father was born, Schneider followed a small team of biologists and psychologists to the Dusty Island. He chose to head for the northernmost island, which later became known as the Forbidden Island, Rumung. The chief of the northern island made a decision, allowing him to set up camp in the village with the highest status, called Faal. There, Schneider took notes on his typewriter almost compulsively, recording the complicated kinship relations of the Dusty Island.
One year later, Schneider brought a pile of papers back home with him. The kinship system that he recorded on that pile of papers still remains somewhat of an enigma, as it doesn’t easily fit into any of the known patrilineal or matrilineal kinship systems.
Researchers have opined that as Schneider was determined to get close to the lowest stratum of local people, his arrival coincided with the withdrawal of the handover of colonial power – the Japanese had just left, and the American navy were on the point of arrival, Schneider, as a Jew from New York, however strictly he adhered to the anthropological notion of political neutrality and how he tried his best to distance himself from the neo-colonial regime – specifically choosing kinship as his research topic, which at the time was a field of social science that didn’t involve politics. However, unavoidably, Schneider’s identity, just like the colour of his skin, decided the way he viewed things. This standpoint would tinge everything he saw, even it wasn’t a standpoint he chose for himself.
What was more crucial was that in many Austronesian societies, “kinship” is “politics,” just as religion is politics.
(Why had I left my home to come to this little island in the Pacific?)
(To see the blindness of my own culture, to see the flaws in my own vision; as the Gospel of Matthew says:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
(To see how the Han seized the land of others, put nuclear waste there, and trampled over the dignity of another people, they’ve planted hate and pain in the hearts of non-Han peoples. Which we should be able to look at with the utmost severity.)
From Formosa, the “beautiful” island, we moved east to the Island of Men, Orchid Island, then we moved still further east to Micronesia and the Island of Dust, Yap. The ignorance and the invasive nature of the Han, from 1970 to 2012, is like layer upon layer of refracting lenses. The only difference was that Orchid Island was faced with the Taiwanese, who at that time had no idea of what respect for other ethnic groups was. In the case of Yap, however, what they are faced with is a reconfiguration of power in the Western Pacific under the guise of a large tourism development project.
Perhaps, the residents of the Sunken Island were discussing the future of their island right now at the bottom of the sea. This time, the islanders of the Forbidden Island, and those on Yap Island with its name which means “close to the earth,” would no longer be able to duck and dive out of the eyesight of the group of tourism developers.
(Let us pray. The elder from the church said.)
(Let us pray that the the capitalists won’t trample all over this island as if it were an uninhabited territory.)
In 1946 and 1947, the American anthropologist David Schneider carried out his fieldwork in Rumung, in the north of Yap. One year later, Schneider brought a great pile of paper records about the kinship titles of Yap home with him. Schneider, who had originally been researching the dreams of Australian aborigines, after publishing several papers about his research into the kinship system of the dusty island, gradually came to understand that Western theories of kinship based on blood relations were not easily applied to the conception of “kin” or “kinship” held by non-Western peoples; the idea of basing kinship on blood relationships, was undoubtedly an European-American ethnocentric assumption. In the end, Schneider became a famous scholar in the field of cultural anthropology for his book American Kinship.
1Yap belongs to the Federated Stated of Micronesia, it is constituted by four continental islands. The territory of Yap State includes sixty six reef islands stretching out six hundred nautical miles east of the island. Rumung is north of Yap, it’s also called ‘the Forbidden Island’; Sippin is north of Rumung again, it has already sunk beneath the water, in the essay it’s referred to as ‘the sunken island.’
2Samuel 17 tells the story of how the Israelites and the Philistines were at battle, everyone feared the Philistine warrior Goliath; only the young David was unthreatened, with his unfailing faith, he used a stone to defeat Goliath.
Huang Yuqian (黃郁茜) graduated from the Anthropology department of National Taiwan University, and is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Virgina. She is now on Yap Island in Micronesia, pursuing her doctoral field research.
Photo by Cherrie 美桜