Sunday, July 06, 2003

written in early 2000

It's strange. Accidental death in Wulai never comes singly. The people of the tribe die in sets, usually of three.

Half a month go, Wei was down in the hot springs drinking, which was stupid. Then he decided to jump into the stream to swim, which was even stupider. They found his body a hundred paces downstream.

Eban's brother-in-law was the next. His liver suddenly gave out on him.

Then on Sunday, Dhuy's wife was riding her motorcycle back from the waterfall, holding an umbrella in the twilight rain. Maybe some careless driver sideswiped her without ever knowing about it. Maybe she dodged something and lost her balance. Nobody knows what happened, but she was found where she had crashed her motorcycle, in the bushes outside Wei's place. She was 33, and left three kids.

The Tayal word for ‘wake’ is srahaw, meaning comfort. The tribe place great importance on wakes. We gather together to comfort the dead on their voyage away from us, across the rainbow where they will live with the ancestors and other spirits; we gather together to say goodbye to them, and remember them; we gather together to comfort each other.

When I finished teaching on Tuesday night, I caught the last bus home from Taipei, as usual. On the way home, I was debating whether or not to go to the wake. I had been talking with Ping and lost track of the time, so I didn't have time for dinner, and I was pretty hungry. I asked Hatoq, the bus driver, when the funeral would be.

“I don't know either, but I think you ought to go tonight. What if the funeral is tomorrow?”

“Yeah, that wouldn't do. But she's a Paiwan. Have her relatives come yet?”

“True. But I still think it would be better to go tonight.”

I got off the bus at the bridge and started walking home. About half way up the mountain, I heard a car coming. Yagi, another bus driver, had parked his bus and was coming home. He honked. I got in his car.

“Are you going to the wake?”

“I'm not sure. I have to start my bus at 7 tomorrow morning, and it's almost midnight now.”

“Let's go together. That way we won't have to stay the whole night. I'm beat.”

We drove up into the Tribe. There were about thirty people there under the tree outside Dhuy's house, men on one side, women on the other. I hadn't prepared a white envelope, and they didn't have a spare, so I wrapped my offering in a piece of white tissue paper and wrote my Tayal name on it: Yugan Dali. Yagi and I went in to pay our respects to the coffin. I recited a mantra, Yagi prayed in a loud voice. Dhuy and Takyu, his father, thanked us for coming, and invited us to sit outside. Dhuy slouched wordlessly as Payes and I tried to cheer him up.

Dhuy wandered off. My Tayal is not very good yet, so I use mostly Mandarin, but the aborigines are happy I'm trying to learn their language, and they're very patient with me.

After about thirty minutes, someone came out and said, “We'll be serving noodles in a few minutes, since everyone must be hungry.” I thought this would be a good time for me to slip off, when a lady came out of the kitchen with a special bowl of noodles for me: “This one's for Yugan, it's vegetarian.”

Dhuy's mother made sure. “You didn't put any meat in it?”

Thanking them silently for their thoughtfulness, I started working on the noodles. When Yagi had finished his second bowl, he called me. “Yugan! It's time for us to leave.”

I went to Dhuy and told him we were leaving. Then I walked over to where Takyu was sitting with a circle of friends. His eyes were still red. “Mama (Uncle),” I said, “Yagi and I have to leave now.”

He stood up and clasped my hand. Turning to the circle, he said, “One time at the Chief's house, Qalux told Yugan, 'Mama's name is Takyu.’ A few days later, Yugan came to me and said, ‘Mama, Mama, sayux balay (I'm very sorry), I've forgotten your name.’ I told him, ‘Takyu.’ Yugan said, ‘That's right, I kept thinking it was Takuy (trip and fall), but I knew that couldn't be right.’” The circle burst out laughing. I said, “Mama Takyu, laxi takuy!” They loved that: laxi takuy means “Don't fall down.” It's something they say mockingly to someone going off into the mountains. As if a Tayal would fall down in the mountains!

Mama Takyu still had a firm grip on my hand. “Yugan! I'm going to give you a test. You have to tell us the Tayal names of all the places from Wulai to Hsinhsien before you may leave. You have to use the aborigine names. No Chinese names.”

“Starting from Tbaqsiso?”

“That's right.”

“From Tbaqsiso, the next place upstream is Punko.”

“What's after Punko?” Everybody listened expectantly.


They all clamored, “You left out Seruyen!”

“Seruyen? Where's that?”

Takyu looked abashed. “I forgot to teach you that one. That's the curve in the stream, where Pira lives. My fault!”

“Okay, Seruyen, and then Tagi.”

“What's after Tagi?”


“What's after Sakenten?”


“What's after Bhlin?”

“Hongu Qalux, and then you're in Rahaw.” Rahaw is the aborigine name for Hsinhsien, and by then they were all smiling broadly, and Takyu sent us off victoriously.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

written in 2001
We Remember Okaw

Okaw, a fine man in his thirties, finally succumbed after a three year battle with nasal cancer. He knew the end was coming, and faced it with courage and stability.

The tribe gathered at his house to mourn his passing. A wake is a time to comfort those who have left us, to tell old tales, to settle old accounts, to build new ties.

I got there late at night, near midnight. Qalux, Hiya, Evan, Tokan, Masa, all the friends he had grown up with were there. After I had told a mantra over the coffin, I took up a seat under the tree by the fire.

“Do you remember that time last year when those flatland hoodlums were giving Basang a hard time?

“Okaw, Qesa, and some other Tayal came out to be peacemakers, but the hoods shouted louder and louder. Finally, one of them reached into the car for a knife and started slashing. Qesa tried to keep him off Basang, and got part of his ear cut off. That made him mad.

“He went into his house and a few moments later came out with his shotgun. All the flatland hoods jumped into their car as quick as a squirrel running up a tree, and vroom! they left Wulai in a big hurry!”

Everybody laughed at the memory. “Then Qesa said, ‘What are they afraid of? I haven't even loaded the thing yet!’” Louder laughter. The Tayal remember that their grandparents were headhunters who terrorized the Japanese Imperial Army during the Japanese Occupation. Now, under Taiwan's stringent gun control, only police, army, and aborigine hunters are permitted to have firearms. Aborigines are proud of this right, and proud hunters.

Koras took a sip from his drink and glared at Halus. “And what is this I hear about a lawsuit?”

Halus explained that he felt Tasiy had infringed on his property when he built his new house.

Koras took another sip and looked into the fire. “You think this has to be dealt with in court? Are we not all Tayal? Why do you bring the Chinese into our dealings? What respect do they have for our gaga (tribal traditions)?”

Masa said, “Leave your lawyers alone. We will settle this.”

Halus said that would be best. Tahuy turned on Hiya with a sneer. “So Hiya who I grew up with is not a Tayal anymore, is that right? You are a Minnan now, are you?”

Hiya blanched. “Why do you say that?” The Minnan refer to those flatland, or Han, Chinese who call themselves “Taiwanese.” Aborigines find this insulting, considering themselves to be the true Taiwanese. Among Aborigines, being called a Minnan person is a serious insult.

“Because I have ears. People talk about what you said the other day. ‘Those Tayal,’ that is what you said. ‘Those Tayal.’ Not ‘we Tayal,’ but ‘those’ Tayal. So now you are Hiya the Minnan.”

Hiya's forehead was shiny with sweat. “If I said such a thing, that was my mistake. I am very sorry for that. Of course I know it's ‘we Tayal.’ Here, let me toast all of you as an apology.” He lifted his glass with both hands and bowed as he drank. We all returned his toast. Apology accepted, air cleared.

Guang staggered in out of the darkness, more than half drunk. He is respected because he is the Chief's grandson, but generally regarded as a ne'er-do-well. “Guang, you're getting drafted in a few weeks, isn't that so?”

“That is so.”

“I bet they'll be happy up in Beijing. ‘Look at these soldiers! We can finally take Taiwan back!’” Guang joined in the laughter, and threw himself on a cot to sleep.

Qalux grasped me by the shoulder. “Yugan! Let me introduce to you Tokan, my great friend, a fine man, who I grew up with, a brother to me, isn't that right, Tokan?”

“Balay (true). We have always been great friends, like brothers.”

“Yugan doesn't drink, so he will toast you with tea, and I will toast you with beer.”

“Well, I am not quite so sure I want to be toasted by someone like you.”

“You are too high and mighty to be toasted by the likes of me?”

“I am certainly not so high and mighty, but I am also not as low as you.”

Qalux growled into his drink, “I never thought I would hear Tokan speaking to me like he wants to fight.”

Tokan growled into his drink, “I never thought I would hear anyone say that Qalux betrayed a friend.”

“Qalux betray a friend?” He lifted his head and glared at Tokan. The circle was tense and silent. I was getting ready to turn over the table. Tokan continued to examine his beer. “Last month I heard Patu say you chased him out of your house.”

Qalux relaxed. “Patu? You are telling me you don't know what a nuisance Patu is when he has been drinking? What am I to do, with my newborn Qosun asleep, and Patu comes late at night, busuq balay (very drunk), to sing and to dance?”

Tokan pondered that wordlessly. He still did not lift his head. Qalux poured salt into his beer. “Come, my dear friend Tokan, join me in a drink.”

“I'm still not sure if I want to drink with the likes of you.”

“Well then, I will drink by myself.” Qalux poured off his drink, and I got ready to turn over the table again. “If you do not choose to accept my toast because of some drunken words of Patu Gwagun (the Drunkard), I will drink it by myself, and you can go die.”

In quiet, measured tones, Halus said, “Patu Gwagun can be a nuisance, especially when you've got kids to consider.”

Koras took a long sip and told his glass, “Patu lost his job because of drinking. What are you to do, with kids in the house?”

Tokan loosened up. “Balay.” He looked at Qalux. “You had the kids to consider. You just can't have Patu singing and dancing all night long when Qosun's brother and sister have to go to school in the morning.”

Koras nodded and poured new drinks for both the men. “Qalux, have a drink,” Tokan said, lifting his glass.

Masa turned to me. “Yugan, those are beautiful dogs you have. What kind are they?”

“Mostly Dalmatian, you know, like the ‘101 Loyal Dogs’?”

“Are they purebred? Tlahuy doesn't look much like one,” Hiya asked.

“No, they are seven parts Dalmatian, and one part Aborigine Mountain Dog.”

“No wonder they are so smart and lively,” Tokan beamed. Aborigines love dogs and are expert breeders.

“They run beautifully.”

“You should see them swim in the stream,” I said proudly. “They can swim across the current at Punko, where most Han can't cross, not even adults.”

“They must be wonderful hunting dogs,” Behuy said. “They are light and fast, and very powerful. Do you take them hunting often?”

Evan said, “Yugan is a vegetarian. Vegetarians don't hunt.”

“Well, that's too bad. Yugan, it's too bad you don't hunt.”

Mama (Uncle) Losin joined in. “Yugan, it is too bad you don't hunt. You would be a great hunter. You move through the mountains so silently and so quickly, you could bag more boars than anyone. It is too bad you don't hunt.”

“Yes, Yugan moves across the mountains so quickly I cannot keep up,” joined in Halus.

“You would be a great hunter. It is too bad you are a vegetarian,” Tokan said. The circle nodded, and brooded over this odd twist of fate.

It was close to two by then, so after a toast all around, I shouldered my pack and headed up the road for home. It was only later that I realized what a great compliment I had been paid.