Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pasta'ai 2010

Yesterday we went up to our 2nd Pasta'ai - a festival held by the Saisiyat tribe of Taiwanese aborigines. The festival is held in two locations: "North Side" in Da'ai Village, Wufeng Township, Xinzhu County, and the other in Nanzhuang, Miaoli County.

While the event in Nanzhuang is more accessible for those without private transportation, we always make the effort to go to Wufeng as, being harder to get to and less well-known (most people assume we're going to Nanzhuang until we tell them otherwise), it's almost certainly less touristy.

My first post incorrectly stated that it was held in the "Jhu Family Village" - it's near that village, but actually in Da'ai village (大隘), about an hour or less from Zhudong, and maybe an hour and a half from HSR Xinzhu Station.

Last year, we met the owner of our homestay, Ah-Q Mama, in Zhudong and drove up with her. Her husband does all the driving. This year, her husband was laid up with recovery from surgery and they were unable to help us get to Wufeng. As we've been doing recently whenever we want to go somewhere, we've been lucky enough to have friends with Taiwanese or international licenses who are also eager to go (not that we invite them because they have licenses - we've been fortunate that they've been happy to drive). So this time, we took the wonderful HSR down and rented a car at CarPlus.

Before leaving we got directions from the tourist info desk at Taipei Main Station, and I printed out a series of maps from Google between the HSR and the site, as well as the site and the homestay.

We got a little lost in Zhudong, but not anything too serious. The drive up was pleasant, as Eduardo, our friend behind the wheel, is a conscientious driver who, being Venezuelan, is used to crazy traffic. His skills are equal to that of our friends Emily and Drew, though he's less aggressive on the road and isn't one for high speeds. The road up from Zhudong is narrow and windy, but not very high up.

There seemed to be more attempts at tourism to Wufeng this time - fabric flags lined the road up from Zhudong with "PaSta'ay" written in Papyrus font.

We arrived just after dark and parked next to a "house" that people apparently lived in, despite it not having a roof. Oookaaay...all in all parking seemed to be much more difficult to come by this year, and we had to drive quite a ways from the site before we found a suitable spot. Maybe it was just as bad two years ago, but we weren't driving ourselves so we didn't notice.

Before we could even get into the building where spirit-protecting grass is tied around your head or arm as well as all cameras, a group of dancers and torch-bearers came out of the main site, singing a chant-like melody.

First the torch-bearers came through..

Then a line of dancers, some with back accoutrements with beads and metal chimes, came out, moving and chanting in unison.

I covered the origins of this festival in my post two years ago by linking to an online site on the Pasta'ai - you can read it here if you are interested. Basically, a long time ago there was (or may have been) a tribe of dark-skinned pygmies called the Ta'ai living near the Saisiyat. The two groups were intially friendly, but after some time, the pygmies began taking the Saisiyat women for reasons you can guess at, as well as stealing food. The Saisiyat attacked and killed the Ta'ai...but it turns out the Ta'ai knew sorcery and cursed the Saisiyat, who now have to hold the Pasta'ai as an offering at the end of the harvest season to atone for the massacre.

Anthropologists agree that the Ta'ai may well have been a real tribe in ancient Taiwan, and that the Saisiyat may well have killed them. Clearly they were not magical beings as the Saisiyat legend claims, but there is quite likely a historical basis for the story.

I asked a local if the designs had any special meaning: she said they did not, just anything the owners found aesthetically pleasing. Buddhist swastikas (a Buddhist symbol before it was a Nazi one), curved mirrors and embroideries of surnames are common design elements.

Making the chimes tingle in unison looks very painful for one's backside. Tired dancers with chime plates could often be found sitting gingerly with the audience while on break.

Then we entered the sacred grass-tying area.

...and waited in line with tourists and Saisiyat people alike. This year we saw more children than last time in traditional costume and encouraged to participate in their tribe's customs. We also saw more foreigners than two years ago - apparently a foreigner who married into the tribe sent out a large Facebook invitation and many people did end up coming. How they get to Wufeng, I have no idea.

Then we all got our sacred grass...

...and watched the festival from above the main area for awhile. As you can see, the dancers go in an arc or circle, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. When they go quickly, they often rush to the middle and chant excitedly before fanning out again. The dancers themselves don't seem to know what they're doing - I learned from one participant that any Saisiyat in traditional clothing can join, not just experienced or trained dancers (the chanters and people with chimes on their back plates clearly know what they are doing however - and the chime beaters dance separately from the main group).

The facilitators in yellow vests clearly knew how it was all supposed to work and were guiding the dancers, many more of whom were young Saisiyat children this year.

Before heading to the main area, we went to the row of food stalls nearby to get dinner. We started with a traditional Saisiyat dish...

Ah, nothing like old fashioned aboriginal food!

...of grilled muaji (rice gluten) covered in chocolate and rainbow sprinkles. (I was being sarcastic about the "traditional" bit).

Then we got our main dinner of mountain pig, cabbage and "rice wine chicken soup", which was so potent with rice wine that I'm pretty sure it had more alcohol in it than broth. As Joseph said, "it's like eating a bottle of vodka". I liked it, but none of us could finish it.

This year the rules about taking photos of the front of the dancers (thereby standing in front of them in what I had thought was a "sacred area") were relaxed.

I also noticed an investment in Christmas lights to decorate around the area (look above the heads of the dancers).

The dancing and chanting is to call forth the spirits of the Ta'ai, and appease them. The big tinsel and light-up things are made by different families - each family makes one. One woman told me that usually, the children will help decorate it, so as to teach them about their culture and heritage. I couldn't determine any pattern for the holders of these giant talismans, though they did dance and did seem to somewhat follow the arc of dancers. When the dancers would rush to the middle and excitedly chant, these were always in the very middle.

I was told that the semi-conical shape was...well, I couldn't really understand the woman clearly but either to bring the Ta'ai spirits down like water through a funnel, or to broadcast the families' participation to the Ta'ai, like a reverse satellite dish or suntanning mirror. It had something to do with calling souls. Note the sacred grass affixed to the top of each.

This was the friendly woman who answered my various questions about the event details to the best of her ability and to the best of my limited understanding.

Another view of the conical things.

By about 9pm, people were starting to get seriously wasted on traditional millet wine. As it was with the last Pasta'ai, you don't just buy and drink your own millet brew. You buy some, share it with others, and get glasses of others in return. We tried to minimize this, or at least sniff what we were about to drink this year, but it can't be helped to some extent. The two non-drinkers among us managed to actually not drink, though - which surprised me. It was impossible to avoid two years ago by the time 10pm rolled around. Forget teetotalling. By 9:30 we had plenty of new 酒肉朋友 (drinking buddies).

Who's this guy? No idea. He invited us to cone stay with him in Zhudong, though, and treated us to much of his millet wine - which had an aftertaste redolent of gasoline.

Some random people dressed up Brendan and Eduardo in traditional clothing - I had a touch of grease from *something* on my lens but still wanted to post these.

This year, the participation rules were also relaxed, probably in another attempt to promote tourism. Last year you could not participate until midnight. This year, you could join the dancers at 10pm.

With an election looming, even though Xinzhu isn't an election hotspot this time around, we expected a bigger showing of politicians. A few members of the DPP showed up, looking...well, like quintessential members of the DPP.

As usual, there was a not-too-quiet place for exhausted dancers to rest.

This guy'd been drinking for awhile.

Loving the Christmas lights.

Plenty of traditional aboriginal food was on offer - including these roasted birds (tiny quail? Pigeons? We had pigeon in Egypt and this tasted different.) They cut it up for you so it's easy to eat, but I'd forgotten that they give you the head with everything else. Before I knew what it was, I'd bitten into the brain. EWWWWW. I am pretty openminded about food, but I do not do innards or brain. I chucked it at a pile of accumulating garbage, missed and hit some poor woman's coat.


What happens at Pasta'ai stays at Pasta'ai is all I can say.

We also got some amazing sweet potato fries and one drunk guy gave us stinky tofu (YUM!) and onion pancakes.

More dancing above, and a detail shot of the conical family talisman things below. The carrier had been hitting the betel nut pretty hard. Along with millet wine, buckets of energy drink in brown bottles and betel nuts were for sale everywhere.

So, at 10pm we all started dancing - not that we knew how. Last time, women would come around with wooden buckets of millet wine and ladle it into your mouth as you danced. This year that was not so common, and they had plastic pitchers of wine with shot glasses for dancers - but there was less going around. Boo.

On the upside, I didn't get heinously drunk this year (yes, I know my family reads this thing, but I gotta be honest. I got really drunk last year. It's an aboriginal festival - you can't not get drunk the first time or, for that matter, any time). Fortunately the homestay owners were not drinking and could make sure we all got back safely. It was the worst hangover I've ever had - you don't want to know the full story about the next morning. Let's just say that when the worst of it hit, only my sister was awake to hear it, and she'll never think of me the same way again.

But that was last year - when I would drink whatever was offered without making sure it wasn't, you know, grain alcohol, paint thinner, energy drink and Coca-cola mixed together...or maybe not that but not tasting much different from what I imagine that would taste like.

This year I kept my head on a little better - partly because I didn't want to feel half-dead today (I'm writing this the next day even!) and partly because we didn't have Ah-Q Mama to get us home safely. I had to help Eduardo navigate, though Mark (another friend who came with us) had biked the route and took over for me.

At one point while I was dancing, though, someone gave millet wine to Mark, Joseph and Brendan, who all surreptitiously threw most of it out as it was "not fit for human consumption" according to Brendan.

I felt bad for the woman walking around selling it from a basket on her back. She was selling it for cheaper than the stands, and clearly making money for her family, but we had some from another spectator who bought it, and it really did have a gasoline-y aftertaste. Ew.


We stayed and danced until about 3am before walking back to the car, after which time the eminently sober Eduardo drove us to Ah-Q Mama's with Mark's help (as Mark had biked there earlier and knew the way).

I recommend Ah-Q's homestay, "A-mue", as highly as I did last year. With a delicious homemade breakfast, great view, friendly owners, warm blankets, adorable pets and rustic setting not far from Guanwu (entrance to a national park), the residence of Zhang Xueliang, Dabajianshan and the Pasta'ai, it's a great spot for a rest if you have your own transport.

We got there at 4am - they'd left the rooms open for us - and collapsed into bed.

I awoke at 7am with a headache, took some Panadol and slept again until about 10 or 11. The coterie of dogs from two years ago was nowhere to be seen, but in their place, they had a pile of kittens.

O.M.G. 好可愛喔!! How cute is this pile of adorableness?

Pretty darned cute.

They pretended to like Brendan because they were hoping he'd open the door to the kitchen area for them. We visited for a bit, drank tea, ate breakfast, enjoyed the view, played with the kittens and puppy, and they reminded me of how ridiculously hungover I had been last time. (Also, apparently they understand my Chinese now.)

The view from Ah-Q Mama's.

Because we don't know if or when we'll be back in that area or when we'll have our own transportation, we had a look a few kilometers down the road to the former residence of Zhang Xueliang who you can read about on Wikipedia. Pretty nice place to live out your days under house arrest...

...and anyone who managed to kidnap Chiang Kai-shek is someone I can't dislike too much, even if the Mainlanders think he's a hero.

The entire experience left me with four lasting thoughts:

1.) That picture of the nice older lady I posted above? She speaks fluent Saisiyat and Chinese, but surrounding her were her children and grandchildren (of which she had many). Not one of her grandchildren could speak the Saisiyat language, despite being in touch with their culture enough to participate in the Pasta'ai. The Saisiyat are not even the tiniest or most assimilated of the aboriginal tribes - if their own language is dying out to the extent that grandchildren cannot speak their grandparents' mother tongues, then this does not bode well for the future of aboriginal languages in general (which are commonly recognized to be dying out at an alarming rate).

On the other hand, it's fascinating to head up through these villages and realize that you aren't hearing even one word of Chinese or a Chinese-related language spoken. There are still more native speakers of Atayal, Saisiyat etc. who use it on a daily basis than one would expect.

2.) Every once in awhile I get a thought in my head that goes something like this: "What are you doing spending so much time and money traveling instead of saving, buying a home and working on a career? Haven't you noticed that people are people no matter where you go, that travel is a luxury that, when you're done with it, leaves you with no material gain? Anyway, haven't you traveled enough?" Experiences like the Pasta'ai remind me that no, people are not the same everywhere you go, and that while there may be no material gain to travel, there's a lot of gain in terms of cultural exposure, wisdom and knowledge of the world. I'm not one of those people who travels without trying to learn (and retain) something about the history, politics, economy, language and culture of a place or event - so I inevitably come away with new pieces of firsthand knowledge.

Sure, I could read about Taiwan in a book - it's pretty clear that many policymakers in the US State Department do just that. (Officers travel abroad, learn languages and have a wide scope of global knowledge, but I've noticed that actual policymakers and those who influence decision-making...well...don't - even representatives posted to the countries they're dealing with). If I had "stayed home", built a career and had a more settled life in the country of my birth, sure, I could read, watch TV shows, see movies and learn online about different people in different parts of the world, but I wouldn't really know anything tangible about them, and I would completely miss out on things like Pasta'ai. How many newspaper articles, websites, TV shows and school textbooks on Taiwan mention aborigines, let alone the Saisiyat, not to mention their festivals or really any pertinent information about them? Most people don't even know that Taiwan has aborigines to begin with.

And that right there is valuable, and it's one of the main reasons, if not the #1 reason, why I continue to travel even as pressure increases to settle down.

3.) Ten minutes at a festival like this will show any nay-sayers, fence-sitters and ignoramuses who get their opinions from scant news articles rather than real world experience to what very great extent Taiwan is not a part of China. How could anyone claim that a country with a rich mixture of heritages, which includes but is not summed up by Chinese culture? This is not only not Chinese, this is something you will never see in China, something that has never had anything to do with China. Something created and continued by people who are not ethnically Chinese and hail from an entirely different cultural tradition than anything East Asia could offer, let alone China. It's unique to Taiwan, and showcases how Taiwan is unique. And, if you'll allow me to expand on that, showcases how much a unique place like Taiwan deserves to be recognized as the self-governing nation and cultural unit that it is.

Though I would not judge anyone who says that Taiwanese culture is strongly influenced by Chinese culture, and much of it originated there, I stop short at accepting that the entirety of Taiwanese culture was imported from China. As you can clearly see here, it was not - at least not entirely. This goes beyond the case for the divergent cultural evolutions (and Revolutions, har har har) of China and Taiwan - this is at the core of things, a fundamentally Taiwanese cultural facet that evolved long before there even was a "Taiwan" and a "China".

4.) There is really something to be said for having your own vehicle and the skills to drive it. I wish I had those skills (or rather, I have them but I wish I had the experience and confidence to use them in Taiwan). The freedom of being able to visit these places and participate in these festivals - and one thing that sets Pasta'ai apart from the Taiwanese temple fairs is that the audience can participate - with your own transportation is a great feeling, and I wish we had more access to it. Which means more practice for me.


Catherine Shu said...

I really want to do a homestay... it's like having a whole new family! Do you have any tips for finding a good homestay?

Re: point 3... I've gotten to the point where I try not to use cultural differences between China and Taiwan to defend Taiwan's independence. The fact is even if Taiwanese culture was completely identical to Chinese culture (which it isn't by a long shot, as you point out), it still isn't a good reason for China to keep denying Taiwan's autonomy. Culture does not equal nationality, no matter what the Chinese government says. Taiwan could be the Chinese-est place in the whole world and it still wouldn't be part of China.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I don't have general tips on how to find one, other than to just look - but I can recommend good specific ones. I know a good one in Donggang in an old shophouse, a farm homestay in Lishan, A-mue's place in Wufeng, and a place in Jingtong (Pingxi).

BTW. I agree on your point #3, however, I should note that I don't use cultural differences as the *sole* argument for Taiwanese independence. Just one of many arguments - more of a supporting point than a main point. I noted it here because it's relevant to this post in the way that more political points would not be.

There are people who do use the cultural similarity thing to justify Taiwan and China as one entity - they're usually Chinese themselves, though foreigners who live in China or who have studied Asian culture or Chinese just long enough to have an idea about the region without having nearly enough information to see the bigger picture tend to drag that old canard out too. (You especially hear a lot of foreigners who have lived in China for a year or two talk like that - and if you disagree, then you "just don't get it". Argh). In which case it's a valid counterpoint to note that the cultures are not in fact the same.

But you are absolutely correct that Taiwan could be as Chinese as anything and STILL would/should be recognized as independent.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...


All those times it says "Last year" it should say "last time" or "two years ago". The festival is held every 2 years.

Scott said...

Enjoyed the photos and the narrative.

I'm in agreement with you and the previous posters-- national sovereignty need not be justified on the basis of cultural differences. To attempt to base (or support) the argument on cultural differences (or affinities) is, in a way, to fall into the trap set by ideologies that make no distinctions between culture (or ethnicity) and nationality (e.g. Chinese culture/ethnicity = Chinese/PRC nationality).

It is easy to find analogies, of course. How different (or similar) the language, culture or dominant ethnicity of Ireland may be as compared with England, Belgium, Norway (or any other country) should have no bearing on sovereignty or nationality. But why is this so hard for so many Chinese and Taiwanese to see?

One more point-- In forums where people have tried to reason that the native peoples of Taiwan have been there thousands of years before before the existence of any kind of Chinese state, and that their cultures/languages etc. are not related at all with anything Chinese, the responses you often see from PRC netizens go something like this:

"Yes, those ethic groups/ mountain peoples that live in the various Chinese provinces are among the 56 different ethnic groups in China. Yes, they all have their own dances, costumes, foods, languages, etc. and they are all part of a multi-ethnic nation-- we are all Chinese."

Scott said...

On the subject of Zhang Xue-Liang, I have been a few times to a restaurant that is in a wooden 1920 Japanese-style house in Beitou, which according to the plaques, etc. was Zhang's residence. Did they moved him around?

It is above the town on the mountain side, and more-or-less directly above the hot-steaming-lake that is a block upstream from the older hotspring hotels in Beitou.

Unknown said...

Hi there, I am the foreigner who married into the tribe:) Just wanted to let you know that this years ceremony takes place from the 1st to the 3rd of December in the same place.

Hope you can make it.

Great blog by the way:0

Sean Kaiteri