Thursday, March 18, 2021

Sushi marketing gimmick? Big news! The Indigenous reaction? Ignored by the media.

Honestly, I don't really care about the whole salmon sushi marketing gimmick. However, it bears a little investigation.

A little over a hundred people in Taiwan changed their name to include the characters for salmon (鮭魚) in order to get free sushi (with some adding more characters, presumably hoping they'd get more free stuff). Officials pleaded with citizens not to waste government offices' time with this and reminded everyone that only three name changes are allowed under Taiwan law, so any miscalculation could cause the change to be permanent. This allegedly happened to poor Mr. Salmon Hsu, which the Taipei Times still hilariously calls "a man surnamed Hsu" as though we don't all know his given name now. One guy apparently made his name 36 characters long to jokingly include all the free stuff he wants, such as a stay at the Caesar Park Hotel. 

Okay, whatever, time to move on. 

Then I noticed a few posts from Indigenous activists on Facebook pointing out an extremely salient point: for decades, Indigenous Taiwanese have been fighting to get their full traditional names (and if I understand correctly, only their traditional names, without 'Chinese' names) on their National ID cards, and although progress has been made, they have mostly been met with resistance from the government. 

As activist Savungaz Valincinan pointed out, it sure was easy for Taiwanese to change their names to all sorts of ridiculous things for a marketing ploy, including those who added far more characters than the usual character limit of 15 (the character limit for Romanized names is 20).  Indigenous Taiwanese had to fight tirelessly to use their traditional names, some of which may be longer than the character limits, an issue which still causes problems.

And yet the salmon story was picked up by AFP, which caused it to appear in The Guardian, Channel News Asia and Hong Kong Free Press. Taiwan News, Taipei Times and Focus Taiwan also covered it. None mentioned the fact that apparently name changes are easy if you want free sushi, but if you're Indigenous you have to organize and protest for generations to even begin to approach that right. I would not have connected these two issues if not for Indigenous people pointing it out; certainly the media wasn't interested in that angle of the story. 

Technically, if your name exceeds the character limits, government officials can hand-write it on your card, which they have done for some people. In practice, I don't know how easy it is for Indigenous Taiwanese to actually do this, nor should they have to take special steps to have it done. I would imagine a fair number still face resistance from the bureaucracy, both unintentional (not that that makes it acceptable) and actively aggressive.

A little history: when the Qing colonized Taiwan, Indigenous people who 'assimilated' were 'given' Chinese names. When the Japanese took over that colonial endeavor, Indigenous and Han Taiwanese alike were encouraged to take official Japanese names. When the KMT then took up the mantle of colonizer, Indigenous Taiwanese were forced to change their names back to whatever they had been in Chinese, and if they didn't have such names, they were haphazardly given random names, with several surnames often unthinkingly sprinkled across family units, with no respect for their own naming customs. 

It wasn't until the late 20th century that the government began to allow the use of traditional names on National ID cards, but the character limits remain, and societal prejudice remains, which may cause some Indigenous people to choose not to pursue this. In addition, restoration of a traditional name is limited to one change, whereas Chinese-language names can be changed up to three times, meaning that Indigenous Taiwanese pursuing name restoration still face more restrictions than Mr. Salmon Hsu. 

As Savungaz Valincinan pointed out (linked above), the government has rejected petitions to address this issue because allowing longer names would "create social cognitive difficulties". A robust society should have no issues accepting members of that society as they are with their real names as they are given, so I don't know what social cognitive theory has to do with someone's real traditional name. Something tells me the person who gave that non-response isn't a specialist in the field. Just a hunch. 

Perhaps these so-called "social cognitive difficulties" (lol) could be ameliorated if the media took a greater interest in Indigenous issues, including where they intersect with viral "human interest" news. Perhaps more people would simply be aware that these hypocrisies if they were reported on more. Perhaps "oh haha people are changing their name to salmon for free salmon" isn't just the cute flash-in-the-pan story we can laugh at today and forget tomorrow.

Why don't they? Partly, I think they just don't see it. I wouldn't have seen it if not for the labor of those activists. I freely admit that: I'm not better than anyone else and I'm aware that I have blind spots, even if I don't always know what it is I can't see.

It doesn't affect most people, so the media doesn't pay attention. They may not even realize that they should be paying attention, because it's just not in their worldview. If AFP thought of it at all -- which I doubt happened -- they likely thought the rest of the world would enjoy a lighthearted salmon story but not a real issue affecting the descendants of the original inhabitants of Taiwan. Perhaps when it comes to local reporting, representations of the name rectification movement in Taiwanese news reflect a Han-centric worldview that still considers Indigenous people and issues affecting them as "Other", as scholars noted back in 2012.

Which sure seems like "social cognitive difficulties" creating their own justifications for existence like one giant arc of circular logic.

But journalism on Taiwan would be better if people did notice. Although I now intend to get back in my lane as this issue doesn't affect me, I'd like to encourage them to try. More people won't know that a lot of these issues run deeper unless they're reported more robustly.


Am fear eile said...

Maybe all Taiwanese people should be encouraged to adopt an actual native name in addition to a Chinese language one. It would certainly be more interesting than the crop of English language names that seem to be so chic in Taiwan.

Jenna Cody said...

Mmmmmm...not so sure about that. If people who have no cultural connection to a traditional Indigenous name adopt one, first it'd be as offensive to many as white Americans giving themselves "Native American names" because they think their great grandma was "maybe a Cherokee" or something (when she probably wasn't). It would erase the link between being from that culture and having a name from that culture. I think we can raise awareness without encouraging appropriation.

B.BarNavi said...

"Pasuya" Yao actually did that. Needless to say the Tsou are not impressed.

My 50mm photos said...

One thing I found surprising in Taiwan (not sure if other countries do this too) is that non-indigenous people adopted into indigenous families can claim indigenous status.

Yel D'ohan said...

It's perfectly normal to allow adoption and I believe most other countries allow this as well.