"If they won't go on the boats, then we'll just go fishing, go far oceaning, ourselves!" says the wife of a member of my age set (kapot) at an informal gathering that she has organized to cheer up one of her "classmates," also married to our kapot. Composed of men born within five years of each other, kapot are the primary social organization in 'Amis (Pangcah) communities on Taiwan's East Coast. Kapot have mutual responsibilities as well as a particular place in the workings of the community, which is determined by their age relative to other age sets.
My kapot is named LaKancin. If you were to visit our community, 'Atolan, you would likely notice t-shirts printed with our kapot name and hear our greeting when we meet on the street, "Kapot! talacowa kiso?-- Kapot! Where are you headed?" Men in a kapot are, in theory, equals; women married into a kapot often view each other as sisters.
"That's right...." says another, "I keep telling my man to go far oceaning, but he won't listen! We’ll have to make our own boat." Then she turns to me and says, "A-Te, you should be our fishing master."
"Huh?" I ask. I can sense that the kapot's women have brewed up a play (cf. Tsai "Amis Hip Hop") and are about to launch it—their own far ocean fishing boat, with me as the fishing master? I get up to pour drinks and wonder about this bid to play. Such a joke could continue all evening, becoming more elaborate as we discover subplots and the inevitable hook line, which may be repeated over several evenings. To be successful, such a play must be "deep" in the Geertzian sense: it needs to poke at some underlying contradiction or dilemma which we cannot always address directly; or it must gratify, vicariously, a desire we cannot live out in real life. Their own far ocean fishing boat? Because their men will not go? My kapot were about to be the target of a joke.
Community elders name kapot to commemorate important events. Senior men who are now reaching retirement age are known as LaKocong, in honor of Dulan Middle School, which opened in 1968; "downstream" of LaKocong, LaKensec commemorates the 10 National Construction Projects of the early 1970s. Although LaKancin was named for NASA astronaut Taylor Wang (王贛駿 Wang Gan-jun), who flew on the Space Shuttle Challenger about the time we came of age, my kapot have stayed close to the land. Two are policeman, while one has a desk job with Taiwan Railways. An artist, two retired military men, and a couple of farmers belong to our number. For the most part, LaKancin work as tradesmen. One of them installs tin roofs and garage doors; several pour concrete or do other work in construction.
Although several of the kapot went far oceaning in their youth, none have done so recently. This changed a couple of weeks ago, when one of our age mates traveled to Kaohsiung, where now he is training for his fishing operator’s license. Soon he’ll be on a boat working American Samoan and Marshall Islands waters. Three years before coming home. Three years is longer than one might think. Both he and his wife are a bit apprehensive.
Three years… His wife tries to remain busy, volunteering for the election campaign of a relative. The work gets her out of the house, but keeping busy and dressing nicely do little to mask her sadness. The two of them met as children and rediscovered each other after failed relationships. Having been inseparable since they started dating, they got married three years ago. What is he to do on land, though? He can’t work in construction, and there aren't many jobs around 'Atolan these days for a man in his late 40s. Recently, a cousin has asked him whether he would be willing to sign on to one of the boats operating out from Kaohsiung, with the possibility of becoming an officer on his second tour. So he left for Harbor City, hoping that income from the boats would provide them both with a more comfortable life. After a couple of weeks of classes there, he will fly to Manila before embarking for the South Pacific.
Even though most 'Atolan 'Amis profess some type of Christianity, the ocean still holds an important place in their belief system. The ocean is not just a body of water, but a vibrant space (cf. Bennett 2010). People around 'Atolan sometimes refer to the ocean as their larder, the "refrigerator" of the old ones, who lived before 24-hour 7-11s and with the daily visits of grocers selling produce from the back of trucks.
Men and women spend a great deal of time in the "space of fifty steps," the intertidal zone, where 'Amis still gather food. Nearly everyone has a special spot for gathering and knows the seasons for each type of sea life. Those who know the ocean well can tell you not only exactly when the high and low tides will be that day; they can also feel when Kerah, the god that rules the tides, sits down, peeling the water away from intertidal rocks: Yo maro'ay ko Kerah anini, they will say when the wind brings the particular sound of low tide.
If you listen and watch long enough, you discover that Kerah is not the only spirit that those who visit the ocean need to remember: when you dive, an elder might pull you aside to teach you the names of ancestors and other spirits who reside in this vibrant space. At the least, you will need to remember that matiliday niDiway, "painted by Diway," means fish, who were drably colored until the goddess Diway gave each its distinctive design. You might, eventually, remember the ancestors' names and learn how to speak to them, giving them betel and rice wine as offerings (see scene at 1:30 in this link for an image of young people performing this ritual).
In addition to its role in subsistence, the ocean also provides a set of metaphors to talk about work, courtship, and nearly any sort of social activity. But relationships with the ocean are gendered, with women more likely to gather in the intertidal zone and men to dive along coastal islands and rocks. Diving can be a dangerous business. One of my kapot, a relatively strong swimmer—he was known to risk nosebleeds or worse by diving several meters more than most would dare—told me, as a caution against diving alone, that about ten years ago he had been pulled out by a rip current and was only able to get back to shore a few kilometers past a neighboring village. The current took him nearly to Fafokod, the township seat! He walked back along the beach to his truck to face the searchlights of those looking for his body. Don't think that you are fierce enough to go alone, unless you want to become the Dragon King's son-in-law, he tells me1. Still, when asked whether the waves are just a bit too big to go diving, many men will ask, "Am I not a man?" Fa'inayan kako!
'Amis gender ideology depicts men as externally oriented, acquisitive creatures, whose social purpose is to wrestle objects of value from the outside. Often, these outside places are dangerous, threatening, or hostile. Male names often reflect this stance: my name, Caraw (one of the more common 'Amis male names) comes from saraw, a type of mountain goblin. Kapot organization also reinforces these values, even as prevailing notions of 'Amis personhood value beauty and light-heartedness. The engagement of 'Amis men in the far ocean fishing trade reproduces an 'Amis connection to the ocean and gender ideologies that orient men toward the outside. Women, who traditionally owned all real property, complemented men's external acquisitive orientation with a kind of groundedness. Yet, women do joke about the possibility of going on the boats themselves.
"Right! We will go on the boats ourselves. Our men are far too comfortable here, and we want to make more money. You know that fishing master who lives down the street from A-Te? He came back a couple of weeks ago and bought a house south of the village on Route 11: more than ten million NT!"
"Yes, he killed a water buffalo to celebrate coming back."
I was around for the butchering of the water buffalo, which was large enough to feed nearly the entire community. The party lasted three days. Besides which, the fishing master had been picking up the bill for drinking around the village and even in Taitung City—at Holiday KTV—for several days now. When I talk to him about returning to 'Atolan, he says that now that he is in his mid-fifties, he could probably take another two or three tours before retirement, health permitting. It is true, he says, that he made much more money than would ever have been possible on land, at least in his last couple of tours. Yet, fishing never guaranteed a windfall: it all depended on whether he brought in enough fish. What's more, what is he to do after retirement? It is best to invest the money by buying land. The house is not the only real estate purchase. And that house! A mess. He will have to throw cash at a few of my kapot to fix it up. His sons, who lived in Kaohsiung most of their lives, have come to the village to help him with the renovation and maybe to run a business there.
The women know about the insecurity of far oceaning. It is dangerous. Some men go out on the boats and do not even leave behind a corpse to bury. The boat might have trouble: three years without any profit. The man has borrowed money against what he would make, but could end up in debt to the company. The family allowance would be enough to live on, but he would need to take another tour just to pay the company back. Is it worth the gamble? Most would say yes; there are three fishing masters in the community who have made very large sums of money; and, look around: most of the concrete houses in the village were built on far oceaning. My neighbor once asked me outright: "How much do you make as a professor there in Padaka?" I was embarrassed to tell him. It would take me more than ten or fifteen years to make what he did in three on the boats, and he knows it.
"You don't make that much, and you have a PhD," he says, "So what could I do, with only a middle school diploma? I had three kids when I went on the boats at 28. Never made enough for us to live. If I make money now, it's because I spent years scraping by, working my way up from the bottom."
The woman whose husband is embarking in a couple of weeks has started crying, so our jokes have to pick up intensity.
"If only my man would go on the boats for three years! He’s not much good to me around here. He doesn't make enough money, and he’s certainly no use at night! Useless to me! Useless!" says one of the women. Her husband, sitting nearby, grimaces. The other women agree.
"We will make our own far ocean boat! It will be a pirate fishing boat!"
"A 'comfort' boat!" suggests another.
"Right, that's right, a comfort boat; we will pull aside the fishing boats as they work and ask the fishermen if they need a bit of R & R. The men can pay in fish. Whatever tuna they have in the freezers, bring it over! And those men have been on the boats for awhile...."
"You? Who would want it? You think that those men on the boat...? Four syllables: Im-Pos-Si-Ble!" says one of my kapot, married to the woman proposing the 'comfort boat'.
"Stuff it!" she says in reply. "If you were still any use, you'd want it."
"We have experience," says another of the women. "Besides, those men on the boat, after a month or so....ooh....Panai, we will follow your husband's boat, so you can see him as much as you want!"
"A-Te! A-Te!" they pull me away from pouring drinks into the conversation. "You can be our 'fishing master'!"
"Um," I say, "That way, wouldn't that make me a....pimp?"
"A-Te!" shrieks one of the women, "Do you always have to be so direct?!"
It's my turn to play at my role on the 'Atolan 'Amis comfort boat, a pirate fishing boat now sailing the high seas. "Come over, come over, you lonely fishermen! Hey young men on the boat, our ladies might not have perfect figures, but they will definitely provide satisfaction. Come over and visit! Hurry up, our boat will move on soon, and you'll have to wait a few more months before getting into port. Take advantage of this special opportunity. We accept tuna and, of course, American Dollars."
The women discuss who will construct their boat. They would suggest their husbands, but most of the men are in house construction. Concrete houses. Any boat the men could make would be strictly ornamental, of the Empress Dowager's stone boat variety. We wouldn't make it to Jun-Jie (just a mile or so south of here) before sinking. A ship of fools. But we are, of course, just fooling around.
The woman whose husband has gone to Kaohsiung to prepare for his tour laughs. The idea of a comfort boat is preposterous; but as all of the women know, the wife of one of the fishing masters does fly to Majuro and Pohnpei when he is in harbor. When she embarks, the wits all say that she has gone to be a "comfort woman." Staying in the town, women with men on the boats have to be careful about what they wear and the places they frequent2. The fantasy of a comfort boat, of women going far oceaning, is not so much about the money but adventure, the freedom of harbor towns and high seas. And although the women call their men useless–after all, men should leave and bring outside value, particularly money, back home–they might privately admit that three years is a long time for anyone to endure loneliness. Aren't there many stories and songs of women who have also “gone far oceaning on land”–women who picked up and traded an empty house for an uncertain future?
Yes. No one really blames them. When singing one of the songs, even the men will laugh. The women say, we women also went far oceaning: Ooh wee, she put on those LaNew shoes (LaNew puns with malaliw ko fafahi, she ran off). Yes, she took a stroll in those Adidas (aidiedao 愛跌倒, she is going to "fall").
inaaw, aya amaaw, mikalic to cikoling Oh Mother, Oh Father, I took the long line boat
ayay ko mifotingay, malaliw ko fafahi I've gone fishing, and my wife's run off
aya malalom kinia tireng Ah, I am so broken hearted
malingadsato kinia tamina, patano ko fafahi When our boat embarked, my wife saw me off
minokaysa ko fafahi, mitemod han no kapah She returned home, and a youth took over
aya masipod kinia tireng Ah, I feel so cheated
I asked a few men who had been on the boats about this song.
"Of course we laugh when we sing it! Do you think it would make it better to cry about it?" one of the men responds to my confusion. After all, this is a sad song. But one does have to live, and laugh, on. At a party in the courtyard of the Catholic Church, a group of men and women in their late fifties and early sixties even warn me, "A year on Taiwan is a long time for your anata to wait! Don't you wonder if a young man has replaced you, A-Te?" They weave new lyrics for the song:
Aya kinia tireng / Malaliwto ciAyuan / Aya, malalom kinia ciAte, fitting my name and that of my significant other into the lyrics, laughing with me about the possibility that Ayuan would "go far oceaning” while I remained on Taiwan for research.
"When you go home, don't hug your blanket and cry," one of them says, "That's not our problem."
"If Ayuan does run off," I answer, "I'll just have to say, 'Ayuan, ha:tiraay kita. That just about wraps it up for us!'" The men laugh and laugh.
But tonight's play is not that of men joking about how one or two of their children resemble their younger brother or a youthful neighbor. It is women's play, in which my kapot are the targets of the joke. The fantasy of a comfort boat satisfies a desire to identify with women who run off, while poking fun at dominant gender ideologies, in which women should remain fixed to the land. More than that, it creates an alternate world in which men remain on land and women travel. The comfort boat's reversal of gender relations pokes fun at "useless men" but also highlights the women's perception of money and sexual adventure. The comfort boat would give them very useful men as well as saleable tuna.
Time for another round. The women address their sister, whose husband has just called from Kaohsiung to say goodnight.
“If we launch soon, we might even catch up to his boat! You can see him when our boat pulls up alongside theirs!”
1 No one could resist riffing on his talk about the searchlights: "Did you think that you were having an after death experience?" we asked. If he had, a well-placed punch from his wife reminded him that he was still among the living. The Dragon King is, for ethnic Chinese, the ruler of the ocean; for 'Atolan 'Amis talk of joining the Dragon King's household is an indirect way to refer to drowning.
2 Nonetheless, 'Atolan 'Amis traditionally practiced uxorilocal residence; and unlike their ethnic Chinese neighbors, 'Amis women actively chose their mates. Young men lived in the men's house from puberty until marriage into a woman's family.