An important skill that I have adopted for living overseas in a different culture is shifting my frame of reference to accommodate new experiences or ideas. Living in Taiwan for the last six months has certainly challenged me to do so in refreshingly unexpected ways.
Since new understandings begin with language and so much of language is based upon context, even a play-on-words can illustrate the value of shifting one’s frame of reference to unlock new meaning in a different culture. As my Social Cultural Anthropology teacher, Futuru Tsai, said jokingly in class, “If you asked an English speaker what is one plus one, they would reply with ‘Two.’ If you asked a Mandarin speaker what one plus one is, they would reply ‘Wang.’” The clever observation makes sense when you consider that Chinese writing is traditionally written vertically. The character for “one” is a horizontal line, 一, followed by a plus sign +, and then another horizontal line, 一, forms the Chinese character 王, wang, meaning king or monarch. Shift your frame of reference and you are already smiling.
The approach of shifting one’s frame of reference comes in handy especially when encountering subjects that seem uncomfortable when viewed from the distance of our own personal background. One such example that I can give is Shamanism. Having lived on the East Coast of the United States for most of my life, my experience with Shamanism or with people who practice or believe in it has been extremely limited.
Shamanism, divination, and other forms of magic are often viewed by the Western world with a good deal of circumspection. They are viewed as standing in distinct contrast with the practices and teachings of Judeo-Christian religions. I recall an elementary school religion teacher warning us against playing with Ouija boards because magic was something that was bad and dangerous and would pull us away from our faith. Shamanism is also seen as being at odds with scientific knowledge and reason.
That context imbued with a Christian heritage and a western education is my own background. You can imagine my curiosity when I learned that the graduate student who sits next to me in all of my classes is a Paiwan Indigenous Shaman in his village in Pingtung County, and that many nearby villages in Taitung County also have practicing Shamans. The chance to share ideas with my classmate forced me to consider my frame of reference.
How can any religion or religious-based belief be inherently bad? Do biases based on dogmatic differences have to keep people of different religions from fully understanding each other on the level of a native practitioner? What would my teacher think if she had the opportunity to meet with my Shaman friend? If she could hear of his life, look through his family photos with him on Facebook, and sit down and eat a meal with him, would she still be able to tell him that practicing magic is bad? Taking the time to get to know people of different belief systems and cultures in their own context has a way of creating a new perspective.
Last month, our class topic focused on religion and its relationship with socio-cultural anthropology. In conversation, my Paiwan classmate described how he had been in the car with our teacher and felt an uncomfortable pain in his chest that he recognized as not his own, but as my teacher’s pain projected onto him. After asking my teacher if he was alright, my teacher replied that he was experiencing discomfort related to his acid reflux. After my classmate had finished describing this story, our teacher turned to me and asked, “So, do you believe that?” Unsure if I believed it or not, but not wanting to hurt my classmate’s feelings, I immediately replied, “Yeah, sure.” But my teacher pursued the point asking, “Why?” After thinking about if for a couple of seconds, the best answer I could come up with was, “Why not?”
I was sitting down next to my teacher as well and felt nothing. For me, my reality at that time did not include chest pain. But who is to say that he didn’t experience something? Maybe chest pain was a part of his reality, a realm of experience that I didn’t have access to, and therefore, couldn’t speak to their existence. It does not mean that it did not exist for my classmate. I have come to appreciate that shifting one’s frame of reference requires a certain amount of intellectual humility. Though I may not share the same beliefs or experience their effects, I appreciate that they may very well exist for my Paiwan friend.
Anthropologist James Peacock describes this sort of disparity in the realm of experience in his book, The Anthropological Lens: Harsh Light, Soft focus, where he wrote, “In my own fieldwork I once asked an Indonesian, ‘Do you believe in spirits?’ He replied, puzzled, ‘Are you asking, do I believe what spirits tell me when they talk to me?’ For him, spirits were not a belief but an unquestionable relationship, part of the unity of his life.”
One of our readings for class,Invitation to Anthropology written by American anthropologist, Luke Eric Lassiter, elaborated on the fundamental schools of thought that contribute to a clash between scientific knowledge and religious belief.
“In the natural and social sciences, we make a clear distinction between knowledge and belief: that is, between what we “know” (defined as true and factual) and what we “believe” (accepted on faith as true and real). We further rank knowledge over belief, asserting that knowledge, which is based on clear reasoning and experience, is more substantiated than belief, which may not be based on “clear evidence” or “proof.” Indeed, to say, ‘I believe that X is true’ just is not as strong as saying, ‘I know X to be true.’ This opposition between knowledge and belief is based in part on the assumptions of empiricism (the position that experience serves as the source of knowledge), positivism (the position that knowledge is only useful if it can be “proved”), and reason (the position that knowledge is logical, factual, and sound). Following this logic, we might argue that belief (based in faith and not knowledge) is unempirical, unprovable, and unreasonable.”
Yet, I have learned to recognize that these assumptions are a function of our own Western culture, heritage, faith, philosophy, and intellectual history. They inform our own context, but can impede an appreciation of other belief systems. I have learned to appreciate that whether or not my classmate really felt chest pain is not the important part of the story. Judging someone’s religious beliefs based on scientific truth is like comparing “twos” and “wangs.” To question whether or not his experience occurred is missing the bigger point: for him, he experienced it, and that experience carries a special meaning in his indigenous Paiwan village in Pingtung County, Taiwan. It is at the beginning of this realization that the fun work of anthropological research really begins.
Mary Hamilton is from Long Beach Island, New Jersey. She attended Fordham University where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Chinese and China Studies. For her Fulbright grant, Mary is researching boat building culture amongst the Tao indigenous peoples of Orchid Island, specifically boat building methodology, inherited knowledge, and what traditional boats and their process of construction and initiation say about the Tao people’s cultural values, spiritual beliefs, and social structure.