fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

Reflections, Refractions, and Reorientations: Conducting Ethnographic Research in Indigenous Taiwan

     I spent my Fulbright year engaged in ethnographic research on Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their practices, and the ways in which these practices are being addressed under Taiwan law. This year has been a year of returns for me. My family lived in southeastern Taiwan when I was young boy. At that time, the area in which we resided had a high concentration of indigenous peoples, and members of the Amis, Puyuma, and Paiwan tribes were some of our closest friends and neighbors. As a result, this year has been an opportunity for me to return to an island nation that has since transitioned from martial law to democracy; to reconnect with indigenous communities that were so much a part of my life as a youth; to revisit old memories and places; and to create new memories and visit new places, and experience all this newness through the eyes of my two young daughters who accompanied me on my Fulbright research project.

     Over the past year, I worked closely with the Bunun, Puyuma, and Truku tribes, and with judges and lawyers involved in the Hualien District Court. I spent my time observing legal proceedings involving indigenous matters; interviewing judges presiding over these hearings; working with and interviewing lawyers at legal aid centers and private law firms; participating in meetings at the Judicial Yuan about the special indigenous courts; and joining indigenous community members in customary activities, such as hunting muntjac, deer, and boar, extracting minerals and ceremonial wood, making homemade guns, walking the mountains on memory walks, and many more activities. In the midst of this research, I also enrolled my daughters in the neighborhood kindergarten and I watched as their Mandarin Chinese language skills and knowledge of Taiwanese culture grew in ways I never imagined. In short, it has been a remarkable experience far exceeding my expectations.

     This journal entry focuses on my experience conducting ethnographic research in indigenous Taiwan. In this regard, it may be seen as an auto-ethnography about conducting ethnographic research. Anthropologists are often accused of navel-gazing, and this journal entry likely takes that characterization into the extreme, but hopefully it sparks some interesting thoughts along the way. I briefly address the following topics: visibility, the uncanny, and gratitude.


     In the area of Taiwan where I conduct my research, I am, at all times, in all ways, and in all places, visible. I am tall. I look foreign. I sound foreign. I smell foreign. I sometimes follow the wrong rules. I sometimes say the wrong things. I am sometimes too loud, sometimes too quiet. Wherever I go, I am reminded of my difference. This comes in the form of direct questions, assumptions that I cannot speak or read Mandarin Chinese, strangers asking to touch my hair or my skin, and the murmured “waiguoren,” “laowai,” and “ado-ah” accompanying me everywhere I go. As one of my indigenous friends remarked, “There is just no not seeing you.” Anthropologists have long discussed how visibility connects to one’s positionality in ethnographic research. There are many examples of how my visibility in courtrooms and indigenous spaces have shaped my research, but here I reflect on what being “visible” in Taiwan has revealed in terms of my research on law.

     Visibility can take many forms and includes many dimensions. For example, age, class, gender, nationality, race, religion, etc., may each be relevant to varying degrees in different contexts. And, there is, of course, also the matter of invisibility along similar spectrums. I am reflecting here on my personal experience as a Westerner in rural Taiwan.

     Being a Westerner in this region triggers many assumptions as well as a great deal of curiosity. At the core of these curiosities is a classification of being different and exotic, of being an “other.” It is no surprise that classification as an “other” manifests itself far beyond mere questions or touchings—it also shapes daily living. What has been interesting to me is discovering what the work of “othering” uncovers, or makes visible.

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     As indicated in the adjacent fieldnotes selection, the work of creating an “other” can reveal the importance of certain rules.  My daughter is the example in the selection, but it speaks more broadly to how difference relates to rules. Oftentimes these rules are considered negligible, such as tree climbing, but they take on a new salience and become more apparent, more visible, in the presence of an “other.” It can even be helpful, such as when rules concern safety. Yet these rules are triggered by a prior classification of difference. One Taiwanese colleague remarked when he saw an instance of this on a train, “You are under a different level of scrutiny. That does not happen to me. No one normally cares if you do that.”

     This experience left an impression on me and on my research. In the context of law, understanding the experience of marginalized “others,” such as indigenous communities in Taiwan, requires thinking not only about unjust laws targeting these communities or the disparate impact of certain laws on customary practices, but also how articulations of difference make certain laws and rules more visible and, therefore, more applicable to these groups. It is the recognition that people within a given society may experience different lives under the same laws and rules based upon whether they are classified as “us” or “not us”—that law and rules nowhere are innocent. In Taiwan, the work of “othering” draws upon moral discourses about indigenous peoples, performances of indigeneity, space and location, and many other factors. As a result, uncovering the work of creating the indigenous “other” in Taiwan and the manifestations of this work in applications of laws and rules requires deep local knowledge. My Fulbright experience has been a significant starting point for studying this aspect of law further, both in Taiwan and in other contexts.

The Uncanny

It has been difficult for me to frame my research project as either “home” or “abroad.” Conducting research in Taiwan has felt like “home” to the extent that I previously lived in Taiwan and during that time enjoyed glimpses of an insider’s view of local culture. Yet it has also felt “abroad” insofar I was, and am, never confused as a local. Neither do I have a complete understanding of Taiwanese culture. My fieldwork this year, therefore, sits somewhere in-between, something more home-and-abroad than home or abroad.

Under Ruth Useem’s influential theory, popular anthropology often refers to this identity space as “third culture.” Third culture refers to a cultural category for children raised in a cultural space other than their parents’ culture for a significant part of their early development years. Third culture does not fall into one’s home or host culture, but rather consists of a separate shared culture with other third-culture individuals.

     There is likely merit to this theory, but as one who has lived in this space for many years, it has always felt less like a separate cultural space than, to draw on a sailing metaphor, an ongoing process of tacking. In sailing, tacking is a maneuver by which a sailboat, whose desired course is into the wind, turns its bow into wind so that the direction the wind blows changes from one side to the other. Through a series of tacking moves, the vessel moves forward into the wind in a zigzag fashion. Similarly, my experience as a youth, and even today, has been one of tacking between American and Taiwanese identities, mindsets, and practices—sometimes distinctly one or the other; sometimes blended together; sometimes occupying a separate, third space.

     As a researcher, this places me in a unique position: I am neither native nor foreign; neither emic or etic, yet having characteristics of both at the same time. According to my colleagues in Taiwan, there is something of the uncanny that follows me as I interact with people—so very clearly foreign, yet strangely aware of very specific, local peculiarities. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the uncanny is regarded as a state of cognitive dissonance in which an experience takes on heightened significance towards “something more,” revealing a just-glimpsed secret meaning and producing a state of being simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the experience (Freud 1963). Here, I am the uncanny.

     I have embraced this uncanny identity in my fieldwork. It has offered unique opportunities to build rapport with research subjects. It has opened spaces that might have otherwise remained closed to research. It has provided footholds for comparison of observations and validation of interpretations of

findings. But conducting fieldwork as the uncanny has also had its drawbacks. It is often difficult for people to categorize me, particularly those who have met a Westerner for the first time. It may also cloud my research at times, obscuring things that might be more apparent to those entering this space as either a native or foreigner. Regardless, floating through my fieldwork as the uncanny has made my project something deeply personal, deeply challenging, and deeply gratifying.


     I am closing my Fulbright experience with a profound, near-overwhelming sense of gratitude. It is a feeling of gratitude simultaneously directional and directionless. It is directional in that I could provide a discrete list of individuals, organizations, and communities to whom I am grateful for their time, openness, and kindness. This project would never be possible without them and I fear I owe a debt to them I will never be able repay. It is also directionless in the sense that I am grateful for my general circumstances, like a shipwrecked sailor cast ashore by a fortunate wave. It is a feeling of gratefulness that is simply directed outward toward a non-agent or an undefined. This dual sense of gratitude has inspired a great deal of reflection, not just in how to express it appropriately across

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cultural divides, but also what gratitude means. Here, I offer some reflections on the ethical foundations of gratitude and how it fits into the anthropologists’ moral life.

     As an initial matter, following philosopher Fred Berger (1975), gratitude is connected to benevolence. It is not simply a response to others having done things that benefit us. For example, if someone is forced by threats or if they are motivated by pure self-interest to help you, gratitude is not due. Rather, the voluntariness and goodwill with which the benefits are accorded to us are often important factors in gratitude. Second, we frequently speak of, as I have done above, “feelings” of gratitude, which suggests it is connected to emotional states and attitudes. Showing gratitude is not, however, merely giving vent to emotions. Rather, it is a recognition of the other’s particular attitude toward us—that we are something more than simply an instrument of the giver’s own welfare; in Kantian terms, that we are treated as ends in ourselves—that inspires a desire to make a return of that respect and esteem. Accordingly, third, when we express gratitude, we are establishing, maintaining, or recognizing a moral relationship of mutual respect and regard. Expressions of gratitude are, therefore, demonstrations of a complex set of beliefs and attitudes.

     Philosopher Sean McAleer (2012) recommends that we refer to this as “targeted gratitude” in that it involves a specific agent or set of agents to whom gratitude is expressed. In my fieldwork, this year, the benevolence I have received defies words. As indicated in the adjacent fieldnotes selection, countless people have voluntarily taken their time, energy, and resources to assist me in my research. They have answered questions, opened their homes, traveled with me, made dinners for me, reviewed my documents, wrote letters on my behalf, arranged events for me, facilitated connections, started dead car batteries in the middle of the night in the rain, and so on. What has made these moments so powerful to me is that they convey a specific attitude about me: that I am someone who is valuable in myself. The people, organizations, and communities involved and surrounding my research have gone far beyond what is expected even in terms of the generous hospitality of Taiwanese culture. As a result, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and a powerful desire to reciprocate by expressing my respect and esteem for them, too. I fear that too often I failed to do that adequately. Expressions of thanks coupled with trinkets from the United States or pineapples or anything else ultimately always feel inadequate.

     From an anthropologist’s perspective, this reciprocal exchange does something important: it establishes, maintains, or reaffirms a community, and, importantly, I become part of this community. This exchange creates a moral relationship between these benefactors and myself. Even if we differ somewhat in our understandings of the obligations attaching to or the appropriate expressions of gratitude, this reciprocal exchange of favor has brought us together. It has enriched my research project by adding additional layers of collaboration and embeddedness, and, in fact, likely has been essential to it.

     In addition to a targeted gratitude, I also have a second sense of gratitude, what A.D.M. Walker (1981) calls “gratefulness” and McAleer (2012) refers to as “propositional gratitude.” This form of gratitude is a response to good fortune that does not result from an agent, like the lucky wave casting a shipwrecked sailor ashore. In these circumstances, there is no agent to whom to express gratitude or engage in a reciprocal relationship thereby establishing a community. Yet this form of gratitude does connect more widely to a moral community, specifically as an expression of the virtue of humility, which consists at root in the recognition of one’s fallibility, one’s vulnerability, and one’s dependence upon conditions beyond oneself for success.

     In my experience, coming to Taiwan for this Fulbright project involved a fortuitous set of circumstances, including a chance encounter with expert anthropologists, a smooth transition from law firm practice to a PhD program, the fact that Taiwan had just created the special courts I was interested in studying, that I was able to obtain grants allowing me to conduct pre-dissertation research, that I was able to arrange a suitable work and education situation where I could bring my family, and so on. In short, it has involved an appreciation that sheer good fortune and unmerited benefit have played a significant role in my Fulbright experience—the recognition that I am “never a sufficient conduction for [my] own success” (Bernard 1998: 306-307). Thus, while this propositional expression of gratitude does not create a moral community in the same way as targeted gratitude, it is nonetheless an important expression of my recognition that I am finite and fallible, and that the success of my Fulbright project has in very fundamental respects depended upon circumstances beyond my control. In this regard, expressions of propositional gratitude have been my way of participating in a wider moral community by expressing humility and cultivating a moral character that I hope feeds back into and becomes visible in my ethnographic research in indigenous Taiwan.


     Returning to the title of this journal entry, I have considered the various reflections, refractions, and reorientations in my ethnographic research over the past year. My Fulbright project has involved a great deal of reflection about my past and my place within my project. It also involved thinking critically about how my views on indigenous Taiwan have been refracted through my lived experience as an “other,” my disciplinary knowledge as anthropologist and as a lawyer, and my uncanniness as a researcher. It has also involved reorienting myself to a different Taiwan than the one I grew up in, to new kinds of relationships with institutions and indigenous communities, and to notions of fairness and justice for marginalized peoples beyond mere law. In all, my Fulbright experience has been a remarkable experience—one for which I am deeply grateful and profoundly humbled.


Berger, Fred. R. 1975. Gratitude. Ethics 85(4): 298-309.

Bernard, Gert. 1998. Morality: Its Nature and Justification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. [1919] 1963. The Uncanny. In Studies in Parapsychology. Philip Reiff, ed. New York: Macmillan.

McAleer, Sean. 2012 Propositional Gratitude. American Philosophical Quarterly 49(1): 55-66.

Walker, A.D.M. 1981. Gratefulness and Gratitude. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 81: 39-55.

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Chris Upton 歐啟祥

Chris Upton 歐啟祥

Chris Upton is a lawyer and PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington. Chris’s research focuses on Taiwan’s newly created special indigenous courts. Chris conducted an in-depth ethnographic project concentrating on one of these courts, studying how the court crafted rules about indigenous customary practices and how indigenous litigants used the legal system to advance their own understandings of indigenous culture. During his Fulbright research, Chris was hosted by Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, and the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung, Taiwan. 

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