Most of the Taiwanese live in Taipei and the west coast totaling approximately 10 million of the 23 populating the island. The southern and eastern parts of Taiwan are mostly inhabited by the aboriginal peoples. You can tell which homes are aboriginal because you can spot a satellite dish on the rooftops their homes. This because the Taiwanese government provided these tribes with satellites for free so that they kept abreast of the nation’s events. Without it, the aborigines can live without much technology and probably cannot be bothered to spend money to stay digitally connected.
Traveling through the east, you will spot churches with cross signs, and less temples. The three main religions are Buddhism, Christianity, and Folk religions. Buddhist temples are representative of the Han influence, given that Buddhism was brought over by the Chinese. Although Buddhism is less popular in mainland, you will see it practiced more in Taiwan, along with Taoism. Christianity has been largely adopted by aboriginal groups, a result of Dutch missionary influence in Taiwan.
Our tour guide shared that the words “Tai-wan” is not the original name of the island. It was during the 16th century, that Portuguese settles on their way to Japan, passed Taiwan and called in “Ihla Formosa” – beautiful island. This is still how Taiwan is known to many Europeans today. Then in the 17th century, when Chinese fisherman from the Fujian province of China, landed in Tainan, the southern part of Taiwan, it is said that they encountered the aborigines and asked them in Mandarin “what do you call this place?” The aborigines responded in their language “tai jouan” which sounded like Tai-wan, and could be a word for “alien” – probably how they were referring to the Chinese fisherman. Hence, Taiwan. The aborigines probably called the island “here” and called themselves “human” which is why in many of the aboriginal languages, themes of “we are human” or “human” are used to refer to themselves, as I saw in Ita Thao. It is possible they thought they were the center of the universe and civilization until the settlers arrived.
Our guide’s family has been in Taiwan for over 200 years and can trace his ancestry back to the Qing dynasty from the Fujian province – they represent about 70% of the country and are known as “Hoklo” or “ho lo” in Taiwanese. Fifteen percent are immigrants from China during the 17th century and known as “Hakka” or “ke jia ren” 客家人. My family, on the other hand, is part of the last generation of immigrants (from mainland) in 1949 and are known as “wai sheng ren” 外生人, mainlanders, making up about 13%.
Although there are about 14 officially recognized aboriginal tribes in modern day Taiwan, they make up only about 2.3%. After centuries of persecution by the Han people, it is suggested that about 60% of Taiwanese have aboriginal blood at present.
One thing that is the same around the world is that the dark skinned, indigenous peoples, or los originarios are persecuted and oppressed in a land that was theirs, all for the name of profit and power. The level of mistreatment differs from nation to nation. I have yet to see discrimination of the aborigines or darker skinned people by the Taiwanese. But I also have not had the opportunity to interact with them as I have had in other countries I have visited.
I will end wEditith this – a photo of me posing so that I can capture the woman behind me who has gone through great trouble to prevent any sunlight from touching her skin. Scarves, face masks, umbrellas, skin lightening creams, shoulder sleeves, hats the size of Jupiter – all to prevent one to look the way I do, California sun-kissed and tanned. The second thing by uncle said to me when he saw me was “why did you get so dark!?” He simply did not understand why I would choose to be tanned. (The first thing he said was, “you need to eat, you’re too skinny” – very Chinese).