Village In The Clouds (Republished)
Village In The Clouds was an article originally written for ORIENT Magazine and published on May 20, 1997. The article documented my first trip back to Taiwan after leaving Taiwan as a young child in 1971. The trip occurred in the Summer of 1996, after the death of my mother. My aunt Yu Yin Lytle and uncle Jim Lytle brought me to Taiwan to meet my relatives. The trip revealed far more than I ever expected, and the unexpected discoveries led to my decision to form the ATAYAL organization, which is named after my mother's tribe. This story of the unexpected discovery of my mother's indigenous roots and search for understanding why she kept her ethnic roots hidden became the cornerstone of the Voices In The Clouds documentary film.
This version is revised for more accuracy and republished.
Last summer, I was blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime. Twenty-five years after my family and I left Taiwan for the land of baseball and apple pie, I was offered a chance to revisit my birthplace. As a half-Asian, half-Caucasian son of an American soldier and a Taiwanese mother, I was born in Taiwan but raised in the United States. I feel proud and privileged to have been raised as an American, but still there was always a part of me that seemed dormant, a side of me I had yet to discover, a whole culture left unexplored. My sister, brothers and I knew nothing of our mother's homeland of Taiwan, since she shared nothing about it.
Twenty-three hours of flight time from Orlando, Florida gave me ample time to anticipate what I would discover in this "foreign" land. There were hundreds of relatives I had never met. There were sights, sounds and smells never experienced. And there was a new language to learn. Most Taiwanese are multilingual, speaking Mandarin Chinese as well as a Taiwanese. My relatives were referred to as Santiren (San-tee-ren), the "mountain people." More accurately, they were members of the Atayal tribe, one of the nine recognized indigenous tribes of Taiwan. These tribal peoples were the first to populate the island, and they each have their own aboriginal languages. To make things easier, I chose to learn the official language, Mandarin Chinese, and crammed during the long journey.
Darkness had already settled when we touched down at the modern Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. I was stunned by the mass of people and the unfamiliar environment. After being processed through the Customs meat grinder, I was rescued by my Taiwanese uncle, Yoshigi. We escaped with all of our luggage and squeezed them into his car. Traveling on the roads of Taiwan was a frightening experience for an unaccustomed American. As my uncle navigated through a sea of taxicabs and motor scooters, I instinctively grabbed for my seatbelt. To my surprise, this brought laughter from my uncle, who obviously had never used a seatbelt in his life. He continued on, driving on pure instinct. I only managed to catch brief glimpses of the famous landmarks as we drove through Taipei, the capital city. I was preoccupied, staring nervously into the unpredictable traffic ahead of me. As we left the urban sprawl and headed into the mountains, I noticed we were leaving behind all of the bright lights and busy streets of the popular tourist locales. I realized that what I had to look forward to was a unique perspective on life in Taiwan, one not seen by the typical American tourist.
Most of Taiwan was asleep when we arrived at my uncle's house. I pulled myself out of the cramped Toyota and stretched my neck and shoulders to loosen the knots. After we lugged our suitcases up a steep hill to the house, I had my first real contact with the Atayal relatives. There were about two dozen tired family members with outstretched arms. It was an emotional reunion because my mother had passed away the previous year and many remembered last seeing me when I was a toddler. I got by with a few simple phrases I knew, and it was frustrating at times. I resorted to my trusted dictionary, which I always had at my side, but when all else failed, I performed 'charades.' With the little conversation that took place, I did learn the importance everyone placed on family. All of my cousins called me 'brother' and made me feel at home. We ate and we drank. With every cup of rice wine, I felt more at ease. I learned it was polite to drink in unison, with someone making a toast, and everyone else raising their glasses to each other. Not once in Taiwan did I see anyone drink without raising a glass to others at the table. I was showered with toasts and affection by people I had never met. They made me feel as if I had known them all my life and that I was accepted unconditionally. All of a sudden, I felt as if my 'family' grew from a dozen to hundreds of caring kinfolk. It was an overwhelming feeling I carried with me to my bed as I turned in that night. I was grateful for the relaxing songs of the tree frogs outside which lulled me to sleep.
First light was at 5:30 am, and I found myself awake and alone on the front porch while others slept off their hangovers. I stood spellbound, gazing at the mist-covered mountains the sun so graciously illuminated for me. The steep mountainsides, green with palms and bamboo, cradled the aboriginal village of Wulai like a loving mother. Waterfalls and cold, fast-running streams were everywhere, pouring into the river that flowed through the village. It was the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen in my world travels. I sat for hours soaking in the peacefulness, sharing the morning with the countless butterflies of all sizes and colors. I later discovered that the island, previously known as Formosa, was a butterfly collector's paradise, where many rare and beautiful species thrived. As I watched, I was certain their beauty was most appreciated there among the flora of the bamboo forests and not in glass display cases. There, among the lilies and wildflowers, they fed, providing the pollination necessary to keep the beauty of the bamboo forests alive. My spirit was lost in the shrouded canopies, and only the piercing crows of roosters disturbed the tranquility of my thoughts. I thought about the month to come and the wonders of the land and the people I had yet to discover.
In the following days, I quickly took care of business for my company, giving myself plenty of time to explore the island nation. I experienced the hustle and bustle of cities like Taichung and Taipei, where the East collided head on with the West. In Taipei, there were fabulous temples, luxury hotels and department stores among the expanse of high rises. Mazes of open-air markets could be found everywhere, assaulting the senses with everything from bright jade statues to ginger-infused cobra soup. With the best of the East, Taipei also had the worst of the West. There was the nightmare of traffic that made New York City rush hour seem like a joy ride. With that came air pollution so intense that it prompted many of the pedestrians to wear face masks. With millions of residents, Taipei had its share of social problems. Personally, my worst experience was eating the tiny, soggy hamburgers at McDonalds.
I spent most of my stay exploring the countryside away from the McDonalds, where I found life more peaceful and less disagreeable to my stomach. Taiwan is over ninety percent mountainous, so the landscape is dominated by steep terrain. I explored the peaceful forests and waterfalls near Wulai and fell in love with its steep, green mountainsides. The mountains of Wulai, however, seemed like molehills when I took a trip to the Central Mountain Range of the island.
We began by exploring the majesty of Sun-Moon Lake, a famous alpine lake near Taichung. We felt adventurous and took the central highway from Taichung to Hualien, and I use the word 'highway' loosely. This roller-coaster of a road hugged steep passes, spanned impressive gorges, and cut through at least a hundred tunnels. In many places, the two-lane marvel of engineering was reduced to one lane or less because of the rock slides. Luckily, we were in the skilled hands of an experienced Taipei city taxi driver. Every blind turn through the clouds revealed wondrous surprises, sometimes another car or truck and, occasionally, a bus blaring its horn. There was always a thousand-foot drop just a few feet away. My life must have passed before my eyes at least a dozen times during the drive. During one stretch, the road snaked over chilly peaks that were over ten thousand feet high. On the last leg of our trek, we toured the immense beauty of Taroko Gorge, nature's own marble masterpiece.
Finally, our journey ended at the cliffs of Hualien, a popular seaside resort. This one-hundred mile trip 'above the clouds' took us nearly seven hours and was the most exhilarating drive of my life.
I must have met hundreds of people during my stay, each with their own interesting story to tell. I learned some interesting things about the Taiwanese people. I was surprised to find such a low crime rate on this island of twenty-three million people. Anti-crime measures are extremely tough, and guns are banned. I believe the traditional values and strong family systems that still exist in Taiwan are largely responsible. Elders are treated with respect, and families usually live together or live nearby. Meals are enjoyed as social events, and family discussions are a part of every day life. Most of these people work long, hard hours and, usually work six days a week. So Sundays are especially important to the Taiwanese, who relish what little leisure time they have. I was surprised to find so much hope and prosperity from people living so precariously with their hostile 'big brother' next door. All males are required to serve in the military, as the shadow of China has always shaped the lives of these people. It was hard for me, as an American, to imagine living with my freedoms threatened daily.
I spent most of my time with my Atayal relatives, so I became most familiar with these people and their culture. The Taiwanese people generally consider the aborigines lower in social status because of their different background and primitive social history. With round Polynesian-looking eyes and faces, the beauty of the indigenous Taiwanese is widely revered.
The Atayal are simple people with a colorful past similar to that of our own native American Indians. They lived off the land, respecting and worshipping for its bounty. They farmed the hillsides and hunted on the mountaintops for monkey, snake and other game. (I only had the nerve to try a few aborigine delicacies like flying squirrel and wild mountain pig.) They had a peaceful co-existence with nature. The natives performed rituals in colorful native costumes, perhaps inspired by the colors of the butterflies and flowers around them.
Headhunting was a tradition of some tribes until the 1930s. Close-knit aborigine tribes valued fertility and were often polygamous resulting in large clans. With the settlement of Formosa by Portuguese and Chinese, large indigenous populations of Taiwan have disappeared, and most of their culture along with it. Nine aborigine tribes now share the island, each with its own language. There are only about 250,000 left and all have been 'modernized' by explorers, missionaries, occupying Japanese troops, and Chinese settlers. Some aboriginal culture has been preserved, however, in aboriginal villages as tourist attractions.
My relatives did not have more than one wife nor did they try to make off with my head. Those days were long over. They had become assimilated to their new society, becoming business leaders, government officials and teachers, all finding a place on the social ladder. My relatives were closely tied to their traditional values, with large families, kinship and worship still prominent in their lives. Their customs, generosity and beauty were inspiring to me.
But on one occasion, it did catch me off guard. At a festive family gathering, they summoned a young local girl I had just met. They had definite opinion about my being single and who was right for me. It was an awkward moment for us as they sat her next to me and bombarded her with questions. She was obviously very shy but respectfully answered. I found it hard to believe when they told me that if her parents did not have a good background, she would be no good for me. Nevertheless, they discovered the identity of her parents and were pleased. They were thrilled when they found out she was still a virgin. I was pulled aside by the family patriarch who suggested I give her a gift of 1000 NT (about $40). He said it was a traditional gesture of interest, but I refused on the grounds that I was an American and could not accept the idea. We spent the rest of that uncomfortable evening smiling and having our glasses filled for us as my relatives celebrated. The local girl and I did become friends and helped each other with our language differences.
By the time I left, I had finally become comfortable with speaking Mandarin. After being treated like a king, I had collected my priceless memories and was ready to return home. There were memories of my newfound family. There were memories of a home on the other side of the world. And there were memories of generous people working hard on their tiny island, nurturing their nation to grow and prosper.
Taiwan was truly a paradise, with people as colorful as the butterflies in the bamboo forest. I brought back with me something more valuable than new business clients. The knowledge that I was a part of something as rare and beautiful as the Atayal filled a hole in my heart.