An Aboriginal New Year in Taiwan

The train ride to Taitung always impresses me. Although, I departed Taipei in the afternoon/evening, I was still able to catch majestic glimpses of the sun setting on the mountains of central Taiwan and the last glimmers of light over the Pacific Ocean.

An Aboriginal New Year in Taiwan

As I passed the popular stations of Yilan, Hualien, Xincheng (for Taroko Gorge), I finally arrived in Taitung. The total train ride takes about five hours, but with the ambrosial sites along the way the train trip is a site in itself.

台東車站

Arrival: The Rush

I got off the bus to an eagerly awaiting friend and his small, quaint Nissan Verita. As soon as I got off the train there was no time to waste. We needed to drop off my luggage at the hostel and go straight to my friend’s relative’s house for a quick dinner and drinking to celebrate the new Year. The drinking intrigued this Russian-American the most.

As with most parts of the world, drinking is a large part of the New Year’s celebration. Aboriginals in Taiwan brew a lot of their own alcohol and liquor, some of it clearing the 55% alcohol mark; however, this evening it was good ol’ classic Taiwan beer on the menu.pic_for_T-271x300

Post-Work/Hunting Snacks and Drinks

When we started drinking, we started drinking fast. In Taiwan, among other places in Asia, during dinners and occasions where large groups gather together, it’s common to drink beer out of small cups or glasses, as opposed to drinking straight out of the can/bottle. One can either sip the beer from said glasses or do a cheers (“乾杯 gan bei” lit. dry cup) where typically one will drink the entire glass. For this particular occasion we were consistently making cheers.

New Year’s is a really special occasion for aboriginal Taiwanese. In the past, Aboriginals were able to hunt as though saw fit (they are actually one of the only groups of people in Taiwan allowed to own a real gun – strictly for hunting purposes). Nowadays aboriginals are restricted from hunting animals except for this celebration, so it’s a big reason to rejoice and celebrate these traditions passed down from generation to generation.

As we continued to drink and eat I was introduced to some of the food that had been hunted over the past three days prior to the new year celebration. One of the dishes caught me by surprise. “Here, try some mouse!” My friend’s uncle enthusiastically suggested. I’ve never been one to turn down a strange food dish, so I did. A bit gamey, but overall, tastes like chicken.

Community

The predominant aboriginal tribe in Taitung is Puyuma (also known as Pinuyumayan, Peinan, or Peinan). It’s the sixth largest aboriginal group in Taiwan and there are thirteen villages that encompass the Puyuma tribe. We were celebrating within one of those thirteen villages, which I’ll leave unnamed for the sake of anonymity.

As we traversed through the small village we could hear the sound of bells ringing from the traditional clothing of the Beinan tribe. In addition to the rhythmic sound of bells we passed groups of people wearing traditional Beinan dress. Most people in the area were making their way up a sloped road to the local elementary school, located toward the top of the street.

The garments they wear also signify whether they have reached adulthood – given the responsibility of hunting. The multi-colored attire, mainly red, green, yellow, black, and women wearing plain-colored long-sleeved shirts under a multi-colored dress, are worn by the older age groups. Male teenagers wear simpler garments signifying they have not yet reached the age to hunt.

Celebration and Fireworks

Once we arrived at the school we entered the covered outdoor basketball court where the dancing and festivities were taking place. Small children were the first people we saw celebrating the festival. They were dancing around the large, log-burning fire in the middle of the basketball court. As a symbol of passing down tradition they are one of the first groups to dance around the fire.

The next group of people rotated in and out of the dance circle for the remainder of the night. This group consisted of Beinan aboriginals, guests, teenagers, and even a foreigner (me). The dancing consisted of holding hands with the people, not directly next to you, but the next person over, on both sides. The steps were a series of cross step maneuvers with a few crouches and jumps. Although, the steps are repeated over and over, they still aren’t so simple to remember!

Finally, no New Year’s celebration is complete without fireworks. At midnight as the fireworks lit up the Taitung sky, I reveled at the fact I was with an aboriginal Taiwanese tribe, celebrating the new year. Life truly is full of mystery and wonder.

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About 

Vadim Rubin is an ethnic Belarussian learning to speak Mandarin Chinese. He is a coach, teacher, linguist, athlete, and an aspiring world traveler. As an avid volleyball player and coach, he spends a majority of his time on the court with sweaty volleyball junkies. Off the court he enjoys to travel, write, and teach world languages. He is now back in Taiwan teaching English, traveling, and discovering what life has to offer.

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