Exploring and Preserving Connections to the Diverse Cultures of Taiwan through Upper School Initiative Formosa Club

By Lindsey Kundel, Director of Communications

Photos courtesy of Nathan L. ('22)

Initiative Formosa, an upper school student-led organization, has big goals: to connect TAS students with the larger and diverse cultures of Taiwan through service projects and other activities. Although it is only in its second year of existence, Alan L. ('22), its president and one of the co-founders, said that it's not like other student organizations in that it's not trying to just raise money to send outside the country or pad student resumes for college. Instead, the organization is trying to tackle a very large mission: to prevent Taiwan's unique cultural identity from fading away.

"For our generation in Taiwan, especially at TAS, there seems to be a really strong disconnect between our American sides and our Taiwanese influence," said Alan. "While Taiwan's culture does have a very strong influence on TAS, when it does, it always seems to focus mainly on the Mandarin cultural influences. I'm very proud of this side, too, but the problem here is that it ends up leaving out the many other sides of Taiwan."

Taiwan is a truly multicultural island, influenced by many different groups from around the world over its history including its Indigenous peoples, the Taiwanese, the Dutch, the Han Chinese, Qing-era China, Imperial Japan, postwar China, and many other cultures - including the United States. One can see these influences in ethnicity, language, religion, food, and art in varying ways all around the island. While Mandarin Chinese is the official language of the region, the language with the most native speakers in Taiwan is Taiwanese Hokkien (spoken by about 70% of the population). Around 10% of Taiwan's population speak Hakka.

According to recent statistics, there are 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes in Taiwan with a total population of 579,590 as of August 2021. (Taiwan's total population hovers near 24 million as of September estimates by the UN.) Many of the Formosan languages of the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan are gradually disappearing, and government programs have been created to help preserve the languages of these 16 distinct groups. These groups include the Amis, Atayal, Paiwan, Bunun, Puyuma, Rukai, Tsou, Saisiyat, Yami, Thao, Kavalan, Truku, Sakizaya, Sediq, Hla'alua and Kanakanavu, each of which has its own distinct culture, language, and customs. Many Indigenous peoples are aware of the need for increased native language learning as a way to inherit traditional culture and linguistic heritage, and, as a result, more and more Indigenous language-based kindergarten and lower schools have begun to appear across Taiwan. This includes the development of the Indigenous Experimental Education program, a government-sponsored initiative started in 2014, which sponsors curriculum development throughout many junior high and high schools.

Alan says that the pluralistic culture of Taiwan is an important thing that he wants to try to preserve, especially at TAS because of the third-culture identities of many who attend. "It's my people, and I really want to see the legacies of my ancestors and those who came from them," said Alan. "I want to both honor and remember their legacy through this club."

One recent project that Initiative Formosa undertook involved forming a partnership with a local Atayal school in Jianshi township in Hsinchu county. Jianshi Jr. High School, the partner school, is part of the government-sponsored Indigenous Experimental Education program.

"We hosted a workshop outing with the students that culminated in designing a t-shirt that is currently for sale in the Tiger Shop," said Alan. "We're selling this t-shirt that they designed as part of the workshop we facilitated not only to the TAS community but to the general public as well. This project will help us not only promote their aboriginal culture and design but will also help us to raise funds for their education."

The t-shirt design features a very important tool, a type of scythe called a lalau or sawki [佩刀/工作刀], used by the Atayal community. "The tool is used to harvest foxtail millet [trakis in Atayal, or 小米 in Chinese]," said Alan. "Millet is considered a very sacred crop in their culture because it is said to be granted by their ancestral spirits."

Alan says that IF ended up choosing to feature the scythe prominently on the shirt because it's an important tool not only for their livelihood but also for their culture. On the front of the shirt, you can see two different scythe designs showing different patterns that are commonly used in that Atayal community.

Alan says that the workshops are an important part of this club's work for several reasons. First, he says that any time that TAS students are able to leave campus, leave Tianmu, leave Taipei, and spend time with people who are different from them, real learning can occur. "When you go to another place, you're able to explore that area culturally," said Alan. "It's also very enlightening to experience the culture in person instead of from a book."

Another reason why Initiative Formosa conducts this type of workshop is that, while the TAS students lead and facilitate some workshops, he knows that teaching and learning occur on both sides of the students - those from the school in Hsinchu county and those from TAS. On a recent trip, Alan said that he was able to visit and see replicas of the traditional huts that Atayal ancestors have been building for generations, replicas that those students continue to make.

The TAS students were welcomed to Jianshi Jr. High School by the students with an "enchanting" welcome song in the students' Aboriginal language. Afterward, the TAS students led a workshop in the afternoon that was split into two parts - first a seminar-style discussion of what culture means, what home means, and how our traditions relate to both of those ideas.

Afterward, the TAS group led the students in an artistic workshop related to those larger themes. "We brought some of our art supplies and eventually ended up drawing out different designs for what they thought would best represent their own culture and promote them in the larger Taiwan community," said Alan.

Alan ultimately describes the partnership with this local school as truly "symbiotic," something which is important to him. "We want the workshop to be valuable and engaging for all students as they think about what their identity is and how their cultural identity relates to the rest of Taiwan."

Want to find out more? Be sure to visit the Tiger Shop to check out the final t-shirt design for yourself in support of both TAS students and those at Jianshi Jr. High School. If you'd like to get involved, feel free to message Alan at the IF Facebook or Instagram pages found here: