Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Young man with a mission: Language activist Jimmy Huang (Highway 11)

Jimmy Huang is a special assistant to the chairwoman of the Siraya Culture Association (SCA). This Tainan County-based group is endeavoring to reconstruct Sirayan culture and win government recognition for the Siraya tribe, a lowland aboriginal group that used to dominate Southwest Taiwan, but whose language has not been spoken for a hundred years.

In 2008, Huang was awarded a grant by the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a charity registered in the United Kingdom, to help fund the preparation of Sirayan-language teaching materials and the compilation of a Sirayan dictionary. Highway 11 recently interviewed Huang, a PhD student at the University of Florida, by e-mail.

H11: When did you realize you were of Siraya descent?

HUANG: In the summer of 2005, I came back to Taiwan and visited the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung. There I saw a display entitled ‘Siraya tools’ that included fishing equipment, bamboo utensils and a cradle. I realized that these things were common in my own home. I was confused because back then I had thought of myself simply as a ‘Taiwanese’ – ethnically speaking, Southern Min. I called my native home in Jiali Township, Tainan County, to ask about my identity. Surprisingly, the elders in my home told me, “Oh yes, our family is actually ‘fwan-a’ [‘barbarian’ in Taiwanese].” That’s when I first learned I was in fact a Siraya aborigine. The discovery of my true identity got me into thinking about issues such as the social connotation of labeling and the survival of minority languages in modern nation-states: Why did my folks feel ashamed about our aboriginal ethnicity...

The rest of the interview can be read online.

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