How a Summer with Artists in Taiwan Taught Me to Be a ‘Real’ Reporter

By Dana Ter October 7th, 2014

Whenever I spoke Mandarin in Taiwan, the response I usually received was: “Ni bushi Taiwan ren ma?” You’re not Taiwanese?

As a teenager, this question made me feel self-conscious because I wanted to fit in. But during my past summer as a freelance reporter in Taiwan, I discovered my American-accented Mandarin was a way to get potential interviewees interested in talking to me.

I explained I lived in New York, but my heritage was Southeast Asian and Chinese. I grew up as an “expat kid” living in ten different countries, and attended Taipei American School from ages 11 to 18, hence my “funny” accent. The bottom line was people in Taiwan loved meeting foreigners who loved Taiwan. The key to winning their trust was presenting myself as a hybrid of local and foreigner who would share Taiwanese stories with the rest of the world.

So there I was, in the middle of nowhere on my next reporting mission. It was 100 degrees, and I was languishing in a puddle of my own sweat in the back of my friend’s rickety jeep as we pulled away from Taipei, anxious about the possibility of being attacked by Hsinchu County’s infamous flying squirrels.

Just six weeks earlier, I was fed up with my humdrum New York existence and daily conversations about hot yoga, Chobani yogurt, and making fun of hipsters. Running out of exciting stories to pitch locally, I bought a plane ticket back to Taipei, determined to immerse myself in the freelancing-art scene while writing stories that really mattered.

Chingchuan (which means “clear springs” in Mandarin) is a small village and home to the Atayal tribe of Taiwan. Tucked in the mountains of Hsinchu County, its claim to fame is Chang Hseuh-liang, the warlord who kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in 1936 and resided there during his 40-year house arrest. My friends and I, however, were not going there to see the exiled warlord’s house.

We were a crew of expat freelance filmmakers, photographers, and writers. My friends had all lived in Taiwan for years, and the rest of the group consisted of Jonathan, an Australian; Tobie, a South African; and Choncy, a Taiwanese-American from California.

Jonathan had been volunteering at the elementary school at Chingchuan where he encountered a 14-year-old Atayal girl named Tapas who was a budding photographer. During our trip, the filmmakers planned to shoot footage for a crowd-sourced campaign that was raising money to fund new camera equipment for Tapas. My job was to write a story for the Taipei Times about a young girl who was shattering stereotypes of aboriginal people with photography.

My friends had warned me about how skeptical aboriginal people are when asked to talk to “outsiders.” Tourists usually expected to see aborigines dancing dressed in tribal costumes. And reporters typically wanted to write stories about an oppressed and marginalized community suffering from problems like alcoholism and illiteracy.

With this in mind, I tried not to bring up stereotypes when speaking to Tapas. Instead, I bonded with her over our love of Korean pop music and the frustration that comes from looking young for our ages. She told me about her childhood dream of becoming a model and shared stories about her boisterous family. Slowly, she opened up about her photography.

For example, Tapas told me she photographed her baby cousins because they reminded her of more innocent times. And she described how she went on a walk and took pictures of the mountaintop fog because it made her feel calm after a fight with a classmate. Only at the end of our talk did I broach topics on Atayal culture. Her answer was brilliant: “I don’t feel oppressed or marginalized at all, which is how people might expect us to feel.”

Showing empathy and understanding is always critical if you’re trying to build trust with interviewees, but if you’re reporting from a foreign place about a minority community, it’s even more important. Taking the time and effort to immerse yourself in the local landscape helps, as does building a network of like-minded contacts who are familiar with a particular culture. I wouldn’t have found out about Tapas’ rewarding story without guidance from Jonathan, Tobie, and Choncy.

In my article published in the Taipei Times, I wrote: “Tapas’ pride in her Atayal culture is evident in her pictures but in a different and subtle way. Her portraitures capture everyday life in Chingchuan, from special occasions like birthday gatherings to friends having a chat. The message she wishes to convey is that Atayal people do the same things other people do.”

My interview with Tapas would be the first of many heartfelt conversations I had with freelance artists during the summer. Through the help of my freelancer friends, I felt I had discovered an untapped niche covering the under-appreciated artistic community in Taiwan.

A week after meeting Tapas, I was sitting in a breezy art gallery surrounded by earthy paintings in the middle of Taipei. I glanced around, and Yosifu, the painter and owner of the art gallery who was another one of Jonathan’s contacts, joked to me that visitors normally expected aboriginal art galleries to be decorated with wood and stone carvings. Having lived in Edinburgh, Yosifu spoke English with a slight Scottish accent. He was from the Amis tribe in Hualien, in central-eastern Taiwan.

He was grateful I refrained from asking why his paintings didn’t contain any noticeable symbols of aboriginal culture and described his artwork as “modern aboriginal art” because it contained a lot of colors, contours, and abstract meanings. As I wrote in a second article in the Taipei Times, “Yosifu acknowledges the importance of preserving aboriginal culture through his artwork, but he believes that linking it to environmental concerns makes it more relatable to viewers.”

Yosifu mentioned reporters were often shocked to find out his paintings sold at a high-end market price. “It’s as if people think that aboriginal art is not worth much,” he said.

Even if it wasn’t explicit in their artwork, the aboriginal artists I interviewed exuded a noticeable pride. They wanted to explain the nuances of their work, but only to journalists who cared about getting their stories right. I was hooked. The artists were showing me a different side to the Taiwan I thought I knew. These interactions made me feel most alive and like a “real” reporter.

Travelers say the journey is more important than the destination. Although getting the scoop is the ultimate goal of every journalist, as I found out firsthand, interesting journeys and quirky people make the best stories.

Image by Dana Ter
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