Literature in Translation: “Liu Qí-Wei’s Life as an Adventurer” by Liu Níng-Sheng

In 1993, I went to Papua New Guinea with my dad, Liú Qíwěi, who was then 82 years old. On our trip he lamented: “life has a way of messing with me: When I had the energy to travel, no one would sponsor my research; now that I’m old and have sponsors, I’ve lost all my energy.” However, when he was seventy, he was still researching different aboriginal tribes and collecting data on the Borneo culture. My dad was a strong man.

At our last stop in Papua New Guinea, everyone was suffering from mosquitoes bites along the Sepik river. Even with the most potent bug spray, the mosquitoes were unstoppable; and because I was filming and had to keep a steady hand, the mosquitoes were unscrupulous in their attacks. By the time I told my dad, “I’m not sure I can take this any longer,” my hands were utterly swollen. Seeing my condition, my dad finally agreed to go home with me a few days earlier than planned and we never went further up the river.  I was once bitten by fleas when we were in the Tali highlands in China. It was extremely itchy and the swell from the bite was as large as a water glass. To stop the swelling, a shaman grabbed a few bushels of urtica thunbergiana, pulled up my shirt, and repeatedly hit my body with them. The excruciating pain left me covered in cold sweat; however, the ritual also stopped the itching. Throughout the whole trip, my father was pickier than I was about our diet, which consisted of “vegetables,” also known as tree leaves, combined with fish, canned meat, or crackers. With no variety day in and day out, he became tired of the meals and would sometimes skip lunch and just drink water instead. What he enjoyed most was instant coffee, so we brought some of that with us.

From that adventure I learned of my father’s deep respect for foreign cultures–he never treated the people as lower class, the way most travelers would. When I once again traveled through Papua New Guinea, I saw that most tourists didn’t judge foreign cultures fairly. Instead, they would use the cultural perspectives innate in them to criticize a local culture. For example, when purchasing food, they would say, “So dirty!” or “Is this edible?” These attitudes are indeed worth discussing.

When I sat on the floor with a Papua New Guinean to chat, I could tell from the body language of other tourists why cultural exchanges are so difficult. They don’t have the desire to understand, let alone identify [with the locals]. The Papa New Guinean later said to me: “You’re the only one who’s willing to sit with us, to identify with us.” How tedious would life be if the whole world spoke only one language, ate the same food, and dressed the same? Through my dad’s mentoring and influence, I learned the importance of respecting other cultures. When I once passed through Tahiti, I noticed that the aboriginals were working hard to restore their native music and dance after enduring foreign influence over the past hundreds of years.

When Paul Gauguin went to Tahiti, he argued with the local government, which was trying to suppress the local culture after missionaries were offended by the perceived flirtation of the native dances. In fact, promoting reproduction and the longevity of their culture was the essence of their dances. Many aboriginals are fond of war; some are even cannibals and head hunters. Aboriginals partake in cannibalism believing that it allows them to attain the spirit and wisdom of the hunted, whom they see as their respected enemies. [But without understanding], we criticize their cultures and customs, and simply think that their behaviors are amoral and uncivilized. However, we need to first learn about their culture to understand the reasoning behind such ceremonies. These are all lessons I learned from my father.

Vocabulary:

  1. 巴布亞紐幾內亞 (Bā bùyà Niǔ Jī nèi yà)-Papua New Guinea. This usage is most common in Taiwan.  Abbreviated version: 巴紐(Bāniǔ).
  2. 感嘆 (gǎn tàn)-To sigh, to lament.
  3. 造化 (zào huà)-Nature, the creator.
  4. 弄人(nòng rén)-To mess with someone.
  5. 部落 (bù luò)- Tribe.
  6. 原住民 (yuán zhù mín)-Indigenous peoples / aborigine.
  7. 婆羅洲 (pó luó zhōu)-Borneo.
  8. 採集 (cǎijí)-To gather,  to collect, to harvest.
  9. 熬 (áo)-Endure.
  10. 防蚊藥 (fáng wén yào)- Bug (mosquito) spray. 防: to protect , to defend, to prevent. 蚊: mosquito. 藥: drug, medicine.
  11. 吃不消 (chī bu xiāo)-To be unable to tolerate or endure / to find sth difficult to manage
  12. 肆無忌憚 (sì wú jì dàn)- Unrestrained; unscrupulous. 肆: indulge. 無: without. 忌: fear. 憚: to shrink (from fear).
  13. 跳蚤 (tiào zao)-Fleas.
  14. 巫師 (wū shī)-Wizard, magician.
  15. 咬人貓 (yǎo rén māo)-Urtica thunbergiana.
  16. 民族 (mín zú)-Nationality, ethnic group.
  17. 商榷(shāng què)-To discuss, to bring up for discussion.
  18. 認識 (rèn shi)-To understand, to become acquainted to.
  19. 認同(rèn tóng)- To identify with, to recognize, to approve of.
  20. 薰陶 (xūn táo)-Influence.
  21. 風俗 (fēng sú)-Custom (social).
  22. 壓制 (yā zhì)-Suppress.
  23. 傳教士 (chuán jiào shì)-Missionary.
  24. 西匹河 (xī pī hé)- Sepik river.
  25. 大溪地 (dà xī dì)-Tahiti.

Original commentary, “劉其偉的探險生涯,” by 劉寧生著, from 聯合報副刊. Dated November 14, 2011.

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