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July 16, 2018

“I went looking for boats but came home with friends”

Michael Jacobson, W-72, Elsaesser Fellow

SEA Semester

Collage of people who I met and befriended on my trip

SEA Semester alumnus Michael Jacobson (W-72), the recipient of the 2018 Armin E. Elsaesser III Fellowship award, recently traveled to southern Taiwan to document the indigenous Tao people’s traditional boat building and fishing culture.

I went to Taiwan and Orchid Island to learn about a tribal fishing boat and I came back deeply appreciative about how small the world is, how generous and wonderful people are, and a sense of awe for the indigenous people of Taiwan. I did of course learn an amazing amount about the tatala fishing boats of the Daowu people, from their central role in helping pass on traditional skills and values with their construction to their continued use and importance in the Daowu’s resilient fishing culture in a rapidly changing society.

I learned which village my tatalas were from (Yeyin, on the east coast), I helped catch and prepare flying fish the traditional way, the rules/taboos required to ensure a bountiful catch, and I got to witness and even participate in flying fish ceremonies to summon the fish to Orchid Island. I also learned about Daowu traditional values such as sharing, egalitarian leadership, and demonstrating (rather than announcing) your achievements. Lastly, I started to understand the contemporary pressures facing the 2,400 Daowu residents: modernization, the constant press of majority Han Chinese culture, the global capitalist economy, and the legacy of nuclear waste storage on the island.

But those facts and ethnographic knowledge, while valuable intellectually, were not as impactful to me as the deep and profound relationships that I developed. Having time (as in weeks and months rather than hours and days), speaking a common language, knowing someone local, and being there in the off-season allowed me to get to be with people on their terms, in their community, on their time.

A central premise of my fellowship was that relationships take time and the more time I could spend in community, the richer and deeper my understanding would be. The Elsaesser Fellowship allowed me this unique time in my life to enrich my knowledge, and to make lasting relationships with incredible and wonderful people on the other side of the world.

- Michael Jacobson, W-72

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