Raised by her grandparents in a small farming village in Nantou County’s Yuchi (魚池) township, Frida Tsai (蔡培慧) had an identity crisis when she, then a young teen, moved to Taipei to live with her parents, and found everything she learned as part of her childhood upbringing was derided or seen as backward. Speaking proper Mandarin became the first priority on her study list so that others wouldn’t detect her rural origins.
For years, Tsai wanted to run away from home, but at the same time couldn’t stop longing to return to it.
“When I think of home, I think of the traditional sanheyuan residential compounds in Yuchi … For my generation, returning to the country was never an option. To have a bright future and strive for the best means to become a city person,” says Tsai, who is now an assistant professor at Shih Hsin University’s Graduate Institute for Social Transformation Studies.
Yet Tsai is not your typical academic. The university teacher goes out on the streets, organizes demonstrations and helps to lead hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands, of protestors as the spokeswoman of the Taiwan Rural Front (TRF, 台灣農村陣線), a social justice group dedicated to working with victims of the government’s forced land seizures and pushing for law and policy reforms.
Tsai attributes her social enlightenment to the experiences she had when working as an assistant to former indigenous lawmaker Walis Pelin. She particularly remembers a visit to a Paiwan (排灣) home in the then-Taipei County’s Shulin (樹林) to promote the Employment Service Act (就業服務法), which requires companies with more than 100 employees to hire indigenous workers.
Tsai walked into a small rented apartment, finding not one but three Paiwan families living there, the parents working as laborers in the construction industry. One of them asked Tsai if she knew of any job opportunities.
“I cried after leaving the apartment, feeling like a phony and realizing how huge the gap is between what the law stipulates on paper and what individuals need in real life,” Tsai recalls.
In 1999, the magnitude 7 quake brought Tsai back to her childhood home, which had collapsed during the catastrophe. The Nantou native immediately threw herself into reconstruction projects. Through issuing funds to help survivors rebuild homes, Tsai came face to face with a completely different set of ideas and practices regarding land and ownership. In the countryside, for example, houses are sold, bought and inherited without legal records as people oftentimes “forget there is a thing called ‘the state.’” Many are built on public land; some, according to the title deeds that turn yellow with age, still belong to people who lived a hundred years ago.
Tsai and her colleagues had to indulge, argue and fight with government officials who didn’t understand why the fund should go into building “illegal housing.”
“In a modern system, it is important to have everything clearly registered. In the eyes of capitalism, ambiguity is not good because it impedes trade. But to country folk, there is nothing wrong with it. It is their shared cultural legacy,” Tsai says.
“The law becomes too limited and inadequate when we try to apply it to different cultures. The city has its own logic, and the country has its rurality,” she adds.
Consequently, when the TRF was founded in 2008 by a group of farmers, academics and students campaigning against the ill-conceived Rural Revitalization Act (農村再生條例), the farmers’ rights organization wanted not only to understand what really happens in rural communities, but learn how farmers think, and how they perceive everyday life.