MicSem Publications

Youth Drinking in Micronesia

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

March 1992 (MC #06) Alcohol & Drugs Social Issues

Alcohol in Micronesia

Alcoholic beverages are clearly a Western contribution to Micronesia. Prior to European contact, the peoples of Micronesia possessed no alcoholic beverages at all, not even tuba, although the drug substances of betelnut and kava were used on some islands. The earliest European visitors to the islands carried on shipboard wine and liquor, which they occasionally offered to islanders as a sign of good will. As contact with Europeans became more intense during the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century, islanders observed the strange changes in mood and behavior that alcohol produced. When local people finally began to purchase gin and rum from foreign traders, and even to ferment and distill their own beverages, it was in order to place themselves under the odd but enchanting spell of "the water that takes away one's wits." They were quick to learn that the purpose of imbibing alcohol was to become intoxicated.

The brawling and boisterous conduct that frequently followed upon local drinking led the colonial powers that ruled Micronesia from 1885 on to ban alcohol among the islanders. Although the Spanish in the Carolines were rather lax in the enforcement of this ban, the Germans and later the Japanese imposed a strict prohibition on all alcoholic beverages for local people, a policy that was continued through the early years of American administration after World War II. By the late 1950s, however, there was a growing reaction among Micronesians against the discriminatory liquor policy of former years and an insistence that the laws be changed to allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages by local people. In early 1959 the public sale of beer was permitted in Palau, and in subsequent months in the other districts of Micronesia as well. By the summer of 1960 further changes in the legislation were made to allow for the sale of distilled beverages as well.

This liberalization of liquor laws happened to coincide with the increase of US funding for the Trust Territory, a move that led to the availability of more jobs and gradual pay raises for Micronesian government employees, as well as the growth of the work force in district centers. In a word, there was more money around with which to purchase beer and liquor, and more people in town to enjoy these pleasures. The consequence of all of this was, quite predictably, a good amount of drunkenness and mayhem, as anyone who has lived through these years can attest.

In the three decades since the repeal of prohibition, alcohol has become a mainstay in a social life of virtually all the towns and many of the villages in Micronesia. Between 1969 and 1977, the only years for which dollar figures of imported alcoholic beverages are recorded, consumption of beer and liquor increased steadily. Expenditures on alcohol rose from 4.6% of the total value of imports in 1969 to about 8% of the dollar value of imports in 1977. Even with allowances made for inflation and population growth, the yearly per capita expenditure on alcohol during this period rose from about $13.50 to over $34. The per capita expenditure on alcohol in Yap ($66) and Palau ($54) has been considerably higher than in other island groups.

The Drinking Problem Among Youth

Drinking among youth has become rampant during the past thirty years and, in the judgment of most observers, has given rise to a host of community problems. The impromptu parties at which bleary-eyed young men pass around the vodka bottle seem to end all too often in fighting or worse. In his report on youth in Micronesia published some years ago, Michael Kenney states that 90% of all arrests of juveniles under the age of 18 were for "illegal possession and consumption of alcohol; disturbing the peace while under the influence of alcohol, assault and battery while under the influence of alcohol; vandalism while under the influence of alcohol; and burglary and larceny to get alcohol or money to purchase alcoholic beverages." That trend appears to continue through later youth, a period of life that is culturally defined as extending through the late 20's and early 30's in most Micronesian societies. It appears that, at least in the last three decades, it is the youth who are responsible for most of the crime, and it is alcohol that furnishes the impetus or the occasion for most of their criminal acts.

To explore the problem of youth drinking in greater depth, the Micronesian Seminar, the research-pastoral institute of the Catholic Diocese of the Caroline and Marshall Islands, conducted a three-day working seminar in Kolonia, Pohnpei. The seminar was attended by over twenty participants representing Palau, the Marshalls, the Northern Marianas, and each of the states in the FSM, as well as the outer islands of Yap.

Alcohol use and abuse has been the subject of numerous past conferences in the Trust Territory, but more often than not these have treated the problem of youth drinking from the perspective of the clinical psychologist or social case worker, as a symptom of personal maladjustment or social malaise among the young in Micronesia. This seminar took a different approach altogether, more that of the cultural anthropologist than of the social case worker. The major aim of the conference was to examine as thoroughly as possible in the limited time available the cultural meaning and context of alcohol use in the different Micronesian societies. Instead of isolating youth drinking from the cultures in which it has become so deeply embedded, as has been done so often in the past, we proposed to examine how and why alcohol is utilized in our island societies.

Who Drinks?

Participants from just about every area agreed that drinking is a predominantly male activity. There are times and places, particularly in connection with village celebrations, at which female drinking is countenanced–this appears to be especially true in Palau and in the outer islands of Yap during major community events–but in general female drinking is looked upon as unseemly. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a growing number of women, especially young women, who are drinking today. For the most part, these female drinkers fall into two distinct groups: bar girls and other young hangers-on in the towns who, despite the loose reputation they have often acquired for themselves, still tend to drink as inconspicuously as possible; and young women with some years of college abroad, who tend to drink openly as if in defiance of the traditional norms governing female behavior.

In most parts of Micronesia, drinking is regarded as an activity in which principally, though not exclusively, young men engage. The general feeling among the participants was that drinking is looked upon as something akin to a rite of passage into adulthood. Parents and older members of the community, while they may counsel against drinking and bemoan its disruptive effects in the home and village, fully expect that young men will drink regardless, since they see drinking as an inevitable part of growing up. About the best they can hope for, it would seem, is that drinking will be done discreetly and out of sight of themselves and other authority figures and that the secrecy that surrounds it will inhibit any public display of drunkenness.

Since drinking is primarily a youth activity, it is not surprising to find that the great majority of young men engage in this pastime on at least an occasional basis. Mac Marshall in Weekend Warriors, reports that in one village on Moen, 50 out of 57 of the males in the age group of 18-25 drank from time to time. Participants from all areas except Kosrae, where the strongly established church frowns upon the use of alcohol, confirmed the fact that a very high percentage of male youth engage in some drinking, and even in Kosrae there are some young men who flout church rules and engage in clandestine drinking parties. The exceptions are almost always young men with strong church affiliations: members of the smaller sects that strongly oppose drinking (eg, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses), and young people who are active in Protestant or Catholic church groups like the Mwichen Asor, a Chuukese church group whose members take a religious pledge to abstain from alcohol for varying periods of time.

Drinking patterns everywhere seem to undergo a marked change when young men enter adulthood, usually around their early 30's. In Chuuk it is expected that young men will gradually decrease the frequency and amount that they drink as they are making the transition to adulthood, and eventually stop altogether in conformity with the requirements of their new status in the community. Most Pohnpeian adults seem to give up drinking alcohol, except perhaps on a very occasional basis, and turn to traditional Pohnpeian sakau instead. In other parts of Micronesia, adult males may be under less social pressure to give up drinking itself, but they are expected to alter their behavior when drinking and to shun the recklessness and fighting that is associated with youth drinking patterns. The facts seem to indicate that many males in Palau, Yap and the Marshalls do continue drinking as adults. In most cases these are government employees or others earning a regular salary, usually men in their 30's or 40's, who drink regularly on weekends. Although these adult drinkers rarely cause any public disturbance, their numbers include those who might be called "hard-core" drinkers or out-and-out alcoholics. According to a survey once conducted in Palau, 30% of the drinkers in this category become intoxicated nearly every weekend. In Yap, where much more of the drinking takes place in homes rather than in bars, some men may have a small backyard party virtually every evening. The damage done by this class of more mature drinkers is not as immediately visible as that of youth, participants agreed, but it is probably more serious because of the strained relationship and economic hardships that their drinking brings upon their families.

How and When Do They Drink?

Drinking patterns differ so widely throughout Micronesia that it might be well to describe briefly the conditions in each island group before making any generalizations.

In Yap, Palau, and the Marshalls, alcohol has been incorporated to a greater or less extent into major community events. In Palau, in the villages as well as Koror, drinking has become a standard part of virtually every large community event, particularly weddings, funerals and the traditional celebration in honor of women at the birth of their first child. In Yap, alcohol is widely served at village feasts, weddings and funerals, but it has still not yet become acceptable at the novena party that is held nine days after a death. Beer is also frequently distributed at the Yapese mitmit, a traditional ceremony held in honor of a special event in the life of the family or community. Moreover, beer is becoming a part of the ritual of hospitality in the villages; a can of Budweiser is offered to visitors today the way coconuts were in former days. The Marshalls, with its large Protestant population and long tradition of church opposition to drinking, has not incorporated alcohol into community social activities to the same degree as these other islands. Only on the semi-urban settlements of Majuro and Ebeye is alcohol used in community celebrations, and there only on certain occasions and among more liberal families.

In the remaining island groups–Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae–alcohol is not used to any great degree in community events. The traditional sakau is the preferred drink of Pohnpei and is used at all village celebrations and feasts. Alcohol is still not used openly at such occasions, although it is "coming in the back door," as one participant remarked when commenting on the recent practice of dispensing liquor in coffee cups to dignitaries seated on the platform of the meeting house. In Kosrae, an island on which drinking has been legally permitted only since 1977, alcoholic beverages are very rarely served at community functions; when they are provided, it is usually for the sake of off-island guests. For Chuuk, alcohol is decidedly not a part of the formal social life of the community; it is used in virtually no weddings, funerals, village or island feasts, or family celebrations. Drinking has been integrated into none of the traditional social institutions in Chuuk.

Apart from the festive drinking that is carried on at community events, there is the usual recreational drinking that occurs during leisure time, especially on weekends. This type of drinking is far more common throughout most of Micronesia and the usual venue is either the bar or the bush. Both serve their different functions and their different clienteles.

For the most part, those who patronize bars are older persons with a steady income, if only because drinks there are far more expensive than at a take-out store. Yet, there are exceptions. In Koror, for instance, the bars are age-graded much as the traditional clubhouses were fifty or a hundred years ago. There are more expensive and more comfortable places to which the higher paid government employees go for a drink, while at the other end of the spectrum there are disco bars with blaring music that draw crowds of young people in their late teens and twenties. The same is true of Majuro and Saipan, two islands that also have a great number of different types of bars.

Most of the drinking done by youth, however, takes place in the bush. Typically, a small group of friends will pool their resources and go to a package store to buy a bottle of vodka or a case of beer; they will then go off to an out-of-the-way spot and begin drinking until their supply is exhausted. Vodka or other hard liquor is drunk more frequently than beer because it offers more "kick" for the dollar. Whatever form of alcohol is chosen, the drinking group will do its best to finish every last drop before the group disbands and the young men return to their homes. "While it is there, enjoy it all because you may not have the chance again" is the ordinary attitude towards drink just as it has always been towards food and other perishables.

There are other reasons besides financial ones for the predilection of young people for bush drinking. For one thing, teenage drinkers can more easily circumvent the legal restrictions on the sale of alcohol to minors by simply asking an older person to buy their whiskey or beer for them and then retiring to a secluded spot away from the prying eyes of the police and other authorities. Privacy is an important concern for young drinkers, even for those who have reached the legal drinking age, since they know that their families, village and church leaders, and other adult members of the community generally disapprove of their drinking.

Why Do Youth Drink?

It has often been suggested that alcohol abuse and the kinds of deviant behavior can, to a large extent, be explained by rapid cultural change and the discontinuities and tensions that it has brought to modern-day Micronesia. Rapid change brings about a sense of rootlessness as it disrupts traditional institutions and values, and this in turn leads to anomie or "crazy" behavior among the young. While there is undoubtedly some truth to this assumption, such an approach fails to take account of the fact that drinking and other so-called "deviant behavior" can actually perform positive functions in certain tension-laden areas of society. They can, for instance, provide an aggressive outlet for youth that is relatively harmless, certainly much less so than a head-on confrontation with adults. Looked at in this perspective, drinking may serve as a culturally accepted device to defuse generational conflict, a sign of the cultural stability rather than disintegration.

Expression. Drinking serves several functions for young people. First, it provides them with the opportunity to express themselves despite the severe restraints on self-expression that Micronesian cultures impose on the young. It allows them to give vent to emotions that it would not otherwise be proper to express. The way that many young Micronesians would put this is that drinking gives them the "courage" to do or say things that they could not do or say if sober. This self-expression may take any number of different forms: voicing a grievance against some older member of the family, talking freely with an attractive girl, or even provoking a fight with another young man who has been the object of a long-standing grudge. One person tells of a young Yapese father inviting his American neighbor to share a case of beer with him in the backyard. After a few cans of beer, the Yapese mentioned that he was offended at the scolding given to his children by the American earlier in the day. Finally, as the drinking progressed, he became so enraged that he began destroying the furnishings in the American's home. On one or two occasions at Xavier, I have been approached by students who had been drinking just so they could work up the nerve to complain about what they regarded as unjust measures taken against them by myself or other faculty members.

Micronesian societies generally expect their members to keep a tight rein on their emotions, particularly negative ones. Outburst of anger are not taken lightly nor quickly forgotten, and the island cultures do everything possible to minimize the opportunity for such embarrassing occurrences. The deference that young people are expected to show to older persons in the family and community acts as a further restriction on their self- expression. Drunkenness furnishes one of the rare opportunities for a young person to speak his mind and unburden himself of whatever strong feelings he may have had to suppress.

Recognition. Drinking also serves the function of gaining recognition for young people. Youth do not enjoy an especially high social status in Micronesian cultures with the premium that they place on age. Young people are expected to be rather irresponsible and are very often treated accordingly by their elders. Relatively little notice is taken of their desires or opinions, but by the same token their mischief is also lightly dismissed as the sort of frivolous or foolish behavior that one must expect of the young.

The point has been made again and again that young drinkers are seeking to identify with their peer group, possibly in lieu of obtaining any real respect from their family. In this view, participation in drinking bouts is a way of solidifying close ties with friends, doing some public posturing, and perhaps establishing a reputation among other members of one's age set. This is probably true as far as it goes, but this explanation overlooks the important point that youth drinking is as much an attempt to seek recognition from the family as from peers. One man from Chuuk observed that many of the young problem drinkers on his island are youth from broken families, and he felt that their drinking was a plea for recognition from their own parents, step-parents or guardians. After all, a drunken son who is normally shunted aside by his family will almost always be the center of attention for at least a few hours when he returns home after his caper. Even those youths whose parents are still living together have come to appreciate and utilize the hold that their drunken state gives them over their family. "Drunks are pampered by their families," Pohnpeians sometimes say. When the young man returns home, members of his family will usually lavish attention on him to avoid any unseemly confrontation. His wife will submissively prepare his food, the children will cringe in readiness to do his bidding, and the rest of the family will make every effort to humor him. The axe may fall the next day when he is sober, but for the time being the drunken young man is the lord of his household.

Excitement. The third major reason that young people drink is for the sheer fun of it. It provides an exciting interlude and a brief escape from the otherwise monotonous routine of daily life. Drinking, as was mentioned earlier, is something of an adventure, especially since it is usually done clandestinely against the wishes of parents and authorities. The element of risk is increased by the uncertainty that ordinarily surrounds youth drinking parties; after all, one never knows if they will end in a fight or worse. Like going to sea or going to battle, drinking is a somewhat dangerous venture that has special appeal to the young man. "There is an animal in Micronesian youth that needs to be fed," one participant wisely observed.

In the final analysis, we might say that young people in Micronesia drink because it is expected that they will drink. This is what youth normally do, it is the mark of their coming of age, notwithstanding the earnest protests of parents to the contrary. The animal must be fed, nearly everyone admits, and so it is — on alcohol. Adults may wring their hands afterwards, but they knew in their hearts all the while that youth drunkenness was all but inevitable. And youth are quick to read this message.

How Do They Act When Drunk?

There is certain ritualized behavior by which young men publicly designate themselves as drunk. In Chuuk this behavior includes whooping and shouting, loud talking, boasting, exaggerated staggering and perhaps a few kung fu kicks and thrusts. Much the same is true of other island groups, although there may be some minor changes in the form of the ritual. On Pohnpei young drunks have a propensity for shaking hands with everyone they meet, while in Chuuk some years ago they were more liable to stand in the middle of the road and challenge passers-by. In some places, drinkers may confine themselves to loud singing or chanting.

Once they have defined themselves as drunk, whether they have had one can of beer or twenty, young men are exempted from many of the rules of social conduct that apply to sober members of their community. Whether they are classified as canned sardines who have lost their head (as in the Mortlocks), or as possessed by the spirits (as in Palau), the effect is the same. Drunks are regarded as persons who have lost the power to reason and are capable of doing anything at all, and the usual response of others is to give them a wide berth to avoid any unnecessary conflict. At least this is how people ordinarily talk about drunks and their behavior! The matter is more complex than that, however. In actual fact, there are unwritten rules that govern the behavior of drunks–rules that give them much more freedom than sober persons, but rules, nonetheless, with limits of their own. Although these rules are hardly ever articulated, people in every society know very clearly what these rules are and when they are being transgressed. Outsiders may have the impression that "anything goes" for drunken Micronesian youth, that any offense may be executed on account of alcohol, but the Micronesian knows differently. He knows that young men who have been drinking transgress the unwritten rules of drunken behavior only at their own peril and at the risk of almost certain retribution.

What are these rules governing the behavior of drunks? There is, as might be expected, some variation from place to place, but there are a number of common elements throughout Micronesia. Young men who are drunk may express anger against and insult parents and older relatives, something that is strictly forbidden under ordinary circumstances. They may even destroy property belonging to their parents and older relatives, but they are not permitted, even when drunk, to assault or physically harm these persons. More than one Chuukese young man who has overstepped this prohibition in a fit of drunken anger has later committed suicide out of shame for his disgraceful conduct. In Chuuk, drunks may threaten and chase women and children, but they may not harm them with impunity. Any violation of this rule will almost certainly bring about swift retaliation from the family of the offended person. In most places siblings, either male or female, and other young men are fair game for drunk. He may strike them without transgressing the rules governing drunken conduct, but he must be ready to accept the consequences of his rash behavior.

The madness and mayhem that sometimes follows drinking, therefore, is not as uncontrolled as it would at first seem. Appearances to the contrary, "anything does not go" among drunks in Micronesian societies. This is not to deny the embarrassment that onlookers feel at a drunken incident, nor the very real threat that the situation may get out of hand and result in serious injury and bloodshed. It is only to say that the drunken person and other participants are almost always aware of what is and is not permissible and will usually act out their drama within the limits set by this unwritten code of conduct. Fights and killings occur from time to time, but they are the exception rather than the rule; most participants felt that serious fights are far less frequent today than they were ten or twenty years ago. Even the crime that is often associated with drinking may be over-stated. One court official in Palau noted that youth crime, when examined more closely, may not be as serious as justice statistics suggest since most of the offenses are rather mild in nature: illegal possession of alcohol, violation of curfew, disturbing the peace, and the like. Most of the more serious crimes such as grand larceny and assault with a deadly weapon are committed by a small group of young men who have established a long police record and a reputation for delinquency. They are drinkers to be sure, but they are not by any means representative of the typical young Micronesian drinker.

The question of whether young people are accountable for damage that they may have done while drunk is an interesting but complex one. Micronesians are seemingly quick to excuse the conduct of intoxicated young persons with a remark such as "He didn't mean it. He was just drunk!" Most people go well out of their way to avoid contact with young drinkers, and when they find themselves confronted by them, they adopt a passive stance and interfere as little as possible with the drunks. They smile patiently as the drunken youth stages his show of bravado, dodge the rocks that he may hurl, and shrug off the stream of verbal abuse that he may let loose on them. All of this is bound to give the impression that the drunken young man is held responsible for nothing of what he says or does. Such an impression is understandable but incorrect.

A closer look at the facts reveals a far different story. In the villages of Palau and Yap, for instance, a drunk is held responsible for any damage that he may inflict on public and private property, and he is held liable for restitution just as any sober person would be. In the outer islands of Yap, no man, whether drunk or sober, may draw blood from another without paying an indemnity, usually in the form of land, to both the injured party and to the island chief. Elsewhere a person who does serious damage to the person or property of another will be expected to offer adequate compensation, whether this is handled in or out of the Western court system. It is clear from a survey of customs in different islands that drunks are, in fact, held responsible for major harm that they inflict on others, notwithstanding the fact that they were said to be "possessed by spirits" or "out of their head."

Each of the island groups has its own tradition of retaliation that has continued, to some extent, up to the present, and the fear of becoming the object of retaliation undoubtedly acts as a very real check on the behavior of drunks. Those passers-by who smile patiently through the curses and the rock-throwing may not act immediately, but who is to tell whether they might not demand redress at a later time on their own terms? To underscore this point, one participant told how a policeman was insulted by a drunk as he was arresting the young man. The policeman bore the abuse stoically at the time, but a couple of weeks later when he himself was half drunk he sought out the young man and repaid him with a terrible beating. This is by no means an isolated incident and young drinkers know it.

What Can Be Done About the Problem?

What exactly is the problem and how great is it? If by the problem we mean the socially disruptive behavior, the injury to persons and damage to property that is caused by youth drinkers, then the general feeling to participants by the end of the seminar seemed to be that the magnitude of the drinking problem in Micronesia has been exaggerated. Throughout our discussions there had surfaced surprising but convincing evidence that Micronesian societies have been exercising a greater degree of control over the behavior of youth, even when they are drunk, than most of us might have imagined. The sanctions and controls that these societies employ may not always be easy to perceive, but they are nonetheless present and seem to be reasonably effective overall.

Yet, the danger remains of dismissing the problem with a wave of the hand and a declaration that all is well with Micronesian youth and their cultures. There are still the slashed screens, the vandalized jeeps, and the ambulance carrying wounded bodies to the emergency room door of the hospital after drunken brawls. If the youth drinking problem is not as bad as many might have imagined, it is still far from being entirely solved.

Several measures have already been taken to control youth drinking and divert the energies of the young into more productive, or at least less harmful, activities. Some years ago Alcohol Beverage Control Boards were established in many districts and drinking permits were issued in an effort to curtail the sale of liquor to minors and to those most likely to abuse it. These measures had only limited success, it seems; none of the states has retained drinking permits and most of the ABC boards have long since ceased to function. Temporary prohibition was tried on Pohnpei in 1971 when the bars were closed for a few months following two killings within a month, and Chuuk has now had a prohibition experiment of its own for more than ten years. These legal efforts to make alcohol more difficult to obtain have been complemented by the creation of new programs for youth. Micronesia Bound was founded some years ago on Pohnpei to help rehabilitate troubled youth. There are new recreational centers and sports programs in every island group, some of them funded by government youth bureaus and others run by private individuals and institutions. There are also church- sponsored programs for youth that offer group singing and a variety of other activities to their members.

Naturally it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of these or any programs in combating youth drinking. There are indications that the problem of drunken misbehavior is diminishing throughout Micronesia, but it is far from clear why this is so. Some believe that as people gradually become accustomed to alcohol they learn to avoid some of the excesses of drunken behavior. Others feel that the popularity of marijuana among youth is responsible for the decline in enthusiasm for alcohol. It is also possible, of course, that those subtle controls which communities have been exercising over the drunks for some years have had the effect of teaching young people that if they drink they must also mind their manners. Whatever the case may be, the problem does seem to be on the decline.

Where, then, should we go from here? No one at the seminar seemed too sure of what ought to be done. A few recommended that formal educational programs on how to use alcohol properly be conducted through the schools and media. Others agreed that education was called for, but not so much to impart information as to change society's attitudes. Because ofprohibitions with which older people have surrounded alcohol, it has taken on an "aura of mystery" in the eyes of the young; it has become the object of a taboo, a forbidden fruit that tantalizes the young until they taste it secretly. The suggestion of some participants, therefore, was that we modulate our admonitions on alcohol and, instead of presenting it as the darkest of evils, we admit quite honestly that it brings both benefits and its dangers. If we were to take this approach, however, we would also be required to change our attitude towards youth itself. As long as young people are regarded as reckless and irresponsible, we cannot hold them fully accountable for their decisions and their behavior. We will continue to expect the worst from them, and we will be incapable of challenging them to moderate their drinking behavior out of anything but fear.