Chuuk: Caricature of an Island
Posted by - francisx
Life in the Plastic Bubble
At my first arrival in Chuuk, in late September 1963, I was blind to the place and the people. The island held little interest for me except insofar as it was the setting for Xavier High School, the Jesuit secondary school to which I was assigned for the next three years. I was a young Jesuit scholastic en route to the priesthood, twenty-fours year old, fresh out of philosophy studies with a Master's degree in classical languages, but without any experience of the world beyond New York State. I had entered the Jesuits seven years earlier, partly because of their reputation as a teaching order, and I was eager to begin my teaching ministry, although I had no idea what to expect from the Micronesians who would be my students.
High school teaching, I soon discovered, was everything that I had hoped it would be–challenging and creative work that put me in touch with young men who for the next few years would be my closest friends. They were my life during the next three years. I taught them, prefected their study hall and dining room, led physical fitness for them every afternoon, played basketball and baseball with them, and accompanied them, whenever I could, on walks downtown on Sunday mornings to watch, perched on crude wooden benches, whatever movies were being offered that week in the rusting Navy surplus quonset hut that served as the local movie theater. Usually we were treated to Japanese samurai movies of ancient vintage with English subtitles, although now and then my friends were forced to suffer through an offering that Americans might consider a classic: "Northwest Passage," "Odd Man Out," or "A Place in the Sun," for example.
Our students at Xavier came from nearly every part of the Trust Territory with the exception of Kosrae, still an impregnable Protestant fortress in those days, but I found myself drawn to Palauans more than the others. With their competitive drive, their determination not to be outshone by others in their class, Palauans seemed to be motivated by values that I could well understand. In my classroom encounters with Palauan students, I occasionally encountered stiff resistance. A Palauan sophomore whom I had scolded in class reacted angrily, so I had him kneel in the front of the classroom. When he retaliated by ostentatiously spitting on the floor, I threw him out of class, admiring his spunk despite myself. An escalation of hostilities of this sort would have been all but unthinkable in students from other island groups, especially from Chuukese.
By contrast with Palauans, Chuukese seemed unfathomable. While they were the most obliging of people, I could only guess where they stood on the simplest of matters. A Chuukese student who came in to see me might sit mute in the chair until I asked him how he was doing. I would be obliged to pursue a line of questioning in order to extract from him the reason he had come to see me in the first place. If I showed the slightest inclination toward having him do something, he would nod his full agreement, even if I was sure that he preferred to take a very different course of action. I found it impossible to penetrate into the heads and hearts of these mysterious people. How was I to take the measure of these people when the harder I pushed, the more they seemed to yield?
Chuuk, still known as Truk in those days, is situated in the center of what was then the Trust Territory of the Pacific, a trusteeship administered by the United States until its eventual independence in 1986. Although the most populous of the six island groups that made up the Trust Territory, Chuuk had a land area of just under 50 square miles, small in comparison with the other groups. The heart of the group was a cluster of small volcanic islands enclosed by a single barrier reef of 130 miles circumference. The formation, sometimes termed an "almost atoll," was unusual in the Pacific–as if frozen halfway between the status of a high, volcanic island and a coral atoll. Together with a number of coral atolls scattered around it, and with which it is linked linguistically and culturally, Chuuk today comprises one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Its present population is about 54,000, slightly over half the total population of the nation.
For reasons too numerous and complex to go into here, Chuuk has come to be regarded, at least by those who have never lived there, as the sinkhole of Micronesia. Notwithstanding the preeminent role that a handful of its key leaders played in the long journey towards national independence, Chuuk is often looked upon as the home of the hapless, a backward place inhabited by bumblers and worse. In reality Chuuk is the poorest of the island groups in terms of per capita income and most other measures, but it has also gained a notoriety, deserved or not, for administrative incompetence and mismanagement of funds. Although its youth problems are no worse than anywhere else, its young men have acquired a reputation for belligerence and drunken mayhem that is unparalleled in the region. This same reputation now seems to extend to Guam, where Chuukese have been settling in large numbers since the late 1980s. When some young man wraps his car around a power pole on Guam, local residents assume that he must be Chuukese. If anything anywhere goes amiss, it is expected that Chuuk is where it will happen.
Chuuk's poor reputation is not of recent minting, it would seem. In the mid-nineteenth century Nautical Magazine and some of the more prominent sailing directories carried warnings that the island group was "dangerous to seamen" (Hezel 1973: 64-66). The Mortlockese, atoll dwellers 200 miles south east of Chuuk, were represented as rather urbane, inasmuch as they spoke a few words of Spanish and enjoyed Western delicacies like biscuits, preserves and Madeira, while Chuuk was generally reviled as a place best avoided. Part of the explanation might lie in the appearance of the people found there. Chuukese men, as caught in photographs during the early 20th century, had a fierce visage: stern and unsmiling, almost angry-looking, with earlobes slit and hung with coconut shell rings, hair piled at the top of the head, a wooden comb emerging at a menacing angle. (See, for instance, the photo in Hezel 1995: 69). They did not conform very well to the image of the playful native, that innocent child of nature, that captains and crews who had been months at sea might have hoped to meet when they dropped anchor at a Pacific island.
The first known encounter of Westerners with the people of Chuuk, which occurred at the visit of Alfonso de Arellano's San Lucas in 1565, concluded in a hostile display. Canoes from nearby islands bore down on the Spanish vessel as it was preparing to anchor, alarming the captain and compelling him to make for the pass in the reef. As the San Lucas sailed by, the warriors in the canoes hurled their spears at the ship without causing any harm. Arellano, however, was not as fortunate when he put in at Pulap, a coral atoll 200 miles west of Chuuk and now part of Chuuk State. There two of his men who went ashore to fetch wood and water were clubbed to death in full sight of the crew. (Hezel 1973: 52-53)
After Chuuk finally made it onto Western maps two and a half centuries later, its engagements with Europeans and Americans were no more violent than in most other parts of Micronesia. There were occasional outbursts of violence between Chuukese and foreigners, but there seems to have been little loss of life. The attacks on ships and the slaughter of their crews that occurred at times in Palau, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and especially in the Marshalls, were unknown in Chuuk. Nonetheless, Chuuk acquired a reputation for violence, out of all proportion to its frequency, that eclipsed whatever notoriety its neighboring islands had won. Don Luis de Torres, a Spanish official on Guam who had contact with canoe voyagers from the central Carolines, cautioned the commander of a French naval expedition that Chuuk's reputation among its fellow islanders was no better than among foreign seamen. "The natives of Truk have a bad reputation even among their own compatriots," he remarked (Dumont d"Urville: 1843: 174). From such warnings as these more than actual hostile encounters with foreign ships was fashioned the sobriquet "dreaded Hogoleu" (Hezel 1973: 66) that was attached to the island group in the nineteenth century.
Chuuk the Second Time Around
When I returned to Chuuk (still then called Truk) in 1969, after my priestly ordination, I once again was assigned to teach at Xavier. The readjustment to an island backwater was made much more difficult by the thrill of having just lived through the epoch-making events of the late 1960s in America. Micronesia, by contrast, was old stuff for me. I had made my adjustment to climate and culture–or so I believed–during my first teaching stint in Chuuk. What I looked upon as new and challenging the first time around was no longer new; it was simply challenging. I found that I had to reacclimate myself to the less desirable facts of life in the islands–the mosquitoes, the heat rash, the humidity that left one perspiring within minutes after emerging from the shower, resignation to the fact that one would never feel truly comfortable ever again, at least not for more than a few minutes. But there were other social facts of life that I had to accept–the long pauses and the awkward silences in conversation that I thought betrayed a measure of discomfort in my partner but later understood as a signal that the timing for conversation, like so many other things, differs for Americans and Micronesians.
Finally, in October 1972, I was given the opportunity to take several months off to begin learning the local language. In the middle of that month, I moved out of Xavier to reside for the next six months at the west end of the area called Faichuk, a group of islands at the opposite end of the lagoon from Weno, the island on which I had been living. I stayed in three villages in succession during that period. My six months "in the village," as I later referred to it, was the start of a personal awakening to the intricacies and subtleties of Chuukese life and culture. It was also the beginning of a personal affection for Chuuk–in and for itself, not merely as the site of Xavier.
The transition from the high school to life in the village was not a painless one for me. One Sunday afternoon, after having been dropped off by the Jesuit pastor at a village in Wonei, as far from Xavier as one could be in the lagoon, I sat on my sleeping mat, with a kerosene lamp, a few clothes and some food stored at my side, pondering how I might communicate with people who didn't know any English. I remember taking a walk with four small boys, pointing to various objects and asking them the names in Chuukese. By the end of the day, my head ached with the effort of listening intently for any cue as to the meaning of what was being said to me.
Doing the simplest things could be arduous. To take a shower I walked five minutes to the end of the village where, inside a tiny enclosure walled off by corrugated tin there was a spigot of water no more than a foot off the ground and a small wash tub. The toilet was an outhouse over the water that could be reached only by balancing on a wobbly rail four feet above the water. It took me three days and a bad case of diarrhea to get up the nerve to try to negotiate the crossing. Even brushing one's teeth was a real effort, for it involved reaching deep into the half-empty catchment barrel for a cup of water and then managing toothbrush, toothpaste and cup while brushing.
My language teacher was a young man living in the chief's house because there was no other place to put people who were serving municipal jail terms. He had been caught dynamiting fish–a transgression of law that was the norm rather than exception on that island, as I would learn. One evening, after I had just returned from Weno, I asked him whether he would like something to eat. He assured me that he had eaten and that he was prepared to begin the language lessons that he conducted every evening. About thirty minutes into the lesson, he excused himself and hobbled out of the room holding his stomach. A minute or two later I found him lying on the grass vomiting. Someone told me that he had nothing to eat since the morning. Why didn't he tell me, I wondered. This was my introduction to what Chuukese call epinééch, the polite decline of food or other services no matter how badly a person might desire them. I later realized that, had I adamantly insisted that my language teacher take food, or at least repeated the offer three or four times, he would have eventually accepted without appearing to be mwáráákkich or greedy. As many Americans have done before and since, I mistook my teacher's decline of food for satiety.
The significance of food loomed ever larger the longer I spent in the village. Feeding a person was more than a gesture of hospitality; it was a metaphor for love, I came to understand. Two months later, after I had moved to another village, I was presented with a fresh fish by a neighbor. The man who at that time was serving as my language instructor cooked the fish for me and watched me eat the meal. I ate heartily for I still had not learned to insist that he sit and join me for the meal. When I finished, my friend passed the remains of the fish to his wife, sitting on the floor. She and two of her small children made a meal of the fish skin, the head, and the few other remains of the meal I had enjoyed. I was embarrassed not to have saved her more than what she had. But there were no reproaches, even when I violated the most rudimentary norms of sharing. Never did anyone take me to task for my stinginess.
Lessons Not Lost on Me
The quest for privacy in a fishbowl
In my early seminary years as a Jesuit, years in which we slept in a dormitory and did our school work in a common study hall, years in which our every action was guided by a bell that was forever ringing, summoning us to a new activity, I never felt as stripped of a private life as I did during my first few months in the village.
One evening my stomach was queasy, something I attributed to the oil from a can of tuna that my cook had mixed with the fish. I left the house quickly, found what I thought to be a private place, and threw up. The following morning after mass, five people stopped me to inquire how I was feeling. They had heard that I was not too well the night before, they told me. Barely two weeks after I had arrived in the village, I learned that nothing I ever did there would be private. I might have my own thoughts, but anything that I did was open to public scrutiny and comment. Every trip of mine to the over-water outhouse was logged into the collective memory. Every solitary walk I took just for the luxury of being by myself for a few minutes was sure to prompt expressions of concern from villagers, suspicious that I was tormented by fits of melancholy or worse. Each day as I began my afternoon exercises in my room–stretches, sit ups, pushups, and jumping jacks–a dozen pair of eyes would instantly appear at the windows to follow every motion in my strange ritual.
Chuukese hankered for the company of others at all times, it seemed, while I would have been happy to be left alone for a few hours. During my first six weeks in the village, I had the luxury of a room to myself, the only room in the house in which I was living, but my room was no more private than any other part of the house. People would come in and out freely, decamping on the floor and waiting with no apparent purpose, declining invitations to eat and ignoring all the American cultural cues that announce to others: "Okay, enough is enough. You can leave now." My hosts, who were used to living at close quarters with one another and did not attach any great value to privacy, undoubtedly felt that to leave me alone would have been a serious breach of hospitality. Boundaries: persons and possessions
Life in such a society does not leave much room for a strong sense of individualism. In a community in which persons are so closely intertwined, there is little incentive to develop strict boundaries between individuals, between "me" and "you." Such societies offer little inducement to introspection, self-awareness, or the development of a strong personal identity. The conditions in which artistic genius flourishes, together with the hardy personal ego that usually supports it, are not found in island societies. The erratic personality, a frequent concomitant of this type of genius, poses too many dangers to a small cohesive society to be cultivated. The depth of thought that marks great thinkers will be rarely found in a place where introspection is looked upon as aberrant behavior.
Another corollary is the blurring of the distinctions between mine and yours (the main exceptions to the rule being land and specialized knowledge). Chuukese surprised me from the day I first arrived there by their generosity and open-handedness. It is unthinkable for a Chuukese to let another person see him eat without offering him some food. Children share cookies, ice cakes, the smallest of treats, breaking them into minuscule pieces so that they will go around. The ultimate disparagement in Chuuk is to be called mááicha, or stingy. In this sort of environment, however, the American immediately grows suspicious that he's being targeted by freeloaders who want only his food and money. He becomes still more cautious in his gift-giving for fear that he's being taken for a fool. Chuukese, in turn, mark him as a stingy person and treat him still more coolly, or perhaps even retaliate by taking advantage of him. This dynamic tends to widen rather than narrow the distance between the cultures.
I found by deliberate experiment in the village setting that every gift I gave prompted a return from the recipient. Indebtedness was real among Chuukese, and there was rarely a gift given that was unrewarded. Sharing is the sacrament of interdependence, as I noted in my diary during those early days. It is the reaffirmation of those ties with family and community that are foundational for any islander's existence.
Attitude toward life: control or submission
Still another corollary is a certain surrender of control over many areas of life, the product of dependence on others for so much. Where one cannot tuck savings away or fashion a future for oneself, there is not much that can be done other than adopt a "take-life-as-it-comes" attitude. To a Westerner this is dangerously close to a fatalism that is diametrically opposed to everything Americans hold sacred: the "can-do" attitude that is prepared to wrestle life to the ground to achieve pre-established goals; the determination to improve oneself, come what may; the conviction that each one must put away a little something to guard against the vagaries of the future.
What happens tomorrow is no one's concern today, Chuukese silently screamed at me. And even if it were, there's not much anyone could do about it anyway. I must have perceived this even back in those days, for one day when I was preparing a sermon, I remember catching myself as I was trying to work out how to say in Chuukese that one of the important roles of church members was to reshape the world. How could the villagers I was addressing ever respond to such a message, I wondered, when it was beyond their power to alter even the minor details of their village life?
Over the next several years, as I reflected on my months in the village and subsequent experiences in Chuuk, I gained a deeper appreciation of the behavioral patterns that I had once found so puzzling. I came to see these patterns, even those that most directly challenged my own world view, as essential survival strategies for Chuukese. I also began to understand that they were strategies that other Pacific Island societies adopted by force of necessity.
Chuukese show a dedication to their family that is nearly total. They will normally fly to the aid of family members when the latter are in need, defending them from threat even when their relatives may be in the wrong. Family affiliation is at the core of values for an island people and, as I have insisted time and again in talks to American-trained counselors, forms the basis of what Westerners call self-esteem. At times this steadfast loyalty puts people at odds with ethical standards imposed on its citizens by a modern nation-state. Chuukese, after all, are not the only people in the world who vote on the basis of family ties rather than the merit of candidates. Like other islanders, they will share with family members their resources, including government jobs that they might be in a position to dispense, even at the risk of incurring charges of nepotism. Chuuk is a society in which maintaining good relations with one's family trumps aspirations for individual achievement and most other values.
What might be called indirection is another characteristic of Chuukese society. It is most often displayed in the maddening (for Westerners) habit of answering questions, even the most simple and straightforward ones, with a "maybe" or "I don't know." It took me years to understand that what I had once rashly attributed to spinelessness or a fear of coming to grips with difficult issues could more accurately be seen as a strategy for avoiding conflict with others. Non-committal is safe, as far as islanders are concerned. When asked a direct question, people will sound out the questioner to find out what his own feelings may be so that a reply can be tailored to avoid either disappointing or contradicting another on the matter. Unkept promises also spring from this, as anyone who has lived in the Pacific for any length of time knows. It's easier to promise to keep an appointment tomorrow than to explain that this is simply impossible and in so doing to disappoint the other party. I eventually understood that indirection is not evasion pure and simple; it is, in equal part, a strategy for sparing the feelings of others.
Withdrawal is another means of dealing with potential interpersonal conflict. If a person's presence seems to engender tension with others, he will usually try to remove himself from that situation. I have known boys at Xavier who, when they were experiencing hostility from another student, would deliberately fail courses or get themselves in disciplinary trouble so that they might be expelled. Employees who ran afoul of one of their colleagues might do something they know is likely to get them fired. Another, more tragic manifestation of the withdrawal strategy is suicide, a problem that has been escalating in raw numbers and rates over the past forty years in nearly every part of Micronesia (Hezel 1987). When a young man senses that his family is unhappy with him, his initial impulse is to remove himself from their midst, sometimes with fatal finality.
Chuukese sometimes adopt a variant of the same response when they sense that their culture is about to be belittled. Often I have heard Chuukese getting in the first licks, perhaps as a preemptive strike, when speaking of their own culture. They may represent their compatriots as poor, ignorant people and go on to debase their own "backward" customs– a trait that one anthropologist termed "negative ethnocentrism" (Swartz 1961). This self-effacement, I learned, is not to be taken as an unhealthy disdain for their own culture, but a prompt inviting the other person to make a flattering remark about the culture and people.
Compliance is another cultural behavioral pattern common among Chuukese. Notwithstanding the reputation for truculence that Chuuk seems to have acquired in some circles, I have always found Chuukese among the most compliant, easy-to-get-along-with people I've ever encountered. My problem with them was, as I have already mentioned, that they seemed all too ready to go along with whatever anyone proposed; they did not seem prepared to take a stand on any issue, no matter how strongly they might feel about it. What at first seemed to me groveling obsequiousness I came to see as a strategy for dealing with pushiness in another. Chuukese, even more than most other Pacific Islanders, would go to great lengths to avoid out-and-out confrontation.
To assume that Chuukese simply surrender their own goals in the face of opposition is a mistake. Avoiding a show-down is a sensible strategy that can prevent opposition from hardening while affording people time to pursue their original goals in some other manner. When the German government assumed colonial authority over Micronesia at the very beginning of the twentieth century, they sent a warship to Chuuk to demand that the people turn over all firearms. The people readily complied, handing over to the German authorities over 400 rifles and thousands of cartridges (Hezel 1995: 98). A similar disarmament program on Pohnpei proved unsuccessful, as the bloody uprising of the Sokehs people in 1910 demonstrated. Pohnpeians kept their guns, their manly honor, and their proclivity to use these weapons against any who challenged them. Chuuk, by contrast, complied at least partly out of self-interest, for only by yielding to a foreign authority could the people there put an end to the inter-island warfare that they were powerless to end because of the political fragmentation of the atoll.
Compliance should not be mistaken for indecisiveness, I learned. Chuukese know what they want, but they have become masters of the art of the negotiated settlement. Without any real paramount chieftainships to whom they might turn to settle disputes and make community decisions, they have developed skills in working out resolutions to such problems on their own.
Chuuk: A Microcosm of the Pacific
As my stay in Chuuk grew longer, I felt increasingly comfortable with the culture. After my six months in the village, life in Chuuk was no longer alien–something from which I wished to be protected by the Xavier plastic bubble. One important measure of my growing comfort with the culture was that I was increasingly able to predict the way people would respond in different situations. Behavior that once appeared random and chaotic was being reduced to patterns, as the once "alien" culture of Chuuk yielded to a certain order.
This never could have happened, of course, unless I had been willing to submit to the long and sometimes painful process of struggling to unlearn old responses and learn new ones. This underscored for me the importance of dealing with people in a culture, any culture, on their own terms. Otherwise, we impose our own labels, our own understandings on behavior that is ripped out of its cultural context and is seen as problematic or dysfunctional.
No one can enter another's culture, however imperfectly, and remain untouched by the experience. My own encounter with Chuukese culture forced me to re-examine the sum total of what I had learned about life during my years of formal study in an effort to bring the lessons I had learned in the Chuukese village in line with what I thought I knew about humans and their behavior. Many of the premises I once held were jettisoned; others were modified. Very little of what I have written since, whether on Micronesian history or its contemporary problems, has not been filtered through this new-found yet ever-deepening understanding of the way Pacific Island life works. A few themes resonate with special vibrancy throughout my own work.
Things are almost never what they seem
Since we are accustomed to interpreting events and actions according to familiar patterns, the signal system of another culture can be very deceptive, sometimes triggering alarms and evoking responses in us that are uncalled for. Not long after I first arrived in Chuuk, I was attending mass in the student chapel one Sunday morning when a young Chuukese man and his wife walked in. The man headed straight for the one remaining seat in the chapel, while his wife happily settled onto the floor in the back of the chapel. Was this a gross neglect of chivalry or, worse, a statement on the place on women in Chuukese society? Any number of times I had seen women accompany their husbands on the road, almost always walking a couple of paces behind their spouse.
There's no doubt that in Chuuk as in so many other societies, males have a step or two on women, metaphorically and literally. But if I ever thought that women were powerless, forced into servile submission to males, this misapprehension was eventually corrected. Chuukese women, who enjoy more authority than females do in many other Pacific societies, are a force to be reckoned with.
In contrast, the display of machismo by drunken young men–as when they would whoop and yell and challenge passing cars with a knife in hand–often betrayed a pathetic weakness. As I came to know some of these "weekend warriors" better, I found that the outburst was often occasioned by a run-in with a relative or friend. The young man seemed to be acting out in a culturally scripted way, replete with bellowing and exaggerated staggering, the anger that was triggered by an argument with an older brother or parent (Marshall 1979).
Social structures govern most human behavior
I have always had a strong interest in explaining human behavior. At one time, in my early seminary years, I believed that psychology might reveal the secrets of the mind, which in turn could help me understand why people acted the way they did. My assumption, of course, was that the real explanation of behavior was to be found by plumbing the minds and hearts of individuals. This assumption, like so many others of mine, was a Western one.
In Chuuk, the pressures on any individual to conform were enormous. Most behavior, I began to see, was not the product of any conscious decision on the part of the individual that came from weighing alternative courses of action, but from following the clearly delineated societal norms that were being reinforced constantly. Chuuk was a society that depended greatly on social constraints against improper behavior. To live in a small community meant that one was exposed constantly to the gossip of others. Village life was the proverbial fishbowl, in which everything a person did was held up to scrutiny and judgment. If Chuukese men were restrained in displays of anger against their wives and children, it was not that they did not get mad, sometimes fiercely so. If they succumbed to their emotions and beat up their wife and children, however, they would have had to answer to their wife's family for their behavior.
If we wish to explore human behavior in a Pacific Island society, therefore, we would do better to focus on the mechanics of that society rather than attempt to peek into the brain of the individual. Likewise, when we find patterns of behavior changing for the worse–as when there is a sharp increase in youth drinking, teen pregnancy, suicide, domestic violence, vehicular homicide, etc.–we can safely assume that the social structures, which govern so much of the behavior of an island community, have been altered. It is far more useful to probe here than to assume the changed social behavioral patterns are a product of individual decisions brought about by new values or attitudes.
Ideas matter only insofar as they are useful
I remember how impatient I was when, as a young priest in Chuuk, I sensed a universal disinterest in the speculative or theoretical. Americans who lived there, including our own Jesuits who had worked there for years, had grown habituated to life with little intellectual satisfaction. The Chuukese I knew seemed uncomfortable with the theories of language change, acculturation, and everything else that I trotted out to amuse myself and engage them. Perhaps they could not follow either my English or my limited Chuukese, but my attempts at conversations during those years produced glassy-eyed stares as often as responses. The wonderful world of ideas that I found so fascinating during my course of Jesuit studies seemed to have no appeal whatsoever to anyone on the island. Well, be that as it may, I told myself, I would keep the lamp of academic inquiry lit.
As the years passed, I found that I was beginning to share an impatience with speculation that I might have breathed in, along with the coral dust, in the island atmosphere. I first began to realize this in thumbing through academic papers on Micronesia as the author trotted out the obligatory models with which he was taught to begin his paper: economic dependency theories derived from Latin America, theories maintaining the importance of clinical depression as a key factor in suicide, sociological theories regarding the making of juvenile delinquents. These models were, it seemed, a necessary part of the academic process, either to be confirmed or rejected in favor of a new model. More often than not, I noticed, the fit of these models with the realities of island life was a poor one. I was beginning to become sympathetic with the Chuukese way of shrugging off any ideas that soared too high above the roofs of the village houses.
Ideas still matter for me, but only insofar as they enrich our understanding of our world and give us the potential to change that world. We've all spun our word webs, sometimes creating whole magical kingdoms, but when the fun is over we may find that we are the only inhabitant of these kingdoms. My touchstone now in my writing is the pragmatic rather than the merely elegant. I find myself increasingly impatient with the conceptual games that are played in academia–those that offer no real pay-off, ideas that cannot hope to be conveyed in an intellectually honest but straightforward manner to the people themselves. I find it ironic that the first thirty years of my life were spent developing an admiration of the powers of the mind, while the next thirty were a lesson in the limitations of these same powers.
Exoticism is still the archenemy
Exoticism is a perduring excess of the Western mind and pen. The eighteenth century version that so excited the Western imagination and portrayed Pacific Islanders as "children of nature" living in untrammeled freedom–all that Europeans might have been if they had not been enslaved by the artifices of Western social conventions–is laughable today. We now know that the unbridled freedom attributed to the islanders by foreign visitors was a grand illusion. Were there ever people anywhere so obligated to conform as these so-called "children of nature?" If anyone should pity the poor laborers in Bermingham, England, or Trenton, New Jersey, for the social shackles they wear, they might want to take a long look at the people of Chuuk.
Yet, exoticism persists even today, in the writings of Edward Said and his disciples, who maintain that Pacific Islanders as "other" are impenetrable to the understanding of those looking in from the outside, and even more in the writings of the deconstructionists, who hold that any real understanding of the "other" is in principle illusory. There is, of course, a large body of anthropological literature on these islanders, beginning from a century ago and continuing through the post-war years to the present. In the case of the Chuukese, for instance, we have descriptive materials on their social organization, their material culture, their residence patterns, their political system, and their recreational drinking, among other things. Even so, those who adhere to exoticism would persist in thinking of the people of Chuuk as unfathomable. This sense of "otherness," it might be noted, is often encouraged by the local people themselves, who would be prefer to see themselves and their culture shrouded in mystery.
A variant of this exoticism appears when the newcomer to the island shudders with apprehension at the supposed loss of culture that looms near every time an Islander puts on a shirt or tie, or goes into industry, or sells off the family garden plot in the village. Culture for these observers is that which is different and which marks these people as special. When islanders exchange their loin cloths for pants, they are danger in becoming just like the rest of us. Once this happens, those islanders have forsaken their culture–not just altered it, but surrendered it, in the eyes of the exoticists. In this popular view, Chuukese are as alien and unintelligible as they might be for Said or the deconstructionists. There are no passable bridges between cultures.
Yet, the Chuukese I knew had to find food for their families, care for their children, balance duties to their immediate family (wife and children) with obligations to their wider kin groups. Chuukese marry, sometimes divorce, have children, make friends and occasionally enemies as well, worry about what will happen to them when they get old, and eventually die. They handle these responsibilities in ways that are patterned differently from my own culture, but the similarities are also evident. Twenty-five years in Chuuk could not help but give me a growing understanding of how Chuukese society worked. I may not have held the same priorities that they did, and perhaps would not have made the same choices, but I began to see with ever-sharpening clarity "where these people were coming from," as the expression goes.
Exoticism exaggerates the distance between "the other" and ourselves. During my years in Chuuk, however, I felt that distance narrowing–at least to the extent that I was able to anticipate the responses of people to what I did and said. As this happened, I gained confidence in interpolating the motives of Islanders as I began to write on the history of the region. Perhaps Chuukese ways, and by analogy Pohnpeian or Yapese or Marshallese ways, were not so mysterious after all. Without the confidence that this was the case, I would not have had the courage to write a word on the history or the contemporary life of the Micronesian people.
A Symbol of Chuuk
If Chuuk had a political icon in my early years there, it was Petrus Mailo, the most highly regarded and influential figure in the island group. He was not a paramount chief, for Chuuk had nothing that would even come close to this level of political stratification, but he was an itang, a specialist in traditional lore, and head of one of the most prestigious clans. He was also the man who, when faced with the need to raise cash to buy local shares in Truk Trading Company when it first offered stock to the public, invented a highly successful form of competitive fund-raising, called tééchap, that is used even today (Mahoney 1960). Petrus, more a "big man" than a classical Pacific chief, intervened on more than one occasion to bring peace between feuding factions in Chuuk. Petrus has been the subject of glowing writings, including the brief biography by Gladwin (1960). Back in 1969 and 1970, I would often see him with a floppy old hat and baggy trousers cutting grass by the side of the road. If he had had a large "P" painted on the back of his army fatigues and a guard at his side, he might have been mistaken for one of the prisoners carrying out their public work.
The last time I saw Petrus was in the early 1970s when he was being taken out of Chuuk on a medical referral to Honolulu. He was lying on the floor of the cargo compartment of the 727 in obvious discomfort when I poked my head in to say hello to him and to pray over him briefly. He reached Hawaii where he was able to secure medical treatment, but he died of his illness not long afterwards.
Petrus is probably a good symbol of Chuuk–self-effacing, nothing in the externals to suggest nobility, almost a cartoon character with his bulbous nose and his baggy clothes. But there was something proud and dignified about him, all concealed from view except to those who knew him. That's Chuuk.
Where are they now, these people who encouraged me as I took my first faltering steps toward understanding their culture and language–and, indeed, in coming to some visceral appreciation, although necessarily incomplete, of how island Micronesia works? Most are dead. My weathered old cook, the village chief who was my host, the woman with whom I spent hours in conversation, most of those who welcomed me in that first house in Wonei. My language teacher and good friend in Paata; his wife, who nibbled the remains of my fish meal; the old man who regaled me with experiences from Japanese times; and many of the others I counted as friends during these months. Perhaps the only way I can repay their kindness and support during those difficult months nearly thirty years ago is by putting whatever they were able to teach me at the disposal of those who follow. And so it is that I write this chapter.
Chuuk was my introduction to a world so much larger and more variegated than New York State. It is where I cut my teeth on the culture, where I began to understand how great the cultural gap was between myself and the people I was living with, but where I also began bridging this gap. It is where I learned lessons that served me well as I attempted to make sense of the history of Micronesia and to broker island ways to those who had spent little time in these islands. It was my classroom and my laboratory. It was also the home of some of my best friends. So, today, when people begin belittling Chuuk, carrying on a tradition that dates back at least to the mid-nineteenth century, I may join the fun for a few minutes, until the conversation turns sour. Then I walk away.
Dumont d'Urville, Jules 1843 Voyage au Pole Sud et dans l'Océanie sur les corvettes l'Astrolabe et la Zélée exécuté par ordre du roi pendant les années 1837, 1838, 1839, 1840. Part 1: Histoire du voyage, vol 5. Paris: Gide.
Gladwin, Thomas 1960 "Petrus Mailo, Chief of Moen." In The Company of Man, edited by Joseph B. Casagrande, pp 42-62. New York: Harper & Row.
Hezel, Francis X. 1973 "The Beginnings of Foreign Contact with Truk." Journal of Pacific History 8: 51-73. 1987 "Truk Suicide Epidemic and Social Change" Human Organization 46: 283-291. 1995 Strangers in Their Own Land: A Century of Colonial Rule in the Caroline and Marshall Islands. Pacific Islands Monograph Series No. 13. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Mahoney, Frank J. 1960 "The Innovation of a Savings System in Truk." American Anthropologist 62: 465-482.
Marshall, Mac 1979 Weekend Warriors: Alcohol in a Micronesian Culture. Explorations in World Ethnology. Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing Co.
Swartz, Marc J. 1961 "Negative Ethnocentrism." Journal of Conflict Resolution 5: 75-81.
Micronesian Seminar ©2010 all rights reserved.