Every place has its rhythm–its flow. People talk about the East Coast’s being so much more fast paced than the West Coast, or the manic energy of New York vs. the laid back feel of San Francisco. But that’s painting with broad strokes, and, as we all know the devil is in the details. Me? I like looking at the details. So let’s get small, shall we?
Years ago, when my brother Tom came out to San Francisco from Scranton, we spent a fair amount of time walking around the city. As we stumbled down Geary Boulevard and Clement Street, my brother had a hard time crossing the street. Approaching intersections and crosswalks, he would change his pace. He’d stop; he’d start; he’d slow down. It became an awkward endeavor. He told me he couldn’t time the crosswalks. You see, cars, for the most part, stop for you in the crosswalks of San Francisco, regardless of whether or not they have a stop sign. In Scranton? Not so much. It’s a minor detail that contributes to the rhythm of San Francisco. Let’s just say that, I’ve stumbled into my fair share of intersections here. Here are two:
I mentioned in an earlier post about the custom of taking off your flip flops or slippers, as the locals call them, when you enter a room. You wear them everywhere else–outside, in hallways, on balconies–it’s just when entering rooms that you take them off. Well, I don’t like flip flops. That’s not entirely true; I’m pretty much ambivalent about them. I have no real attachment to footwear, emotionally or otherwise. What I hate is taking them on and off. No problem. It’s warm. There’s nothing to step on or in rather than grass. I’l go barefoot all the time. Isn’t that what Paul Gauguin would do? Not that he would be my best barometer for how to act in this part of the world. But anyway–barefoot all the time. That solves my slipper problem. Oh no. The only thing more annoying than taking my slippers on and off constantly is listening to the protests of Chuukese tweeners all day long at my apparent faux pas. The objections to my slipperless tootsies haunt my dreams at night. “Meestah Cleece, wheh ahhr you slippers?” or “You need slippers, Meestah Cleece.” or even worse, the titters of children walking by the barefoot American deviant. Maybe it’s my corns or my hammertoe that is so offensive. No, those are clearly visible when I wear my flip flops. It’s clearly my lack of footwear. Just be forewarned, when in Micronesia, wear your slippers, but not inside a room.
Also, know your island. You know your island, don’t you? You’ve got to know your island!
When I asked one of my students, Dai Dai, how her weekend went, she said, “Great, I went to my island.”
“Your island. That’s cool did you see your family?”
“Of course,” she replied, “They came with me.”
“Oh, so they came to pick you up, and you went to your island….”
“No,” she interrupted “They are here. We went to our island from here.”
Confusion is rising from the soles of my bare feet. “What do you mean? Who do you live with here?”
“My family. We live here on Weno, but my island is Mwoch.”
“Who in your family lives on your island? Your grandparents? Aunts, uncles? Second cousins once removed by marriage?”
“No one from my family lives on my island.”
“Then who’s on your island?”
This Abbott and Costelloesque banter continued for several minutes before it was made clear to me. Dai Dai, like everyone else here, has “an island”. No, it’s not like some Mormon thing where there’s a planet waiting for you when you die or get the Republican nomination for President. It’s just that people feel a very strong connection to their ancestral island. No one from Dai Dai’s family has lived on Mwoch for generations, but that is her island. “It’s where I feel most at home” even though she’s never lived there. “It’s where people are like me.” This connection is rooted deeply in all of the kids and people I talk to here. They identify, not with where they live, but with their island. Lillian, another student, told me that her island is Tol. “The people from Lillian’s island are tough. Like Americans on TV. It’s dangerous there.”
“So then,” I asked “is San Francisco my island?”
“Are you from there?”
No, I told her I was from Pennsylvania. “Is Scranton my island?” (Believe you me, Scranton sometimes feels like an island.) But no, Scranton isn’t my island either. It’s where my ancestors come from that counts. I told her then that it’s tough. My mother’s family is from Hungary, and my dad’s roots are in Ireland.
“Oh,” she said, “That’s why it’s so dangerous in the States. You don’t have an island.”