Living in a Land Without Tense July 1, 2012

Tomorrow never happens; it’s all the same (expletive) day, man-Janis Joplin

The Chuukese language is short on vocabulary, and even shorter on complex constructions.  I was working with students in a writing class and going over the concept of tense.  Add -ed to a regular verb to make it past.  Walk…walked.  For the future, add ‘will’ to the infinitive–will walk.  I asked my Chuukese teaching assistants how it works in their language.  “It doesn’t,” they tell me.  There is no tense like this in the native tongue.  You just add the word today, yesterday, or tomorrow to the verb.  “Today I walk.” “Yesterday I walk” “Tomorrow I walk.”  It’s all the same.

A conversation a few days later illuminated this further.  The school where I’m working has several vehicles that are needed for work–trips into town for supplies, shopping for the community, transporting students.  Cars are always breaking down here, and many of them are pushed to the side of the road and abandoned and now have trees growing through what was once the engine block.  Others are rolled into the lagoon behind a house and left there.  The need for a mechanic had risen in recent days as several of the cars and trucks are struggling with brake problems or transmission problems or general engine problems or you name it problems.  The school director has found a mechanic, and he told me that he is excited because he is part Filipino and speaks Tagalog.  “He has a sense of ‘preventative’ maintenance.  The Chuukese just don’t.  There’s little thought about ‘what’s to come’ or after today or beyond the immediate.”

This resonated with me because, when my T.A.s and I tried teaching tense, and then looked at writing and tests from our students, it was nothing short than difficult if not disastrous.  The idea of tense just doesn’t really exist.  It’s all in the present.

People talk about “island time” as a quaint notion to describe the laid back, relaxed approach to life that tourists relish when coming to “paradise”.  “It’s all good; we’re on island time.”  Often by the end of the week, the same vacationers are griping about the same quaint notion when they have to wait ten minutes for their poolside mai-tai.  “Goddamnit, where’s that waiter with my drink?!?!  Service here is terrible.  It takes forever to get these people to do anything.”

This phenomenon is exponentially larger here.  It’s like island time on steroids. “Meet me tomorrow morning at 8:00” means nothing.  “Meet me tomorrow morning” means nothing.  As far as I can figure “tomorrow” means nothing.  Now, I’m an impatient American, and more than a tad paranoid on top of it.  My first thought was this was just good old fashioned insolence.   I’ve worked in restaurants.  I’ve been slow to bring a drink to a table where the customers were not to my liking.   That’s what I thought was going on.  I was wrong.  What I’m talking about is much more pervasive as to be chalked up to mere rudeness.  It’s a broad thread in the cultural fabric.

In a previous post I spoke of poverty, and that in my eyes, it’s everywhere, but the islanders don’t see it.  Unemployment is upwards of 70% yet no one sees themselves as poor.  Homelessness as we know it doesn’t exist.  Everyone has a roof under which to sleep.  Most food is readily available. [see Rogers, Richard and Hammerstein, Oscar: “We got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off the tree.”] Most needs can be met in the here and now.  Employment becomes a concern when you think about tomorrow or how can I sustain my lifestyle.  It’s easy to sustain a Micronesian lifestyle. There is no cultural need to fret about the past. There is no need to plan ahead.   There is no need for a future tense.  It’s not in their language, and not in their realm of thinking.

I find this relationship among language, thought, and culture fascinating, and I can go on about for many more paragraphs.  But it’s 10:45, and the bell calling people to 10:00 mass is ringing.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Living in a Land Without Tense July 1, 2012

  1. Martin Abbot

    Chris! Thoroughly enjoying your blog. Just discovered it today. Keep up the good work with the written word. Truk Lagoon you say? Well now, let me pull out my National Geographic collection from 1978 …
    Be well – Marty

  2. Bonnie Jacobson

    I recently read something that went like this: anxiety is living in the future. Depression is living in the past. Peace is living in the present.

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