Speaking of Colonies July 4, 2012

“Colonialism. The enforced spread of the rule of reason. But who is going to spread it among the colonizers?”
―Anthony Burgess

No parades.   No barbecues.  No fireworks. No day off.  It’s like these Micronesians are downright un-American.

I can’t help but ruminate almost every day that I’m here about colonialism.  It seems particularly apropos today to think about it some more.

Right now I live on an island within an island.  My charge for the summer is to help high school students prepare and teach classes for middle school students to bring their academics up to a level where they might, upon completion of eighth grade, take and pass the entrance exam for Xavier High School, a Jesuit school here in Chuuk.  As Xavier is a boarding school, I live here on campus, and during the week, rarely wander off the property.  Students come here everyday from the different villages and municipalities on Weno to take classes in math, reading, and English (grammar).  We begin the school day with an assembly, a prayer, and announcements.  Then the students hustle off to their classes.

The classes are taught mostly in English, the readings are in English, and the grammar class is definitely in English grammar.  The school was built on top of a hill by the Japanese (actually by the Chuukese whom they enslaved) as a communications station.  In the evening I sit on a second story porch looking out to the distant islands while Chukese women cook me dinner and the local night watchmen patrols the grounds.  The image is all too familiar to me, and I don’t know if I like it.  I’ve criticized it, and now I am part of it.  On some level I wonder if I have become a white aristocrat who has come to civilize the heathens.

Here I am, an American, teaching English to a group of people–brown people at that–, working for a Catholic institution.  Am I part of the solution or the problem? I’m scratching my head a lot over this one.

I think, for example…English.  We teach the kids in English and how to write and speak English, not Chukese…English.  Isn’t that what colonialists do?  Rob people of their language.  But then there are so many languages in Micronesia.  In Chuuk, the people on the outer islands speak a dialect that is unrecognizable to anyone else even in the same state.  As far as organizing such a diverse country, wouldn’t it be better if there was one language that could pull everyone together.  And why not English?  With clan rivalries and island pride, to pick one of the native tongues might only cause resentment.  So much of the original infrastructure here was set up by the U.S. after the war…. Isn’t it funny that we still refer to World War II as the war?  How many have there been since? Korea, Vietnam, Iraq-the original and the sequel-, Afghanistan.  That doesn’t include the wars on abstract ideas like, poverty, hunger, crime, drugs, and terror….Back to English.  The U.S. is the largest supplier of foreign aid.  Maybe it’s not a bad thing if they learn English.  Hmmmm.

But the Churh?!?!? The Catholic church?!?!?!  Isn’t that the other thing that colonialists do, rob natives of their religions?  Well, 50% of Micronesia is already Roman Catholic and has been for generations.  Another 47% is Protestant Christian. The program here is open to anyone regardless of religious affiliation. Additionally, it’s not like there’s any evangelizing going on in the program.  It’s just reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic.  That said, since practically everyone on the island is some sort of Christian, any preaching done (and I’ve yet to see any with the students other than the morning meeting prayer.) is merely preaching to the choir.  Looking into native religions, what I’ve found is that there really weren’t any dominant’religions in Micronesia.  Much like the languages are scattered among the islands, religious beliefs were just as random and isolated, varying greatly from island to island.  Most of the beliefs were comparable to Greek mythology, but nowhere near as united.  Gods, ghosts, and spirits differed from island to island, and it seems that no two islands had any unifying theism.

On top of all that, Xavier is a heavy hitter as far as education goes in these parts.  Senators, ambassadors, even the President of the Federated States of Micronesia are all graduates.  People seem to see the school, and by association the church, as a positive contributing force in the region.

This brings me to a story I heard today.  When the U.S. navy was closing in on Yap at the end of “the war”, the Japanese soldiers took the Yapese to a part of the island now called Suicide Cliff.  The Japanese told the local population that the United States would treat the islanders even worse than they had been doing.  Families were lined up, single file from the edge of the cliff youngest to oldest with the fathers last. Then the pushing began.  The second youngest would push the youngest off.  He in turn would be pushed by his next oldest sibling and so on until the whole family went over. Off shore, loudspeakers from U.S. ships hailed in Japanese imploring them to stop, but the ritual continued with Japanese soldiers leaping to their deaths as well.  As the first landing soldiers arrived, one of the men in front was wearing a crucifix.  Upon seeing the cross, the chief called for the stop of the suicides. He said later that he recognized the icon, and knew that if this man was Catholic, he knew they would be safe.

I know that’s a twisted tale on a lot of levels, and the ending reads sappy  like one of those religious/patriotic chain emails you get from your great aunt in Peoria who asks you to send it on to ten of your friends.  I am also in no way forgetting or forgiving centuries of atrocities carried out by the Catholic church and others in the name of religion, many of which are still occurring today.  I’m just saying a lot of people here have hitched their wagon to the Catholics, and from all signs, and heartfelt candid conversations with locals and clergy, it’s been a smooth ride with positive results.  Maybe it’s not a bad thing that I’m working at a Catholic school.  Hmmmm.

But still, I sit every evening watching the sunset from my balcony on the hill.  Women prepare food for me and the other teachers, but they don’t sit down and eat with us.  I picked up my laundry from a shack on the property where workers wash and fold my clothes for me every week, but they never join the teachers at the end of the day when we look out across the campus.  At night when I leave the main building, the security guy stops playing his guitar and shines his flashlight at my feet so I don’t trip on the step in the dark, but he never wants to sit in and play with me when I ask him to join when I’m playing during down time.

So what is it?  Am I part of the problem or part of the solution? Are my rationalizations about English and the church just that?  Are they the first step down a slippery slope toward justifying my elitism and privilege? I said to one of the high school kids that I wonder if I’m doing the right thing here.  “Mr. Chris.  You think too much.  You came to teach.  It’s obvious.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”  –Voltaire

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One thought on “Speaking of Colonies July 4, 2012

  1. John Geist

    Hey Chris,

    Enjoying the blog…read back while we were in SF. Very interesting. We’re catching up here so I’ll be reading more as you go along. Have a great time! J&F in Georgia

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