… Oceanic malaise. I never saw anyone reading anything more demanding than a comic book. I never heard any youth express an interest in science or art. No one even talked politics. It was all idleness, and whenever I asked someone a question, no matter how simple, no matter how well the person spoke English, there was always a long pause before I got a reply, and I found these Pacific pauses maddening. And there was giggling but no humor – no wit. It was just foolery.–Paul Theroux
Peterson is a guy who hangs out around campus. He’s relatively young. I’d say somewhere between his late twenties and mid-thirties. I’ve seen him almost every morning in the main hallway of the main building on campus. We greet each other with casual good mornings which have evolved into the Chuukese, “Nesor anim.” At first I thought he worked here until Sean, the teenage Aussie volunteer, told me, “No, he just sort of hangs out here. It drives me crazy.” Okay, so he just hangs out here, whatever–or in Chuukese “metever”. I like Peterson.
I often run into him when I’m walking around Sapuk. He’s from Winipis, but he likes to hang out in Kanonii. He smiles when he tells me this. In his heavy, hardly discernable accent and gravelly voice he explains, “I don’t know why. I just do.”
Last Sunday he and I were sitting on the second floor porch of the school watching Nukunap village train for the upcoming Sapuk games. Sitting back with our legs hanging over the parapet, he would lean over the wall from time to time and spit a long red stream of beetle nut juice down to the ground below. Yeah, he chews. “You should try it,” he tells me. “It makes you dizzy. It’s good.” Aussie Sean steps out on the porch and pulls up a chair, but after Peterson’s third spit, which Sean rightfully finds disgusting as evidenced by his face, he gets up and leaves. After the practice, Peterson gets up, shakes my hand and says, “I’ll see you around. I’ll bring some puu for both of us next time.” Puu is what the Chuukese call beetle nut. Now I have no problem with whatever people do for kicks, but somehow I would have a hard time chewing anything pronounced “pooh.” But we’ll see.
Sean came back after Peterson left. “He annoys me so much. Spitting puu juice off the balcony. ” I fight back a smile. I don’t care how old, mature, or sophisticated you are–that just sounds funny. “He thinks just because he graduated from here that he can do whatever he wants.”
Whoa there, big guy. Back up. Peterson graduated from here? Xavier, the high school of presidents, ministers of parliament, ambassadors, and the sons of chiefs, is also the alma mater of Peterson? The spacey, beetle nut chewing, puu juice spitting guy is a product of the Scranton Prep of the Pacific Islands? No way. But there you have it.
Now hold that thought.
Tonight the conversation came around to “What are we doing here?” One of my coworkers put it succinctly. “We are preparing these kids to compete and participate in a western world because, for better or worse, it’s inevitably coming down on them. It’s the world we live in.”
That sounded a little harsh and somewhat Eurocentric. I know my coworker to be a pragmatist to the nth degree, and I know him not to be a harsh person, but he calls it like he sees it, based on his experience and world view.
The school’s director, Father Rich, put it a different way– just as pragmatic, but more in tune with the culture of the islands here. “No,” he said, “we’re giving them a choice.”
From what I’ve seen here, island ways are vastly different from the ways of the “west”. Living with and supporting you extended family, sharing everything communally, high unemployment without “poverty”–all these customs and viewpoints do not jibe with what I have accepted as American or with my perception of “westen culture.” In a place where you can shake two sticks and get food from a tree, where the climate is hospitable year round, where everyone has a place to sleep, where basically all you base needs are naturally met, there is no need to strive for power or position. Now of course this does not take into account the growing irritation caused by the rubbing of western and island cultures. But as Father Rich went on to say, “Something was working for 2,000 years.”
Back in the States, we preach industriousness as a religion. We are proud of the “Protestant work ethic.” We frown on those who we think don’t subscribe to it. We place industrialists and business people on pedestals. Jobs, Gates, Buffet–we turn entrepreneurs into celebrities. But here, traditionally, there has been no need for business. How can you sell food to someone who has access to all they need for free? If you teach a man to fish…Well, guess what? Everybody here can fish. On this side of the looking glass the whole work ethic thing is seems supercilious. As we look across the ocean to these people, we might label them as unmotivated, or lazy. But looking back at us, they see pasty people living in a world of stress and anxiety.
Paul Theroux got it wrong. “No one even talked politics”? Come on. You’re surprised? He saw these people for how they were not like us. He was dismayed that people here were not like us. I feel sorry for him, because in looking for us, he never saw them. From out here, looking eastward beyond the reef. The words of Walt Kelly come to mind–“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
But hey, maybe our world is attractive to some over here. That’s fine. Here’s a school that offers them a key to open the door to that world. People can choose to walk through it if they want, and many do. But some, like Peterson, put the key in their back pocket. Maybe their back pocket has a hole and they lost it. It’s all good. Want some of my mango?