PISIWI!!!!!! (and Graduation) July 29, 2012

“There is a flower. . .I think she has tamed me. . .”-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

As a teacher, I often feel schizophrenic.  It’s like I have two people living inside of me–Mr. Corrigan; he’s a wannabe intellectual dude all wrapped up in his education trip–all pedagogy and content and abstract reasoning and analysis.  He also can be a hard-ass, tow the line kind of guy who reminds me of my father sometimes.  They do share the same name after all. Then there’s Chris; he just likes hanging out and finding funny stuff in everything around him.  His favorite thing to do is play and mess around, explore ideas and go on adventures, sometimes even with kids–hiking, making music, cracking up, and just being silly.  Mr. Corrigan is not nearly as fun as Chris, but every so often to everyone’s benefit, the two of them get to hang out with each other and inform each other’s outlook on things.  The best part of this summer is that they both got to spend more time together than usual.   And at no time did they have a better time together than a few days ago on the island of Pisiwi in the Chuuk lagoon.

As the summer program wound down at Xavier High School, the teachers, assistants, and students all piled onto a small ship and headed out to a tiny island with white sand beaches, coconut trees and all the accouterments that are rolled into standard island paradise package.  As for Mr. Corrigan, he got to observe his students and take note of their strengths not typically shown in the classroom.  Hmmm, that McCaulvin makes one heck of a sand castle. I wonder how I can figure out a way to help him translate that skill and those sensibilities into a well-formed essay.  As for Chris, he got to hang out with McCaulvin and build sand castles…and Joshua and have chicken fights in the water…and Yendor (He’s named after his Uncle Rodney; spell it backwards.) and have splash wars…and Jewel and jump out of trees into the ocean.

For many of the kids, it was their first time on a ship–I know that’s hard to believe, but there you have it.  For others it was their first trip to Pisiwi, a fairly popular picnic spot in the lagoon. For everyone it was a chance to laugh, play, and let their hair down after six weeks of school.  It was like taking the six weeks of summer vacation we had all forfeited and cramming it into nine hours.

As with everything else on this journey, so much seemed familiar, and so much seemed different.  Perhaps the most familiar aspect of the whole day was watching kids being kids, and witnessing the sheer joy of a day at the beach.  At one point one of my fellow teachers and I just closed our eyes and listened.  The only audible sound was laughter–children’s laughter.  It pervaded the whole scene like a soundtrack and overpowered everything.  They were splashing, jumping. swimming and laughing, giddy with unabashed delight.  It was like listening to poetry and music in a new and pure  and true language.

Remember the fishing scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

There were some stumbling blocks for Mr. Corrigan along the way (not so much for Chris).  He is you know, well-educated, responsible, and of course, middle aged.  He was dismayed at the children on the boat.  Not nearly enough seats…no life jackets (anywhere)…kids hanging over the railings.  What would your insurance underwriter say? Oh, nobody has insurance.  Well at least the parents signed a permission slip?…?…? Oh there not one of those either….Chris just chuckled out loud and ran down the makeshift gangplank and hopped aboard the boat.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned how the girls dressed modestly so as to not offend the boys. (See Chuuk 101.5) Well, that would make one wonder about the whole swimming thing–swimsuits being what they are nowadays.  Not an issue in Chuuk where everyone swims in their clothes.  Sure, some of the boys took off their shirts, but not many.  And the girls?  They just wore their clothes–skirts or pants, blouses or shirts. “It’s what we do in Chuuk, Mr. Corrigan.”  Chris, he ran out into the lagoon fully clothed, picked up Russell, and tossed him back into water only to be dunked under when Russel climbed up on his back upon resurfacing.

Then there was the sand.  I am told the Inuit people have a hundred different words for snow.  Well, if the native language here wasn’t so limited in its vocabulary, and if the kids had a better grasp on English, they would have a thousand different words for sand.  McCaulvin (That’s his first name.) tried to explain.  If you pick up the sand from over there, and mix it with the sand from here, then grab just a bit of the sand from the water–but not too deep, you could make a perfect sand ball.  The sand back by the rocks under the tree is best for making sand recliners.  And if you want to have a sand fight…yeah, they had a sand fight…the sand between the trees and and waterline works best if you don’t have any sand balls.  Mr. Corrigan tried to put a stop to this but failed miserably.  Don’t worry a local colleague told him.  “These kids grow up with sand.  You know how you probably used to throw snow at your friends when you were a kid?  These kids don’t have snow; they have sand.”  Chris?  He hates the idea of getting sand in his eyes.  He ran in and dunked Russell again.

Everything combined to make all parties happy.  The kids had a blast.  Chris had a blast.  Even Mr. Corrigan had a blast.  Although, he wasn’t convinced until the nest day–graduation day.  As he watched the kids receive their certificates and awards, he didn’t necessarily see the kids who bombed his reading test, or who were still struggling to put together a coherent paragraph.  He saw the child who could make beautiful (if not inappropriate) sculptures out of sand. He saw the child who sat down next to him with a plate a food saying, “Sa moga. (Let’s share food and eat.)”  He saw the child who showed him where the deep water was beneath the tree in case he wanted to jump off one of the branches.  He saw the kids who he was sad to be leaving behind in a few days.  Chris handed him a tissue.

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Both Sides Now for Tom Corrigan July 27, 2012

all of us have a place in history.  mine is clouds.–Richard Brautigan.

Two things come to mind about my father.  One-He enlisted on the marines in 1945 to come fight the Japanese in the Pacific.  Two-He loved looking at clouds.

He never made it to the Pacific Islands.  It’s a shame.  Because they have great clouds.

When I think about what I’ll miss about Chuuk, the clouds rise to the top–islands in the sky.

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The Great Pacific Culture Patch July 26, 2012

Today, scientists estimate the swirling mass of waste known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is roughly the size of Texas.–Daily Telegraph 26 July 2012

“Do you have any pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge?” one of my Micronesian students asked the other day.  Well, it just so happened that did.  Opening my laptop and calling up iPhoto, I went on a hunt.  Now, my iPhoto files are more disorganized than the commission charged with resurfacing the roads here on the island of Weno–so a-sifting we went.

No, that’s Christmas, 2009…..No, that’s the Milwaukee Polka Festival….No, that’s the “Pictures Never to be Placed on Facebook” file…No, that’s New York City from last January…..”WAIT!!!! We want to see New York!!!”

So we detour away from the Golden Gate to take a look at bunch of photos of New York I took last winter….Yes, that’s snow….Yes, it was cold…I was in New York to see a former student who was performing on Broadway and had invited me to see his show.  It also just so happens that this past-student has a large role on the TV show Glee, which by all accounts is fairly popular in the States.  Clicking through pictures from the trip, I get to some shots of the former student and me…..”WAIT!!!!! That’s [insert character’s name that I don’t recall] from Glee!!!!!!!  Why are you with him???? Do you know him???? I love him!!!!!! Glee is the best show!!!!!!” Before my eyes they suddenly all morphed into teenage girls from 1964 watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for the first time.

Wait a second. Glee?  “Yeah we love Glee.” Indeed they do.  In fact some of them already have all of next season’s episodes on disk.  You can pick it up in the Cash and Carry in town.  They also have bootlegs of all of this summer’s American blockbusters, many of which are still in the theater. “Mr. Chris, have you seen the new Batman movie? Do you want to? I can get you a copy.”

But it’s not just television shows and movies that you can bootlegs of.  How about New York Yankees gear?  Abercrombie and Fitch?  I can’t tell you how many Tony Soprano, Michael Jackson, and Fifty Cent t-shirts I’ve seen.  You like snacks?  We got Doritos, Cheetos, and Pringles.  Music? If I hear, “Call Me Maybe” one more time, I’l wind up in the Chuukese equivalent of Bellevue.  Sports? “Mr. Chris, do you like Tebow? Kobe? Lebron?”

All this debris of American society has washed up on the shores of this tiny Pacific island–and I’m sure it’s found its way onto many others as well.  What is most disturbing is that this cultural tsunami is not comprised of the best we have to offer. Stores are filled with Spam and Budweiser and Hershey bars.  Clothes shops have rack upon rack, aisle upon aisle packed with heavy metal or marijuana t-shirts.  Why read Mark Twain?–People magazine will do.  No one knows Angels in America, but everyone knows Jersey Shore.

I realize that back in the U.S. it’s not much different.  I’m sure if I asked a random sample of Americans, “For what work will playwright Tony Kushner be best remembered?”,  I’d be met with more puzzled looks than actual answers.  I get that.  But what’s hitting me so hard is that it is this image of “Idiot America” we’re exporting, in the form of merchandise, junk food, print media, and movies and TV to the world–to these people whom I’ve come to care about.  They form their image of who we are based on the Neilsen ratings.  What about the volunteer doctors? What about the teachers?  What about the Ex-Peace Corps guy who’s getting bicycles for the kids on island? Sure, they’re here, but I have a student who can’t wait to go to Guam–It’s just like the States. They have McDonald’s.

I shuddered when a student told me she thought the U.S. was a dangerous place filled with tough guys because she saw C.S.I. Miami. I winced when my co-worker told me she felt prepared to travel to America for college because she had see a lot of movies. I cringed when my graduating Micronesian students processed down the aisle to a Chuukese version of “Hotel California.” I almost cried when the boy who had never travelled beyond the reef asked me if living in San Francisco was like The Princess Diaries. 

Now I can be as critical of and cynical about our country as anyone, and I have often voiced displeasure at the policies and practices of the United States. But I am an American; I have to believe that, as a people, we are something more that cop shows and teenage chick flicks.

We’ve already created a swirling wasteland of our plastic refuse carried by currents to the great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific.  Now we’re creating a new landfill in the South Pacific made up of all our cultural detritus that we just toss aside without any regard as to its impact.

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Chuuk 101.5 Still More Random Notes on Culture and Perspective July 24, 2012

What is essential is invisible to the eye. –Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

• “In seventeen years of my life, I have never travelled beyond the reef.” Wilson, one of my students shared this with me over lunch awhile back.  Never beyond the reef.  In the same conversation he added, “I want to go to college in the States.  Maybe Seattle or Oregon.” Never beyond the reef…and you want to go to Seattle?  I can’t imagine the culture shock.  Cars, skyscrapers, population density, paved roads…paved roads for godsake!!! How can someone who’s never been been beyond the reef ingest, let alone digest, Seattle?  What kind of psychic hangover would he have to deal with?  I know that for me, coming from the other direction– I’m still reeling, and I’m fairly well travelled and have 30 years on this kid.

Yumiko, one of my co-workers is from Chuuk, born and bred. She went to college in San Rafael, CA, and I asked her what the transition was like. “It was not too tough.  My dad lived in the States, and he told me what it was like.  I had also been to Hawaii…and I had seen a lot of movies.  So I knew what it was like.  I had an idea.”  I had seen a lot of movies. ( Insert old fashioned car horn noise like in Bugs Bunny cartoons here AWWWOOOOGGGGAAAAHHH!!) But I guess having a father who had lived in the States and having been to Hawaii–that’s kind of a buffer.  “It wasn’t that bad.”  The Chuukese are a people of few words so getting her to share more was difficult.  I would think leaving here and winding up in a major U.S. metropolitan area would be mind blowing in too many ways.  I can see some kids turning in upon themselves and become introverted or even worse, others being like a kid in a candy store and winding up in a hospital with a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning.  “It happens.  It just depends on the kid.”

But what about coming back?  Reentry has to be pretty rough.  “There’s just so much stuff in the States.  It’s overwhelming at first but you get used to it.  Coming back was tough because I wanted things right away.  Starbucks, movies, things to do.  I was kind of angry all the time and mad at this place. Resentful.”  She went on to add, “That’s why I decided to stay here two years before leaving for grad school.  I needed to decompress and get back to my culture.  I like the pace of life here and I needed get back into it.”  Yumi is one of the wisest people I have met here.  She leaves for Graduate school in Honolulu next month after being back on Weno for two years.

• The greatest phrase of pidgin English I’ve ever heard–When leaving my class, Regino said, “Thank you very good, Mr. Chris.”

• “Making style” refers to preparing yourself for the opposite sex or whatever sex to which you are attracted, although I have noticed a light dusting of homophobia over the general populace.  This observation is based only on one quote. “There are no gay Chuukese…only Filipinos.”  But anyway making style includes, but is not limited to, how you comb your hair, your dress, your attitude, your body spray, how you carry yourself.  It’s the same as in the States, but there are some ways of making style that are unique to Chuuk and the Pacific Islands.  My three favorite are as follows in order:

1) Flowers.  Flowers in your hair, in your hat, around your neck, atop your head like a crown.  Forget San Francisco.  If you’re going to Chuuk, Micronesia, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

2) Gold teeth. It is the height of fashion to have several gold teeth.  The more, the better.  I don’t know if this is directly related to the poor state of the population’s dental health, but I have heard people say that yes, this is a factor, but there are those who just want gold teeth.  When the dental clinic rolled through awhile ago, I heard one mother explaining to her child who was reluctant to get a filling not to worry it’s like getting gold teeth.

3) Coins in the ears.  Not to be confused with pants on the ground phenomenon in the States a few years back, coins in the ears is definitely Chuukese.  I have seen this fashion statement several times–on tweens, on teens, and on adults.  One of my high school students was sporting it today.  I asked her to explain.  At first I thought it was because people didn’t have pockets.  No, I was told. “It’s a Chuukese thing…Chuukese style…you wouldn’t understand.”  ‘Dat’s how we roll at latitude 7.  I’m glad I don’t get it.  Because the fact that a teenager is doing something that I totally cannot relate to or understand in the slightest bit lets me know thatall is right with the universe.

• I have finally discovered Chuukese onomatopoeia–Neukamantch (noo-kah-monch).  I don’t know if I spelled it correctly; I can barely pronounce it.  But I do know what it means.  It can be used as an adjective or a noun.  Someone can be a neukamantch, or he can just be neukamantch.  In direct translation it means naughty or a naughty child.  But it means a little more in that the naughtiness is distracting or has a mean tinge to it.  Maybe because it sounds like homunculus, it just fits certain people. For me it has come to sound like what it is.  I have had some students who are just plain neukamantch–no other word matches as perfectly–their behavior, their manner, just who they are.  Say it with me—neukamantch.  See what I mean?

• I don’t know how to say this so I’ll just put it out there. I have come to the conclusion that my skin is the wrong color.  As the sunburn peels off my nose and my forehead, and I look around at the people in the vast majority of the places where I have travelled, I understand white supremacists less and less–not that I ever really understood them in the first place, but dudes, there are more people who look like them than there are who look like us.  And guess what, they’re better adapted the planet.  Almost everyone I went to a picnic with the other day slept well that night.  Why?  They didn’t have to stop what they were doing every 20 minutes to reapply chemicals to their derma to stave off sunburn and eventual skin cancer and possibly untimely death.  You know what?  I did.  You know what else?  I still got sunburned.  Their bed sheets didn’t feel like sandpaper– mine did.  Makes you think.

• My favorite Chuukese expression:  When you want to tell someone, “Shut up. You’re a fool.  You’re embarrassing yourself and your family.  Just quit whatever your’re doing…”  You say, “Hang up,” and gesture like you’re hanging up a phone.  This is similar to an expression popular in the Caribbean–“I done witchoo.” If you’re in the Caribbean and someone is really annoying, you say “I done witchoo…one time,” and you exaggeratedly make like you’re wiping your hands and shaking them off.  In Chuuk you say, “Hang up…kebanjo (kay-pon-jō).”  This translates to “Hang up… you’re bald.” Then you take your hung up hand phone and move it across your head like you’re giving yourself a buzz cut.

• The internet went down over the weekend.  I walked six miles and got to a wifi so I could email my wife so she wouldn’t worry when she skyped me on Monday as planned  and I didn’t pick up. As I walked back, random people driving by pulled over to give me rides some of the way back home.  People do that here.  I was once riding in the back of a pick up into town, and several people just hopped on board for the ride.  My return walk was only a mile and a half.  “It’s too hot to walk,” one driver told me.  But I know he was also thinking…”You’re skin is the wrong color to be out in this sun.”

• Finally I had a long talk with some younger students today about the States and Chuukese culture–here’s the greatest hits reel from what they told me.  

Tell me something about Chuukese culture that I might not know.

“Girls have to respect boys.  But boys don’t have to respect girls.  They do respect us though because it’s just the right thing to do.  We’re not allowed to swear in front of them, but they can swear in front of us.  They don’t because it’s just the right thing to do.  Even if a boy is younger, we need to respect him.  If we walk by we need to bow or crawl past them.”

How do you feel about that?

We don’t really think about it.  It’s no big deal.”  This fascinated me.  As an American, I thought about how wrong this sounded.  I wanted to tell them that this is nuts and they shouldn’t have to do this.  Rise up, sisters! But then would I be disrespecting their culture by imposing my values on it? In our attempts to be culturally competent, I wonder how often do we impose our cultural beliefs on others?

What’s something good to eat in Chuuk?

“Breadfruit.  Pounded breadfruit.  You can also slice it and fry it and make breadfruit chips.”

“Souka Souk.  You take bananas and put them in boiling water.  When the outside turns black, it’s done.  Then you peel it and pound it.  Then you take a coconut and get the water out of it and take the white part and squeeze the juice or oil or whatever it is on the banana.  It’s messy, but it tastes so good.”

If I brought my students from the States here, how would they be different from you?

“They would dress different.  Girls in the States wear shorts.  We don’t.  They wear tank tops too with the spaghetti straps.  We don’t.  It’s disrespectful to the boys.”   This idea about being respectful to the boys came up a lot.  I told them that I found the clothes that girls in the States wear more disrespectful to the girls.  I said that I thought the way clothes were sold to them and what they were told to believe is attractive can hurt them and give them wrong ideas about what is beautiful.  They didn’t see it that way.  They insisted that it was more disrespectful of the boys.

What’s it like in the States?

“People are nice.”

“It’s safe there because you have traffic lights and stop signs.”

“There are big buildings and cars everywhere.  You stop them when you cross the road.”

What is school like for you during the school year?

“Boring.  The teachers just talk and talk.  They don’t ask any questions and you don’t ask them any.”

“It’s not like here.  It’s not fun.  We don’t talk with our teachers.”

“I like that we get to sit around a table and talk about books here.  You learn more that way.  It’s not like that at my school.”

Then why, when I’m in the classroom do so few students talk or answer or even participate?  It’s much different in the States?

“They are scared that their English is not good enough.”

“They don’t now how to talk in class.”

“They will say ‘yes’ a lot because it is better than saying, ‘I don’t know.’  If they say yes you won’t call on them again.”

This was also interesting.  The Chuukese students are very shy in general.  They do not take risks.  This ran contradictory to so much of my beliefs as a teacher and, I’d have to say, as an American.  You have to take risksit’s ingrained in our character.  

I held a section for more advanced students who had completed a series of differentiated reading assignments and proved that they had the English reading skill to work through a novel–The Little Prince.  Students were invited to join the class, which was held in addition to their regular coursework. However, admission into the section was not based on reading skill alone.  The students went through a short interview with me where I told the that they would have to answer questions, ask questions and participate in discussions.  A few students bowed out at this point.  Others said yes that they would be willing to do this.  The next step was that they had to stand on a chair, shake their fists in the air and yell, “I want to read the book!”  This was not the most culturally competent screening method, and a few more students stepped out here.  “I can’t do that.”  Those who remained were not always the strongest readers, but the ones who were willing to take risks.  As the novel unit progressed, even some of the weaker readers and shyer  students came out of their shells in time, and made some interesting insights into the book.  These are the students who had this conversation with me.

What is like to have an American teacher?

“It is good. We respect Americans.”

I wanted to get at the racial variable in this equation.

Do you know about racism either here or in the states?

“Yes.  That’s when because of someone’s skin color, you think they are not strong.”

“It’s bigger in the States than in Chuuk.”

Do you think, that because I am white and come from someplace else that people might not trust me or think that I can teach them because I don’t know them or understand their culture?

“No.  You’re an American, and you’re a teacher so we respect you. Some people might be scared of you even.”

“People here think that because you’re white, you’re rich” My high school students told me that if I go shopping to take one of them with me.  “You’re not Chukese.  They’ll think your rich and charge too much like you’re a tourist.” (See: Chasing Skirts)

The most interesting answer to the question was this: “Some kids might treat you that way but not a lot.  They’re the ones who are ‘too cool for school’.  They just want to show their friends that they’re not afraid of an American.”

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

“London or Rome.”

“I would like to go to Korea.  My mother is Korean and my father is Chuukese.  Korea is my island.” (See: It’s Just Like Crossing the Street)

“Tonoas–that’s my island.”

“New York.”

“Yale University.”

“I’d like to go to Oklahoma because it’s like London.”

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Spear Fishing in Micronesia July 23, 2012

Woo-hoo! The internet is back.  But did I miss it?

As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America?–Richard Brautigan

Saturday marked the annual Xavier staff picnic.  Custodians, mechanics, cooks, office workers, teachers, we all piled into motor boats and headed out to a tiny reef island for some barbecue.  Cut to: A quick geography lesson–the islands of Chuuk are defined by their relationship to an enormous coral reef –140 miles in perimeter and 820 square miles in area–which surrounds the state. Islands are either inner islands, reef islands, or outer islands.  The reef islands actually sit on the reef, and depending on the tides, you can walk along the reef among them  During a low tide several islands may appear as one.  The reef itself is interesting.  It forms the Chuuk (Truk lagoon).  The Pacific Ocean waves break on the reef with violent force, while inside the lagoon there are no swells at all.  Although the reef is roughly five miles out from the coast of Weno, if you take the time to listen, you can hear the surf constantly.  In the early morning, when all is still, it almost sounds like traffic–almost.  From time to time an enormous swell will crash, and even at this distance, it sounds like a freight train is running along the horizon.  Father Rich, the director of all things Xavier sits on the porch in the morning gathering his thoughts.  A deeply religios man, I am convinced he hears those waves as the voice of God.  Although I am not nearly as deeply religious as he, I have enjoyed the times we have sat there in silence, listening for whatever voices we can hear in the surf.


So on Saturday morning we schlepped our food, coolers, snorkeling  gear, and whatever else we thought we might need to the Xaver dock.   Around 8:30 in the morning, the word went out to head on down to the dock, which is about a quarter mile down the hill, along a jungle path mined with rotten breadfruit.  They’re very slippery and will take you down and leave you flailing in a muddy putrid mess if not careful.  The path then meets up with a rutted out road which leads to the water’s edge–but the two are hardly distinguishable.  The Xavier dock is a dock in the name only.  Much like the road on the island, it’s little more than remnants of what might have been a useful construct.  Now it just sort of makes due.  Some concrete blocks that once formed some coherent shape, some rebar sticking up, and the rusted remains of what was once a steel frame constitute the entire structure.

Walking to the Xavier dock is always a trip.  As we amble down, we pick up children along the way.  I don’t know if they are just curious or what, but they seem to come out of the woods every time I go down and trail along behind me.  It’s not uncommon for me to walk down to the water’s edge–starting alone and arriving with five toddlers in tow.

Island time is a rich tradition; I’d even go so far as to call it a sacred institution, observed by all on Weno religiously. The Americans, hearing that we should head down to the dock, thought that that meant now.  We gathered up our belongings and walked down to the dock.  It took roughly fifteen minutes to get there.  We then waited an hour and a half for the others to arrive plus an extra half hour for the boats to show up.  Funny thing about those sacred religious traditions…sometimes great truths are revealed within them. For, in the two hours that I waited for co-picnicers and the flotilla to arrive, I skipped dozens of stones, gathered innumerable shells, coaxed hermit crabs out of their shells (You can do this by putting the close to your mouth and bubble moises.), learned how to ask someone’s name in Chuukese (Ephi-tom), and figured out how a spear fishing gun worked with the local Sapuk children–time much better spent than it might have been had I dwelled instead on how late everyone was, and how the pig tied to the tree smelled, and how many flies there were, and…  you fill in the blank with any of the myriad minor annoyances that populate a tropical paradise.

When the boats arrived, we started loading them up.  You know that scene in the movie Jaws when all the fishermen are overloading the boats to go after the shark and collect the reward for bringing it in and Richard Dreyfus makes the comment that none of these yahoos are going to make it out of the harbor alive?  Yeah, it was kind of like that.  “Climb on into the boat, Chris.  Just don’t step in that hole.”  We’re going five miles out into the ocean in this craft?!?!?  Far from yar, this boat was barely seaworthy.  The gunwales of the boat were even with the water’s  surface, and I swear that as we were motoring across the lagoon, we were actually lower than the surface, and it was some freak in the laws of physics that kept the water out as we moved.

Cleaning sea cucumber

I’ve rambled on for quite a long time now, and there’s much more I could add…how the boat with my friend Nancy and me went to the wrong island, and we waited for the flotilla to arrive with the food, but it never came…how a small boy spoke Chuukese to me all day, and I never said anything, only smiled and made funny faces back, because I didn’t think he spoke English until he said, “Is your name Bob or Chris?”…how while wading along the top of the reef an eel shot out of its hole and started attacking me nipping at my shins.  But that’s not spearfishing in Micronesia………………….

When all the boats that went to the wrong islands were located and brought to the right island, that’s when spearfishing in Micronesia kicked in.  Coolers with drinks and chicken and ribs were dropped off on the shore of a picturesque tiny island.  It looked like the stereotypical New Yorker cartoon with the guy sleeping under the coconut tree. Most of the men then hopped back in their boats with homemade spear guns and set off for deeper waters.  Meanwhile women and children waded out in the shallows of the reef. While the men were out, the women gathered the sea cucumbers, scraped them down to remove the fuzzy exterior. The tool for this was, more often than not, the lid from a tin can.  Then they would take rock or piece of coral and bash the cucumber until it was left flat and tenderized.  This was all the preparation needed before this  hors d’oeuvre was served.

In the meantime, the men were out spearfishing with crudely fashioned spear guns.  The barrel was a long thin hand-carved piece of wood.  A strap of surgical tubing was attached at one end and pulled back and hooked with a paper clip to a makeshift trigger.  A sharpened piece of metal was then attached in such a way that when the trigger was pulled, the surgical tube acted like a slingshot, launching the spear.

The men went out for several hours.  They would snorkel with their spears or just wade where it was shallow enough. With incredible accuracy, they would launch their spears and strike a fish, piercing it.  Next they would take a wire and use it as a stringer, poking it through the hole in the fish.  On a side note, there has been a problem with Chuukese fishermen and sharks.  It is common practice to attach these stringers to your waste as you wade and snorkel around hunting for more fish.  Sharks smell the blood or sense the dying fish’s flapping around and are attracted to them.  It doesn’t take Nobel-aureate to figure out what happens next.

After awhile, the boats came back in, loaded with stringers of every color of fish and men with teeth red from beetle nut.  The women, children, and men alike took part in cleaning the fish.  Some men pulled their boats on shore, and, taking handfulls of coarse coral sand, rubbed down their boats. As each fish was cleaned it was taken to the fire and barbecued on the spot.  This–when paired with breadfruit and banana marinated in coconut, pineapple and tapioca–makes a great lunch.

There is no way to properly describe this day in words–the laughter, the beauty, the food, any of it–so please take a look at the pictures–it’s all I got:

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The Tao of Puu July 20, 2012

Why not go out on a limb?  Isn’t that where the fruit is?  -Frank Scully

Ahhh, Friday night in Sapuk what to do?  The clubs are all closed.  Actually, there never were any clubs to close in the first place.  Maybe take in a movie at the…that’s right…no movie theater.  There was one years ago for the U.S. military, but that left with the last aircraft carrier.  I hear there’s a band playing at…..oh yeah, their power shuts off about a half an hour ago.  What to do?

The path to puu

“Hey Chris, you want to chew?”






“Do you want to chew some puu?”

The Seussian back and forth banter between me and a coworker was beginning to sound just a little too nonsensical for me. But basically he was asking if I cared to step out on the deck and chew some puu, or as the rest of the world knows it–beetle nut. Beetle nut? As in “Bloody Mary’s chewing beetle nuts now ain’t that too damn bad.”? I’ve never chewed beetle nut before.

In India, everyone’s teeth were stained red and speckled with chunks of fibrous material.  “Beetle nut,” The cabbie in Varanasi had told me.  “Everyone chews it.  It’s good.  Makes you dizzy,” and he grinned a reddish brown grin. Twelve years later, I still can’t believe I got in his cab.

But beetle nut, you say?  Like India, beetle nut is prevalent here.  The maintenance staff, people in and about town, villagers in Sapuk, almost every local adult I encounter chews. I ruminated. Well since our conversation started off sounding like Green Eggs and Ham, and  since the central theme of that masterwork of western philosophy is the importance of trying new things, and since there is absolutely nothing else to do, let’s go chew the puu.

Now the first thing we had to do was get some. That’s no problem the ramshackle shops all over the place aroud here have torn cardboard and magic marker signs for it in their window.  Puu is relatively cheap. Two dollars gets you 20 nuts, some chili leaves, and fine white powder that looks like cocaine (or so I’m told) but is actually ground lime coral.   My cohort also asked to pick up a pack of cigarettes.  There’s a crumbling little shop just through the jungle a little bit away, where the path meets the road.  “Mei wor puu and cigarettes?” I asked nervously. I felt like a high school kid trying to get served at a liquor store.  This of course was foolish since beetle nut is legal and culturally acceptable in this part of the world.  That probably explains why the man behind the counter looked at me oddly–either that or my pidgin Chuukese.

I walked back  up the path back, being careful not to slip on the putrefying breadfruit along and holding breath against the smell; it’s nasty–somewhere between old bannas and new manure. When I got back, my colleague explained to me the procedure.  You see, you don’t jut pop puu in your mouth and start to chew; you need to prepare it.

Step one: Get your beetle nut, chili leaf and coral out.

Step two: Prepare the nut.  It is kind of like an acorn in that there is a leafy stem cap on it. Remove the cap, split the nut in half lengthwise and scoop out the middle, fleshy part.

Step  Three: Put a pinch of coral into the hollowed out part of the nut. (The purpose of the coral is to scrape and cut your cheek slightly so to as to allow whatever it is that causes the effect to get into the bloodstream.)

Step five: Put the two halves of the nut back together and wrap it in the chili leaf.

Step six: Put it in your mouth between your cheek and gum and, you guessed it, chew.

Thinking back on my trip to India, I did not try beetle nut, but I did try boung.  This was a brown paste that some people used in devotions and religious meditations.  Others just used it.  It was perfectly legal, and I remember the wonderful serene day I had on the banks of the Ganges.  I watched the Sadhus pray and meditate.  I watched the orange flowers float down the river.  I watched the people from the neighborhood come down to the ghat to bathe. I watched the Buddhist monk as he talked to me–he wanted to practice his English so he just talked while I stared. George Harrison finally made sense to me that day.

I chewed, hoping for and bracing for a similar experience.  After all, the guys in India said it made you dizzy.  Peterson from the village in Sapuk said it made you dizzy.  I waited for dizzy.

My first reaction was that it was kind of tasty.  Citrus with a touch of heat from the chili leaf.  My second reaction was that my mouth was filling with saliva.  I spit.  A reaction between the leaf and the coral turns your spit red.  That explained all the red teeth. I spit some more…and more…and more. I waited for dizzy.  Dizzy never came. I might as well have been waiting for Godot.

I asked my friend, “Um, when does dizzy get here.”

“Right away. Didn’t you feel it?”

I felt something–I remembered that song  from a Chorus Line–

They all felt something,
But I felt nothing
Except the feeling
That this bullshit was absurd!

My buddy asked, “Did you put the cigarette in?”

Cigarette?  What cigarette?–

“You break off half of the cigarette and put that in the nut before you chew it. That’s how you get the buzz.”

Cigarette?  You want me to chew on a cigarette.  But, Sam I Am, I do not like…the idea of chewing on a cigarette.  But this is an experiment in exploring cultural practices.  And remember what happened at the end of Green Eggs and Ham.  So I jiggered up another nut, this time with the cigarette, and I…..chewed.

Same thing…citrusy (mmm), spicy (mmm),…cigarettey (ack), and I waited for dizzy.  Just when I was about to take the whole spit drenched masticated concoction out of my mouth, guess what?  Dizzy showed up.  My head got light, a tingly body buzz worked its way out to my fingers.  “Ganges,” I thought, “I’m coming back home.”  But before that thought was complete, I was back in A Chorus Line, feeling nothing.

That’s it?  A five second nicotine rush from cutting my mouth open with shaved rocks and eating a cigarette?  I was all set to be  Dr. Thompson and I barely got to be Mr. Rogers?!?!  They’ve written songs about this stuff.  Every cabbie and musician in Varanasi swears by this, and it’s little more than Polynesian Copenhagen or Skoal?  What a rip.

But the breeze is nice.  The rain feels cool as its mist blows in on the porch. I’ll fix me up another nut sans cigarette.  It tastes kind of good.  It’s sort of relaxing here on the balcony and hmmmmmm.

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Just Ask Manuel July 19, 2012

(Please note–I’m trying to chronicle all of my experiences and observations while here .  Tonight’s entry deals with the Japanese occupation of Chuuk and events during World War II.  Some of the content here might be disturbing.  Please note that when I use quotes and refer to the Japanese, this refers to the Japanese Imperial Army and government leadership of the time.  It in no way refers to the Japanese civilians and victims of the circumstance.  Additionally, in writing this, I was looking for a different narrative–a perspective I had never seen or heard.  The perspective I got came  mostly from one man.  I did further research and found things to corroborate his story. I have no reason to doubt him, but it is just one person’s story.  As such it is victim to his biases and predilections.)

This ain’t no party–Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”

When I first walked into Xavier High school I was taken aback by a mural commemorating the Japanese who had fallen on the island during World War II.  It struck me hard.  I mean a memorial to the  Japs?!?!?  I mean the Japs were the bad guys.  Everyone knows that.  My father enlisted in the Marines in 1945 to fight the Japs.  When I was kid–six, seven, eight-years-old–playing army, what invisible enemy did we fight as they invaded my backyard in Clarks Summit, Pa?  The Japs.

I’m older now of course, and realize that the Japanese are a proud and admirable people–rich in tradition, culture, and contributions to society.  I even have a hard time writing the “J-word” in this dispatch.  But still, there was something about that mural that caught me off guard.

Onetime Japanese communication center–now home of Xavier High School in Chuuk

The legacy of World War II and Operation Hailstone, the battle which routed the Japanese navy, are everywhere.  The office where I’m writing this, my communication center, was once a Japanese communications center during the war. The war is a tourist attraction. Scuba diving in and around the wrecks left behind after the war constitues a huge piece of the local economy.  The governor’s official website and investment guide states, “The centerpiece of Chuuk’s economic growth strategy is the tourism potential for resorts and activities  related to our world famous ‘Truk Lagoon’. ” I’ve gone diving on the wrecks–it’s pretty cool.  A thumb’s up “Like” on Facebook doesn’t come close to expressing how amazing it is.

But okay, what about the war?  No……..really.  The Howard

Xavier High School today.

Zinn reading, Michael Moore watching, Fox News bashing, Rachel Maddow loving side of me wants to know. What’s the other side of the story?  I don’t want to paint the Japs as bad guys with a broad brush.  I want to know what the war years were like on Weno, in Chuuk.

“Just ask Manuel,” I’m told.  “His mother was here during the war.”  Manuel is the night watchman at Xavier High High School.  He’s the guy who, when the campus is powered down at night, shines a flashlight on the steps for me as I exit the main building and head for my room.  An unassuming man of 54, I go to meet him in the the shelter where he spends the time between his patrols around the campus.  The shelter is a tin roof held up by four by fours which houses a lawn tractor and some building supplies.  There are a few chairs, and he is sitting in there eating dinner–white rice and a can of some Hormel product.  I pull up a seat and we start talking.  His accent is thick, and he speaks a stilted pidgin English.  During my time on Island, I’ve become conscious of my fast paced chatter and overuse colloquialisms and asides, so I try to temper my speech and questioning to match his understanding of English.

“My mother worked for the Japanese.  She was a cook.”

And so his tales began.

The Japanese government claimed Chuuk in 1914 as nations clamored to grab what land holdings were slipping from German control in the wake of the first World War.  Although Japanese settlers were already here, immigration began in earnest during the 1920s and 30s.  Schools were set up to accommodate both local children as well as the steady flow of Japanese children.  Infrastructure was built.  From what Manuel told me, the Chuukese formed a servant class–“They cleaned and they cooked for the Japanese.” Also they served as laborers, but from his accounts, treatment wasn’t particularly cruel or harsh.  “If there was food left over, my mother, she brought it home.  They let her.” Intermarriage was common, and the children from these unions were often conscripted into the Japanese army as the came of age.

Land ownership is huge to the Chuukese people.  On more than one occasion, I’ve heard it said that status here is derived from your family clan name and your land holdings more so than person wealth or employment. Your land is your connection to food.  Remember?–“We got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off the trees.”  We also have limes, breadfruit, coconuts, and taro. With that, the Japanese leaders allowed the Chuukese to hold on to their land.

As Japan began to build up her military in the years before the war, things changed.  More and more Chuukese

Japanese lighthouse at Sapuk. The pock marks are from strafing runs during Operation Hailstone.

were taken on as forced labor.  Armaments in the hills and along the shoreline, the lighthouse, and even the building which is now Xavier High School were all built with slave labor pulled from the local population.  “The Japanese, they had guns. They were strong.  The chief tried to stop this.  But they were strong.  So the Chuukese, we worked.”

The people of Sapuk, the community of villages around the high school, were evacuated as the Imperial Army claimed space for military installations.  On August 6, 1940 the people of Sapuk, without prior warning, were relocated to Udot, an island roughly 15 miles away.  Every four years, the people of Sapuk host the Sapuk games, a track and field competition among the local villages on August 6 in remembrance of the evacuation.  I should note here that in the later half of the war, a Japanese businessman who was married to a woman from Sapuk successfully petitioned the Japanese command, and the residents were repatriated.

During the war, the United States targeted Japanese fuel and food supply ships causing shortages throughout the  area. The strategy being, it’s easier to take out a supply ship as opposed to an aircraft carrier.  An aircraft carrier on the surface without food, fuel, or munitions, is just as good as sunken one, but without the risk. In the days before Operation Hailstone, a U.S. spy plane spotted the Japanese fleet in Chuuk (Truk) lagoon, The plane was noticed by the Japanese forces, and  they began to evacuate their vessels with aircraft carriers and destroyers taking precedent.  The Japanese generals did not expect the attack to come so suddenly after being discovered so, although the attack took out few military craft, a large number of supply ships were still in the lagoon and destroyed in the battle.

Supplies became tight.  Even with supply lines cut, the allies continued bombing islands thereby decimating crops and fish.  Food became especially scarce.  The Japanese occupation forces, which had originally allowed the Chuukese to hold their property, claimed private land for their own use.  “If you picked breadfruit from your tree on your property, the Japanese would kill you.”  From what I’ve seen of the culture here, this must have been confusing and incongruous with all local logic.  The Chuukese share their food among all family members and neighbors.  This flies in the face of everything these people know and understand.

As the war continued, so did the shortages.  “There was not enough.  The Japanese went to the sick people.  They dug holes and buried them.  They weren’t dead yet.”  In an attempt to cut down on those needing the limited provisions, the military cleared out the hospitals and buried the ill…alive. “They were still living and they dug holes and they buried them.”

Still the shortages did not abate.  Since Operation Hailstone destroyed most of the Japanese fleet’s supply ships, no relief would come to the Chuukese or their occupiers.  It would still be a full year and a half before the Japanese surrender. The grip of impending starvation tightened.  “The Japanese, they took the people from the villages.  They took them to the caves.  They put them in the caves.  Then they take a man and they cook him.  They needed meat.  They cook the man.”

Did I hear this right? Land seizures. Relocations. Slave laborers. Death marches.  I’d though I’d heard it all. There was something almost disarming in the slow, matter of fact, pidgin delivery.  Smooth, direct, free from nuance or couching–“They cook the man.”  The blood drained from me.  My skin suddenly felt heavy.  It was like taking a sucker that dropped my very psyche to the matt. Sitting in a folding chair, under a tin roof, in the dark of a moonless evening, no longer in Kansas anymore, but in Micronesia–dumbfounded.  The cosmic referee going into a ten count while soul laid splayed out on the canvass.

I’ll admit it. I was hunting. I wanted to hear something that challenged the narrative I had heard from day one.  Was there something I wasn’t being told, I cynically wondered, about the American occupation?  Some dark secret lurking in the back pages of history.  Some contradictory tid bit that didn’t make it into the textbook.  Surely we could not have all been saints, and surely the Japanese were not all demons.  I did get a new story, but it challenged not my image of the American or even the Japanese.  It challenged my image of humanity.  Desperate times call for desperate measures; it’s an old cliché, but this?  This. even now, typing away, I feel incredibly empty and sad–drained.  The terror, on all sides…The fear leading up to such acts, and the horror as they unfold…the Chuukese by way of their victimization and the Japanese by way of their action their actions–each side witnessing their humanity drained from them…I can not, as I sit here, imagine the depths of desperation that could inspire measures of this magnitude of degradation.

Manuel went on.  “There was a spy–Japanese.  He went to the Americans.  He told them,  ‘Come to Chuuk,’ he said ‘now.’  So the Americans, they come early.”  At the time the U.S. forces were making their way from island to island, liberating the populace. The islands of Chuuk were on the list, but not on the schedule for a few weeks.  Once word was received, the flotilla. Changed course making Weno and other islands where similar atrocities were taking place the first priority  “The Chuukese were glad.  We wanted the Americans here. This was a good thing.” He continued, “That spy, he saved many lives.”  He saw what was happening and stood up to stop it.  In that moment was no longer a Japanese warrior.  He was a human being.  In that, there is hope.

But what about the scars?  How deep they must be  Surely among the Chuukese there must be anger–resentment–hatred–hostility–ill will–something toward the Japanese.  I have heard it described as a love/hate relationship.  Manuel went further.  “The Chuukese who are still here….from the war…they rember.  The never forget what the Japanese do for [to] the Chuukese.  They never forget.  But today?  That was then.  It’s over.”

It’s over…or at least looks that way. I notice that many of my students have Japanese last names.  Nakayama, Hashiguchi, Hansetto–the Japanese legacy here is evident in their lineage.  Even the president of the Federated States of Micronesia is named Mori.  All over the campus here and throughout the island, plaques and signs note the donations made over the past 70 years.  “Renovations thanks to a grant from the Mabuchi Corporation.” ” School busses donated through the generosity of the Japanese government.”  Just the other day the director of Xavier, Father Rich, told me, “I just got off the phone with the Japanese embassy.  They want to donate money for supplies and textbooks.  We’re good here for now.  She asked if any other school might need this aid, and I gave her the number of a school in town.”  These gifts and grants are obviously a means of reparations and atonement and have benefitted many people here.

But still…. The Chuukese people are amazingly generous.  I have marveled at the acceptance shown of people toward local eccentrics.  I am in wonder of a place where unemployment lingers around 80% yet no one goes hungry and or sees themselves as poor. Now I am in awe of their capacity for forgiveness.   I have waxed on in past writings about their language being almost all in the present tense.  Maybe that’s the key.  But I can’t understand how can a people or a culture get over those words?  Those acts? I often joke that I have Irish alzheimer’s disease–I forget everything but a grudge.   Manuel, he just turned back to his rice, picked some up in his fingers and ate.

Today students sit in windows of the former communication center–note the solid steel blast cover.

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What Time You Got? July 17, 2012

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.–Lao Tzu

There are four busses that pick up and drop off students for summer program at Xavier High School.  That means there are exactly three more busses than there are main roads on the island of Weno.  So bear with me while I present a little logic problem:

  1. A small high school in a third world island nation has four busses donated by a guilt-ridden Japanese government.
  2. At any given time, two busses are broken down, leaving two to transport students.
  3. Bus A has to make 14 stops along the only road on the island.
  4. Bus B has to make five stops.
  5. All of the stops made by Bus A occur within the first three miles from the school.
  6. Bus B makes its first stop three and a half miles from the school.
  7. Which bus should be the first one to leave the high school to return students home in the afternoon?

If you guessed Bus B, you are….WRONG!!!!  You failed to take into account that said busses are on a third world island nation, and, unless you live in a third world island nation, your logic and theirs operate on completely different planes.

Last Friday the summer program coordinator, rode one of the busses (Bus B) into town after school.  He found himself in his own private purgatory.  A purgatory with an aisle flanked by seats designed for two children apiece yet each is holding three.  A purgatory populated with young adolescent Pacific Islanders and driven by a middle aged Pacific Islander man. A purgatory navigating a rutted out road which more resembles a one lane mine field than any thoroughfare.  A purgatory made longer because the bus he was on had to stop fruitlessly behind the bus in front of it while it made 14 stops within the first three miles of the school.

At the end of the journey, the program coordinator said to the driver of his transport that he should leave before the other bus since that bus needs to make so many stops before this bus makes its first.  “…but today, when the busses were pulling out to leave, they were back in that same order.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know why they do this.  It’s obviously wrong.”

Is it foolishness?   Is it a lack of logical reasoning skills?  Is it contempt for the young coordinator? The answer is no, no, and no–none of the above.

In discussing this with a local resident, the answer was clear.  “What difference does it make?”  Well, it’s more efficient, and he can drop off his passengers sooner.  “Why?  He should hurry up and do what?”  The kids are happy socializing with their friends.  The driver’s going to get them all home.  If the driver finished earlier or later does it really matter all that much?  Welcome to “Island Time”, baby.

Until now, I always thought of this as a quaint notion invented by tourists to express how laid back the island lifestyle is.  But of course those same tourists lose their minds when a waiter is slow with their mai tais. But this idea of island time goes much deeper.  It’s encoded in generations of DNA  strands dating back to time immemorial. My friend explained it to me this way.  If you live on an island, where do you have to go?  What are the demands on your time? It’s not like anything that needs to happen after finishing one task won’t still be waiting– whenever you finish the first.  We’re on an island, for God’s sake. Nothing’s going anyplace.  Nobody’s going anyplace.  Whoever I’m supposed to meet at three o’clock will still be here at 3:30, 4:00, 5:00 or tomorrow for that matter.

Now, throw this into the mix–We’re not just in any island nation; we’re in Micronesia.  In this culture, it’s not important that I get there first; it’s important that we all get there together.  That’s lightyears away from the traditional American/Western mindset.  My friend explained further. “In general, Micronesians, especially the Chuukese, don’t like to stand out.  If you threw a bushel basket of Chuukese crabs int a pot of boiling water, and one started climbing out, the others would pull him back in. With few exceptions, we don’t usually celebrate personal success.”  So why rush to win a prize? Isn’t better if we all come through something together. Perhaps this is why, people here don’t live day to day; they live event to event.

The best example of this mindset in action comes from Palau.  Micronesia is broken into three countries: The Marsall Islands, Palau, and The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).  All three were once U.S. trust territories who through a series of constitutional conventions earned independence in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The newly formed countries entered into a Compact of Free Association with the United States.  The compact created military bonds between the countries and the U.S.  It solidified economic ties, guaranteed aid money,  and set up the U.S. dollar the official currency.  Palau, however, did not enter into the compact right away.  You see Palau’s constitution declared that it would be a nuclear free territory.  That meant no nuclear weapons, no nuclear power, and no ships or submarines with nuclear arms or reactors on them can pass through her waters.  The U.S. did not like this clause in the constitution, and wanted it out before ratifying the compact.  Now the compact was definitely in Palau’s economic interest and America’s military interest.  But it took a three-fourths vote in Palau to change the constitution.  The U.S. Senate was getting impatient to finalize and solidify ties with Palau when a delegation of Palauan women appeared before a senate subcommittee.  The senators spoke sharply to the delegation demanding to know when exactly the no nuke stipulation would be removed from the constitution.  A woman from the delegation stood up before the committee and answered.  “What the rush?”

The Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and Palau was ratified in 1994, 13 years after Palau adopted its constitution.  The U.S. is not allowed to use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in Palau territory.
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This Place is a Wreck July 16, 2012

There is always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.–Wavy Gravy

A storm was blowing through Weno last Saturday–rain slamming down; winds whipping across the water.  But 100 feet below the surface of the water, all was calm and still and a rich blue.  I explored the remains of two Japanese supply ships, the Rio de Janeiro Maru and the Sankisan Maru  Each one was carrying munitions–torpedoes, bombs, explosives, bullets when it went down.  They were left foundering and ablaze in the lagoon when Operation Hailstone was complete, and the U.S. planes stopped their attack.  As each one burned, the flames reached the munitions and the explosions inside the ships brought them down.

The Sankisan, sits upright on the ocean floor.  I swam along the decks, all covered in coral and teeming with fish–  batfish the size of a laptop;  yellow and black angels, their fins trailing behind them like streamers; a barracuda ominous and still, staring down at me as I passed beneath.

Toward the stern the discernable shapes and landmarks of the ship gave way to twisted metal from the explosions that blew out the back of the vessel sinking her. Utter destruction–nothing here was recognizable. It was as if the ship was dipped into some sort of shredder and pulled out.  We swam into a hold from here.  The light and color from earlier faded quickly into a thick, murky darkness.  Once inside, we needed flashlights to see clearly. It was tight and claustrophobic.   Torpedoes, rusted trucks, Japanese Zero plane parts seemed to float out of the gloom as we swam toward them. The deeper into the wreck we went, the more the weight of the scene pressed in on us.  The floor below was littered with bottles and medicine jars.  A truck engine block appeared–then a machine gun. But perhaps the image that will always stick with me was the bullets.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, of them–everywhere. In clips, in boxes, and in piles on the floor. Everywhere.

Ambient light from a hold opening signaled the way out.  Emerging to the ship’s deck, a whole different world came into focus.  Colors, more vibrant than before, held my gaze.  I just wanted to drink in all the shades of reds, blues, yellows, oranges, purples, and greens.  Every fish darting by turned my head.  A clownfish scurried around an enormous anemone. A clam as big as a basketball smiled from coral on the ship’s mast.  It was so….alive.  Yeah, that’s it.  Alive, and growing–thriving.

I kept flashing on a soundbite slogan  from a bumper sticker I’ve seen dozens of times–Nature Bats Last.  Coming out from the ship’s hold, filled with dying relics, the stuff of war, the stuff or destruction, the stuff of hate and death, I saw all the life around me with new eyes.  The sea was reclaiming this one-time weapon and decorating it with Life. I was exploring the scene of a furious battle, and, fifty years later, you know who won?  Beauty. Nature. Life.

Later, when I was back at school, Ruffina asked me if I was going to ride into town with her and some of the others on campus to go to mass.  I told her I wasn’t. I didn’t need to go to church today.  It would be redundant.  “I already talked with God today under the water.”

“Oh really?” she chortled, “What did he say?”

“He said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ ”

Special thanks to Angelo from Saipan for sharing his pictures from the dive.

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Chuuk 101.4 Facts and Stories from the Far End of the World July 15, 2012

Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea.  Let’s go to press. -Walter Winchell

Dateline: Marshall Islands

You are what you eat.

The working vocabulary of island languages are limited by comparison to western languages.  It makes sense–if you and your family have been living in a confined space for generations, there really is no need for a large vocabulary.  Picture, if you will, Martino and Jerlyn coming across each other on a path.

M:”Hello, Jerlyn.”  J:”Hello, Martino.”  M:”How are you?” J:”Good.”  M:”Good?”  J: “Yes. Good.”  ’nuff said.  Move on.

In many cases the same word or phrase may mean different things. In a store  heard a customer say to the shopkeeper, “Mei wor puu.” (“My good man, I would like to purchase some beetle nut.  Do you perchance carry any in stock?”) The shopkeeper replied, “Mei wor puu.” (“Yes, I do indeed have beetle nut.  It is right here, wrapped in banana leaves. Allow me get some for you.”)

Well, on the Marshall Islands, the word for “sugar” and the word  for “diabetes” is the same–toñal (todall).

Imagine the conversation.  “Myoleen had sugar.  She lost her leg, went blind, and died.”

Or better yet on the other side of the looking glass—Would you like a little diabetes in your coffee?  Run to the store and  pick up a pound of diabetes.  What would you like for breakfast, children? Diabetes Smacks?

Dateline: Weno

Used car lot.

“Oh, I see,” said the chief. “You want to buy my car.”

I have mentioned in past dispatches the inordinate number of derelict autos–overgrown with vines in the the jungle, rolled into the lagoon or just sitting on the side of the road serving as community sofas– cluttering the island.  Recently an altruistic philanthropist offered  to remove all the abandoned vehicles on Weno.  I’m sure, he had some profit motive in mind–scrap metal sales perhaps.  But anyway, he was speaking to a local chief and said that he can remove all the scrapped cars on the island.  “What?”  said the chief, “You want to buy my car?”

“No, I am offering to get all these trashed autos out of here.  I have access to the tools and ships and wreckers.  I can haul all of them out of here.”

“Oh, I see,” said the chief.  “You want to buy my car.”

“No, you don’t understand.  Your car–all these cars–they’re broken down.  They don’t run.  They’re an eyesore and propose an ecological and health risk”

“Oh, thank you.  I’m so glad you want to buy my car.”

“No, I…..”

The philanthropist is long gone.  The cars are still here.

Dateline: Yap

This ain’t Monte Carlo.

A small pleasure craft was anchored off of Yap.  Some of the women on the yacht noticed that native women on the coastline were topless.  Excited with a new found sense of freedom, they donned the bottom halves of their bathing suits and went ashore in a dingy. The chief came running out, shocked, revolted, and angered at the obscene display on his beach.  How dare these indecent women carry on like this–landing on his beach dressed as they are.  The audacity of… baring the upper half of their legs!!!!  You see, breasts are functional. “Loins” however are sacred.  They are the source of life.  They must be respected.  Ladies! In the name of all that is holy—-cover your thighs!!!

Dateline: Chuuk

Like cats and dogs.

It was once rumored and now verified, that here dogs are not pets.  They are food and quite a common dish.  A woman here, Ruffina, takes giggling delight at my reaction whenever the issue comes up.  There was a dog lying down in a driveway. “Don’t worry, I know that dog.  She’ll move when you pull in….If not, barbecue.” (Tee-hee-hee)

I wondered if the same held true about cats.  I asked an American teacher who had been here for over a year.  “Oh no, it’s really taboo to kill a cat in Chuuk.  The Chuukese revere cats.”  Apparently they are seen as the keepers/protectors of ancestral spirits.

“Oh, so do they keep cats as pets on the island?” I asked.

“If by ‘keep as pets’ you mean, don’t feed, let run around everywhere, pay no attention to, and let them reproduce like rats–Yes, the Chhuukese keep cats as pets.”

Dateline: Weno

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Sarcasm and mistrust rarely enter into the scene on Weno. There is a branch of the Bank of Guam in Nepukas, the “downtown” area of the island.  One morning, just as the bank was opening, two men entered and informed the woman working that this was a robbery–the classic, “Reach for the sky–give us all your money and no one gets hurt!” scenario.  The woman told them that she cannot get them the money, only the manager has access to the safe, and he won’t be in for another hour or so.  “But if you wait outside, he can let you in and get you the money.”  The men agreed and stepped out for a seat on the front step to wait for the manager.  The woman locked the door and called the police who arrived an hour and a half later to find the two men still sitting on the step waiting for the manager with the key to the safe.

All true.

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Chasing Skirts July 13, 2012

Some guys drink; some guys gamble; this guy–he’s skirt chaser. -Dante Benedetti

I went chasing skirts recently.  Now, I’m not a skirt chaser in the traditional sense…anymore.  Those skirt chasing days are far behind me.  I’m talking more about a quest.

You see here in Micronesia, almost all the girls wear these skirts.  The designs are beautiful.. Some are floral, some are needlepoint, others are appliqué.  They are simply beautiful.  But they are also a source of wonder and a bit of a mystery.  Now before I start sounding creepy, let me explain.  The Chhukese place a great emphasis on cleanliness which is most impressive on an island where it rains several times a day, there are no roads or sidewalks, and mud is the common denominator in all things.  That said, the girls all sport these pristine skirts all day and during all kinds of activities.  Going to church—better put on my immaculate skirt.  Off to class–I think I’ll wear my flawless floral skirt.  Practicing for track an field events–I think I’ll wear my new skirt for that.   And they’re spotless–I have no idea how.

I asked some of my students, where I might find one of them for presents when I return to the States, or maybe even for me–they are lovely, and I bet they’re comfortable for dancing……never mind.  I’ve asked several times, “I love that skirt.  How can I  get it?” only to be met with sideways looks.  Not because they think my wanting to get a skirt is odd in any way.  Rather because the question is itself odd.  The answer is almost always, “I made it.” or “My mom made it.”  Asking where I might find “That skirt” is erroneous–this is it.  There are no others.  I can’t get this skirt or that skirt–and if I want it–well you certainly can’t have “my skirt”  The differences of languages crop up at this point, and my question is ridiculous, peculiar, and more than just a tad inappropriate.

Let me rephrase my question, “Where can I get a skirt like yours?  I would like to get some as presents.”  –Much better, Mr. Chris.

The girls tell me that the markets downtown sell them, but don’t go in by myself.  “You’re not Chukese.  They’ll think your rich and charge too much like you’re a tourist.  You should take a Chuukese with you.”  So it’s set, on Saturday, Ruffina, Lillian, Dai Dai, and Lillian’s brother, Wilson, will all pile into the school’s truck, rumble on down to Nepakos, and take me skirt shopping.

Okay, I’ve been to the markets in Thailand.  I’ve been to the markets in Nepal…and Honduras…and Mexico…and India; this is a whole different beast.  Those  carry with them an air of the exotic and romantic that hearkens bak to some earlier adventurous time.  Picture Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Knew too Much” wandering through the open air market in Morocco or  Indiana Jones being chased through the stalls in the Egyptian marketplace.  This has a wholly different flavor, but not without its own charm and romantic appeal.

The markets are individual shacks where all manner of goods clutter the shelves.  50 pound bags of white rice (is there any other kind), are stacked next to a box of slippers (flip flops).  Laminated flowers to wear in your hair are beside cans of SPAM. Shrimp chips from the Philippines are next to banana leaf packets fille with puu (beetle nuts).  And draped over shelves, or on a hanger on a nail in the wall are skirts and mumus.  It’s not like there are racks of skirts.  Maybe four or five to choose from in the whole store.  No tags; no sizes; no two the same; all gorgeous; all handmade.  There was a mumu that I thought of picking up for my daughter, but I couldn’t be sure of the size. I knew one of the girls working in the store.  She was another student, and her Auntie  owned the place.  “Just get her measurements, Mr. Chris, and my mom can make a mumu for her in her size.”

Which brings me to the second mystery.  How are they making the skirts?  The craftsmanship and detail are amazing.  The needlepoint designs in the fashion of Pohnpei  are incredibly intricate.  The appliqué skirts popular on Chuuk have complex arrangements of various cloths and patterns.  These are made on an island where electrical power is unpredictable.  These are made in a place where access to a sewing machine must be limited at best.  Then there’s the question, what happens when the machine breaks down?  I haven’t seen too many Singer repair shops on Weno.  There’s not even drinking water in the hospital.  I wonder if there are broken and derelict sewing machines under the abandoned cars rolled into the lagoon.  “But Chris,” you’re thinking, “perhaps these were all hand-stitched by Micronesian peasant women in their compounds.”  My retort is…get real.  I know this is the third world, and time stands still, but this is also the 21st century and no matter how still time stands, there is no way for someone to make a skirt from scratch, gather food, pound breadfruit, and cook the family pet in one day.  It can’t be done.  There’s got a be a sewing machine somewhere–I just don’t know where it is.

We visit several shops, and word must have gotten out that Americans were in town looking for skirts. When walking out of a grocery store where we made a water stop, we are greeted at the door by some women with bags  skirts.  Mine are 20 dollars… Mine are only six…This one like Phonpei… This one Chuukese.  All of them unique.  All of them lovely.  Here, I decide that the skirt chasing is done.  Looking at the skirts in front of us, I  make some choices.   I just hope it’s okay, because two seconds later I saw another–unique–different–one of a kind, and self doubt crept in.  But money changed hands and the deal was done.

I hold one that I bought up to my waist joking, “Does this make me look fat?” Laughter and embarrassment.  “Mr. Chris, we are outside.”  The Chuukese are a shy people, and no, the skirt did not make me look fat.  My beer belly did–when coupled with my boisterous wisecracking, I looked mighty fat indeed.  The ugly American skirt chaser had captured his quarry.

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Waiting for Wah Wei Wei, July 11, 2012

Understanding is a two way street. -Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ve been picking up some Chhukese phrases and expressions.  Nesesor anim (nes-sohl ah-neeeeem) Good morning. Nepong (Nay bong) Good night. Kinisou (keedeeso) Thank you.

The language is incredibly complex and difficult to negotiate.  Part of this stems from the alphabet.  The Chuukese use the same Latin alphabet we do, but the letters and sounds do not correspond in the same way.


The Chuukese are a shy, deferential people.  Calling attention to oneself is seen as bragging, and bragging brings shame, and nothing is worse than shame.  They are incredibly generous, and “no” is rarely heard.  If you were to ask someone a question, the answer is invariably “Yes.”  Can you meet me for lunch? Yes.  Is your brother older than you? Yes.  Can you help me later? Yes.  The problem is oftentimes when someone says  “yes,” they don’t always mean “yes.”  They just don’t like to say “no”– so they don’t.

This cultural tick becomes doubly prickly in a teacher-student dynamic.  “Do you understand what I’m trying to explain?” [smile] Yes.


The island I’m living on is spelled Weno; it’s pronounced Weh duh.  Depending on how letters are juxtaposed, the sounds they make vary greatly-“N” between two vowels sounds like “D”, but at the beginning of a word, it sounds like “N”.


I’ve been charged with designing a basic English grammar curriculum for students here.  Now, “teaching grammar” goes against almost everything I believe as an English teacher.  But I need to prepare them for a standardized test, and guess what’s on the test?  Grammar.  “Chris, I know you want to teach these kids to write.  But with where these kids are, that’s like building a wall without bricks.  I need you to help these kids make bricks.”  The students are from various schools around the island.  They can all speak English–sort of.  Some are quite fluent and proficient. Others…not so much.  But it’s hard to tell who’s who because all of them are reluctant to speak in class.


Sometimes R’s are R’s and sometimes they’re L’s.


It is not uncommon for public school teachers to just not show up at school.  As a result many schools are just holding pens for children during the day. Often schools bring in volunteers from other countries to teach. I know an Australian who teaches at Sapuk Elementary School, just down the road from here.  He just graduated high school himself.  He turns 19 tomorrow.  The Catholic and religious schools on the island practice what Paulo Freire called the “banking concept”of education.  Kids sit in rows, don’t talk, and the teacher deposits information into them like a bank.  As a result, my students’ skills and abilities vary greatly.  But they are all uncomfortable with  the give and take of class discussion and an interactive classroom environment.  Student centered pedagogy is almost unheard of in these parts.


There are certain letters–b, d, x, z, c, m, q, and j for example that just don’t exist.  And depending on who you ask, there are either six vowels or nine in the Chuukese alphabet.


All of these cultural factors and language barriers, coupled with a crumbling or outdated education system has dealt a pretty bad hand to both me and the students.  I feel under-equipped to teach them, and many of them lack the basic skills for even the most rudimentary scaffolding of ideas. For the past few weeks, connections between concepts have been nonexistent.  Inside the classroom, there have been no “Ah-ha moments”–those times when a kid’s eyes light up and you can see the nurons firing and ricocheting around inside her skull.  A few days ago, I thought I heard someone behind me in the room say, “Ahh.”  Almost ah-ha, but when I spun around to see where it came from and ask who said it, a roomful of shy, Oceanic tweeners just smiled back at me silently.


Sa monga (Sah Mōgah) translates literally into English as “We eat.”  But it means much more.  You see, when a Chuukese has food and someone enters the room, he will say, “Sa monga.”  It is an invitation to share what he has. I was sitting on the porch the other day when some local staff members came out to have their dinner outside.  “Chris, sa monga”  Join us, we have some and will share it with you. It’s quite a warm and sweet custom.


My students recently took a quiz on identifying predicates where the average score was 71%. Before the quiz, I said to the class to come see if they needed extra help.  “Ill be in my student center classroom during study hall.”  No one came.

After I handed back the quiz, I asked if anyone had any questions.  What do you need me to go over one more time?  No replies.  Terenina, do you understand the material on the quiz?…..Yes. (She scored 50%)

Outside the window, I saw Ruffina, one of the staff members who invited me to join him the other day.

I announced to the class, “If you are not happy with your quiz score, I invite you to meet me in the student center to go over the material again at study time.”

Sa monga–let me invite you to the table to share what I have.

Seven students showed up.


My guests and I went over the material again. I asked questions. They answered. They tried . They failed. They tried again–and again–and again. We laughed a little. They took a retest. Ternina got 93%.

In the middle of the quiz she grinned said aloud, “Wah wei wei.(I understand.)”  Ah-ha.

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For the Love of Pete(rson) July 10, 2012

… 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?

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What’s Up, Doc? July 9, 2012

Rocky said, “Doc, it’s only a scratch.”–Paul McCartney

“I cut my leg, and I think it might be infected.” These words would make anyone nervous in any environment. But in a muddy, muggy, buggy, tropical environment, they carry a bit more weight. And that weight came crashing in last week when one of the other visiting teachers showed me her leg.  A thin scratch lined  a red, inflamed and swollen calf. “It’s hot to the touch. What do you think?”

Now this woman is one of the more well-travelled people I know.  I often like to play a game where I try to think of remote and exotic locales, and ask her if she’s ever been there.  Uganda?  Guatemala?  Damascus? Mongolia? Yes, yes, yes, and yes– she’s been there and done that.  So when she asked me what I thought about the scratch on her leg, I didn’t know what to say.  I see her as the one who’s seen it all.  Um, how does it feel?  Do you think you should go to a doctor? I think there’s some Neosporin around here somewhere…..I got nothing.

“Well it doesn’t hurt that much. I don’t think I need a doctor. I’ll clean it out and clean it up.”

Sounds good to me.  The one piece of advice I did have was, “Draw a circle around it with a sharpie, and see if it gets bigger.”  Dr. Horace Mayo I am not.

Bell rings—Dash off to class—See you at lunch—Get on with the day.

Lunch rolls around-white rice and fill in the blank–my favorite. One person is noticeably absent from the table.  I ask the others if they’ve seen her.  A chorus of nos (no’s…nose?) is only countered with someone saying that her leg was bothering her, and she went to lay down.  Sounds good to me.

Bell rings–Study hall–Run off to bang my head against the language barrier and try to explain split infinitives to Chuukese children. I can barely explain them to American children.

Dinner rolls around-white rice and fill in  the other blank-my other favorite.  But someone is still missing.  This is no longer sounding good so a couple of us go out and knock on her door.  She doesn’t answer, concern rises as we walk into her house.  She’s not there.  We try to mask our worry with “Well, she must be feeling better and gotten gotten up.” Sure enough, when we return to the dining room, there she is, albeit looking somewhat wan.

“How are you feeling?”s are met with “Not so hot.”  She had to leave class early.  Apparently all of a sudden a wave of nausea and dizziness came crashing onto her shore and washed her out of the classroom and into her bedroom for the rest of the day until just now.  The afternoon had been a back and forth battle with throwing up and heavy crashing in bed.  She had come over to the dining room because, even though she wasn’t hungry, she hadn’t eaten all day and knew she should have something.  “I’m feeling better though, and should be fine after a good night’s sleep.”

Cut to: the next morning in our office.  “I think the infection looks better.  I think it’s smaller.  Take a look. What do you think?”  We’ve established by now that all my accumulated medical knowledge smaller the Higs-boson “god” particle. But even without a sharpie circle, it’s clear that the infection is not smaller but larger. Her leg is swollen and beginning to resemble an appendage from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon.  “What’s that coming down Fifth Avenue?  Is it Snoopy?  Bullwinkle? No, it’s a big red, nasty, puffy leg.” It’s time to go to the hospital and see a real doctor.  This refrain is echoed by everyone on campus.  The call is made to Dr. Felix, a physician with whom the school works, and the appointment is set.  While the calls are being made, the patient tells me, “I just don’t want to ride on that road.”  Well suck it up, buttercup, a bouncy trouncy ride to the doctor or more vomiting and the probability of the infection worsening–you choose.  To be fair, she is also one of the most humble people I know, and I’m sure much of her reluctance to go stemmed from a desire not to impose on anyone.  But hey, it’s down the road for her, and the rest of us teach and carry on with the

tasks at hand.

Father Rich, the school director, returned from the hospital several hours later saying that her leg was indeed badly infected. The infection had gotten into her blood, and she had developed cellulitis.  Not good.  The prognosis was upbeat though.  She had been put on an I.V. drip of antibiotics.  She would have to spend a night in the hospital, and would most likely be given a heavy regimen of heavy antibiotics and discharged in the morning.  Preparations would be made here and supplies would be driven down to her this afternoon.

Wait a second!  Preparations?  Supplies?  I hear you asking, “What does she need?  She’s in the hospital.”  Let me tell you something, Bub.  This ain’t your fancy pants private hospital.  This ain’t your overcrowded public city hospital.  This ain’t even your Obamacare government-run nightmare socialist gulag hospital as painted by the tea party.  Haven’t you been reading.  This is Micronesia.  This is the third world to the tenth power.

Hanging sheets serve as doors to the ward rooms at the Weno hospital.

Preparations and supplies–no, not a book and reading glasses.  How about dinner?  There’s no food in the hospital here on Weno.  The school cook starts preparing some soup and (you guessed it) white rice.  How about water?  There’s no drinking water in the hospital here on Weno. Father Rich can pick some up on his way to see her this afternoon.  How about some sheets and a maybe a pillow?  There’s no linen service in the hospital here on Weno.  School staff can start gathering these up. How about someone to watch over her and make sure she’s okay during the night?  There is no nurse call button in the hospital here on Weno.  Ruffina and Artis, two women who work here at school will go down and sleep on the floor beside her bed.  Huh?  Yes, in an extension of the whole Chuukese extended family paragon, guests are not shooed out after visiting hours. There’s no visiting hours in the….Rather people, family and friends, sleep on the floor of the hospital room with a patient.

I offer to drive down in the afternoon with Father Rich to help out, to visit my friend, and to check out the hospital first hand.  After driving an hour down a path that could be used as a set piece for “Indiana Jones and the Road to Hell” and stopping at the store for water and soda crackers, we head into the hospital.  The outside looks like a double wide trailer, but once inside, I can see that it’s much larger as it extends back from the facade. We walk down the hall to her room which she shares with several others.

She is asleep, still in her clothes from the morning on a bed which is covered in graffiti, but she wakes up as we enter.  Of course her first response is, “What are you doing here?  You din’t have to go out of your way and come down. I’m so sorry….” But we tell her it’s no problem.  I ask if I should contact her sons back in the States. “No.  There’s nothing they can do but worry.  I’ll let them know when I get out.” (She has.)

I must admit I was taken aback with the conditions.  First, it’s hot.  Not just a little.  The air is still  and humid in the room.  Several other people are on beds in the room.  One guy looks like he’s just a worker on break lying down.  A large woman is sitting on the floor beside a bed occupied by a family member. She is leaning on a cooler of food and eating something.  My friend, hooked up to an I.V., is looking washed out to say the least. I’m a little embarrassed because I had a hard time taking it all in, and I know my original conversation was stiff, stilted, and awkward.

After a short time, a nurse came in to move her to the Intensive Care Unit.  The irony is not lost on us as the program she teaches in is called the I.C.U.  A bed in the unit opened up because a patient who had been admitted earlier that morning was now being discharged.  If this quick turn around sounds strange, I can explain.  The I.C.U. in the hospital is air conditioned.  The original occupant comes from a prominent clan.  He is somehow related to the president of Micronesia so he was placed in the unit, not because his condition was serious, but so he might be more comfortable.  Upon leaving he told the staff he wanted the bed to go to the teacher–a most generous offer, unorthodox by American standards, but just another beat in the rhythm of life here. Clan carries more than some weight.

The room is basically the same as the other one.  It’s a little smaller-three beds total as opposed to eight, and of course the air conditioning made a world a difference.  The other beds hold two older women.  They each have blankets on, but in looking at them, I can tell they are missing legs.  The shape under the blanket drops off at the knees of one, and the other has her covers off to reveal a stump of a thigh.  The diabetes epidemic rears its ugly head.  The elephant in the room of course is that our friend has an infection on her leg, and we have wheeled her into a room where the other two patients are amputees.  The inappropriate jokes hang in the air, but are never said. ( It’s only writing this now that I can even bring them up  since the worst of the situation is far behind us.)

In the room, the relatives of the other patients are present as well.  They recognize Father Rich and start chatting, and I continue talking to our patient. Less awkward now, but my face still stings where it was originally slapped by my first impressions of the place.  She tells me about the doctor.  A friend of the high school, he moved her ahead of all the other people in the waiting room. The wide hallway lined with people because the bench in the middle for sitting was already filled when they arrived this morning. But, “…nothing like a doctor in the U.S.  You know that whole thing of asking your doctor questions and conversing about what’s wrong?  Not so much.”

We need to get back to school, so we drop off the food, water, and linens and let her know that two women from the school will be down to spend the night.  Of course this is met with protests, but Father explains that these objections on her part are not culturally competent.  “It’s how we do things here.  The family stays and sleeps on the floor, and right now you’re our family.”  The idea of the women not coming isn’t in the schema at all; it’s just what is done.  As Ruffina says when I ask her about anything I find confusing about Chuukese culture, “It’s just what is.”

We left the hospital, our patient dozing in her bed, a plastic grocery bag with bottled water and soup and rice and soda crackers hanging from the bedrail.  Artis and Ruffina make it down and spend the night.  The next afternoon the patient is released with a bundle of antibiotics and a look of dismay that all her treatment and meds cost nothing.  Micronesia has free health care.  “It wasn’t as bad as I thought.  It could’ve been a lot worse.” Her world travels have obviously placed her bar for what a hospital should be at a different level than my own.

Days later, all is well.  I’m typing this; she is at the desk working across the office from me.  She’s still in the middle of a course of antibiotics, but worlds better than where she was.  But she told me, “It came on so fast.  One second I was fine, and the next–Whoom!  I’ve never had that.  I even wondered if this is what it’s like when you die.  You just get sick and down you go.” There you have it.

Um, all’s well that ends well, I guess. I gotta go wash my hands….again.

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Welcome to Sapuk July 8, 2012

They got three stop signs, two police officers, and one police car…..Arlo Guthrie

The Federated States of Micronesia is broken up into states–Yap, Kosrai, Pohnpei, and Chuuk (often called Truk because the U.S. navy seamen couldn’t proounce “Chuuk”).  Each state is comprised of several islands.  Each populated island is broken down into municipalities.  These municipalities are divided further int0 villages villages.  I’ve been living in the Municipality of Sapuk, on the island Weno, in the state of Chuuk.  So I guess a municipality is sort of like a county in the states, but calling Sapuk a county is like calling the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts as described in “Alice’s Restaurant” a metropolis. There aren’t three stop signs on this entire island, and I’ve only heard rumors that police officers exist. They’re kind of the Micronesian

Japanese lighthouse at Sapuk. The pock marks are from strafing runs during Operation Hailstone.

equivalent of bigfoot.  I’ve seen some blurry pictures, but no one has ever captured one in the wild.

Tourists in Sapuk are either lost or World War II buffs.  The school where I work was once a Japanese communication center/bunker.  On the next hill to the east of the school is a lighthouse which the Japanese built with slaves pulled from the Sapuk populace.  Plunked down on a hill in some family’s yard sits an enormous, rusted out coastal defense gun being slowly reclaimed by vines and bushes.  Down on the water is a dilapidated Japanese pier where ships once docked and today locals fish and swim.

The area is rife with relics from the war, and there are some people interested in seeing them. Today as I was reading on the porch, two different groups walked through to check the place out.  A Japanese tourist asked to take my picture.  It was all I could do to keep myself from chanting “We’re number one! We’re number one! Whose bunker is it now, b–ch!?!” But Superego came to the rescue and vanquished the evil Doctor Id.  I just smiled for the snapshot and returned to my book.

I hiked through the jungle yesterday with some other teachers and the brother of one them–an army major between deployments.  He was on a break from seeing current warfare up close and was checking out remnants from past wars.  We schlepped up to the lighthouse and climbed to the top to check out the view.  As we trekked through the forest, we passed several family compounds on our way through the brush and up the hill.  The lighthouse isn’t set aside or fenced in protected as a historical monument like it would be in the States.  It’s just there. You can walk up to in and in it and and up to the top for a commanding 360° view of the eastern half of the island and the lagoon and the Pacific beyond.

Jay and the toll taker. The machete is between the guy’s legs with his hands resting on the handle.

Wait a second, did I say you can just walk up?  There was one slight caveat.  While we were sitting atop the lightouse taking in the view, a guy with a machete approached us saying that this was his land and he wanted five dollars from each of us in way of a toll.  This is a common practice here.  There is an assumption that anyone who is not an islander has money. Fortunately, Jay, one of the other teachers lives in Sapuk and speaks Chukese.  He negotiated with the guy.  He told him that we in fact had permission from the actual owner who has given the school access to the property.  After a few minutes of back and forth that I could not understand, the man accepted two dollars from Jay to cover everyone and left.  Now I know some people out there who might get indignant at this–“If I were you, I’d tell that guy off!!!  You were in the right!!! Why did you give him anything?”  I’ll tell you why.  We were in a jungle, and he had a machete.

All in all we spent about an hour on top of the lighthouse.  The view was stunning, but rain clouds over the water looked indecisive as to whether they were moving toward us or going to veer off in another direction.  It’s like that here, you can see the weather coming, but it is unpredictable with the all the winds.  Discretion being the better part of valor, we headed down.  Two of us made our way along the forest path through Sapuk and headed back toward campus while the others headed to the Japanese dock for a swim.

Now the last thing I want to do is create the image that the people of Sapuk are knife wielding extortionists–not at all. This guy was an anomaly, and in no way did I ever feel truly threatened.  On the contrary, most of the Sapuk locals are friendly, always offering smiles and waves, and in general a happy lot.  It hasn’t always been that way. For years Sapuk was known as one of the more crime-ridden areas in Micronesia.  Over the past few years through the work of community members–individuals and organizations like Xavier–it is now one of the safer municipalities.

Ambling down the path, I come across more compounds and am greeted with nods, waves, and “neonowas anim (good afternoon).”  Children will sometimes follow behind me.  They ask if I have a camera and want me to take their picture, more often than not they throw a peace sign, or a hang loose sign–thumb and pinky extended from a fist.  It’s like a reflex.  Men and women ask me “Where you going?” or “Where you come from?”.  These questions come out of sincere curiosity not a space like–“Hey, stranger, what are you doing in these parts?”  It’s jovial and almost innocent.  Among most of the population I’ve encountered, there is a lack of fear, suspect, or cynicism.  I often find myself bracing for it. I feel my defenses rising only to find that there was no reason.  I don’t know if this comes from being somewhere where I am the minority or if it’s just years of living a culture where sarcasm has replaced wit and all too often is mistaken for intellect.

All through the villages, people are getting ready for the “Sapuk Games.”  I mentioned in an earlier dispatch that Micronesians do not live day to day, but rather event to event.  This is one such event.  These are held every four years to coincide with the olympics.  It’s a track and field competition among the four villages, which I will now attempt to spell.  I was asking a colleague how to spell the names of the villages, and he told me

The Kanonii team practicing for the Sapuk Games.

with a laugh–“No one ever writes them down.” Anyway here goes Nukunap (New-kah-rahp), Winipis (Wid-eh-peas), Kanonii (Korory), and Ir (Ear).  Not only do the games tie in with the olympics, but I have also been told that they commemorate the date that the Japanese, who dislocated the residents during the war, returned them to Sapuk.

As forest gives way to concentrated collections of compounds so a village is defined.  Walking into Winipis, I find all the residents lining the side of the road as people of all ages, from young children to teenagers to adults run down the road, racing each other, practicing handing off a stick or water bottle for a relay race.  All members of the village who wish to participate can, and those who don’t participate come out in a show of support and community unlike anything I have ever seen.  Everyone is out. I’ve watched a few of the villages practice over the last few weeks (Smart money is on Winipis or Kanonii), and I’ve been amazed at what a bonding event even the practices are.  People bring food and water for the runners; people cheer and laugh; small children run around while the older folks sit in the shade and watch.

Some villages come up to the school’s campus to use its field for practice, and it was here I saw a cultural phenomenon that one would never witness in the States- especially at a sporting competition.  A young girl from Nukunap was by far one of the fastest runners on their team.  She could not have been older than nine, but was outpacing twelve-year-olds.  When it came to running, the gods smiled upon this child.  She was in a race and right behind  an older girl.  She had come from behind and was fast upon the heels of the leader, but she didn’t pass.  The supposition came out that the reason for not passing was that the older girl in front was an older relative, and it would not be culturally acceptable for the younger child to overtake an older family member.  I don’t know if this was the case or not, but to even have that possibility enter the equation speaks tomes.

Continuing back through the crowds, from time to time I would hear calls, “Mr. Chris!” or “Hello, Mr. Chris.”  Some of the time these came from some of the summer program students who recognized.  But often it came from people completely unfamiliar to me.  One man said as I walked by him, “Thank you, Mr. Teacher. Thank you for coming here.”  Micronesians are known for accepting people as family.  I’ve often talked about the communal nature of the culture. I have co-workers here who are doing home stays and refer to their hosts as “Mom and Dad”.  They talk about their brother or sister or aunties when referring to the extended family living in the compound.  The culture can absorb you and draw you in in a way that I’ve never seen when travelling other places.  Sure, people everywhere are warm and welcoming, but it’s different in Chuuk, in Sapuk.  It goes a little deeper; it resonates more like the harmony of the singing in my last post.  One of my fellow travelers put it this way, “Paul Gaugin’s paintings make a lot more sense to me now.”

Below are some random shots taken in and around the municipality of Sapuk.

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Field Day July 6, 2012

Today marked the midway point of the term here at Xavier High School.  In celebration the classes were cancelled, and the students participated in a track and field day preceded by a mass.  Remember?  It’s a Catholic school.  Yesterday I wrote about the kids’ singing and their rich harmonies.  I tried recording some of their practice today.  I’m sure the limited equipment I have doesn’t do justice to the experience, and it may be that it’s one of those, “You had to be there” kind of things.  But here is a three minute recording of their singing.  Bear in mind that these kids have had no vocal training, and have never sung together before except for a 20 minute practice yesterday.  http://youtu.be/ZjCk4i1fj30

From my standpoint it was great to see the kids just being kids.  No stress, no school, no language barriers just games, laughter, and mu mus.  Enjoy the pictures.  Oh, I almost forgot.  While the games were taking a place, the schools speaker system was blasting music.  I one point I got to choose a song.  I played Sugar Magnolia by the Grateful Dead (of course).  It was a gas being so far from home, watching kids playing and dancing to the Dead.  “Mr. Chris, what is this music”

“It’s the Grateful Dead.”

“What’s the Grateful Dead?”

How do I begin to explain?

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Chuuk 101.3 More Random Facts About the Culture. July 5, 2012

There is a paradox in pride–it makes some men ridiculous, but prevents others from becoming so.–Charles Caleb Colton

In general the Chuukese, and most Micronesians/Pacific Islanders don’t like to draw attention to themselves.  Anything remotely resembling pride is a serious no-no. This includes, but is not limited to, answering direct questions.  To speak above a barely appreciable whisper is frowned upon. This fact makes getting a class discussion started difficult. Few people will participate, and those who do are practically inaudible.

Celebrations of success like graduations and other accomplishments are rarely held and if so in private among family members. These are said to be quiet affairs.

This is different in Palau which is the only of the local island cultures that does celebrate success.  Recently a Palauan man received his PhD.  His entire community came out to celebrate in a big rally for him upon his return.  In Chuuk and the other Micronesian states this would be seen as showy and strongly frowned upon.

A lot of kids play the ukelele.

The Chuukese  are incredible singers.  To the person–everyone can sing.  Everyone I have come across has perfect pitch.  One of the volunteers at the school just told me, “It’s everybody. There is a gift for singing among these people.  Anyone can sing the melody, and then people on their own will just add harmonies. I’ve never heard anything like it.”  As I type this, the students from the different programs are singing behind me to practice for a mass.  These are kids from various schools, most of whom don’t know each other–about 100 in total.  They certainly have never sung together before, but it’s in perfect harmony.  Ritchie, one of the high school kids I work with told me, “You should hear my sister and me.  From the time we are little, we sing.”

Micronesians never say “no.”  It is a grievous wrong to deny someone a favor or help or anything.  Therefore, Micronesians will say yes to everything asked whether or not they intend to follow through.

The Marshall Islands are a separate country. They could have been part of Micronesia, but when the area was being chopped up for cartographers, the Marshalls formed the their own country.  The reason for this is that when the U.S. was awarding support grant to the different islands, the Marshalls received more than the others because they allowed the nuclear weapons tests on their territory.  When it came time to break the territories up, the Marsallese did not want to share their money with the others so they formed their own country.

Spitting is socially acceptable.

The Chuukese have a custom called “budget” like the English word.  If someone has an excess of something–say I have two mangoes for example–and someone, usually a family member walks up to me and says, “budget”, I am obligated by custom to give him one of my mangoes.

Whenever someone has their picture taken, they give a peace sign. It’s like a reflex.

In Chuuk, people don’t live day to day.  They live event to event.  Although celebrations are not big showy galas, events are important.  People might not know to meet me on Tuesday, but if I say meet me the morning after the so and so’s funeral, they will know.  I mention a funeral because these are the biggest events. One funeral might last for three days.

Clan and family is important here.  Prestige is not based on your job or title, it’s based on how many people you know and what clan they are from. For example, admission to the High  Achieving Program in which I’m teaching is based on teacher recommendations. Now, a teacher might recommend a student, not because of  academic merit, but because of clan or family status. There are still clans who are the families of chiefs, and chiefs still hold political power.

In the Gilbert Islands there is a House of Chiefs which is separate from the parliament.  When laws become

Iroij or Irooj (chief) Kabua 1895

before the parliament, they meet with the House of Chief to confer before voting.  They may not always take the chiefs’ advice, but they give them a role in the process, and that role is taken very seriously.

  In the Marshall Islands, they recently elected their first president who was not originally a chief.  That said, people still look to the chief’s family for leadership, especially on cultural matters.  It had always been that the Paramount Chief over all the islands was elected president, but  a schism over allowing gambling in the Marshalls challenged this tradition and brought a commoner into the office.  This brought about a huge awakening for both the people of the Marshalls and the Kabua clan of the Paramount Chief..  After electing the current president, the Marsallese had an expression, “Our eyes have been opened,” meaning that they can see that power no longer need be in the hands of one family.  As for the Kabuas, they see that parliament and the voice of the people can threaten their hold on power for the first time since democracy arrived on the island.  All this said, there is a relationship with the people and culture as well as a prestige and power that lies with the chief that I as a westerner, may never fully understand.  As one person put it, ” If I got bumped up to first class on a plane, and a iroij (chief)  boarded, I would give up my seat. You bow to the office if not the man.”

A compound I passed while walking through the forest.

Walking through the jungle today, I came across a village where most people were outside hanging out.  They were training for the upcoming Sapuk Games, a track and field competition among the villages in the Sapuk municipality.  Kids in flip flops or else barefoot were running up and down the dirt “road”, racing each other.  Alongside the road, villagers were standing or sitting, watching the races.   Get ready–here comes one of those stumbling through the flow of life moments.  An elderly man was sitting in the grass.  Local etiquette dictates that when an older man is sitting down, it is disrespectful for someone younger to pass in front of him without bowing.  The rule is that the passer must never be higher than the elder.  This holds true when walking between people as well.  Children bow so as to be lower than either a sitting adult or if passing between two standing adults. It is especially disrespectful if a female passing and elder male.  I noticed this the other day when, at the end of the school day, I was sitting in a doorway.  Every girl who passed asked for permission or apologized while passing with a low bow.  One of my coworkers came out and told me to stand up otherwise, the girls will be uncomfortable walking by.  As I approached the man in the grass, he nodded to me and with a sweeping gesture of his hand gave me permission to pass without bowing.  He smiled, and as a local teacher with whom I was walking told me, had I passed without his doing that, it would have been a  “Them’s fighting words” kind of moment.  But the man obviously knew I was foreign and permitted the passing to save face and deflect the affront.  However, next time…

Breakfast of Chuukese Champions.

Mixing the fix.

Finally, the snacks eaten here are insane to me.   It is common to see someone chowing on raw ramen noodles with the flavor packet sprinkled directly on it.  This is then eaten like potato chips.  Or, if they don’t have the noodles, people will just eat the flavor packet, dipping their fingers in and licking off the sodium drenched bullion crystals.  But by far the favorite is Kool Aid.  Who doesn’t like Kool Aid?  I liked it as a kid, and occasionally as an adult.  But I drank it. I mixed it with water and drank it.  I didn’t eat it straight.  Not only did I not eat it straight, I would have never thought to sprinkle hot sauce into the envelope along with ramen

They start to swoop in like crack heads.

seasoning before doing so.  KIds around here all have discolored fingers from this practice.  Index fingers dyed wild cherry are everywhere on the kids who eat this out of the packet fun dip style.  I asked Wilson, one of my Xavier students, if he ate Kool Aid with tobasco and ramen.  “No he told me,  That’s messy and disgusting.  I dip jalapeño spicy Cheetos in and eat it that way.

He says he likes it. And people wonder how the holes got in their teeth.

The lollipop dip is a popular delivery system.

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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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Fruits and Peels July 2, 2012 (Happy Birthday, Ginny)

You can’t eat an orange and throw the peel away- a man is not a piece of fruit. -Willy Loman

I was out on a boat over the weekend, heading out to explore some of the lagoon and get in a little diving.  Beautiful day. Sunshine reflecting off clear waters. Palm trees on the shores of lush islands rising from the Pacific .  Trade winds blowing gently.  The Sirens’ song, beckoning from a distant atoll.  The styrofoam plates lolling on the sea’s placid surface.  Welcome to Paradise.

I have been amazed at the amount of littering I see during the course of a day.  Here at the school, on the “road”, along the shoreline, in the towns–everywhere.  On the campus of Xavier, the garbage accumulation is not so bad as elsewhere, but it is still an eye-grabber.  I’ve watched a guy buy a bag of potato chips, eat the chips, drop the plastic bag, and keep walking all in one smooth, natural motion.  If you slapped a tutu on him, it could have been a ballet; it was so fluid, if not repugnant.

Clean up time at Xavier High School

I’ve mentioned the cars rolled into the lagoon. Well, the styrofoam cups, aluminium cans, and candy wrappers are their impish little brothers born of islander parents. I can’t figure out why.  I’ve watched my students walk by an empty Fritos bag on the otherwise well-manicured lawn of the school grounds.  It is of such proportions that in the two weeks I’ve been teaching here, class and fitness time has been replaced with “Pick up trash” time on three separate occasions.  To be fair, there is also a fair amount of natural debris that needs to cleared away. Palm branches, coconuts, bread fruits–all have cluttered the grounds here from time to time.  The school even has insurance to protect itself from a lawsuit and cover medical expenses if, in fact, a coconut falls on someone’s head.  And you think your big city problems are bad.  Although, the Micronesian court system is backlogged to the tune of 2000 cases.  I actually met a local business person who runs a scuba shop, and the shop doesn’t carry insurance.  “What are they going to do? Take me to court?  It’ll be at least ten years until the case comes up.  By that time I’ll be in PNG [Papua New Guinea) or Fiji or someplace remote.” But I digress.

I still sit dumbfounded at people’s lack of awareness that they are dropping garbage everywhere.  I even had someone ask me what I was doing when he saw me picking up a Jolly Rancher wrapper off the ground.  I wonder…Is it linked to the lack of clear tenses in the language.  Where there is no future, who cares whether the swill I produce is bio-degradable or not?  Is it a byproduct of years of colonization?  The idea that this place belongs to the locals and is their responsibility is relatively new. The Japanese colonized them; the U.S. colonized them and still holds huge economic sway over their fate in the shape of handouts and loans. Dean Rusk is often sited as saying that is in America’s best interest that Micronesia be an independent state but dependent upon the U.S. economically.  Americans made lousy colonists and make even lousier colonialists. Could it be people’s strong connection to their ancestral island?  No one I’ve spoken to claims this island, Weno, as their island.  Maybe the folks from Tol or Moen or Mwoch or Feffan just don’t give two cents (in pennies with Honest Abe’s profile) about Weno.  Is it due to the plentiful amount of food everywhere?  I’ve watched people climbing trees, picking papayas, eating them, and tossing the peels and remnants on the ground.  Just add SPAM to the equation and you can replace peels and husks with cellophane, tin, and foil.   Perhaps all these factors have come together to form some Frankenculture.

Beats me.  All I know is that every night before going to bed, as I empty a handful of trash into the wastebasket in my room, Willy Loman’s words echo in my head.  Except I swap the word ‘man’ with ‘island’.  It’s tough watching people treat these islands like a dying salesman.

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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.

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Chuuk 101.2 June 29, 2012

(Please note–I’m trying to chronicle all of my experiences and observations while here .  Sometimes when we interact with another culture, we come across things that we may find disturbing, offensive, or even repugnant.  Although I try to interject humor into my postings and keep them light, the last observation on this page is unpleasant and not for the faint of heart. If you have been reading this blog, I will always place a disclaimer like this when appropriate.)

A few more notes on Micronesian/Chuuk culture:

1) When explaining the size of something, DO NOT, gesture like the fisherman who says, “The one that got away

(Fig.2 Mitt describing his “stimulus package” to the Micronesian ambassador.)

was this big.”  That familiar positioning of hands is only used when discussing male genitalia.  The proper way to do it is to use your hand to mark off on your arm how big that fish was.

(Fig. 1. “My fish was this big.”)

2) Also, while on the subject of naughty in Micronesia, do not making popping or clicking sounds in public.  This includes, but is not limited to: putting your finger inside your cheek and popping it out, clicking your tongue off the roof of your mouth, or making the baseball hitting the bat noise that I can’t describe any better than that.  All of these are ways to tell women that you would like to sleep with them, and by sleep, I mean…well, you know.  It is not out of the ordinary for Chuukese men to make these sounds at women, especially American women, while they walk down the street.  I heard one story of a woman riding on the back of flatbed (a common mode of transportation here) who had men clicking at her all day.  When asked if it was more rude or disturbing than Italian or Latino men who often cat call at women on the street, she replied that the connotation is even more suggestive, but all of them suck.  Duh!

3) There is no such thing as “white rice” here.  There’s certainly no brown, wild, or basmati either.  Allow me to explain.  Every meal I have had since arriving on island is linked by one ingredient–white rice.  Breakfast is white rice and pancakes or eggs or french toast.  Dinner is white rice and chicken or tuna or pork or corn beef hash (from a can of course).  Lunch is white rice and peanut butter and jelly or SPAM. When my students asked

That Coke sure looks good. I hope you have enough for my extended family.

me my thoughts on Micronesia, I said that I was sick of white rice.  “White rice?  What do you mean white rice?  There is no ‘white’ rice.  There is just rice.  What other color should it be?  Do you mean there are other rices?  That’s just crazy talk.” (Okay, the didn’t say the last part, but everything else is an exact quote.)

4) I’ve mentioned that this is traditionally a communal culture.  What’s mine is yours/what’s yours is mine tends to be the rule.  Especially with family. That said, a teacher here told me a story about a kid on a school bus who had a can of soda.  He tried to keep it hidden and on the down low below the seat.  As he opened it, he tried to muffle the sound of the can opening.  The reason being, if anyone on the bus heard it or saw it, culture and etiquette dictates, that he would have to pass it around to everyone for a sip before he had any himself.

5) Lastly, and somewhat disturbingly , I was privy to this conversation today.  It concerned Ah-my-ru, a puppy that lives here on campus.  Her name means surprise because someone gave her to the school director, Father Rich, as a surprise.  Now, anyone who knows me knows I don’t like dogs.  But this little pup has certainly won my heart–cute as they come.  Well one of the workers asked Father Rich today, “Bata, when Ah-my-ru has her puppies someday and is done, can I take her home for dinner?”

Yes, we’ve heard the tasteless jokes in the past; always tinged with racism about  people eating dogs.  We’ve always laughed at them a little because, in this day and age, nobody eats dogs.  Guess again.  When asked how can you eat a dog let alone a puppy with a name, a pet for God’s sake.  She replied, “It is hard.  When I was young, I had a dog.  I loved it. When it was time, I couldn’t bear to watch, so I stayed inside.”

Ah-my-ru, “The other white meat?!?!?!”

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Day of the Dentists June 28, 2012

In an earlier post (Like a Lionfish in the Caribbean), I mentioned that I was with a guy from Kansas City who was helping out with a travelling dental clinic that was serving some of the outer islands.  Today the clinic rolled onto the grounds of Xavier High School and set up shop for six hours or so.

Here’s little bit of background.  The clinic is a group of three dentists, and maybe a dozen support volunteers who make their way from island to island, setting up in communities for a day, and tending to the needs of as many people as they can see.  Now this is nothing like your trip your D.D.S. or hygienist for your biannual cleaning

and fluoride treatment.  This was fillings and crowns and extractions and implants.  This was like M*A*S*H except Hawkeye was a periodontist.

Townspeople started lining up before the dentists even arrived, and by noon there were well over a hundred people waiting, hoping, to be seen.  Around 9:00 a.m. couple SUVs rolled in followed two flatbeds packed with equipment and personnel.  Within a matter of minutes, trucks were unloaded.  Dentil equipment–drills, surgical pliers, stainless steel scrapers and probes.  Pharmaceuticals–novocaine, anesthesia, antibiotics.  Hardware– retractable tables, lights, fans, generators and the gasoline to run them.  All offloaded from the flatbeds and set up in two classrooms in the student center.

As people filed in, they signed up on a waiting list for triage. But before I go further, let me digress.  Micronesia was a protectorate of the United States from the end of World War II until 1986 when, under a Compact of Free Association with the U.S., it became an independent state, The Federated States of Micronesia.  The U.S. held on to the islands for their strategic location and for their value to the military.  Now, contrary to  Rogers and Hammerstein’s portait, I’ve yet to see anyone around here like Ray Walston singing, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”  From what I hear, the military presence wasn’t too big a deal.  The navy paved the roads, helped support infrastructure, and were fairly benevolent as far as benevolent dictators go.  But upon leaving, they left something behind which has become a scourge and a plague–SPAM.  Oh, I hear you laughing, but check this out.  The military introduced sugars and salts into the local diet which, until the U.S. presence, consisted primarily of fish, coconuts and indigenous fruits.  Richard and Oscar did get it right when they penned, “We got mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree.”  We got plenty of that here.  But the locals have also developed a pension for canned meats, candy and all sorts or prepackaged, sodium and preservative laden goodies– the type of stuff that can be processed in Poughkeepsie and shipped halfway around the world and still taste incredibly fresh once that tin is peeled back and the vacuum seal goes “schwuuump”.  The result of all this?  At current rates,  it is predicted that 50% of the Micronesian population will have type two diabetes by 2020.  There are kids I’m working with who have holes through their two front teeth as wide as cigarette butts.  The quality of public education on the island is sinking quicker than the sea leves are rising, so as a result there is a huge population ignorant about basic nutrition and oral hygiene who eat garbage and need roving dental clinics to put their finger in the proverbial dike to slow down an ever-growing health crisis.

Okay, so as I was saying, as people arrived, they sign up for triage.  Due to the numbers arriving at these clinics, and the sheer limitation of equipment and manpower, the clinic has to prioritize based on need.  Need, in this case, is determined by: “How much does it hurt?”   The goal is to filter out people who just need a cleaning because the beetle-nuts have turned their teeth the color of tobacco juice and cherry soda. This way those who are in the most urgent need can be seen.  Preference is also given to children eight to ten years old.  One hundred and twenty people showed up today, but there was only enough time and resources to see fifty.

Once someone gets the okay to see a dentist, a bizarre game of leapfrog begins.  It plays like this: a patient comes into the dentist who does a quick look and shoots him up with novocaine.  The patient then gets up and steps to the side while another patient comes in who in turn is numbed.  By this time the novocaine has taken full effect on the first patient who is then brought back in while patient number two waits for the feeling in her mouth to melt away.  When a table opens up,  she gets it, and a third patient is given the numbing shot by the dentist who saw the first patient and is now done with him.  It’s an elaborate card shuffle, but somehow it works.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole network behind the scenes signing people in, making evaluations in triage, keeping the people in the waiting room comfortable, filling the generators with gas and keeping them running, and taking them on and offline seamlessly so as to not interrupt the power flow needed.

A lot of this was organized by a guy named Vid.  A Chuukese native, he graduated from Xavier High School, went on to college, and then joined the Jesuits.  He dropped out before becoming ordained and married a woman from the States.  He worked for several years at Santa Clara University and is currently at the University of Hawaii at Hilo where he works as an outreach counsellor/advisor for Pacific Islanders attending the university.  It’s easy to see how anyone from this environment would get a heaping tablespoon of culture shock upon entering an American University, even in Hilo.  I’ve been sucking down my own tablespoons of the stuff pretty much nonstop for nearly two weeks.  He’s an amazing guy who drips charisma as he shakes your

The “waiting room”

hand with a sold grip like a vice.  He’s been back on Weno now organizing this and a conference for Micronesian women.  He is a true activist and advocate in every sense of the word.

Out in the waiting room a man walks up to the desk where the triage list is.  He is very concerned about his son.  “His tooth is so loose. He needs a dentist.”  The attendant looks in the child’s mouth only to find that it is a baby tooth hanging on by a thread.  Anyone with kids or who has worked in an elementary school has seen this a million times.  The attendant advises the father to just pull it.  “I can’t.  I am not a dentist.  If I pull it, it will not grow back.  He needs a dentist.”  The man had no clue about baby teeth; that they just come out and grow back in. The degree of basic knowledge is that low among some of the islanders.  Another parent expresses shock when told she should not give her children Sprite and lollipops before bed, an almost nightly ritual in her home.  Meanwhile children run around with their new toothbrushes clenched in their jaws.

To a layman like me it is all overwhelming.  I’m talking to a dentist while he is extracting the tooth of an unconscious child. He says, that it’s overwhelming for him as well.  “I’ve seen some people today–  I can stay in their mouth all day, but I just have to address the biggest issue and move on.”

I had a friend in high school whose brother wanted to be a dentist.  He often talked about the cars the dentists in our town drove.  Dr. So and So has a Porsche; another dentist drives a Beemer.  This seemed to be his impetus for entering the profession.  I know he’a an orthodontist now.  I don’t know what kind of car he drives.  But I bet it couldn’t make it up the hill to the clinic I saw today.

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Baskin Robbins of Crazy June 27, 2012

I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.–Elwood P. Dowd

Crazy comes in many flavors.  Much more than a mere thirty one.  There are a few particular flavors that hang out on the campus of Xavier High School here in Chuuk:  Eeki Wo is one, and the other is Quoy Qu0y.  Now, I’m not speaking metaphorically or anything here.  These are just the names of two  guys who frequent the place.  I only mention them because  somehow writing about them here makes them a little more real.  If I were to find myself at a party back in San Francisco and tell people about these two characters, no one would believe me.  I know I have a gift of embellishment, and I don’t deny it. But no hyperbole is needed when telling of these two.  It’s just redundant.

Eeki Wo wanders around campus every morning.  He is painfully thin and worn looking.  He has a scratchy, scraggly beard and wild, tousled hair.  He is shirtless, but not without his slippers.  He often wears  a Thai style sheet, for lack of a better word.  In Thailand, everyone has a plaid piece of thin cloth about the size of a beach towel. It is usually worn by men and women alike as a sarong, but it is so much more. I have one myself I picked up while there.  It’s incredibly useful.  I use it to wrap around myself if I need to change outside.  You can wrap things up in it to carry, you use it as a belt, pick up hot items… The list is only limited by your imagination.  That said, let me tell you that Eeki Wo is quite imaginative.  He wraps it around himself in a way that is part loin cloth, part skirt, and part halter top. He often has a pair of underwear in his hand, which answers the question of what he has on under his kilt.  Father Rich outside the other day, and without batting an eye, walked past him saying  “You look lovely today, Eeki Wo.”

The next flavor on the menu is Quoy Quoy.  Quoy Quoy is never seen without his white clorox bottle filled with gasoline in one hand and a machete in the other.  His favorite form of exercise is running across the open field on campus here at full sprint while sniffing gas fumes.  The machete he caries is for coconuts or mangos or bananas or bread fruit or even pineapple–not to cut them open, but to cut them down.  You see he earns a little money by scampering up trees, machete in tow, and chopping down fruits or coconuts for people.  The other day he wandered onto campus selling coconuts, four for two dollars.  I figure the money he earns goes to support his gasoline habit.  At 5.35 a gallon on island, that’s a mighty pricey fix.  I first saw him tearing ass in the field, white jug in one hand, two foot blade in the other.  I just stared.  I thought he was training for the Sapook games, an event where the people in the small neighborhood down the hill compete in track and field events to commemorate their return to the island after the Japanese surrender.  Someone walked up and informed, “That’s just Quoy Quoy; he does that.  Sniffs gasoline and runs.” Then he walked on.

I write about these two not to exploit or ridicule them.  They’re not even what ultimately fascinated me.  I worked at the Clarks Summit State Hospital back in the day.    I’ve seen crazy and perused many of  its flavors, even sampled a few…except one.  That’s the flavor of crazy that doesn’t bat an eye at Quoy Quoy or says, “That’s just Eeki Wo.”  I’ve mentioned here that so much of the culture is communal.  That poverty,  in the American sense, doesn’t exist. I guess that sensibility allows others to see petrol-sniffing madmen as threads in the communal tapestry.  They are part of the fabric, not a flaw to be cut out.  If my brother is sick when I go fishing, I bring him back some fish; that’s the thinking here.  It’s a crazy sense of community taking place, a crazy type of acceptance.  Who’s to say? Maybe it’s a tasty flavor of crazy.  Maybe we can all use a spoonful.

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It’s Just Like Crossing the Street June 26, 2012

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:

Slippers outside a classroom.

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.”

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What it looks like here June 25, 2012

Here are some photos of the local scenery. Just to show you what I see everyday. Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.  I hope it doesn’t take too long to upload.  Please be patient.  Pretend like it’s island time.

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Wreck Diving June 23, 2012 (Happy Birthday, Mom)

It will come with a rush and a roar and a shudder. It will come howling and laughing and shrieking and moaning.–Dalton Trumbo

Sketch of the Gosei Maru.

Yesterday I went scuba diving and explored two wrecks from Operation Hailstone, the battle which crushed the Japanese fleet during World War II.  We visited two different sites.  The first, Gosei Maru, was a Japanese supply ship used to get materials to the submarine fleet.  The ship was hit by a torpedo during the battle and rests, bow down, in the lagoon.  The stern is 15 feet below the surface, the bow is at 130 feet.  Its scale is massive, which is only exaggerated by the fact that, I’m not that big, and shouldn’t be underwater in the first place. It’s kind of haunting and terrifying–like being on the set of some disaster movie, only it’s not a movie.  It’s there.  It’s real.  I touched it.  We swam up to the hole where the torpedo slammed into it and brought her and her crew down.  Going

Lantern on Gosei Maru

in, you can see the munitions she carried.  Depth charges and torpedos clutter her inside.  You can also see  the galley where people ate, the floor tiles they walked on, the lanterns they lit at night to guide their way.  All sunk, all crusted with coral, and all surrounded by fish darting in an out of old instruments and holes in steel that is so decrepit you can no longer call it just rusted.

The next site was Japanese bomber downed just off the shore of a tiny island called Etten which served as the airstrip during the war.  The bomber, nicknamed Betty, must have been trying to land when she went in.  Resting at slant the highest point was starboard wing tip at 40 feet below the surface, and the lowest point was the port wing at 70 feet below sea level. All along the fuselage were

Diagram of the Betty Bomber

dozens neat, round bullet holes where she was hit.  The nose cone was cracked, and we swam into the plane itself.  Clearly visible was where the different crew members sat.  Indistinguishable canisters that looked like large bottles rested on the bottom.  Outside in the sand lay a corroded machine gun.  But what I found most fascinating was the control panel.  Half buried in the sand was a cockpit panel.  Imagine if someone ripped the dashboard off your car and dropped it in the ocean.  Antiquated gauges and dials across the face, what I guessed to be the altimeter to the right, it was no more and two feet long at most.  When I waved some of the sand, the instruments had little metal plaques as labels for them.  The plaques had writing etched into them, Japanese writing.  Of course I couldn’t read it, but someone could.  The young man in the pilot’s seat could.  The Mitsubishi factory worker who fashioned it could.  People could.  People who woke up in the morning and got dressed.  People before me who, like me now, touched this.  They were alive they were here.

One of my students told me that ever since he started volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, he can’t just drive through the city anymore.  He notices neighborhoods he never did before.  He sees people he used to ignore, and he wonders.  He wonders who they are.  He wonders what their stories are.  How did they get here?  Where were they before this? Earlier today? Last week?  Last year? What if life took them in a different direction?  Staring at the tin inscriptions on a crashed warplane at the bottom of the ocean, I know how he feels.

Mitsubishi Attack Bomber “Betty”

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General notes about Chuuk June 22, 2012

Nothing profound here–or anywhere else for that matter.

Just a few facts…in  no particular order.

Chuuk is a state in the Federated States of Micronesia.  It is comprised of several islands, the largest of which is Weno (Pronounced Weh-do). When people refer to Chuuk, they are usually referring to Weno–it’s where the airpot is and I am.

This must be the place.Weno is roughly 14 miles in perimeter, and  has a poulation of between 17,000-18,000 people.

The lagoon was the site of Operation Hailstone, a major battle of the Pacific Theater.  Described as some as payback for Pearl Harbor, the battle on February 17-18, 1944 decimated the Japanese fleet.  It was where many of the ships and planes used in Pearl Harbor originated.

The word Chuuk means “Mountain:  The island here has one of the highest peaks in Micronesia. Mt.Tonachau (900ft).  So when the rest of Micronesia sinks due to global warming, there is a place to go.

Picture of the lagoon that I see everyday taken in 1944.

Flip flops are the most commonly worn footwear, but they are called slippers.   People wear their slippers everywhere except inside of rooms.  I will wear them walking down the hall to my office. But I have to remove them before entering.  The same holds true for classrooms, dining areas, and churches.  I am constantly taking my flips flops off and on and off an on.   I hate flip flops.

The currency here is U.S.Dollars.The island of Yap, 730 miles west of here, still uses giant (up to 8ft. in diameter) stones for currency.

Do you have change for a granite slab? I don’t have anything smaller.

Attempts  to reclaim the thousands, if not millions, of gallons of diesel still in the tanks of the the ships sunken in Chuuk Lagoon have been thwarted by the Japanese government which claims the fuel is their property.  Yet when asked to remove it themselves, the Japanese have refused, citing the expense.  Many people express concern about the impending ecological disaster if the tanks were to rupture.

It rains often and hard.

Rain pouring off the roof this afternoon.

There is a wasp building a nest in the bookshelf next to my desk.

My daughter Lucy would love it here.  The Chuukese eat with their hands, not forks or chopsticks–just handfuls of rice and fish and spam.  I feel like I’ve gone to my five year old vision of heaven where I can play with my food.  I can’t wait to share this cultural tid bit with my own kids.

The students here all call me “Mr. Chris”.  I find that funny.

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Kind of like lionfish in the Caribbean June 21, 2012

“An invasive species, also known as an exotic or nuisance species, is an organism or plant that is introduced into a new environment, where it is not native.”-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Drove into “town” last night for dinner at the Truk Stop.  Get it? Truk Stop?  It’s like a play on words…I guess humor doesn’talways translate across cultures.

Anyway, I had a sashimi plate of tuna that had been swimming in the ocean as recently as two hours previous.  I was going to put in a joke about it getting fresh with me, but…. guess humor doesn’t always translate across cultures.

The drive into town is as harrowing as the drive out of town.  The ponds are still there; the crabs still scurry out, but wait, there’s more.  In daylight I got to see the place more clearly.  The degree of poverty was staggering.  I’m reminded of my trip to India.  But then what is poverty? And what does it look like to these American eyes?

In India, I remember the people living on the streets, in alleys, and even on rooftops.  When talking with Vijay, the stonecutter, I told him I was struggling with all the poverty I saw, and he asked, “What poverty?”  When I pointed to examples, he told me that’s just how it is.  That is the way of the world and how everything works.  “The man living on the tarp under the roof? That is where he lives.  That is where his father lived, and his grandfather before him.  It just is.  Americans look at what is, and they make judgements.”  Still, wouldn’t that guy be more comfortable  in a house when the rains come?

Anyway, it’s the same thing here.  The “road” skirts the lagoon in places.  A rusted out , stripped Suzuki rests on its roof, half submerged.  Naked children climb on it and jump into the bay.  It’s like some post modern water park.  People just stand along the side of the road, not really doing anything, just standing.  Homes are little more than tin roof shacks–some concrete, some wooden, all crumbling or sinking in the mud.  Chickens and urchin kids scramble around in the mud in front of the homes.  It’s like a a tropical Dickens novel where the Dodger and Twist are dark skinned and vaguely Asian.  Again, I was taken aback as I bounced  toward dinner in town.  There was guy from Kansas City in the truck with us.  He’s here volunteering as a support guy for a wandering dental clinic on the outer islands–more about that later.  As we bounded along, he kept saying how, “This place should be a paradise, but it isn’t”  He talked bout the failure of infrastructure and lack of basic amenities, and I was inclined to agree.

When I shared my observations with one of the Jesuit Volunteers here at the school, he reacted like Vijay back in India–“What poverty?”  He explained that if you asked anyone here if they were “poor”, even the families whose kids were cliff diving off abandoned Japanese transmissions, the answer would be a universal “no.”  There is no sense of poor here or poverty.  The concept doesn’t exist here. The culture is so communal that no one is ever without food or a place to sleep.

Most people don’t have jobs, but they all have a family plot of land with a few shacks on them, and the whole extended family lives on this compound.  The compounds have a communal cooking area where meals are prepared.  All compounds have some food growing on it–coconuts, bananas, taro, pineapple, papaya, bread fruit…..  There’s plenty of fish.  Everyone’s needs are met. As far as housing,  no one is ever inside.  Houses just serve as a place to sleep, usually on the floor.

Sure there are signs of status–electricity, concrete homes as opposed to wood, maybe a car or TV–but nobody cares.  It’s about meeting your needs, and everyone’s needs are met. Everyone is comfortable.

But there are jobs. Stores, hotels, the airport, the “bank”, all these and other places do employ people, but even that’s odd.  Father Rich told me that one of the worst things that happened in the islands is the cash economy.  “It used to be that the men in a family would go fishing.  If one of the brothers was sick, the others would share their catch with him.  Everything works out.  Now, the sick brother might say, ‘Oh I don’t need fish; I need fifty bucks.’  It’s affected the whole family system.  People with jobs try to hide their money and salary from their relatives.  Because everything is shared, culturally, your’e almost obligated to share your money.  When it was just fish or food, it all worked out. Now maybe my brother won’t spend his money wisely.  Next thing you know, he’s out of cash and out of food.  Hmmm…

I guess it’s even crazier on the outer islands where there is a still a chieftain system.  It used to be that when people collected fish or food, they would give a percentage to the chief and his or her family (Wait for a later entry to learn about the matriarchy on some islands.).  Now, the chief would meet his family’s needs and redistribute the food back to the people.  After all, he can’t keep all that food; it would spoil.  Well now, the chiefs want money.  Cash and coins don’t spoil in the coffers.  You got it, no need to redistribute the dollars and cents. The people now give more and get less if anything back.

“With  no natural predators, an invasive species may go unchecked and consume the resources in an area, possibly resulting in extinctions.” 

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First Day with Students June 19, 2012


Okay, so my job here is kind of weird and unformed.  I don’t have a title,


which is the Chuukese way I guess.  It’s not like I’m hing up or nothing about titles and status, but I am a little hung up on detail and clarity of purpose.

So the deal is there are two divisions during the summer here.  One is the ICU (Intensive Care Unit).  This is for local students whose families want them to attend Xavier but who did not pass

Dai Dai

the entrance exam.  There is a lack of students from Chuuk attending this school, and the Director, Father Rich, is trying to reverse this.  So these kids are doing intensive summer school and will have an opportunity to retake


the test and possibly get invited to the school.  The other is the HAP (High Achievers Program).  This is for local middle school kids who show academic promise.  They take math, reading, and English (grammar–it is a Catholic school after all) classes to ready them to take the entrance exam when they get to eighth grade.  These HAP


classes are taught by rising seniors here at Xavier.  So as near as I can figure, and how it’s been explained to me is my job is to plan curriculum and help these high school students learn to be teachers.

So I’m not working directly with middle school kids.  I see the high schoolers as my charges, and quite frankly after meeting with them yesterday and working with them today, I’m psyched. These kids are nice,


polite, and, so far free, of snarky irony.  It’s refreshing to work with students who trust the teacher.  It’s not that I want them to blindly follow me or to be passive.  They don’t, and they’re not.  It’s just that trust thing.  I’ve been in high end independent schools in a culture that pays lip service to education but has little respect for teachers, I forgot what real teaching feels like.  I can teach without having to second guess myself all the time.  Again it’s only the beginning of the adventure, and I know how all this can change, but right now, I’m loving my students.

If this is the gig, it’s cool with or without a title.

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