Monday, January 25, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Pohnpei

Written Monday, January 25, 2010

Earlier this month, when I revisited one of my favorite books of all time-- Pride and Prejudice--, I was expecting a lovely, British, purely escapist reading experience. But instead, I rediscovered the truth that a great work of literature can resonate with your life anew whenever/wherever you return to it.

Before your fancies get the best of you, let me just say that, no, I have not met a Pohnpeain Mr. Darcy. Rather, what has struck me about the book this time is the unexpected parallel between my present life and the community-centric lives of its characters. Madolenihmw looks like Hertfordshire; Lukop looks like Longbourn. Even though I grew up in a perfectly fine American suburb, I’m for the first time feeling what it’s like to live in the society of one’s neighbors.

And this society is really wonderful! As Mrs. Bennet famously retorts against accusations of “confined” and “unvarying” conditions in the country—“I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four and twenty families.”—I too praise the richness and variety of my company. Each acquaintance made with an outgoing small child testing out her English (“Hi, Mollie!”), or a mother or grandmother of one of my students, or even just getting to bond with my students outside of class is its own small success. [This is a joyful response to the estrangement I first felt upon arrival.]

Like the Bennet family, my household runs off to many engagements, both around the island and in our own neighborhood. But where they go to balls, assemblies, and card parties, we’ve had a season of very Pohnpeian funerals and birthdays (ni mehla and ni ipwidi, meaning “at the death” and “at the birth,” respectively). After the Christmas holidays—and the corresponding birthdays in my family, my own visiting of family and friends in neighboring communities, and even a “tour of the high country” to visit Ruthanne’s Salapwuk—January saw back-to-back funerals held in our neighborhood, which, as I said, can be up to 10 days of gathering.

Then this past weekend, the chief of the village next door hosted the 90th birthday party of his family’s matriarch. I believe she’s a great-grandmother to my generation, but there were easily 5 generations of family and friends in attendance. The teenage Kolonia relatives, like the fashionable ladies from London, were obviously a bit less pleased with the country gathering than the rest (the term “too cool for school” fits, although it clashes with my current theme … “putting on airs” then, which Pohnpeians call “lioasoahs,” or pretentious).

And although the food and socializing took precedent—like at all Pohnpeian and Austenian functions—, I did notice a few mentionable points of Pohnpeian uniqueness. For starters, I ate my lunch seated next to the bat cage—think more pet gerbil than Bruce Wayne. Subsequently, I now think bats are cute and quite personable. But everyone else says they smell. And also, as the afternoon turned into evening and those who were partaking in sakau wanted a bit more quiet, the dance party that was going on inside the house (with me, the teens, and the children observed by the mommies and grandmas) turned into a CityStep meeting, complete with “make a rainstorm” and the Museum Game (Ok, CityStep!).

But, to return to my theme, the more I get to know my community (and the better I get at Pohnpeian), the more I can participate in these gatherings. I’ve noticed a marked enjoyment of gossiping amongst most circles here, and maybe one day I can have the fun of Elizabeth Bennet in her engaged, amused delight in all the wonderful quirks inherent in the personalities of all of my neighbors which such occasions bring to light. Of course, this would mean that my neighbors will be dear and familiar to me, not that I would be lambasting differentness/weakness in people I don’t care for (that’s more Mr. Bennet’s role, which he does play charmingly. Yet he does give partially good advice for Peace Corps humility: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn.”).

The role I play now is not so astute. I’m still something more akin to Mr. Collins. Because of my newness, I’m still a bumbling, awkward interloper, of sorts. People have to speak more slowly to me, to repeat themselves, and to explain things that any sensible person would understand. However —I flatter myself—I believe am much more well-liked than Mr. C. [For those of you who got the joke in that last sentence, I salute you; let’s have tea sometime.]

So all is well in this part of the world. Here’s to enjoying more good books and good company—for myself and for my dear readers!



PS: After finishing P&P, I started Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which wonderful Misa sent me for Christmas [Thanks, Misa!]. And I will say that there are fewer cultural similarities between my life now and the rewrite. No undead here; the gates of hell are closed. Although, Nohno was explaining something about the belief that each Pohnpeian clan has an animal spirit/ghost spirit—like a team mascot, sort of. She can’t eat a certain kind of fish because of her clan. And people say that the rat who lives in our kitchen is actually a sign that her deceased father is always close by. Not sure how that rationale jives with the fact that she’s sworn to get rat poison in town tomorrow, but, ah, these are the mysteries of life.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Holiday Recap

Hi Folks!

While many of you had a White Christmas, I was enjoying the experience of my first Christmas and New Year’s in Pohnpei. How was it? Busy and wonderful.

First of all, school ended with finals on December 17th and 18th. Then we decorated the school on the 21st and had our “Christmas in school” celebration on the 22nd. I don’t know about you, but in the U.S. I was accustomed to maybe a small class party in the afternoon on the last day before Christmas break. But Pohnpei seems to buy into the Christmas spirit even more than the U.S.—people begin decorating at the end of November, and they literally have a week and a half to two weeks of Christmas parties. (Of our own Christmas decorations on our house, Nohno says they’re going to stay up forever!)

So this commitment to the Christmas season could not be contained to simply a half-day party. Instead, the whole school has a big day of revelry. Each class decided a month in advance how they were going to do their gift exchange and who would bring what kind of sweet treat to share. So on the day of, soda, ice cream, cookies, chips, and candy abounded. Also, the kids here don’t just buy a pencil case for the class gift exchange. People go all out, bringing in huge (and fairly pricey) Christmas packages for their classmates. After each class has an hour or so to itself, everyone comes out to celebrate on the front lawn in front of the school. A popular local band—keyboard and singers—came to perform, and we all danced for hours. I spent so much time on the sunny dance floor that when I came back inside one of my fellow teachers exclaimed: “You’re so red! You look like a crab that’s just been boiled!” Apart from my weak, overexposed skin, I really enjoyed being festive with all the students, teachers, and parents. Little kids point at me and start calling me “li en kalik” (dancing lady) on campus now. And even the local dogs got into the action—every time the dance floor cleared between songs, they nosed the grass for trampled donuts and other goodies on which to snack.

I took a breather from parties on the 23rd, but that’s mostly because I went to back-to-back-to-back birthday parties for the matriarchs and patriarchs of my families. On Christmas Eve, my pahpa’s pahpa turned 90-something. Then on Christmas my nohno’s nohno had a birthday party in Kitti, on the other side of the island. Then I went to visit my training host family in time to celebrate that nohno’s nohno’s birthday party in Temwan on the 26th. At each of these parties there was an uhm (big oven of hot rocks on which you cook pigs and dogs), baskets of food, gifts and sakau. I got to take in all the festive camaraderie, and I even got to share a bit of it with my family in the U.S.—we had a phone date in the middle of the Christmas Eve gathering; it was a fun challenge to try to relate everything I was seeing to them as they were gathered around the skyping computer in our friends’ kitchen.

Then, from the 27th through the 30th, I got to visit with some of the other PCVs around the island. I spent an afternoon being very nicely entertained by Nate and Kerry in their home near PATS, our training site. And then I trekked up the mountains to visit Ruthanne in Salapwuk, a lovely and remote community without electricity but with plenty of welcoming family—and a few other holiday gatherings to attend, except this time I got to hike over the meadows and through the jungle to get there.

I made it back to my site by the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, in time to start a 24-hour+ celebration of the turning of the years. I missed another holiday party in our community while I was away, which was quickly made up for by drinking sakau and wandering the street (singular) awaiting midnight. When midnight did strike, those who went to church came out in a candy-seeking hoard (Pohnpeian New Year’s is like American Halloween), and we all met on the street to exchange greetings and handshakes. Then the mingling and candy-eating continued pretty much all night. A few houses had music set up so that revelers could dance, but I found that most just wanted to visit with each other and laugh in the new year. I pooped out some time around 3am, but then was roused again in the morning to come to a barbecue at a neighbor’s house. It was a less formal affair than the other holiday parties—only a few families, and an oil-drum grille to cook marinated chicken, rather than an uhm to roast bigger meat. But it was still a source of delicious food and of useful Christmas gifts—mostly Tupperware and machetes. Then later in the day I had the good fortune to ring in the New Year again—celebrating in California time with my parents over the phone.

And although school started (too) soon after that, my community had an unexpected opportunity to gather again only a week later—my uncle (my father’s brother, who lives the village next to ours and who is the grandfather to a few of my students) unexpectedly passed away. I had been to his house only once before, to celebrate his 59th birthday in mid-December. (In fact, it was there that I ate dog for the first time.) He apparently had been having medical problems for a while, but I had no idea he was sick. The sedentary lifestyle and the influx of imported food have made diabetes, heart problems, and cancer very serious problems for people much younger than him, even. Although it was incredibly sad to see his immediate family mourning on the day of the burial, a Pohnpeian funeral does not end with the mourning. After the burial, a funeral will continue for several more days of feasting and sakau, full of laughter and visiting to honor the dead, much like an Irish wake. I was lucky enough to have many good conversations with community members during this time—often with parents of my students. So, while my holidays took me celebrating all around the island, the funeral gave me a unique opportunity to draw closer to my immediate community, for which I am very grateful.

While you, dear reader, are preparing to celebrate MLK and the births of presidents over the next month, I’m looking at a January and February that is holiday-free and as “business as usual” as we can get. But after the huge quantity of celebrating and feasting that happened over the past month, I’m really okay with refocusing on school and taking it easy for now.

With love from Pohnpei,