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.