Saturday, November 20, 2010

Family Matters

I’ve been told about the central role that family plays in the culture of the Pacific since before I came here. I’ve lived over a year in an island where every new Pohnpeian I meet is able to tell me exactly how we’re related through various connections with my host families. During funerals on-island I’m reminded that, yes, most people feel they should attend EVERY funeral because, in some way or another, they’re family with that person.
But sometimes, even when you think you “get it,” cultural awareness hits you over the head like a baseball bat. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.
A couple of weeks ago, we made family trees in my Oral English/grammar classes. In 7th, we just made simple, pretend family trees to practice using the basic family vocabulary in sentences in which the subjects and predicates agree (to limited success). In 8th grade, we felt we were up to the challenge of graphing our OWN families using family trees. The results were sprawling spiders of names … some of them understood how and why to connect these names, others not quite. But the big shocker moment came when I was collecting them.
There are a few sets of siblings in my 8th grade class, so I joked that some family trees would look pretty similar. Then I realized that cousins, too, would be represented on the trees. So I asked, by a show of hands, which students had cousins or siblings in our class. And in my 8th grade class of 20 students, only FOUR students didn’t raise their hands. I know that if I had asked them to raise a hand if they had cousins or siblings at our school (of 200-ish students), every hand would have been raised. A school full of family didn’t surprise me. But standing there looking at my class-full of cousins really threw me for a loop.
I smiled and tried to explain to them how this was different from my life/how that percentage of family in your class would be unusual in the States (except for in very small towns). Now, I’m not from a particularly large or small town. And growing up I always had a feeling that I was a part of a big and closely connected extended family, especially on my dad’s side. But then, as I was explaining to my students how I never, EVER had been in an academic classroom with a single sibling or cousin because all my cousins were older than me and lived in different cities, I realized how strange that must sound to them. To them it would look like I was all alone for my whole schooling life. And in that moment, I looked at myself through their eyes and thought, “Wow! That must have been really lonely!” And as I was being thusly moved, I tried to tell them what a unique gift their large, loving, and accessible extended families are—how they are lucky and blessed to be Pohnpeians/Micronesians/Pacific Islanders—but I wasn’t quite able to communicate my epiphany to them. To be completely honest, they were distracted when I got a little choked up in the telling.
But this was okay, my emotio-cultural epiphany, because my 8th grade class is a happy and accepting place to be (God bless them). [For example, on a different day we did a paired vocabulary activity about baseball. The first pair to finish was a duo of one of my highest- and one of my lowest-achieving students. They finished first because the high-achiever just filled out all the answers while the other copied. So I congratulated them on their speed, and then asked the former to explain what was going on to the latter. And as they bent their heads over their worksheets and I heard/saw the process of explanation, translation, and comprehension, I realized something else unique and heart-warming about this class – the explainer was 12 years old and my youngest student; the explainee was nearly 17 years old, the eldest in the class. They were dressed alike, in plaid, cargo shorts and black t-shirts, with skinny, machete-scarred legs extending down into Pohnpei zories. But the explainer’s legs barely reached the floor, while the explainee’s knees barely made it under the desk. And yet they worked together harmoniously, without any of the attitude or resentment one might expect from an age-authority reversal. Again, my 8th grade class is a wonderful place to be.]
But back to the family moment. After class that day, I talked with some of my students about how crazy my history must look to them—that as I’ve grown older I’ve been gradually conditioned to go further away from my family for longer periods of time. And how to me that’s normal, to maintain your claim to your family’s love while purposefully distancing yourself and “making your own life” in a new place—I mean, most people in the States do that without even needing to go abroad.
Pohnpeians understand having to go away from your family for a time to find work, send money home, and (hopefully) one day return with enough money to set yourself and your family up for a while in style. But that I haven’t seen my family for 15 months because I chose to go somewhere and make no money (on purpose!), and that I miss my family but am no literally sick for home, makes me a complete oddity to them. (Also that day I found out that my 8th grade co-teacher had started high school in Palau and, for a full semester, suffered actual, physical symptoms of homesickness.)
By most people here it’s assumed that, when I am done with Peace Corps, if I don’t marry a Pohnpeian man and stay forever, then I’ll go back to California to live. Because that’s where my family is, so why would I want to go anywhere else? And as I’ve been away from my family, I begin to see that they have a point. How wonderful it seemed to me that day to be always, literally, surrounded by family. Upon further reflection I can see that nothing’s perfect and that being forever tied into family connections and obligations without having a choice in the matter can also have its downsides. But that day it was a pleasant window (albeit a small one) into how my students view the world.
Ps: My REAL family matters, too. Very much so. I’m going to see them in December—we’re meeting up in Kauai one month from today! And since 15 months is the longest time I’ve ever spent without seeing them face-to-face, I am suitably excited! My computer’s background is a throwback picture from Homebuilders circa 1990 that Mom emailed a while ago. I went into paint, drew a big, pink heart around the four of us, and set it as desktop. To them, “I love you, and I’ll see you soon!”

Monday, November 15, 2010


Mom is an all-star. Captions by Mox.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Up-to-Speed, One Month Late!


When we last left our heroine, she was embarking on a mysterious trip, crossing seas and pursuing health care with great aplomb. Then she kind of got sidetracked and left everyone hanging. For this she is deeply sorry, or at least a little bit repentant.

The truth is that my time in the Philippines is NOTHING like I expected it to be! Cool, right?! Remember how I was going to be alone a lot? Remember how I was getting new glasses? Yeah. Neither of those things happened. Instead I made a lot of new friends, explored Manila more than I thought I would, and came home with a totally unexpected and laughably simple solution for my eye problems (one that doesn't even involve glasses!).

I should start with the eyes, since they were the cause of this little vacay. When I went to the ophthalmologist, whose offices were located in a mall named Shangrila, they examined my eyes and declared them functionally perfect, except that my "tear bays were a little low." (Since I'm now a fisherman's daughter, I automatically associated this diagnosis with low tide.) So basically I was told that I don't need ANY glasses for ANYTHING (a reversal of the last two years of bespectacled reading & computer time), and I was given ELEVEN boxes of moisturizing eye drops, plenty to bring my eyes back to high tide.

I was in Manila from Saturday night until Thursday night (flights from Manila to FSM do not run daily, you see). All the medical stuff happened on Monday. So I had the rest of the time to do with as I liked. Which I promise would have been spent regaling you with adventure stories if I hadn't been surrounded by people with whom I could make those adventures!

"What people?" I hear you ask. Well, the hostel where they set me up for the week also happens to be the central landing place for any and all Philippines PCVs, and my trip corresponded with several cool people coming through for various business. In fact, from the moment the lovely and hospitable PCMO ushered me into my hostel (after she met me at my terminal as I deplaned on a Saturday night ... what a lady!), I defaulted into having at least 15 new friends! There was a group of PCVs and PCTs sitting on the patio who were eager to welcome me once I said the magic "Peace Corps" words. It's funny, the Philippines has so many volunteers that there was some initial confusion/assumptions that I was, in fact, one of their in-country peers who they had somehow failed to meet earlier. But then we sorted it out and got down to the business of getting acquainted and having fun.

Over the week with my new friends I experienced Videoke (Video Karaoke; I hear it's the Philippines' national pastime), went out dancing in a club that plays more than 5 songs on loop (!!!!), ate delicious meals (Indian! Shawarma! Mexican! Dark Chocolate Cakes! Milkshakes!), and went to funky markets and upscale malls. So, yes, my main activity in Manila was consumerism, and it was fantastic. Amidst these adventures I got a chance to have wonderful conversations with some really excellent individuals. A recurring theme was comparing and contrasting PC experiences past, present and future -- what got us here, what life is like now, and where we hope it will take us. It's amazing that I was able to connect so well with people I just met--and was able to share and listen to really personal stories (you know who you are; thank you).

The other best part of the trip (I think we're several "bests" in right now ... it was a really great trip!) was the opportunity to skype using the free, fast internet at the hostel. Even though I was on the other side of the world (12-hour time difference from EST, what?!) It was amazing to see my familiar faces. I love you all very much! Thank you for connecting with me!

So that basically sums up my trip, but it only brings you up to speed to the beginning of October. Since that time, I spent a couple of weeks madly catching up with my work at school in time for mid-term exams and tried to get a good direction going for 2nd quarter (tough with all these early November holidays & community funerals, but who doesn't like a nice day or several off from school?). I also experienced the relationship twilight zone of saying goodbye to the last of the M75s on-island, getting to know the new M77s who will be sworn in next week, and looking forward to seeing the rest of my M76s when we come together for our Mid-Service Conference in December. I'm also falling more deeply in love with my host family, making new friends/having new experiences in Pohnpei, and looking forward to seeing my REAL family in Kauai in December. As my dear friend Caitlin would say (in quoting a great film), "It's all happening!"

So thanks for caring about what's happening with me. What all is happening for you?