Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I have been told that I am the Martha Stewart of the Marshall Islands. I find this is incredibly funny because by American standards I could be considered “domestically challenged” (to be politically correct). My former roommate did all the decorating of our house because I don’t usually do so well with coordinating things, but with my new apartment here I tried hard and kept it simple. I am flattered and encouraged by the compliments of my Taiwanese neighbors and friends who have come to visit. My land-lady came down and peaked in the windows just to get a look and then admitted to me that she had done so and liked what I’d done with the place. I’m extremely fortunate to have a comfortable place that I can enjoy being on the weekends (weekdays and nights are mostly spent at the office). And now, as of last week, I have a phone!! I never thought I would be so happy to have a telephone, but after waiting for exactly one month for installation service, I’m connected to the world again!! (If you want my number, let me know, and I’ll give it to you  Before I left the states I bought a Poang chair from IKEA and shipped it to myself and now I really enjoy reading while rocking in it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of spending time with my mom rocking in the oversized green vinyl rocking chair we had in the 80’s. It’s a great way to end a stressful day at school.

This past week a colleague left island to go to his father’s memorial service, so I’ve been covering his class, which means I’ve been taught 3 kinds of math 4 times a day. I have felt at times as if my head would explode. But today he’s back and I’m breathing a big sigh of relief. To balance the stress I’ve been trying to run in the mornings before work. This past week I was out running at 7:30am and the elementary school kids were already playing basketball in the neighborhood court (they’re crazy about that sport!!) and the Nuknuks (that’s the Marshallese word for Mumu) were flapping on the laundry lines outside all the houses. I just smiled to myself and said, “Only in the Marshall Islands!” I’ve had a couple experiences that have made me think that. Another such was when a student came to class wearing socks under his Zories (flip-flops). When I noted it, he replied that it had been cold that morning (the mercury had dropped to an icy 70 degrees Fahrenheit). It made me laugh.

I’ve been busy composting on the weekends with my friend Mary Swain, from Church. She is one of the most amazing women I know. She has raised her 7 children single-handedly, works full-time as the head of housekeeping at the Resort, serves as both District and Branch Primary President (the children’s program at church), and cares for her aging mother who has Alzeimer’s disease. All this weight on her shoulders and she keeps smiling. She’s just got a wonderful spirit and I love being around her. We live just across the street from each other, and since I live on the third floor of my apartment building (and don’t have a yard), we’re composting at her house. There is an agricultural problem here on Majuro. The soil here is (understandably) very sandy and poor in quality. We add to the problem when we send organic waste to the dump. We’re effectively taking the few vitamins and minerals that exist on this island and moving them all to the dump. So the dump gets all our vitamins as well as toxic stuff (there’s no recycling or toxic waste treatment here). So the vitamins are wasted. The science guys at CMI did a seminar on composting, and I liked the idea so much that Mary and I have started one. I’ve never composted before, and I’m not sure if it will work, but it’s worth a try. When we created it, all Mary’s friends and neighbors came over to see what we were doing. She explained to them that we were making soil and they liked the idea, so if it works, maybe we can expand the project. Mary’s going to collect old Coffee cans from the resort so we can make a potted garden once the compost turns to soil. Now whenever I throw old lettuce leaves and orange peels (which come on an airplane from the US) into the compost, I think to myself, “Aha! We’re inheriting vitamins from overseas! Hurray!” It’s amazing what simple things can be amusing when you live in a small place like this!

Both of my bikes arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I’m so delighted to have them here! In order to make them fit the postal size-regulations, I had to have the bike shop take them completely apart. So it was really a miracle that I got them both back together single-handedly. What’s even more amazing is that they actually work! I love my yellow bicycle! It’s a 1977 Schwinn Breeze (Banana Yellow), and I put a basket on the front. It’s so great for making trips for groceries, to the bank, post office, museum for story time, etc… The only problem is that the fearless little Marshallese kids try to hang on it as I’m riding away from storytime and that’s a bit dangerous. The taxis are not very cautious about bikes, either…they see someone call for them and they make a bee-line to the side of the road, nevermind that I am in between them and the side of the road. And dogs that are otherwise very nice to pedestrians are vicious as soon as they see a bike go by. I’m not sure why, but I’ve had to kick at a couple of them to keep them from eating me.

This weekend I got together with girlfriends to celebrate Rosana’s birthday. We had dinner at my place and then got dressed up and went to a couple of Halloween parties. The student body leaders here at CMI hosted a party. So we donned our outfits and came over. Rosana’s husband is a nurse at the hospital so he brought us a bunch of medical supplies and we went crazy. Rosana dressed up as a doctor and Anita, Amber and I were her patients. Amber and I were head-wound victims and Anita was an expectant mother about to go into labor. We looked pretty silly, but the thing that was mortifying was that when we got to CMI, no-one was dressed up! Halloween in the Marshalls is not as big a deal as Halloween in the states. When we arrived at the Haunted House that the student leaders had put together, everyone thought we were supposed to be part of the act. Local children were actually worried about our (pathetically fake) wounds, and taxi drivers on the road in front of CMI gawked as they drove by. So we decided to go down to the costume party at the resort. They had advertised this poolside party with a live band to the public free of charge, but there were only about 10 other people there, mostly foreigners. So today we decided to “Trick-or-Treat” offices at CMI. It was funny to see the worried looks that students and faculty gave us. Then when we shouted “Happy Halloween!” they all breathed a deep sigh of relief (most of them had forgotten or were unaware that today is Halloween.). I’m so glad to have good friends with a healthy sense of adventure and humor too. It makes living in this isolated place a lot of fun.

Well, I’m off to sew some curtains for my office window tonight. I got some cool island-print fabric last week. (Gotta keep up the Martha Stewart reputation!) Happy Halloween Aolep!

Rosana & Kids Reading at Alele Museum

Laurie and Kids @ Alele Story-Time

The Kids and I at Alele Story-Time (The primary reason they like me is because I usually bring the treats...I can hear them speculating about the treats in Marshallese as soon as I show up on Saturday morning)

Marshallese Baseball game (with plywood for a bat)

Melanie and I at General Conference

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I am so impressed with the warm welcome the Marshallese people give Americans, in light of what our country has done to them over the last 50 years. Yesterday we had a power blackout at school so I checked out a video from the CMI library called half-life and watched it at home while grading papers. It's a documentary about the Nuclear Testing here in the RMI. It's shameful what the high-up people in the Atomic Energy Commission (US Government) did in the 1950’s. In 1954, the 200 residents of Bikini were evacuated so that a nuclear “Bravo” Hydrogen bomb could be dropped on their island, but the neighboring Atolls to the East were not even told about plans for the bombing, so when they heard a giant explosion, they were taken completely off guard. Then when radioactive white coral bits started falling on them, the children went out to play in the "Snow" (which they had seen pictures of). It was not snow, and the food and air were suddenly toxic, but no one told them. There were several American Navy ships right nearby Rongelap and Rongerik that could have rescued the people, but they were ordered to sail away. The American government claimed that on the day the H-bomb was tested, the winds suddenly shifted, and that they didn't mean to harm these people, but weather reports show that the military knew in advance of high level winds in the Eastward direction toward Rongelap and other populated atolls. Many people (including former military weathermen stationed on these atolls who were also exposed to radiation without warning) believe that the Atomic Energy Commission did this on purpose as an experiment to see what long-term effects radioactive exposure would have on people. They even showed clips from documentaries made by the military of Marshallese men being flown in to mainland military hospitals for examination. So for the last 50 years people on three or four of the 29 atolls in the Marshalls have eaten contaminated coconuts and fish and have had Major health problems as a result. Women have given birth to babies that are severely deformed, people have developed all kind of cancers, thyroid disease, scores have died prematurely, etc...All this was done by the US government, which was entrusted with the Marshall Islands to protect and shelter after the trauma of having their islands invaded in the World War II battles between USA and Japan.

The year is now 2006, and Bikini is still not safe to live on at this point. In fact, the Bikini town hall is right down the street from the college (not in Bikini at all, now it's in Majuro), and hundreds of Bikini people have never even seen their home island. It's so sad. I have students in my class who are Bikinian and Rogalapian who are too young to have ever seen their home islands because they are still so contaminated. There are rumors that people will return to Rongelap soon, but I don't know if the people trust if American scientists say it's safe to go back. The Marshalls were given to the US after WW2 by the UN to take care of and protect, and our country really took advantage of the people. Because of a lot of relocations of Marshallese people to infertile islands (some without lagoons) where they can't fish and collect coconuts like normal we've created an economic dependence on US aid that the Marshallese will never be able to break free of. Thousands of people flock to Majuro and Ebeye (which are WAY overcrowded and polluted), while their home atolls (while beautiful and rural) offer little hope for education and employment. And yet the people smile and children play. It's absolutely amazing to me! I think it’s a testament to the spirit of humanity and forgiveness of this people that they still let us in.

But yet lest you think that Marshallese are Saints and Americans are sinners, I have to admit being horrified by the expressions of racism and prejudice that I’ve noticed in many Marshallese young people toward those of Chinese descent. Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants to Majuro have worked hard and established successful businesses, and because of this there is a lot of resentment and a lot of racism from the Marshallese. It’s hard to see people who call themselves Christians being so ignorant and hateful toward each other, but it happens all the time here. My colleague Beth (an English Composition instructor here at CMI) shared with me the journal of a student who wrote about acting out in violence toward someone of Chinese ethnicity just because he was Chinese. It was very disturbing (I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s just made up, but the underlying intentions are disturbing). This is sad because this is a student in credit level English, which means that he’s one of our more advanced students and among the (relatively well) educated people on island. If he is this ignorant and callous about racial issues, what about those who are not educated at all? In saying this, I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m assuming that all Marshallese have these prejudices. I know many wonderful, sweet, compassionate Marshallese people who don’t harbor racist feelings. Unfortunately these narrow-minded ideas are especially prevalent among the young people, and I feel the responsibility as a teacher at the only institution of higher education in this country to speak out against this …even if I am a math teacher.

This week I discovered the CMI library. It is quite impressive for a small island country with no bookstores. They have a whole room full of children’s books and quite an impressive collection. I got the autobiography of Desmond Tutu which I’m reading right now and really enjoying. He is such a man of compassion and forgiveness. His good heart really put out a lot of fires that could have destroyed South Africa when it was struggling for democracy. He showed compassion toward both the oppressed and the oppressors. The other really cool thing about the CMI library is that besides loaning Books, Videos, and DVDs, they loan out Ukeleles. Only in the Marshall Islands! This is so cool though, I’d really like to get one of my students to teach me how to play some basic songs. I got a lot of great children’s books for our Saturday Morning reading in front of the museum. The kids are wonderful. They are so cute and sweet and full of energy. I got one book called “The Goodnight Gecko”. It’s about a baby gecko who is afraid of the dark, so he just wants to pick flowers and go scuba diving in the daytime, but Geckos are nocturnal, so that presents some problems with his family. Eventually he learns to love the moon and stars and not be afraid of the shadows and rustling made by the coconut trees. It was very culturally appropriate for the kids and they laughed when they saw the snorkeling gecko. The story had a parrot in it, but there’s no word for Parrot in Marshallese (we don’t have any here), so the children insisted it was “Bao” (Chicken). Well, not quite, but close enough I guess. I think that Chicken is the only type of bird that has a name in Marshallese, particularly because it is edible. The picture attached to this post is of three kids playing by the Alele Museum where we read. At the time they were swinging from this Breadfruit Tree for hours of good fun.

I’m off today to bicycle to Long Island to watch general conference. It was broadcast live 2 weeks ago, but instead of sending us the Marshallese DVD’s they accidentally sent us Spanish, so we’ve had to wait. I’m looking forward to hearing the talks. I got up at 3am to go to one live session at 4am, but that just about did me in for the rest of the week. I’m glad to have my bicycle here and I managed to put it back together by myself (hurray that the brakes and gears work…miracles ) We had to take it apart into a million pieces to get it into a box that was within the postal size regulations. Now I have the basket on front and can use it for grocery shopping and other errands.

Ok, gotta run. Bar Lo Aolep!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Marshall Islands are places with lots of love! The common greeting that people say to each other (friends and strangers alike) is “Yokwe” (or with the new spelling system: “Iakwe”). Which literally translates: “Love you!” So no matter whether you’re greeting a stranger on the street or a long-time friend, you’re declaring your love for them. “Iakwe in jibbon!” (Love you in the morning!), “Iakwe in raelep!” (Love you in the afternoon!) “Iakwe in Jota!” (Love you in the Night!) There’s a lot of love to go around out here 

Last weekend we went out to dinner for my friend (and neighbor) Amber’s birthday. The accompanying picture is of the party. We went to a restaurant owned by a friend of hers and ate some nice stuff. The big rage here is Sashimi (raw tuna) which I tried a bit of. It wasn’t bad, but I don’t think I’d pay money for it again  Pictured here are: (bottom row) Anita, Amber, Roxanne, Me, Masumi, (top row): Restaurant owner & Victor. We had great Taiwanese food followed by chocolate birthday cake. This weekend is Masumi’s birthday, so the parties just continue!

This last weekend (it was a long weekend with Manit Day holiday) I also went with Anita and Laurie to the Fijian club’s dance party fundraiser, which was lots of fun. Island music is really cool. They had a live band which did a combination of Covers of Reggae and American music as well as some of their own stuff. It was a lot of fun. Although Fiji is not very far away from the Marshall Islands (in fact, the nearest temple is there) the people look very different than Micronesians. Fiji is in Melanesia, and Melanesians look much more African than Micronesians do. Fiji was also colonized by England, so they have a culture that is more British than islands in Micronesia that have had a strong American influence. Last week at our faculty in-service training, Timoci (a Fijian English instructor at CMI) read a paragraph aloud and we were all mesmerized because he has this very deep, rich, English voice. He makes just about anything he reads aloud sound like Shakespeare. It was so cool.

Last week I gave my students an assignment having to do with analyzing population Statistics from the Marshall Islands. Population is growing at a tremendous pace, so we graphed population data from 1920 to 2000 and then formed a quadratic regression to model the problem. We used the equation we found to make predictions, and according to our calculations, the population should rise from 62,000 people currently to 95,000 people twenty years from now. This island just doesn’t have space, resources, or employment for so many people. So I asked the students to make suggestions about what we could do to ensure that life is good for our children in 20 years. I was thinking about things like conserving our resources, opening businesses to provide employment for a growing population, increasing the number of health care workers we have, etc… here are some of the comical answers they put:

1. Punish teenagers who have children out of wedlock (harsh!)
2. Build houses on the water like they have in China (?)
3. Encourage more Marshallese to join the US army and get sent overseas
4. Limit family size to 5 or 6 children (that’s considered small here!)
5. Marry all the foreigners that have come to our country and go home with them when they leave!

Something cool that I learned yesterday in Marshallese class: It’s culturally acceptable to marry certain of your cousins and not acceptable to marry other cousins. Here’s how it works: Marshallese society is Matriarchal, so in Marshall culture, you inherit your Jowi (family name) from your mother (and it doesn’t change when you marry). This means that the children of your Mother’s sister have the same Jowi as you, and you consider them your siblings, not your cousins. On the other hand, the children of your father’s sister have a different Jowi than you, so your father’s sister is considered your auntie and her children are your cousins because they have a different Jowi. This also means that they are fair game for marrying (it’s understandable that this is the case, because pretty much everyone is cousins with everyone on the islands, particularly on the small outer islands). On your father’s side, your father’s brother’s children are off-limits for dating and marriage (because they share the same last name as you (an American institution, but they respect that too) because they are considered your brothers and sisters. But your mother’s brother is your uncle and his children are cousins that you can marry because you have both a different Jowi and a different surname. Pretty cool, isn’t it??

On a more serious note: I was reminded today of one of the saddest things I have experienced over the last few weeks here at CMI. The irony of it is bitter to swallow, and I want to do something about it. There is a little girl, about 9 years old (but small for her size) who comes around our offices about once or twice a week with a Rubbermaid container with cupcakes selling them. “Jete Wanaan? (how much does it cost?)” I asked her. “Juon Quarter” (one quarter). Today she came around again. The time was 11:30am. She speaks no English, so in (my very broken) Marshallese I asked her “Kwoj etal nan jikuul?” (Do you go to school?) She shook her head No and became a bit bashful. Now education is supposed to be free in this country, but families who have lots of children cannot afford to buy school uniforms and the government is beginning to charge modest school fees, but this is unreasonable, since education is allotted about 50% of the annual budget for the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Where is all this money going? The irony of the situation is that while she sells cupcakes for next-to-nothing at the College to nice foreign instructors, she is missing out on the education that she needs if she’s ever going to have a chance to be a student at this College.

I had a brief conversation with this little girl (not very good because it was limited by my lack of Marshallese). Her name is Yumi. When she told me, I wrote it on a paper and asked her if this is how to spell it. I showed her a couple pictures of my new baby nephew Grant on my computer and she smiled. When I minimized the window she gasped as if I had destroyed the pictures. I don’t think she’s ever seen a computer before. I would like to meet her parents and see what the situation is, because if it’s just a matter of not having money for a uniform and school supplies, that would be easy for me to take care of. In some cases families just have too many children to be able to afford uniforms for all of them. Perhaps I could pay her school fees in exchange for one of her family members helping my clean my house on the weekends or something. I’ve just got to figure out how to ask her to introduce me to her mother in Marshallese (I’m missing some crucial vocabulary words for that). Maybe I can take my missionary friends with me to help translate if I can meet her mother. Not only is Yumi missing out on education, she’s missing out on opportunities to socialize with other kids her age in school. While the other little girls are playing volleyball together after school she’s wandering around with her tub of cupcakes by herself. It just breaks my heart to watch. I'll keep you posted with what comes of this. I hope that I can do something to change the situation.

This is all I have time for today. Bar lo kom!