Saturday, January 27, 2007

This week has been truly exciting! You would think that after 5 months on a small island with only 3.75 square miles of land area and 25,000 residents, life would get boring really fast. But that’s absolutely not true. This week I’ve been busy teaching my new classes (all four have between 27-31 students each!), hiding a runaway friend and helping her escape the country, and making sure all’s well with the ladies at church. I thought after my first semester I’d have less new things to tell you all about, but in fact, there are so many more that I almost don’t have time to write about all of them.

This first week of the new semester has felt more like the first month of the new semester. I can’t believe that it’s just been a week! I have 108 new students (some returning from my classes last semester, but many of them new to me) so I have a lot of new names and faces to memorize. I have some students with very, very cool names. Here are some of my favorites: Thumbling Batin, Augustine Augustine, Balos Balos, and Rive River. Then there are classes that have multiple names that all sound the same. For example one class has Joycelynn, Janelynn, and Cathlynn. Another has Marylynn, Maryann, Mashaishi, Miashie, and Mistenia. Another class has both Peterson Kaiko and Forrest Peterson, and Helentha, Henton, and Heniko. Wow, just calling out attendance is like a tongue twister! I really like all my students. They’re wonderful we’re going to have a really great semester together.

This semester I’m teaching 2 developmental Algebra classes and 2 Credit-Level Math Survey classes. I learned a lot about the developmental needs of our students last semester. I came to CMI last semester thinking that “developmental math” was the same as “remedial math” but that’s not the case at all. Although the level of difficulty is the same for both kinds of math, developmental means helping the students develop good study habits, time management habits, and confidence in themselves. Many of our students come to us having never been taught how to study. Many of them don’t know what it means when I say, “Show all your work, please, or I won’t give you credit for your homework.” It takes some extra explaining to really clearly define the meticulous kind of work I’m looking for and how to get organized, but they are really stepping up the challenge. A colleague of mine who teaches in the education department here at CMI gave me a great idea. Max suggested that on the first day of class I could give students an empty table with rows representing each hour of the day and columns representing each hour of the week. The first homework assignment I gave my math 70 students was to fill in their class schedule, and then choose a 1-hour block of time for each day and write in “Math 70 Homework” as well as a place where they would study. Many of them don’t have a home that’s conducive to studying, but they have an hour free between classes during which they could go to the library or tutoring center, and this helped them to see that. Scheduling their week was a novel idea to many of them (carrying a day-planner or a to-do list is a very Un-Marshallese concept, but then again, so is college!), but it has worked out fantastically. When they showed me their schedules I pointed out other students in the class that had chosen to study at the same time and suggested that maybe they could meet to work on homework and give each other moral support. This week 90% of the students turned in their first 3 assignments on time and well-organized. It was amazing!! It really proves to me that despite the fact that the majority of our students come to CMI under-prepared, the majority of them are very capable, bright, and excited to learn how to be better students. It is so fun to watch their confidence increase as they get more organized and disciplined!

My goals for my credit-level students are very different. These students are those who have passed the developmental classes and have a good idea about what they want from their education. They have been at CMI for 1 or 1 ½ years, and they know the CMI system. But at the same time, they have had a lot of hand-holding (in the developmental program) and now it’s time for them to stretch their wings and fly on their own. Many of them are extremely bright, while others are modestly smart but hard workers. These are the students in whom I need to foster an independent spirit (because many of them will transfer to a University or go to work in the RMI in a year or so) so they can stand on their own two feet and take the initiative to get the resources they need to be successful. This is a really exciting group to teach because my students represent the future leaders of this country, and the advice, life-skills, and respect that I teach them now will make them effective, powerful forces for good in the future. In class we are currently studying set theory (Venn Diagrams, Set Operations, Using Sets for Problem Solving). They’ve never seen Math without numbers before!! There are many new symbols and vocabulary terms to learn. It’s exciting to see them discover how vast and versatile math is. This whole semester will be like a math-buffet, where they can take a little taste of about 8 different kinds of math (set theory, college algebra, combinatorics, probability, statistics, geometry, trigonometry, and personal finance) and see what they like. Up until this point, all they’ve ever seen is algebra, and this class is going to open their eyes to all kinds of wonderful new things. (If nothing else, hopefully at least they’ll have tools to make smarter personal finance decisions after this class!)

On Monday night I checked my messages and found two from my friend Andrea. She is a friend from church who moved here from Taiwan 3 months ago to work as the head baker for a Taiwanese-owned grocery store. She had told me on Sunday that things were not good at her work, but her messages on Monday sounded really desperate. I called her back and she explained that she needed to hide herself from her boss until she could leave the country. She needed to go to the Taiwanese Embassy to get a new passport first because he was refusing to give hers back to her. The tricky thing is that you have to fly through Guam (a US territory) to get to Taipei, so all travelers require an American visa, which was in her old passport, but would take months to replace if she applied for a new one. She had no contract with her boss, but he wanted her to stay until he could hire a new baker from Taiwan whom she could train. Evidently he had promised a lot of nice things in their telephone interview that he failed to deliver once she arrived. The accommodations he had provided were hardly homey. Her room was an unpainted cement-walled cell without a kitchen or a refrigerator. She had been sleeping with the lights on to prevent being attacked by cockroaches and rats at night. When she first came to Majuro, he told her that it was unsafe, and she should give him her passport and return ticket to keep in the safe at the store. This is untrue, and he had done the same thing to the previous baker who left abruptly, too. His demands for her work hours and production were very high, and he would not allow her to teach her assistants anything because he didn’t want the local people to learn how she made bread and cakes. He asked her to use flour that was infested (she threw it away) and then complained behind her back that her pastries were not good. So she came to my house under cover of darkness Monday night, and went to the embassy on Tuesday. They called her boss and demanded that he give back the passport, which he denied withholding from her, but this plan required returning to the store to face him. I went with her that night and luckily she only had to talk to his wife (he didn’t come out) and got both the passport and return ticket. By Thursday morning she was on her way back home. It was tricky though, because during all these negotiations we were fearful that if my landlord knew she was with me (I live in a Taiwanese building) they might tell her boss (who is related to the boss somehow). But my landlord is really wonderful and kind, as are all his family members that live in my building, so they really encouraged Andrea and helped her out. I’m so glad she’s on her way home now! She’ll touch down in Taipei on Sunday morning after spending a couple days in Guam. What a relief!

Last night I went with my girlfriends from CMI to a concert at the shoreline. Three bands and 4 dancing groups from Ebeye (Kwajelein Atoll) were in town, and it was a fantastic event. I haven’t seen that many people in one place for a long, long, time. I really liked the Sunrise band a lot. Their songs were catchy and the topics were clever and edgy like, “Hello from Ebeye where the lights are out because the electric company ran out of oil” and “last payday I saw you walking home with a case of beer and now you’re sitting alone eating rice only” (addressing the alcoholism problems so common in RMI). Then there were dancers….oh, my goodness…the “Chicky Gurlz” were cross-dressing guys who can shake their hips like women. It was totally outrageous and funny. Imagine guys dressed in ornate Pacific Islander costumes shaking their hips like Tahitian or Fijian women do. The crowd went wild! Between acts I was talking to my friend Susan (a new English instructor) about ideas we had found useful in our developmental classes and the drunk Marshallese guys behind us kept trying to hit on one or both of us. I told them, “Kommol, ak ej jab” (thanks, but she doesn’t want), but they weren’t getting then hint. Then Rosana, our cheeky Marshallese friend developed an interesting way to get rid of these guys. She told them, “Rej jab kanaan eman ro, Rej kanaan wot kora ro.” (basically that we are not interested in men, but only women, and that we were dating each other) Five minutes later, there were no drunk men left behind us! It was a brilliant and highly effective plan, but I just hope they were too drunk to remember the next morning. Otherwise by next week everyone on island is going to be saying, “Hey, you know that tall blonde ri-belle? She doesn’t like men!” which could be a problem if anyone from church or work hears about it, because I DO like men, just not drunk Marshallese men.

Well, there’s tons more to tell, but I’ll save it for later! I have a pile of grading to do, and then Rosana and I are going to go snorkeling in the lagoon this afternoon. Weekend Monono Aolep! (Happy weekend, everyone!)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Happy New Year everyone! It has been a long time since I last wrote, and a lot has happened recently. It was a nice holiday at home, wonderful to be with my family in California (although I was very cold, very nervous as the cars flew down the highway, and also very overwhelmed by the vastness of American supermarkets). My little nephew is absolutely adorable. I’ve never considered myself a huge fan of babies (I really enjoy playing with children once they are walking, talking, saying cute things), but this little guy really stole my heart. He is such a cutie, and he made the most adorable little growling noises at me like he thought he was baby tiger. Lakatu kid!

On the subject of children, last week I went to visit a friend of mine who had just lost her mother. A friend and I stopped by her house to express my condolences, and while we were visiting, her 4-year old little boy, Casper, came and put his arms around my neck. I hugged him back, and it was just the sweetest thing I’ve experienced in a long time. Today was the funeral for Lewa's mom, and Casper was a little bit more wound-up because of all the other children around but still just as cute. It was good to be there and give support. A family is responsible for so much work during the funeral. People bring rice and chicken and money for the family, but then in turn the family is responsible for feeding all the mourners who come, which is an overwhelming responsibility. I personally thought about how devastated I would be if I lost my own mother at such a young age, and how the last thing I’d want is to be surrounded by people constantly. But such is life on a small island. Almost nothing is private, not even grief.

At the funeral I met the much-spoken-of Lonny Lanny. He is sort-of the spiritual rock of the branch of members of the church here in Majuro, especially in the Uliga area. Everyone knows and loves him. He strikes me the Marshallese version of James Earl Jones, with a rich deep voice and a kind manner. He is an Alap (land head) who is particularly generous to those living in his weto (parcel of land). When the Iroij (chief) demands money or goods from the Ri-Jerbal (workers…most of whom just scrape by), Lonny pays the money from his own pocket instead of bankrupting the people by forcing them to pay money to the Iroij that they need to feed their families. I have heard so many good things that I was happy to finally meet him. Lonny is very well-educated and smart, yet he has a kind and humble heart despite the fact that he’s done very well for himself. He really takes care of the members of the branch, too. I heard a story about him from an American family who met him when he translated for them seven years ago as they adopted a Marshallese child who was deathly ill. They told me of how he did his home teaching every week, just to make sure all the families in his stewardship had enough to eat. Several months ago Lonny’s wife was sick with a brain tumor and the Majuro hospital did not have the capabilities to help her. But they also refused to send her to Honolulu because they said she had less than 50% chance of survival. Everyone who knew the Lannys were saddened by the news, but Lonny refused to take "no" for an answer, so he bought tickets to Honolulu for himself and his wife, checked her out of the hospital, and flew with her to Honolulu, where they have been for the past 6 months. It was a huge sacrifice and act of dedication on his part, and miracle of miracles, she’s recovering! So he’s back for a visit and I was lucky enough to meet him.

I have had some interesting experiences with banking here on the island. It’s not the first time that I’ve had problems with this Bank of Guam branch. It’s the only bank that has an ATM on island, so I opened my account with them. The lady who opened my checking account wrote CMI’s account number in my check book instead of mine, so for a month I was depositing my paychecks right back into my employer’s account and writing temporary checks against CMI’s account too. One day I discovered that there was a mismatch in the account number my checkbook said and what my ATM receipts said. We fixed that and things were ok until the day I was flying home in December. I made an ATM deposit the week previous, but when I stopped at the ATM to get cash for my trip, it said “insufficient funds”. They had just closed the door (at 3pm of course) and I banged on it and freaked out that my account was suddenly empty! It turns out that they had cashed my check, but omitted to record the deposit in my account, so hundreds of dollars were missing. I stayed at the bank for 45 minutes before running out the door late to get to the airport without having resolved anything. They seemed to fix it while I was gone, but in the future I now know that I have to watch my account like a hawk. I breathed a sigh of relief upon arriving back in Majuro in January, because things seemed to be ironed out with Bank of Guam. Then I got a bill from NTA for my phone service. The bill indicated that I had not made a single payment since I got the line in October (after waiting a month for connection). It had to be wrong, because I had paid on-time every month since then. The invoices say that you can pay at the NTA office (which is always packed with people), or pay at Bank of Marshall Islands. So in November and December I put my check in an envelope and dropped it in the “Quick Payments” box at Bank of Marshall Islands and went home feeling glad that I had not wasted an hour in the NTA line. So upon learning that NTA had not received any of my payments, I went down to Bank of Marshall Islands to check things out. I talked to a nice lady who asked the security guard to open the “Quick Payments” box. I watched in amazement as he opened the box and pulled out one handful of rubbish, in the middle of which were my two envelopes. Evidently the “Quick Payments” box is really just used by everyone as a trash can and I’m the only one who didn’t know. No one hear writes checks, this is a cash-economy and no one even keeps cash around for very long either. The nice lady advised me that the only “quick payment” (and secure payment, too!) is to hand your money to the teller and make sure it gets deposited. Joke’s on me and now I’ve learned my lesson. The ironic thing is that while NTA never received a payment from me for 3 months, they never charged me a late-fee or interest, and never threatened to cut off my service, either! I guess that it would be futile, because no one here (except me) ever pays their bills on time, and NTA is lucky to get a payment at all from most people! Wow, you live and learn!

Before I forget to mention it, something that is completely unrelated to my experiences here, yet is near to my heart is the current calamities in other parts of the world. Some of you know that I lived in South Africa a few years ago and grew to love the people of the African continent very much. This makes it very hard for me to see and hear what is happening in Sudan’s Darfur region without being devastated and also really upset at the lack of international response, even though the UN has acknowledged that this situation is genocide that the Sudanese government is supporting. I weep almost every time I read stories online about the brutal killings, burning of villiages, rapes of women, and tortures of men (all innocent civilians) that have continued for YEARS now. Now, as the crisis spreads into neighboring Chad, the Current President of Sudan, Al-Bashir, is on a campaign to become the president of the African Union, the only organization in the world with Peacekeeping troops in Darfur! These Peacekeepers are not authorized to protect civilians, only to document violations of the cease-fire agreement between Rebels and Government. But can you imagine the atrocities that could ensue if the only hope for Darfuris, the African Union Peacekeepers, answered to the man who is conspiring to annihilate them?!? If you are interested in knowing more about what is happening, please take a minute to look at this website:

And if you are one of my friends on the African continent, please, please petition your own government through emails or letters to vote against Sudan’s President heading the AU! We are so blessed to live in a place where we do not fear daily for our lives! Please, let us do all in our power to give this precious gift to others!

Well, the time has slipped away, and I still need to make plans for my classes which start on Monday. Happy New Year to all of you! Here’s hoping that this is a year that is filled with greater joy, greater peace, and greater kindness in the hearts of all people on earth! Sala Kahle & Bar lo kom! (“Stay Well” (isiZulu) and “See you later” (Kajin Majol))