Saturday, October 20, 2007

My mom’s visit was wonderful! It started out with a bang. She arrived on her birthday, so I rented a car and picked her up from the airport. We did the end-to-end island tour (which takes longer than you might imagine considering this island is only 3.75 square miles, but it’s so skinny that it’s about 35 miles from one end to the other).

That night I invited the ladies from church over for cake. Well, Marshallese ladies just CAN’T do small parties, so instead of just coming for cake, they came with dinner food and handicraft gifts. It turned out to be me, my mom, 30 ladies, and 5 children all in the front room of my apartment. There was eating, singing, dancing, gift-giving. It was so sweet and generous of them, and my mom will never forget this birthday.

While she was here, mom and I took a Marshallese canoe ride, and she also had her first snorkeling experience. There’s nothing quite like realizing what a rich environment exists under the surface of the water here. There are hundreds of bright corals and whole schools of fish that you only ever see in aquariums back home. In fact, the other day while snorkeling I came face to face with a big eel. Needless to say it was enough to scare me out of the water for a while. Anyway, it was great to watch her experience firsthand the wonderful and not-so-wonderful things about living here in this place. I’m so glad she got to meet many of my wonderful colleagues from work, sweet Marshallese friends that I’ve made in my neighborhood and church, and experience the beautiful environment here. (The picture above is mom in the middle of the lagoon)

After Mom left for home, things were pretty quiet around my house. Except for the occasional kids who come by to borrow my volleyball, I got a little bit lonely. Because I did a lot of playing and didn’t spend evenings and weekends at work, things got a bit chaotic here at the office, but it didn’t take long to sort them out. After my mom left I had to leave my house a bit more to seek company. On one such trip out of the house I found some cute girls (neighbors of my friend Anelang) standing on the seawall which separates their house from the lagoon. They had fishing lines wound around empty coke cans which they were baiting with pieces of cooked fish. Next to them they had a bowl full of small 4-inch long fish that they had caught using their “fishing cans” and they were catching some more for dinner. They paused long enough for a photo opportunity.

While most Marshallese adults are very shy and withdrawn, most Marshallese children are outgoing and gutsy. They make me feel very much more a part of the community when I’m feeling isolated. One funny thing that children around 4-7 years old do is really cute. When they see a foreigner coming down the street, they pause whatever game they are playing and run over, line up, and thrust their hands upward to shake yours. When finished they giggle, run back to their playing place, and resume the game. Sometimes when I’m out running, children stop what they’re doing and run along beside me in a little group, in their zories or even with bare feet. For a few meters I feel like I have a little running club and then eventually when they realize how far from home they’ve gotten they drop off and go back. It’s so sweet and I am very thankful to these little ones who make me feel included.

After my mom left my apartment, a little crab decided to take her place. It wasn’t a hermit crab like last time, this time it was a real crab with his own shell. He turned up on the sponge in my kitchen one morning, so I had to evict him. This picture is not him, but it’s his cousin (who looks just like him) who hangs out at CMI.

It has been such a pleasure to live next door to the sister missionaries from my branch. We mostly see each other in passing, and now and again we borrow something, chat for a few minutes, or walk home from church together. It has been wonderful to get to know them. My own mission to South Africa made such an impact on my life and being around them reminds me what a challenging but also richly rewarding experience it is to dedicate 18 months of your life to serving others. Truly I have learned that this is where happiness lies. My mission taught me that compassion is more important than competition in the grand scheme of things, and that has really changed my priorities. It is wonderful to be reminded about the lessons I learned every time I interact with these sisters. They are really the type of people I want to associate with because they are more concerned about others than they are about themselves. I think that this is one of the noblest ideals one can build his/her life around.

Speaking of happy news, my brother Clay and his wife Cullen just welcomed a new little one into their lives. Cashel Jack Mitchell was born this week, and I’m excited to meet him as well as to play with Honor and Jeremy’s toddler Grant. My one regret about living here is that my whole family is having a great time together with the grandkids while I’m here. I get to see them only once or twice a year if I’m lucky. Darn it, I just know that Cammie is probably becoming the favorite aunt by this point! But I'm not jealous or anything :) Hi Cam! I'll post some more pictures of Cash and his parents when they get home from the hospital.

Well, that’s all I have time for tonight. I’ll write again soon. Next week I’m headed to Oahu with 2 students for an LSAMP conference. It’s a program to encourage more Pacific Islanders to earn BS/MS/PhD degrees in Science and Math. We will learn how to start a chapter on our campus and help more of our students transfer to Bachelors degree programs. I’ll write more about it when we get back.

Monday, October 08, 2007

I finally did it! I rode my bike in a muumuu! Yahoo! Susan and I went out shopping on the way home from the gym a few weeks back and found a shop with an assortment of cute, tolerable, and hideous muumuus. None of the shops have fitting rooms, so we tried them on in the middle of the store over our clothes and consulted each other (no mirrors either) about how we looked. Wow, the selection is amazing here! “Guam muumuus” are made of silky polyestery something-or-other and come in all sizes, from baby muumuus to gigantic ones. Well, I got really lucky and got a couple very cute, very comfortable ones. My mom is coming to Majuro this week, and we’ll have to get her set up with a cute Muumuu wardrobe too. (Incidentally, the word Muumuu is actually in the dictionary on my computer, so yes, muumuu is the correct spelling, although it doesn’t recognize “Yahoo”.)

It has been a busy first month of school. I got really, really sick the night before the first day of class and it just didn’t go away for 3 weeks. I went from dizzy to achy to feverish to no voice for 4 days (hello, group-work in class every day!) to congested to coughing uncontrollably. I’m feeling SO much better now, but I was working in survival mode for so long that my life doesn’t feel very well-organized. Now I’m much better and getting there.

My friend Heather made me a CD of Marshallese music before she left. It is seriously now one of my favorite CDs. It’s “Marshallese sing the best of the 80’s”. There’s a male group singing a funky-synthesizer version of Celine Dion’s “Power of Love” (in Marshallese of course!), and also that song by 4 Non-Blondes: “Heeeeey, Heeeey, I said Hey, What’s going on?” but instead, the Marshallese group sings, “Heeeey, Ij iakwe eok” (which means “Hey, I love you” instead). It’s just so great. I love 80’s music, I love synthesizer pop, and I finally now understand a little Marshallese language, it’s just really entertaining.

Speaking of entertainment…the students threw their big “Welcome Back to School” party a few weeks ago. I wasn’t feeling great, but I really, really wanted to go because our students are just so cool. It was at Lanai club, and they served a nice dinner outside. Then there was a live band and dancing inside. I should have gone home after dinner, but some colleagues were going inside for a few minutes, so I went along. That’s when all the fun began. I saw my favorite groundskeeper, Helbert, who asked me to dance. So while we were waiting for a good song, then one of our custodians came and pulled me out on the floor. We were the only ones on the dance floor for most of the song, in front of about 200 students, faculty and staff, getting down. So then the next dance I was back out there again, this time with Helbert, who was a bit ticked off that this other guy had cut in. These sweet old men are older than my father and here I am in front of the entire student body, trying to enjoy being there although I’d really rather be in bed. So after that I ran out before any more janitors or groundskeepers could find me and went straight home and slept the entire weekend away until school on Monday.

During the same period of time, we had a very sad tragedy in our church. One of the first members of our church on the island who has given so generously to those around her, Neito Lanny, passed away after a long fight with cancer. Both she and her husband Lani have really been wonderful examples of charity in the church and the community. The experience of her funeral opened my eyes to how different my cultural customs are in comparison Marshallese customs. In American culture, when someone loses a family member, the friends give them space to grieve, send flowers and cards, or perhaps drop dinner off at their house. Everyone is really, really careful not to intrude on the privacy and alone-time of the grieving family. In island culture, it’s exactly opposite. The entire community grieves together. From the time that the family member dies, the family sets up a tent, chairs, and feeds mourners from the whole island for many days until after the viewing and funeral. In the Lanny’s case, they had to wait for many family members to fly here from the states, so they were feeding people for a week before the viewing. Then there was the funeral and then viewing for another week while mourners came from everywhere. All the while, the family was cooking round the clock to feed all the people. The 3 week process finally concluded with burial, and now, over a month later, the visitors keep coming to express condolences. It was amazing to see the community come together. Neito’s daughter Hermine (who is a sweet friend of mine from church) supervised a team of about 20 ladies cooking for the whole 3 weeks. I am amazed at the emotional strength of their entire family. I would just want to hide and grieve, but they just kept going, and going, and going. Financially it’s a huge undertaking as well, but they did all of this uncomplainingly. At first, it was very hard for me to know how to respond since I was quite aware that my natural inclinations (molded by my own culture) were completely wrong in this situation. Little by little I found things I could do to help without being underfoot. I so appreciated the willingness of their family to accept my awkward attempts to contribute in some way.

Last weekend I was feeling healthier and we had “Ri-jerbal Day” holiday (Labor Day). Our friends from work (Judy and Jerry) have a boat and took us out to Enamanit Island, on the other side of Majuro atoll. It was a lovely day and good to get out and enjoy the fresh air. I am surrounded by such natural beauty here, but so many days I’m in my office so long that I forget to go out and look at the ocean and lagoon. While we were swimming, Jerry and Forrest (one of our students) went out fishing. They phoned Judy’s cell to tell us they’d be a little late because they caught “a big one”. NO KIDDING! They got 3 fish: A medium size Skipjack Tuna, a Barracuda, and a gigantic Yellowfin Tuna which took up the whole bottom of the boat and must have weighed over 100 pounds. One the trip back we all had to put our feet on the tuna because there was no other leg-room in the boat. Amazing! I’ve never seen a fish that big!! The next day at Susan and Judy’s birthday party we had plenty of fresh sashimi (Japanese style raw tuna). Yum!

My classes are going pretty well this semester. I have a great group of students this semester. They’re fantastic, as always. There’s still a lot of chaos higher up in the chain of command with new and interim administrators coming in and out. It takes a lot of work on our part to try to communicate with them and it takes us out of the classroom a bit, but in the long run, I hope the time spent communicating will smooth the way for our students. I’m working with SS105 College Experience class this semester, which is wonderfully rewarding. We’re also going to do 2+2 again, and I’m quite gratified that it’s growing due to word of mouth. We had 6 students from the group successfully transfer to Universities this year, which is a great success story and has caught the interest of other students. I’m really excited to be involved again.

Here’s a funny story: sometime during the first week of class, I got an email inviting me to be “friends” on Bebo with one of my new students. He is one of the quietest students in my Beginning Algebra class, and it came as a total surprise. I was very flattered, but graciously declined.

My mom is coming to visit this week, which I’m SUPER excited about! I can’t wait to share with her all the aspects of my life here that I find fascinating. It’s going to be a fun 10 days together. At the end of her visit is Manit Day (Culture Day) holiday, so it will be great to participate in demonstrations of weaving, coconut husking, handicraft making, etc…) Ok, gotta go home now. It’s almost 11pm. I’m sure I’ll have tons of pictures after Mom’s visit, so I’ll post lots in my next blog entry. So long until then!