Saturday, January 10, 2009

Guam

The flight schedule between Palau and Guam is the worst ever, with flights departing at 1am, stopping in Yap at 3am, and arriving in Guam at 5:30am. When we stopped in Yap, many, many travelers got on, and all of them were wearing beautiful fresh flower leis and alleles (head wreaths). Suddenly the airplane smelled so sweet! I landed for a one day stop-over in Guam before returning to Majuro.


My friend Rosana (a colleague of mine from the College who is studying at University of Guam) picked me up at the airport. She was dropping off her parents and aunt and uncle at the airport to fly back to the Marshall Islands that morning (she had been host to 4 extra houseguests besides her husband and two children in their 2 bedroom apartment for 3 weeks in addition to working and going to school…seriously, she is one amazing woman!) She was such a sweetheart to agree to one more houseguest for one night. It has been almost 2 years since she left to attend Guam and I have missed her very much. She was one of the people who helped me initially transition to life in Majuro and feel at home here. We dropped off her kids at school on the way back from the airport and went home and got a few winks of sleep. Then I went with their family to Two Lover’s point, to a movie, Taco Bell (wow, it’s been many months since I’ve eaten Taco Bell!) and shopping at K-mart (which is purportedly the largest Kmart in the world…why they would locate it in Guam is a mystery to me!). Guam is like a small version of Hawaii, and home to some very important strategic American military bases. It’s a US territory (though no one on the mainland really pays attention to it much).

It’s amazing what the Chamorros (traditional residents of Guam and Saipan) have been through! On the airplane back to Majuro I made friends with a really cool guy who is roughly my age and teaches at a private Catholic High School in Guam. He taught me so much about the history of his island and its relationship with America. He grew up in Guam, then studied Civil Engineering in Boston, then returned home to become a teacher and guidance counselor at the high school he had attended in Guam. He refers to Guam as the “bastard stepchild” of America. It is part of the family but ignored and not given much say in national decisions or even many local decisions. Guamanians carry US passports, but are not allowed to vote in American elections. The military uses land that was confiscated from local people many years ago without compensation. Guam was fiercely captured and occupied by the Japanese for 30 months during WW2. During that time, the indiginous people of Guam were subjected to family separation, forced labor, concentration camps, prostitution, encarceration, and execution. Approximately 1000 Guamanians died during this short time. America invaded and recaptured Guam before the end of the war. A 1951 treaty between the United States and Japan absolved Japan of future individual American war claims, which means U.S. taxpayers would be asked to pay for abuses committed by Japanese soldiers against American nationals on U.S. territory. To this day, the people of Guam are still negotiating and hoping for compensation(http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/08/15/news/guam.php) President Obama made a campaign promise to finally make the promised reparations to the people of Guam that they have waited 64 years for. I sincerely hope that he'll make good on this promise!

A new addition to a long string of decisions made for the people of Guam without local input was made by George W. Bush just before ending his presidency. This lame-duck legislation (no Congressional approval required) created a National Monument Marine Protected Area of the Marianas Trench. (The website: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/06/us/06oceans.html has more information) While environmental protection is a great thing, very little input was solicited from local people and the new legislation will limit the abilities to fish in their own waters! This means that local, indiginous recreational fisherman will have to ask permission of the US Government to fish around Guam. These people have depended on the sea for thousands of years and now they have to ask permission from the far off government in Washington to fish recreationally? That's absolutely ludicris! Decisions are continually made on their behalf by American presidents who have never visited their island who they did not have the right to vote for (despite the fact that they are considered US Citizens!). Today Guam has 1 Representative in the US House of Representatives, but he/she does not have the right to vote on legislation.

A particular moving and sobering display at the Guam Airport reflects a sobering reality. The pictures above show photographs remembering the soldiers from Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas who have lost their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military has such a strong and strategic presence in Guam, but it is amazing to contemplate the hundreds of soldiers of Chomorro and Micronesian decent who serve in the military of a country they are not full-fledged citizens of. And many of them will not come home alive.


Learning all these interesting (and somewhat shocking) new things makes me wonder about America’s decision to liberate the Philippines after World War II yet cling so tightly to Guam and Northern Marianas to this day, while allowing political independence combined with almost complete economic dependence from the rest of the islands in Micronesia. Truly their lives and societies have been impacted (for better and worse) by the influence of America while most of us mainland Americans have heard very little if anything at all about Micronesia’s existence. It is particularly fascinating to see the very diverse array of outcomes of American influence in the Pacific ranging from statehood and loss/exploitation of culture and language in Hawaii to fairly resilient traditional life in Yap and Kosrae with a whole range of other situations in between. I just have the hope that our new US President, with his upbringing in Hawaii and experiences living abroad will have eyes more open to what a powerful affect America’s actions have on so many people. I hope that he
will take as open and warm an approach to foreign relationships as they have shown to me these past two weeks! It has been truly wonderful to meet kind people from so many walks of life that are vastly different than my own! We all hope for the same things in our lives: for happiness, peace, opportunities to provide good experiences for children and young people around us. It truly has been a life-changing experience to see life from the perspective of many different types of people. Truly one of the richest blessings in my life has been interactions with wonderful people.

My mind is perplexed that despite so many good, wonderful people, there are others out there with potential for such evil and cruelty. My mind just cannot wrap itself around the concept that the potential for such extreme goodness and kindness can exist in the hearts of the same species capable of killing and torturing and maiming its own kind. It is so important to me to seek out the good and fill my life with it, while not forgetting the suffering of many and speaking out on their behalf. While I was in Micronesia, my Belgian friend Sinoui traveled back to his family home in Eastern Congo which is filled with war and suffering of innocents. I am aware that there are many such places in the world. My heart goes out to the suffering people of Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan, Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Israel and scores of other countries in conflict zones. It is hard to believe in the intrinsic goodness of humanity when one views the cruelty of humans toward each other in such situations. Still others struggle in situations of persistent poverty and lack of other basic needs. I hope that this New Year will be a year of change for the better for all inhabitants of the world. There is a tremendous potential for goodness and kindness in the world if only those who are full of it will share it as best they can. This is the year that I will do my part in my own sphere of influence, and not shrink back and hide from difficult things. Sharing these things is what makes me happiest!

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