This past Sunday I took my usual lazy walk along our pathway down to the large Catholic Church that we call Mission. I arrived quite early and had ample time to relax in the shade beneath an awning overlooking the fabulous ocean view that stretched out before us. As a cool breeze swept through and triggered a droplet of sweat to fall from my brow, a woman came towards us and motioned my host father to follow her. He told me to get up and walk down to the lower section of the church compound. We were about half way down to the next level when he looked over his shoulder and casually remarked, “You are going to the meet the President now.”
I buttoned my shirt up properly and quickly brushed some of the glistening sweat off my forehead with my arm. I saw two men sitting near the side of a building in the grass. One of them was sitting on the grass conversing with an old woman and the other man was seated on a rusty anvil as he typed a text message on his cell phone. I had a general idea what Manny Mori, President of FSM, looked like from campaign posters; so even from a distance I surmised that he was the gentleman on the anvil. As we approached he put his phone away and stood up to greet us. He beamed a fresh white smile and heartily shook our hands. We exchanged the usual Chuukese greetings and then took a seat on a tuft of grass a few feet from the anvil. For the first few minutes the President talked to the others in Chuukese but soon turned his attention to me.
He suddenly looked me straight in the eyes and asked, “ So you are a Peace Corps, what is your specialty?” I began to respond, “I am a teacher at UFO Elementary School”, but he quickly cut me off and said “ No, No. That is what you do. I asked what is your specialty”. I thought for a moment and told him, “Psychology”. He chuckled and simply responded, “ Ohh, scary!”
Our conversation progressed and I told him that I was from California, near Los Angeles. He laughed again and joked, “Being in Chuuk is like being stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway in LA, not going anywhere” He then asked rather sarcastically if I thought I was actually learning anything valuable here in Chuuk. I was at first surprised by his apparent negativity about his own culture, but soon figured that he was just probing me with an clever interview tactic. I went into an extended spiel about all the great things about Chuuk and the valuable lessons that I have already gleaned from this unique culture. He did not comment on my praises of Micronesian culture, just slightly smirked.
My comparison of varying societal values veered our talk towards the differences between American and Micronesian culture. He mentioned how he is under a lot of pressure to modernize and Americanize the country of Micronesia. Micronesians are at a crossroads between their traditional ways and the ideals of American culture. This spurred me to expound all of my philosophical ideas about the pros and cons of modernization.
Modernization/Westernization/Americanization has been on the forefront of my mind lately and I have been pondering its effects on a daily basis. Before I joined the Peace Corps I was working in a social psychology laboratory that was focused on cross-cultural differences as they relate to depression and anxiety linked together by genetic variation. I came here with the purpose of rigorously observing the effects of a cultural environment on a person’s overall well-being. However, during my time in Micronesia I have slightly changed my passion in the field of social analysis as it pertains to the human mind.
I have become extremely interested in the effects of modernization. The fantastic advances in technology that enhance entertainment and make the tasks of life easy and effortless. The capitalist ideology that allows for limitless economic expansion and continuous advancement in business development. Medical discoveries that make the ailments and illness of our body manageable and treatable. Infrastructure basics like roads, electricity, sewers, buildings and simple services make everything run smooth.
However, many of these modern marvels of the human genius also have their downsides. The ramifications of an increasingly technology dependent society seem to irk me the most. Technology has made people reliant upon buttons and flashes to communicate instead speaking face to face and using. Endless hours can be spent tapping away at a keyboard or staring blankly into a blinking box. The beauty of the natural world is ignored and our concentration is transfixed on brightly lit screens and mechanical devices.
Media, especially movies, has had a profound effect upon Micronesians. They emulate everything they see in the movies. They want to act like, talk like and dress like all the actors and actresses that they watch in these films that they only slightly comprehend. It is true that people in America also admire and love celebrities, but the effects are strikingly apparent in a place like this where the differences are so stark. No longer do Chuukese wear traditional clothing, listen to traditional music, or do traditional dances. They wear doo rags and 2pac shirts, listen to Lil Wayne & Backstreet Boys remixes, and do the Soulja Boy dance. They seem to have this idea that America culture is better than theirs and want to do everything in their power to be just like Americans. Now don’t get me wrong, I love America and appreciate many things about its diverse culture. However, I do not want the entire world to be exactly like America. I especially don’t want the whole world to be like Paris Hilton and Justin Beiber.
Chuuk has a rich traditional island culture that dates back thousands of years. Unique methods of survival and a lifestyle full of crafty work and ingenuity have allowed these people to thrive for centuries. They have a community structure and tight knit bonds between themselves that far surpasses anything I have ever experienced in America. The American government has been frustrated that Micronesia has not shown any signs of economic growth in the recent decades. What they don’t understand is that most Micronesians are happy with their subsistence lifestyle. They just want to live a self-sustainable existence, and most do not thrive to make boat loads of money so they can build a mansion and drive a Mercedes. They are happy harvesting breadfruit, catching fish and maintaining their small farms.
Ok Ok, I will stop my ranting about modernization now. I have plenty to say about this subject and could write for pages and pages. However, I will save that for future blog posts when my activities have become more mundane and I am free to relay my philosophical ramblings.
The real purpose of this particular post was to talk about my meeting with the President of Micronesia. Our conversation was focused on this subject of modernization mostly and he asked a myriad of questions about my thoughts on the subject of moving towards a model of America. I fancy myself as proficient in the arts of rhetoric, and believe I spoke quite intelligently and made many convincing arguments to the President. He seemed a little surprised that I wasn’t advocating that Micronesia charge full steam ahead to transform itself into a Micro-America. I support the use of certain modern elements like infrastructure and medicine, but am hesitant to implant our media, style, and cultural values on a society that is already rich in tradition and community.
We talked for about 20 minutes before we were interrupted by the triple clang of the church bells, which signifies the beginning of Sunday mass. We walked up the church together and then parted as he was marauded with crowds of smiling faces and outstretched hands. After church, my host father attended a meeting where the President was discussing church matters with the local priest. Apparently, he approached my father and asked inquisitively about my whereabouts. I guess he enjoyed our conversation and wanted to continue talking with me. Pretty cool.