Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Golden Afternoon

The steamy heat of the day fluttered away as the scorching sun hid its fiery face behind its blanket of blue. The straggling glimmers of light cast a golden shadow on the leafy mountainside and pierced through the towering palm fronds that line my village pathway. A group of little children giggled and skipped in a circle around me as we strode towards our houses in the jungle. We were leisurely strolling away from the beach where we had been playing volleyball and enjoying a lazy afternoon.
A mass of grey clouds came rolling over the peaks of our island and someone causally remarked, “epwene pung ran (its going to rain)”. The pace of our walk didn’t change; the onset of rain is not an alarm but rather a simple observation. The sprinkles trickled down for a few seconds and then a barrel of water dumped from the sky. We stepped to the side and stood under the umbrella leaves of a giant tree. Within 30 seconds, the heavy downpour was over and we resumed our happy tropical trek.
The migration of island walkers was not only comprised of children; people of all ages take part in our daily waterside hangout. In Chuuk, status and authority is often determined by age, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from spending social time with others. It is true that people often tend to spend most of their time with their general age group, but intergenerational social interactions are commonplace. The oruur (dock area) is the place where everyone unites to take a break form their chores and relax in the late afternoon. The unusual mishmash of people creates a very interesting social scene. 5-year-old girls hang on the shoulders of their thuggish brothers, old men limp along with their canes, fledgling babies suckle at the teats of their mothers, teenagers blast music from their cell phones, outcast men drink rum on the rusted remains of a boat, and everyone seems to get along in a happy and harmonious manner.

Watte Ranen Fani (A Big Day of Volleyball)

Last Saturday, I had an epic day of volleyball. My friend Paul and I organized a volleyball tournament between our two schools. The 5th-8th graders from our classes were scheduled to compete in a friendly tournament to showcase some school pride. My students gathered at our school building early in the morning and we began the hour-long walk to the neighboring village of Sapeta. It was like a school field trip, except with the lack of yellow busses, brown bag lunches, overprotective parents and crazy bus drivers.
            We did a short opening ceremony and had each of the students introduce themselves to the other school. Then we put together some teams mixed with boys and girls and began the games. The outcome of the volleyball competition was on the verge of embarrassing. We played 4 rounds of best of 3 series’ with different teams. My students from UFO easily won every single game and came away with a dominating victory. I was actually secretly rooting for the other school at one point, just because I felt so guilty that we were pummeling them so badly. The other students pouted and my kids celebrated, but in the end everyone seemed to have a good time.
            I walked back with all my boy students and we had a fun time messing around on the jungle pathway. As we were coming closer to our village, a girl hurriedly warned me that I was late for my volleyball game. On this same day, a volleyball tournament was beginning with the youth of UFO. I had been placed on the A team and our game time had been switched to this very afternoon. So I stopped by my house and grabbed a drink of water and a snack before heading down to Fongen to play the game. I arrived just in time and our team smashed our opponents. I am a head shorter than all my teammates, but I am scrappy enough to hold my own on the court.
            After our game, we went back to our village of Unnuno and started our standard afternoon volleyball mayhem. I played for another couple of hours until all the volleyballness was sucked out of me. It was a fun day of triple location volleyballing and gave me the rare sensation of actually being physically exhausted at the end of the day.

The Jerk

The many definitions of Jerk:

(verb) to pull or yank

(verb) to jolt or lurch

(verb) to masturbate

(noun) an inconsiderate asshole

(noun) a spicy sauce from Jamaica

(noun) a classic Steve Martin movie from the 80’s

(noun) a recent dance craze

            While various interpretations of jerk are all interesting, I want to focus on the last definition. The Jerk dance has taken over Chuuk. Its skipping steps and squeaky music have infiltrated all levels of Chuukese society. The tweet of jerking music and hopping youngsters is omnipresent throughout my island.
            The Jerk started a few years ago in the affluent suburbs of Los Angeles. White middle class teenagers combined hip-hop music with skater culture. The fusion of these opposing forces melded into a popular fad. A catchy song about “Jerking It” helped the trend spread at a dizzying rate. Pretty soon, dozens of Jerk songs popped up and certain moves were being categorized and named. Dance moves were nicknamed things like “the spongebob” and “the pretzel”.
            A couple of years ago when I was working at an elementary school in Irvine, the Jerk was just beginning to gain momentum. I remember the first time that I heard of the Jerk. One of my 5th grade students came up to me at lunch and asked, “hey Mr. Hunter, do you like to jerk it?” I was taken aback by this question and didn’t know how to answer. I assumed his pubescent urges were beginning to rise and he wanted some friendly support about his newfound habit. I gave him a funny look and stammered a long and quavering, “Nooo, I don’t know what you are talking about”
            After a few months, the presence of the Jerk was everywhere and its meaning was no longer in doubt. My students had Jerk dance competitions and were constantly kicking their heels and flopping around with the distinctive jerky motions. I just thought it was a quirky southern California fad and would soon fade into obscurity along with the Macarena, pogs and yo-yo’s.
            You can imagine my surprise when the sounds of “jerk it, jerk it, jerk it” reached my ears in the far off islands of Micronesia. The locals chuukified the songs by adding a few Chuukese phrases and speeding up the playrate to Chipmunk decibels. Pretty soon, the Jerk was everywhere. Every single person knew about the Jerk. My baby sister and 80 year old grandma can both be heard chanting “jerkini” at any hours of the day. The kids jerk their way to school and jerk while doing their chores. 
            I enjoy the funny steps of the dance and the fact that it originated near my hometown, but I am eagerly looking forward to its demise. It will probably linger for a few more months and hopefully fade out by the next year. Its popularity has probably already gone away in America (but Im not sure, cuz I don’t live there). The spread of the Jerk is a testament to the vast network of global media that touches even the most remote areas on our planet.

A Big Micronesia, not a Little America

The main purpose of my job is to teach kids how to speak English. The FSM government has requested only English teachers as Peace Corps Volunteers. Although the FSM is intimately associated with the United States, they have one of the worst English literacy rates in the Pacific. This doesn’t seem to make much sense. So the government and many of the people of Micronesia are pushing towards an Americanization of these islands, beginning in the schools. This goal seems worthy on the surface, but recently I have been considering the long-term effects of my job.
Let me trace the series of events that is the desired outcome of teaching young children how to speak English. This is the generally accepted aim of TEFL programs from the teacher and student perspectives. The students go to elementary school so that they can learn English. Once they learn English, they can understand what’s happening in school and get good grades. Then they can graduate high school. Ideally they could attend college. If possible, they strive to go outside of FSM to attend a real university. If they reach that dream, then they will be able to achieve the ultimate goal of getting a good paying job in America.
So the final outcome of this system is the best and brightest of Micronesia migrating to America. This might be good for those individuals, but it sucks for Micronesia. The FSM and Chuuk especially are victims of the so called “brain drain”. The smartest and best-educated locals have left home. They have gone to seek high paying jobs and more opportunities abroad. This has left their homeland as a crumbling mess of unorganized problems. The Chuukese that have been trained as doctors, engineers, teachers and technicians do not live in Chuuk. They have moved to Guam, or Hawaii or the mainland. Chuuk is falling apart because we don’t have the right people to fix it up. When the potential leaders and geniuses sprout up, they are plucked out and sent to a far away land.
As a further detriment to the islands, the acceptance of English is slowly eroding away the traditional language and culture of Micronesians. Rap songs are replacing ocean tunes, movies are replacing island legends, and words like “fuck” and “faggot” can be heard uttered from the mouths of infants. It is entirely conceivable that the Chuukese language will be dead in 50 years. This has happened in many places around the world where European speaking people have colonized or migrated. North and South America, Australia and many other places only have tiny traces of their indigenous languages left intact.
This might be a worthless argument against the development of our global culture, but it at least deserves some attention. I am by no means going to stop teaching English to these kids. I want them to have opportunities. They should have the choice of education and jobs if they want to take them. Knowledge of the English language is usually a pre requisite for these things so I am simply giving them the tools to pursue those opportunities.
Many talented Micronesians do stay home. There are thousands of intelligent and capable people who have had the chance to emigrate away for higher paying jobs, but have chosen to stick around and help their country. I applaud these folks. They are the movers and shakers that are fighting to make Micronesia a better place. I truly hope that the future of Micronesia is built around these dedicated individuals. However, I believe that it is important that Micronesia develops along the appropriate path instead of embracing an all-encompassing drive towards modernization.
Back in 1969, FSM’s first president, Tosiwo Nakayama, warned about the future development of Micronesia and eloquently described the proper attitude that they should adopt. He advised, “Like our schools and our clothes, our hopes and dreams have been designed in America according to American models. In the decades to come we may have to sacrifice these things, may have to dream dreams and hope hopes that can be realized in Micronesia. We must hope to become a big Micronesia and not a little America”


I’m getting restless. In mind and body. I enjoy my work and my life here in Micronesia, but something has begun to stir inside me. I flow along in my island existence and try to savor every tropical moment, but a feeling is building up that needs to be released. My teaching is fulfilling and I have plenty of other projects to keep me busy, but my mind is spinning abstract webs of adventurous thought.  Its as if a slumbering Tasmanian devil is slowly awakening inside of me and starting to twitch. Pretty soon he is gonna explode in a frenzy of wild activity. I want to break out of my regular pattern of things and explore more of the fabulous possibilities in our world. I want to do. I want to see. I want to go. I want to experience.
This is kind of ironic, because this is the same feeling that motivated me to disengage from the standard path of middle class Americans and blaze my own trail of life. I loved my life in America, but I wasn’t content with simply going along with the average plan of living. Working in an office cubicle during the day, watching TV at night, and drinking a few beers on weekends can be a great life for many people; but for me it seems like a claustrophobic cage. Contrary to most successful people, I strive to avoid stability, schedules, and regular habits. I want each day to be a new and novel experience full of interesting and unknown possibilities. I don’t like to know what I will be doing next week or next month. This doesn’t mean that I don’t plan things, that is an inescapable tendency of the human species. Our enlarged frontal lobes in our brain give us the ability to imagine the future, and no matter how hard we try we can’t stop from doing it. I think I actually have an especially good skill at creating elaborate and efficient plans, but I only use that ability when it is necessary. It is one of the things that has allowed me to be very successful at most things that I have done in my life. But I don’t want to plan everything because spontaneity is sometimes a more creative innovator and exciting executor than imagination. I want my future to be varied, mysterious and changeable.
I think the reason that this restlessness has begun to creep into my life is that my life has once again taken on a fairly regular routine. The novelty and weirdness of living in a foreign country has worn off and I don’t feel like I am on a daily adventure anymore. I spend hours reading books that take my mind on strange journeys across time and space that light fires in my belly. My mental list of things I want to see and do is growing exponentially. And I actually plan on doing these things, not just dreaming about them.
My body is also restless. Mainly because I do a lot of resting. The suffocating heat and consistent rain make it difficult and wearisome to do much of anything. Sometimes I do local work like pounding breadfruit or chopping wood, but mostly I just sit around like everybody else. I play volleyball nearly every single day. However, volleyball is only slightly above golf and backgammon in its level of athletic activity. I can play 2 hours of volleyball and barely break a sweat. We play on a rocky and muddy sliver of a pathway with 6 people on each team. I do some jumping and shuffling of the feet, but there is only a little exertion of strength and speed. I want to use my muscles and push my body to its physical limits. Island volleyball, occasional pushups and whittling sticks don’t provide the activity that I’m looking for.
As I mentioned before, I try to avoid living in a mentally contrived future, but recently, thoughts of post-Peace Corps life have been running circles in my head. I don’t know what life holds for me when I am finished with this stint in the pacific. Probably some travel, some school and some work. But who knows. In actuality, I don’t want to know. I just want to plunge into the uncertainty of life and see where it takes me. This may seem like a reckless attitude, but my thoughts and actions are far from reckless. Living a life of freedom and unpredictability does not imply recklessness. It simply allows for the possibility of experiencing the world to the fullest. As JRR Tolkien once said, “Not all those who wander are lost”

The Sea Voyager

I was sitting on the stump of an old palm tree near a dock on Weno and a middle-aged man shuffled over my way and stuck out his hand. He had a hardened face with a salt and pepper mustache above his lip. He was rather old, but looked like he was still strong and capable. One of his eyes was scared and his skin was weather beaten like wrinkled leather.
Oh, sipwe kapwong”, he said in a scratchy voice. I shook his hand and introduced myself. We exchanged initial greetings, which always include questions about where you are from, who is your family and how you are doing. He informed me that he was from the northwest island of Murilo. This tiny atoll struck a chord with me for two reasons. It was the unfortunate place that was devastated by the poisonous turtle meat that killed 8 people and hospitalized hundreds last year. It is also the home island of my former host mother from Tonoas.
We talked for a while, and then he told me that he had to get going to get ready for his trip. “Ka no ia (where are you going)?” I asked him. He explained that he needed to buy some supplies because he was leaving that night to head back to Murilo on his boat. A few things surprised me about this. Murilo is about 100 miles away across a stretch of treacherous open ocean. His rickety motor boat had a puny 40 horsepower engine and the fiberglass hull looked like a crusty bucket. And he was planning on leaving at night time.
He happily answered all my questions about his journey and I was utterly impressed by the end of our conversation. He does this trip often to come into Weno to get rice, gas and other supplies for his family. It takes him about 6 hours of continuous driving. The waves and rain are often problems, but he is always safe in the end.
He has no compass, GPS or navigation equipment. He simply relies on intuition and a few ancient seafarer tricks. He prefers to leave around 3 or 4 am because it is still dark when he departs. The man uses the stars to chart his course and point his boat in the right direction. However, it is much scarier and more difficult to cross the open Pacific at night time, so he likes to do most of the driving in the sunlight. He only needs stars in the beginning.
His pathetic little boat safely brings him and his supplies through the gauntlet of the raging ocean and plops him on the microscopic sandspit that he calls home. His island is only a little bigger than a football field and sits in the largest body of water in the world. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Or more like finding a grain of sand in an Olympic sized swimming pool.
I wished him luck and chuckled to myself as we walked away thinking about how his trip to the grocery store is a little more of a trek than my 3 minute car ride to Ralph’s back home.

FUNdraising for Church

Today I went to a community fundraising event for my church. There are small-scale fundraising events every single week in my village, but this one was a much bigger deal. It often seems the main purpose of the church in Chuuk is to raise money from the people and then give them an excuse to have a feast. The belief in god is present, but I cant help escape the thought that the main reason people are part of the church is for social reasons. Abstaining from sin and seeking eternal salvation aren’t readily apparent in island life, but lots of food and sharing of money are noticeable everywhere.
This fundraising event was called Tiwichap and tried to raise funds for our upcoming centennial celebration. It is the 100th year anniversary of the Catholic Church in Chuuk. Our parish wants to renovate our main church building and throw a kick ass party in May. They hope to raise $100,000 to do this.
Yes, the poor villagers of my island who cannot buy food or shoes for their children are attempting to donate $100,000 for a single party. It’s kind of an ironic situation, but the people are excited and I am happy for them. The event today was organized around the divisions of our clan system. The clan system is the ancient maternal structure of family units that determine land ownership and chiefdoms. In modern times it has lost most of its significance, but it still functions as a way to split the community members into smaller groups. I am part of the Soufia clan.
A fundraiser in Chuuk is a little different than in America. They don’t sell lemonade on a street corner or have a silent auction at a charity ball. This fundraising event started with groups of women marching into the meeting hall. They were each led by an excitable dancing lady with a whistle who yelled and screamed as she pranced her way through the crowd. Rows upon rows of 200-pound mumu clad mothers bounced into our meeting hall and competed with each to make the most noise possible. There were a few ladies who were extra spirited and had dance-offs in the center of the room. At random points throughout the meeting, they would hop up and burst into a frenzied outcry of wiggles and shakes. I loved it! It was great to see these normally quiet and reserved women let loose and go crazy for an afternoon. I had no idea they had this kind of unhindered energy inside them.
Sharing is very common in all aspects of Chuukese life, but they don’t try to keep it secret. Donations are always given publicly, so that everyone can see how much everyone is contributing. Its kind of awkward, but it also motivates everyone to get involved because no one wants to be out shown. We took turns walking up towards the main table and emphatically smacking down our dollars on the table in the front of the room. As the clan name was called, the dancing women would leap into the air and let out spirited chants to encourage donations. The contagious energy of these boosters tempted many people out of their seats and up to the donation table. Each clan had its turn, but the wealthier people donated to every clan. After a couple hours of public dollar throwing, we totaled up our money and came up with over $7000. The people were ecstatic.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I have mixed feelings about all this donation stuff. Its great to see everyone uniting together to donate money and have a great time doing it, but it still irks me a bit. The sacrifice of essential food and clothing money to add an extra room on one of our church buildings is a little hard for me to swallow. Many of these people donated the few meager dollars that they had towards this cause. They saved themselves from public disgrace, but they might eat nothing but bananas for the next two weeks.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Paradox of Poverty

The other night, my host brother BJ was scanning through a social studies book to find ideas to make a lesson plan about how to write persuasive essays. We were lying on the hard concrete floor of our little house with 15 people scattered around on the ground. A flickering light powered by our gas generator hung from a limp extension cord in the corner of the room. The leftovers from our dinner of rice and canned fish were being tossed out to the hungry dogs. My host mother was squatted in a tin roof shack as she scrubbed buckets of laundry by hand.
BJ looked up from his book, and casually asked me, “ John, there is no poverty in Chuuk, right?”
I hesitated for a moment and then started to mumble, “ummm….well, I don’t know about that”
My host sister Marben added her two cents quickly and said, “No, some people are just lazy”
I carefully treaded along a line of disrespect and tried to explain the point more clearly to the both of them, “It depends on how you define poverty, but I think there is definitely poverty in Chuuk. The difference between here and other places like Africa is that people in Chuuk aren’t suffering or miserable because of their poverty. They aren’t starving to death and aren’t homeless. The tight knit culture prevents that. But I still think that there is poverty. If you eat nothing but plain rice for most of your meals, that’s poverty. If you have no money for clothes or shoes, that’s poverty. If you don’t have enough money to send your kids to school, that’s poverty. If you have an income of zero dollars, that’s poverty”
The conversation trailed off and ended without much response from either of them. They both seemed dazed a little taken aback about what I of said. They weren’t offended by my comments, but I think they were just surprised to reanalyze their lives.
This was an illuminating talk for me and for them. In the same swift swing of things, it made me wonder if these people actually weren’t in poverty, and made them wonder if they actually were in poverty. It is all a matter of perspective.
If an outsider came to visit Chuuk, they would most likely immediately say that Chuuk is in poverty. The evidence would be smacking them in the face. Roads are virtually non-existent. Electricity is only available at the state center (and very unreliable). Every building either seems half finished or falling to pieces. The school system is in disarray. The local people are scared of their own hospital. On the surface, they lack all the necessities of a 1st world country: infrastructure, health care, education and entertainment.
But if you look deeper into the people’s lives, an interesting paradox of poverty emerges. While Chuuk most certainly lacks the basic elements of an affluent society, it ironically also lacks the basic elements of a poverty stricken society. Nobody is starving to death. Nobody is homeless. Beggars are extremely rare. There is no political unrest. People don’t seem to be suffering.
I believe that there are 3 main reasons why Chuuk looks destitute, but is able to hover slightly above the standard poverty line. The first and most important reason is the extreme collectivist attitude of the people. Their communal connections and strong family relationships make it impossible for people to starve or be homeless. A family or friend will always provide a roof and a meal to a member of the community.
The second reason is the abundance of natural resources. A jungle teeming with plants and an ocean full of tasty little creatures can provide meals for a family that has no money to buy food. It also rains more than enough to provide fresh water for all household. That is why Marben said that the only poor people are lazy. In her view, if they got up off their asses and did some work then they could easily get enough fish and breadfruit to feed their families.
The final reason is the ridiculous amount of American money funneled into the FSM through the compact agreement. Millions of dollars are randomly thrown at these islands to keep them as military allies, and that money seeps down to the masses.
This incongruity with the basic units of poverty has made me reevaluate my view of Chuuk and of the world. It has made me realize that poverty is a relative term. Poverty in America means that you wear hand-me-down clothes and eat a lot of mac-n-cheese. Poverty in sub-Saharan Africa means that you are starving in a shantytown slum. Poverty in Chuuk means you simply live off the land. All of these can and should be considered poverty. And we should strive to alleviate the problems associated with extremely poor conditions. However, there is a differentiated scale that we should use to measure it.
The feelings of inadequacy compared to your neighbors and the inability to provide opportunities for your children will assuredly cause suffering for anyone. The presence of suffering is universal across poverty stricken areas, but again it varies depending on the circumstances. Feeling poor in America because you wear dirty shoes and use food stamps is a form of suffering. Feeling poor in Chuuk because you cant buy coca-cola or cigarettes is a form of suffering. But feeling poor in Africa because your baby just died of malnourishment is a whole different level of suffering.
Chuuk, and the many Pacific islands, are straddling this precarious line on the edge of poverty. In many respects, they are poor and underdeveloped societies. But in other ways, they are buoyed up from total poverty by a series of safety nets. Progress is often frustratingly slow in these remote specks of land, but maybe that’s a good thing. Progress could lead to a better life, or it could counteract those unique protective shields of community and environment and drive these people into true poverty.

Being vs Doing

I overheard one of my American friends Charles talking to a group of Chuukese the other day. He apologetically said, “The JVC community often talks about the difference between being and doing. In America, we are very good at doing. But in Chuuk, you are all good at being” He went on to talk about how he has struggled to learn how to just be, but he sees much of the value of that lifestyle. Many of the misunderstandings and frustrations from both sides come from a mismatch of styles based on this duality of being and doing.
I had never pondered this relationship before I came to Chuuk, but is it an apt explanation of the differences between the two cultures. Americans, and many of the modern nations, are always on the go. We work long hours, we strive for efficiency, and we are obsessively concerned with maximizing our time. It seems like there are never enough hours in the day to get everything done. Idle time is seen as wasted time. If you have nothing to do, then you need to get off your lazy ass and find something to do.
Chuukese, and most island people, have a very different approach to life. Their conception of time is much more fluid and does not impose rigid restrictions on their actions. Things flow along at a leisurely pace and happen when they happen. It is uncouth to force the immediacy of an issue or fret about keeping to a strict schedule. They work sporadic hours, strive for happiness and are obsessively concerned with maximizing relaxation. Sitting around doing absolutely nothing is totally acceptable. There is no awkwardness or wasted feelings associated with idle time. Idle time is part of life. If you have nothing to do, then you don’t need to do anything.
From a doers’ perspective, the be ers’ are lazy and inefficient. But from the b eer’s perspective, the doers’ are anxious and hurried. There are good points on either side. It depends on what is more important to you. Dedicating your life to getting a job done quickly and effectively, or simply living life and doing some jobs along the way. The doing people do produce better results for a prosperous civilization. They build bigger buildings and better roads, their schools are better organized and governments more methodical. Their economies grow and they accumulate vast amounts of material wealth. People that follow the doing path become CEO’s, lawyers and politicians.
However, there are a few things that the doing folk could learn from the being folk. Simply living life at a happy pace and going along with the flow of the world allows for very relaxed lifestyle. According to a vast body of legitimate psychological research, the preaching of various spiritual teachers, and the babblings of self-help guru books, the key to happiness is living in the moment. Thinking about the future and worrying about how it will unfold is the main cause of anxiety and stress for humans. And those emotions are some of the most damaging to personal well-being. People who follow the being path become priests, philosophers and farmers.
Worrying about deadlines and schedules, stressing about quotas and commissions, and aiming towards endless accumulation of goods are all terrible detriments to the human condition. Our preoccupation with meticulous efficiency is good for business, but terrible for happiness. Half of America gulps down bottles of benzodiazapenes to counteract the crazy life that they try to sustain. Nobody in Chuuk takes anti-anxiety pills.

What I Do in School

In my blog, I very rarely talk about my work. It is a big part of my experience over here, but for some reason I tend to skip over the details of my time in school. I usually just write about random events or island thoughts that come about, but it is probably a good idea to let you all know about my actual job here in Chuuk.
I am a teacher in elementary school. Well I am kind of a teacher. My official title is Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TESL) Instructor. However, the goal of my Peace Corps program is not just to teach school. If I just come in for a couple of years and teach a class and then leave, my impact is minimal. The only positive effect I have is on the few kids that I get to interact with. So the purpose of our program was expanded; the plan is for us to work with the local teachers and make a sustainable impact.
My real job as I see it is to not to teach English. It is to help the local teachers become better English teachers. This is much more challenging than teaching a class. Creating grammar activities and grading vocabulary tests is the easiest part of my job. Standing in front of a group of kids and telling them about pronouns can present its difficulties, but its really not that tough.
Changing the behavior and habits of experienced teachers however is no easy task. Uprooting an inefficient and ill-equipped system of education and replacing it with new ideas is hard to implement. But this is basically what we are trying to do. I spend most of my efforts trying to integrate techniques, lesson plans and ideas for the other teachers to learn from.
I work with the teachers from 5th-8th grade. I teach 45 minutes of English with them alongside. Then they teach another 45 minute period of English following my lesson plan. This allows them to observe my teaching methods first and then practice using lesson plans in their second period. It gives the students a good mix of varied instruction and helps them understand the topic that we are covering.
This set up puts me in a slightly precarious position because it assumes that I am an expert in education. They view me as an expert and I act like I know what I am talking about. But much of the time, I kind of make it up on the fly. Much of the stuff I do is just borrowed from teachers that I had when I was attending school in America. I just use common sense and my knowledge of the American education system to come up with new ideas about the organization and functioning of the school. I also have a large stash of books and guides about teaching English provided by Peace Corps. However, the number one tool that I use to teach the students and the teachers is logic. I look at a curriculum topic or classroom issue and just figure out a solution. I usually don’t know it’s the right solution until I try it, but so far most things have seemed work pretty well. The job is full of frustration and problems, but overall I feel that I have been making a good impact.
My principal and many of my teachers are very willing to work with me. We have made dozens of changes in our school system and countless more in the classroom. I have changed the daily schedule, implemented Open House and Back to School Nights, started athletic and farming projects, written a School Improvement Plan, and had countless meetings with the staff about how to improve our teaching.
But the best sign of success that I have seen is an increase in student performance. I have a handful of students who were failing when I arrived and now are getting A’s and B’s. Our national standardized test scores increased 600% in the last year and we set a school record for having the most students pass a prestigious high school entrance exam.
To my pleasant surprise, I actually do feel like somewhat of an educational expert after these couple years of teaching. Dealing with a pile of problems and coming up with novel solutions has taught me to analyze education from a variety of angles and I have learned plenty in the process. My teaching style in the classroom has proven to be effective and many of the other teachers are emulating my techniques and classroom demeanor. From my work, I have contributed a few things to the teachers and students of my school that I hope will be sustainable.
I am not very good at organization or neatness. I am not very good at planning. I am not very good at following guidelines. What I am good at is explaining things logically and making things fun. Good explanations ensure that changes happen and students learn. Having fun ensures that students come to school and are motivated to be in the classroom. These are my two contributions to my school and I hope they have a lasting impact.

Happy Hospitality

I often complain about Chuukese people and some of their not so admirable habits. Inefficiency, violence, laziness, ignorance and apathy sometimes bother me. However, they contain a few qualities that trump all these negative things. Chuukese are some of the most friendly and hospitable beings on the planet.
I believe that is deeply ingrained in them due to their close living quarters and tight family connections. It’s the same effect that happens in small towns. Everybody knows everybody, so everybody is nice to each other. But the Chuukese generosity extends beyond their community. They are phenomenal at making outsiders feel welcome. Some of this has faded since my novelty as a newbie has worn off, but I still get treated like a king anywhere I go.
At parties or get togethers, I am given a plate the size of suitcase and adorned with flower leis. Even if I don’t know the hosts or the occasion for the party, I am usually seated at the head table and fawned with attention. A fresh coconut will be brought to me immediately as I arrive and a small girl will probably stand next to me and wave the flies away from my food with a fan.
This welcoming attitude extends all over Chuuk. In the Mortlocks, my arrival was greeted by throngs of children singing songs and offering plates of fresh seafood. When I followed my friend to a new church, two of the pastors thanked me for attendance during their sermon and asked their parishioners to give me a round of applause. Politicians, priests, chiefs and grandmas have quickly jumped out of their seats to offer me a place to sit down. It is widespread and consistent throughout the islands.
However, the best example of their friendliness is their behavior on the roads and pathways. I took a short walk through a different community on my island the other day and thought I would tally the signs of hospitality that I received along the way. None of these people had ever met me before and could all be considered total strangers. This was a sparsely populated road with scattered houses, but here are the statistics of my walk.
This all happened in a 10 minute period.
17 people simply said hello.
6 of those people also asked me how I was doing.
9 of them asked where I was going.
4 different people shook my hand.
5 households hollered at me and asked me to come and eat rice with them.
And a countless number of people gave me beaming smiles.

Let me counter this with a fictitious (but realistic) example from my time living in Los Angeles.
If I were to walk down the streets of LA for 10 minutes, I could expect a grand total of 0 hellos.
3 cars would honk.
One guy would bump my shoulder in a crowd.
4 would make slight eye contact and then turn away.
 2 cars would cut me off.
1 homeless man would babble nonsense at me.
And a countless number of people would hurry along staring into their phones and ipods, not even lifting their heads.

People here treat others as people, not as other objects in the way. There is a strong human connection that is reinforced by people’s behavior. Generosity isn’t reserved for a select few, it is given freely to any passerby. Every house will offer walkers a place to rest and eat. Every pedestrian will smile and ask you where you are going. Every person will make the effort to show that they care.
Chuuk may be a fucked up place in many respects; but they can be proud of the fact that despite their mounting social problems, they still maintain some of the best hospitality in the world. Their unrelenting positivity and welcoming attitude is motivational at times. Anytime I get frustrated or disillusioned about the struggling society that I am trying to improve, someone will shoot me a big happy grin and I will be reminded of Bob Marley’s maxim “don’t worry about a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be alright”


A few of my JVC volunteer friends from Weno came to our church on Fefan this last weekend and they got to see some of my home island. Charles’ mom from America was also visiting and came along. Their short visit and cheerful reactions that followed had a powerful impact on me.
They were taken aback by how amazing my community was. All them continuously commented how happy everybody looked and excited all the little children were. The atmosphere of friendliness and relaxation was in stark contrast to what they are used to on the grimy streets of Weno. Small kids giggled as they skipped past, and old men wandered over to shake their hands. I have come to accept this as normal behavior because I am surrounded by it all the time, but I forgot that this is truly special. The outward generosity and happiness of my island folk is pretty special.
The other thing that they were awed by was the overabundance of tropical plants. Fefan is famous for being fertile and every corner is spilling over with vines and leaves. Charles’ mother was especially impressed and said many times, “Oh this is wonderful! This is what I was hoping the islands would be like”.
Their hour long tour of my community made me appreciate my home much more. All of the things that impressed so much in the beginning of my service have now become commonplace, but reminders like this are necessary to make me realize that I am living in paradise.

Barbecued Vanilla

We had a staff meeting after school last week and it dragged on late into the afternoon. At the end of the meeting, I hurried home because I was starving and ready for a big lunch. I walked across the coral pathway and scampered up the muddy hillside leading to my house. A group of local boys and some of my family were cooking breadfruit on a fire outside the house. They all stared directly at me as I passed by and gave me some weird looks. I am used to being stared at, so it didn’t bother me. I figured my hair was looking crazy or my backpack was open or something.
I opened the door to my house and strolled towards the kitchen. As I walked into the small concrete kitchen, I was greeted by my dog Vanilla. She was lying on her back in a big bucket, charred to a crisp. Her lips were burned off and her teeth were snarling in an agonizing grin. Her black tongue lazily hung out of the corner of her mouth. All four legs were sticking straight in the air and her beautiful white coat had turned to a smoky black. The eyes had shriveled out and only ghostly sockets of death stared back at me.
I knew this day was coming. I had pushed it off for months. I made excuses and tried to argue for her life, but it was inevitable. A dogs’ ultimate fate in most of the Pacific (including Chuuk) is to end up in the belly of its owners. They can be loved and taken care of in life, but there is no remorse when its time for a feast. It seems horrid to us westerners, but its been standard practice for thousands of years in Asia and the Pacific.
I have eaten dog many times since arriving in Micronesia, but this was different. This was my dog. This was a creature who loved me. Vanilla was utterly and hopelessly attached to me. She would messily greet me with a muddy hug every morning and then stay at my heels for the whole day. She would come into my class, follow me on my walks, and even hop into the ocean when I took a swim. Vanilla was a loyal and loveable dog.
So when I saw her barbecued corpse sitting on my table, I was predictably upset. I went into my room and paced around. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to scream at my family and tell them they were all assholes. I paced around in my room and tried to distract myself. I wasn’t mad just because Vanilla was gone, I was mad because I had told them many many times to please spare her life. They are usually overly gracious in meeting any itsy bitsy request that I suggest, but not this time. Not when it actually mattered.
Then my brother BJ walked in and hollered, “hey Johnny, sa mwenge (lets eat) barbecue!”. This was too much for me to handle.
I yelled back, “Fuck No!” It was the first time I had used profanity anywhere near my household.
BJ replied, “ What?”.
I muttered, “ I said NO!” and then stormed out of the ouse.
I went down to the beach and sat on the bottom side of an old boat. I lay on this boat for the next 3 hours and made myself relax. My mind told me I was being stupid and shouldn’t be mad about all this. I know the culture and I have eaten dog plenty of times. But inside I was raging. Eventually the island breeze and sounds of gentle waves lapping on the beach worked its magic and cooled my nerves. I gathered myself together and buried my anger down inside
I decided to follow Ghandi’s example of satyagraha and do a little non violent resistance. I went on a fast for the rest of the day. I had never done anything like this before. I don’t think in my entire life I had ever missed lunch and dinner in the same day. But I decided I would do it this time. In honor of Vanilla. It was a way for me to avoid confrontation and make me feel better about myself.
It was awkward trying to explain all this to my family that night. They knew I was upset and all tried to talk to me about it. It was hard for them to understand that I would be angry about this. They felt sorry for upsetting me and begged me to eat with them, but I refused. It was the first time in my 18 months in Micronesia that I deliberately disrespected the culture. I felt slightly guilty, but in this case I felt that sticking to my morals outweighed the importance of following local custom.
I did cheat a little bit though on my fast. I found a leftover beer stashed in a plastic bag and chugged that down by myself. A little bit of hops and yeast to fill my belly wouldn’t do disgrace the memory of my beloved dog.