Thursday, October 4, 2012
From the time that you are a small child you are told that sharing is good. Your mom forces you to share your toys and cookies with snotty little siblings. Your teacher makes you share your birthday cupcakes with all the other students. Even the revered holy sages of the world like Buddha and Jesus advocate the importance of sharing. So I’ve grown up knowing that sharing is supposed to make you a better person. But Americans, Westerners and actually most of the world still don't really buy into it. It seems like a moral thing to do, but there is this powerful presence that resides within us that always whispers “mine, mine, mine.” No matter how much we deny it, we are individualistic and want to hold on to what’s ours. Its one of those things like going on a diet or donating to charity; it seems like a good idea, but when the time comes for action we usually find a way to slip away from the responsibility.
We may not have sharing down to a science, but there are some people in the world who have it intrinsically built into their psyche that sharing is good. Micronesians are those people. Sharing is not a moral choice for them. It has nothing to do with right or wrong. It’s not about creating a reputation or feeling good about yourself. Instead of being seen as just an admirable personal characteristic, sharing is an integral part of the function of society and the survival of the community. For thousands of years, the practice of communal sharing has allowed these isolated individuals to thrive. The ideas of personal property, rightful ownership and individual possessions are foreign. These ideas are so engrained in the people that it is difficult for them to grasp the obsession others have with personal items and objects.
Kids in Chuuk don't have to be told to share, it’s just natural. If I hand a piece of candy to a child, he will immediately bite it in half and give a portion to a friend. No words are exchanged, no begging or asking is required, the little boy just innately shares whatever he has. The other day one of my American friends visited my house and asked my father if he could have some of his coffee. My father crinkled his eyebrows in confusion and replied instinctively, “it’s not my coffee, it’s our coffee”. This response was not simply an attempt to be hospitable; it was actually how he viewed the coffee. Yes it was purchased with his money, but in his personal view that doesn't give him any more right to it than anybody else.
The most obvious form of sharing can be further seen in a few examples of the distribution of food. A few weeks ago I went out on a fishing trip with a few of my brothers and cousins. We returned to land with two full ice chests of freshly caught fish. When we arrived back at the house, my host father came out and told us to pour the contents on the lawn in the front yard. He glanced over the piles of fish for a moment and then started tossing the fish into different groups. He divided the mound into about 8 different piles and then sent the little kids on errands to deliver bags of fish to our neighbors. We caught a hundred fish that day, but our family only held onto about 15 of them. This wasn't seen as a an act of extreme generosity on my father’s behalf and none of the fisherman seemed upset that they got zero compensation for their work. It was just the natural reaction to having a lot of food. If you have something, you should share it with everyone else.
Breadfruit is another good example of the communal sharing of food items. About once a week my family pounds breadfruit. The whole process from picking to packaging in leaves takes about 8 hours of intensive work. At the end of the day, we will have formed approximately 20 loaves of this staple crop. Once again, we will send delivery boys running around the village to drop off loaves to the other families. Our day of backbreaking labor will only leave us with a handful of breadfruit packages.
This seems frustrating right? Always giving, giving giving. How do you expect to feed your family if you always give everything away? Well there is a flipside to giving things away to other people. Very often, they will return the favor. Obligation, karma, kindness or whatever you want to call it will kick in and bring you back some goods your way. So although we gave away our breadfruit and fish to others, later in the week we will probably get some fish and breadfruit in return. It is a cyclical system of sharing and collectivist community living.
These sample stories about local food are easy to envision. Food goes rotten without refrigeration and preservatives, so it makes natural sense to share it. There is no need to save possessions, because they will just go to waste. These exchanges of food are probably what first motivated the reliance on sharing, but the extent of sharing goes far beyond food products. The raising of children is also done with a sense of shared responsibility. This has begun to change in recent times, but the communal upbringing of children is the norm rather than the exception. Children get shuffled from auntie to grandma to cousin on such a regular basis that many of them do not even know who their real mother is. The name for all of these relations is inei, or “my mama”. Any older woman in your life is called inei because they most likely played a very large part in your growth and development. Until recent decades, more than 50% of the children were adopted by relatives! In some cases this may cause psychological problems of abandonment and isolation, but overall it fosters a communal love amongst large family groups. The kids can walk to any house in the village and be given a meal, or told to do a chore or take a nap. The community functions as one big family.
This collectivist attitude and compulsion to share (along with the rich natural resources of the ocean and jungle) is the reason why I place Micronesia on a slightly different plane than most developing countries. Unless motivated by stubborn personal choice or rejection of culture, nobody in Micronesia is starving. Not everyone has an abundant amount of healthy food to eat every day, but nobody is withering away into an emaciated coma of starvation. I don't think that could be said about any other supposedly “third world” country in the world. That cant even be said about America. The FSM might be stricken by extreme poverty and lack of material wealth, but nobody is suffering. That is an amazing fact, and through my personal experience it is entirely true. There are a few deranged, gas-sniffing crazy guys that wander around Weno during the day; but I’m willing to bet that they still have a place to sleep and eat every night. Even if you are a total shithead and your immediate family and friends have cast you out, there is always an uncle or cousin or neighbor that will give you a meal and a roof. Social services aren’t needed to lend a helping hand to homeless people or the unemployed; the community structure takes care of that. Sharing is universal.
The value of sharing together without hesitation is one of the most important things that I have learned from integrating into this island culture, but as the modern age of consumerism bleeds into these remote locations I am worried that these societal standards will start to waver. Dollar bills cannot be shared in the same way that fish can be shared. You can’t cut a penny into 8 difference pieces to share with your cousins. Borrowing an Ipod is different than borrowing a coconut. If you break a coconut then you lose a sip of water, if you break an Ipod then you lose hundreds of dollars. Sharing will become increasingly difficult as a universal practice when money dominates the scene. The model of a cash economy is based on individual gain and personal accumulation. The mental associations of things and people begin to change when money is used to purchase those items.
In the past every family was equally able to catch fish, so an even balance of exchange could be expected. But not everyone can have equally paying jobs in a modern economy. This throws off the balance of possessions and creates tension amongst families and communities. My host family has a few people with incomes; as a result they are expected to give a huge portion of their money to their family and community. I don't know exact numbers, but I can estimate that more than 50% of their money goes directly to other people in the form of sharing and is never used to support the 16 people that live in our household. They give a lot because they have a lot to give, but they only receive very little because others only have a little to give. This stratification in economic status entirely changes the system of sharing and throws a monkey wrench into the smooth flow in a collectivist society.
It is unclear how the values of the culture will continue to change as time wears on. Capitalist ideology has brought businesses that count profits and losses, governments that collect taxes and offer services, banks that offer the chance to save rather than spend, and families that strive for prosperity and wealth. These things are all wonderful in many ways and have allowed for success in numerous places around the planet, but they are also detrimental to the traditional lifestyle that has thrived here. It’s worth considering the possibility that our recipe for success may not fit into this tiny world of isolated islands in Micronesia. Plopping a system of beliefs and ideology on a people that have a different worldview might not work out as smoothly as expected. Western civilization has built itself upon a foundation of individualism and the tools of commerce, wealth and competition have allowed it flourish. But the Pacific civilization has built itself upon a foundation of collectivism that stresses sharing, community and relaxation. Importing our tools to fix their problems just doesn't fit. It’s like trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver or put a square block in a round hole.
Progress is inevitable and globalizing forces will continue to flow into this formerly isolated area. Things and ideas should be freely accessible to everyone and it would be foolish to prevent their influence in Micronesia. Nonetheless, I think it possible for the islanders to hold on to some of their values and choose which ideals to accept into their society. I believe that keeping sharing and equality as common practices is imperative for Micronesians as they move into the future. Sharing is what defines the identity of these people, but in an exponentially modernizing world their identity might have to change along with the times.
I have been attending a lot of funerals lately, so I felt it might be a good time to explain a little bit about these occasions and their significance in Micronesia. My explanations of funerals is based on personal experience and is only an informal account of my impressions. But my experience should count for something because during my two-year stint in Chuuk, I have been to more than 30 funerals! In the 24 years leading up to Peace Corps, I think I maybe attended five or six funerals in my lifetime. The sheer numbers of this comparison make one point explicitly clear: funerals are very important in Chuuk.
A funeral is the most important social and communal event in the lives of Chuukese islanders. It brings people together and is an imperative part of maintaining the strong bonds that unite this collectivist society. Without large scale funeral gatherings the ties of kinship and social structure would break down and fritter away. Similarly to funerals worldwide, it provides a time to offer support and love to the grieving family members and join in the mourning process. However Chuukese funerals are also necessary for resolving conflicts, settling problematic issues and making important decisions. Meetings, feasts and other events drag on for days as thousands of people come to the home of the deceased to pay their respects.
The schedule and functioning of the funeral has been changing throughout the years and has developed into a mixture of ancient traditions, Christian rites and modern customs. The first day of a funeral is called a Sobe and is often the most popular time for people to attend. Hundreds or sometimes thousands of islanders from all over will flock to the site. An open casket will lie at the center of an Ut (community hall) and dozens of wailing women will be sitting cross-legged in the space around the coffin. As you approach the body it is customary to drop a dollar in a basket at the foot of the coffin and exit quickly after you say your final goodbyes. When you walk out of the Ut you will be handed a plate of food and a bottle of water. This donation of a dollar is called oo and serves the double purpose of physically showing your support and helping the family out with the exorbitant expenses of the funeral.
The second day is the burial and is referred to as Peias. Before the person is interred in the ground, visitors will continue to flood the area and offer their support in exchange for a meal. The viewing time will last from sunrise to sunset on both of these first two days. All extended family members are expected to stay around the Ut for this time. Most of the time my own family has not been closely related enough to be part of the permanent funeral goers, but a handful of times I haves spent consecutive 9 hour days sitting in the sun in complete silence watching the slow proceedings of the funeral.
The men will usually sit on the outskirts of the Ut drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while engaging in subdued small talk throughout the afternoon. The women will stay in the community hall and cry or sing as time rolls on. An official meeting will happen on the day of burial and all the important men of the community/family will give long winded speeches about working together and sharing together. A couple hours later, a priest or minister will perform final Christian rites on the deceased and then prepare for the burial.
The next step of the funeral varies depending on whether the people are Catholic or Protestant (99% of Chuukese fall into one of these two categories). A traditional observance period of 3 days called Ororo will begin the day after the burial. However Catholics follow a 9 day schedule of Novena to pray for the soul of the deceased. During this time the close family members are confined to the compound where the funeral is being held. They are not suppose to cook, work, bathe or do anything at all. The family enters into a sort of period of deep contemplation and pray. On various days village groups will offer pounded breadfruit with coconut milk called motun to the family. Nobody in my close family has died, so I have never been part of this confinement.
The final day of the funeral, either 3 or 9 days after burial, is called the Eruk. A meeting is held with the extended family, eterenges, and important decisions and plans are made about the family. Hours of speeches will take place and work to reconcile differences and rebuild the strength of the family.
There are other community repercussions from funerals beyond the official proceedings of the event. For the first three days after the death, no work or noise can happen anywhere near the village. School will be cancelled and employed people will skip work. If the person is important enough, a moratorium on the ocean will be enacted and all activity in the sea will be banned for about 3 months. This mechen is a sign of respect to the deceased and also serves as a conservation measure to maintain the resources of the sea. While I fully support the significance of funerals and mean absolutely no disrespect to the culture, it has been rather frustrating for the success of my projects. At least once a month, two days of school will be taken off for funerals. In the last 3 weeks, 5 separate funerals have caused 10 days of school to be missed. Since I started construction on my basketball court, 14 funerals have slowed construction. Funerals take precedence over everything on these islands.
The Chuuk Lagoon is a relatively small place and family connections spread throughout much of the area. The close relationships of the people mean that when someone dies in the state, its very likely that you know them or are related to them and should attend their funeral. In America, it’s rare for someone to know their neighbor well enough to be invited to their funeral, but in Chuuk everybody is connected and so everybody goes to the funerals. The majority of the ones that I have been to have been for people that I have never heard of, and about half have been for people that were living in Guam, Hawaii or the mainland US. Chuukese culture requires that an individual is buried on their family’s land, so it is quite common for people to return to Chuuk as their final resting place. Multiple times a week, the once a day plane will unload a fresh casket and an entourage of mourning family members to undertake a funeral back on home turf. The huge travel expenses expended further shows the importance of funerals to the people. They are willing to shell out thousands of dollars to fly across the Pacific in order to attend funerals or bring the deceased home. Making a trip from America to Chuuk for a local wedding is rare, but it would be disrespectful and unusual to not make the same trip for a dead relative. Weddings in America are a time to showcase wealth, gather as a family and are generally considered to be the most important social events in the culture. The same things can be said for funerals in Chuuk. The events serve as a window to peer into the belief systems of the culture and get a sense of what’s important in the society, namely family, food, community and religion.