Thursday, December 27, 2012

Return to Reality

“So how was it?”

“Great! Ups and downs everyday, but overall it was a very positive experience”

“O cool… well what was it like in Micronesia?”

“It's a different world”

            In the last few weeks I have had slight variations on that terse dialogue dozens of times. In a handful of words and two quick statements I attempt to squeeze everything that happened to me over the last two years into a nicely packaged response that satisfies the half-hearted curiosity of chattering acquaintances. The roller coaster of events, emotions and changes are all summed up with a simple word—“Great!” All the obscure idiosyncrasies of the islands, the wild and unexpected adventures, and the eye opening encounters are condensed into the generic observation that “it's a different world”. These simple answers don't even come close to breaking the surface of the overflowing feelings and thoughts that want to come bursting out when someone mentions Peace Corps to me. Sometimes I bring up funny or weird anecdotes that elucidate the differing lifestyles of the Chuukese in comparison with Americans, but these are often an incomplete smattering of random stories that don't encompass the true disparity of life in my two homes. On occasion I will ramble off into tangents about Micronesian politics, Pacific language patterns or Chuukese eating habits; but then the glossy eyed look sweeps over my companion’s face and I take my cue to return the conversation to more relatable subjects like the price of beer or embarrassing collapse of the Lakers.
The zoom of racing cars, consumer madness of stores, and tip tapping of Iphones have overloaded my senses and shook up my internal state of calmness. I am miles behind the curve of technology and have no idea about popular music or media. Years ago I basically taught my parents how to use computers and now they are laughing at me because I am baffled when trying to make a call on their Iphones. My friends used to talk about surf swells and bar hours, now they talk about the stock market and work hours. I am a different person and I have been thrust back into a different world.
            Regardless of these differences, my return to the civilized world has not been fraught with mental upheavals or devastating culture shock. While the transition is slow and confusing, I have been surprised by how even keeled my reaction to everything has been. In addition to abandoning my loved ones in Chuuk and leaving that special life behind, my arrival in America was met with the death of a close friend, cancer diagnosis of a relative, minor stroke of another relative and a handful of other shocking events. But I guess the unwavering calmness of island living has seeped into my veins and made me relaxed even in the face of stressful situations. I have been handling each hiccup of readjustment much better than I expected and maintaining my low-key stoic attitude throughout.
 It should seem like a good thing to handle each of these events without extreme emotional complications, but my nonchalant attitude actually bothers me a little bit. Part of the reason that I voluntary put myself in third world conditions was so that I could experience the full range of human emotions and place myself in situations where I would be forced to feel depression, anxiety, loneliness and all the negative counterparts of the positive feelings that usually characterize my life. Without a doubt I did come across these feelings and grapple with their crippling challenges, but experiencing those situations didn't necessarily make me more prone to feel like that. Its possible that by going through situations of negative affectivity I am now able to suppress those feelings healthily and continue to focus on the light around the edges of the dark abyss that envelops bad situations. I have always preached the ideals of positive thinking in order to overcome tough problems, but in the past I was speaking from the naïve perspective of a privileged child. I am no longer naïve and I am no longer a child, but my positivity has reinforced its legitimacy in my mind and life and proven to be the driving force behind my efforts to improve the world around me. My experiences in Micronesia have not crushed my positive optimism and reduced my world view to a hopeless cry against the desperate poverty that grinds against most of the world’s population. Instead I have come to believe that pointing our attention towards the beautiful and wonderful things in our world is a much more effective strategy to combat the problems that we encounter. Positivity and relaxation are still atop my personal list of attributes that will make our planet thrive.
I like to believe that my presence in Chuuk was the catalyst for a number of good changes in my community and helped shape the lives of the local people, but that is thousands of miles away and already in the past. I will visit there again, but until then I must readjust my mindset and be fully present in my current life. I have been struggling with the dichotomy that is keeping my mind in Chuuk, even though my body is obviously in America.
Now that my service is finished and I am back in the “real world” I must concentrate on the most important questions of my future. How will those experiences shape the rest of my life? How can I utilize what I have learned and apply it to the world I live in now? How can I respectfully spread my new ideas about humanity to others? What can I do to continue to make my world a better place? How can I continue to grow as a person? What should I have for lunch with an entire fridge full of goodies?
Thank all you readers for perusing my blog and keeping up my with my random rambling thoughts during my time in Micronesia. I tried to give you all a little glimpse into my island universe and I hope you enjoyed it. I started this blog as a diary to chronicle my life in the Peace Corps, but it morphed into more than that and expanded its focus to other things. It has shown me that I have a passion for writing and should continue to attempt jotting down my interpretation of the world. I will soon be embarking upon another adventure to the far reaches of India and southern Asia (and probably South America). So if you have an interest in following my travels I will do my best to keep you in the loop.

Kinamwe, Tong, me Pwapwa ngeni kemi meinsin
(Peace, Love and Happiness to all of you)

Saigo (11/11/12)

Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing my best to soak up every moment and appreciate all the island things that I will probably never do again. It is quite likely that I will make my way back to Chuuk someday in the future, but nonetheless it is also probable that I will never experience the kinds of things that I encounter around here again. The word saigo roughly translates as “last” or “last time”, and I have been counting down all my saigos and ticking them off my list. Some of these things are special memories that will last forever and others are island obscurities that will best be forgotten. So I thought I would jot down a list of some uniquely Chuukese things that I have done for the saigo time, I will alternate listing the good (G) and the bad (B) memories:

  • (G) Spearfishing at night on a glowing reef
  • (B) Flailing in panic as a shark zooms by my face
  • (G) Eating fresh sashimi from a fish that was caught less than one minute before
  • (B) Eating half-rotten salt fish that has been sitting unrefrigerated since last week
  • (G) Climbing a towering pencil-like coconut tree
  • (B) Climbing a towering pencil-like coconut tree
  • (G) Using a machete to hack my way through dense jungle
  • (B) Using extra strength Neosporin as my best friend
  • (G) Swimming in the clear turquoise waters off my dock
  • (B) Slinking my way through fields of stinging jellyfish
  • (G) Pounding breadfruit with a stone mallet
  • (B) Smelling moldy slimy breadfruit
  • (G) Eating banana prepared a dozen different ways
  • (B) Scrubbing the mud off my feet every night
  • (G) Watching pink and orange sunsets on the horizon
  • (B) Sweating 3 gallons of sweat each day
  • (G) Eating fresh fish for half of my meals
  • (B) Eating canned meat for half of my meals
  • (G) Floating serenely in a foot of warm water
  • (B) Trudging through the muddy mess of Weno roads
  • (G) Teaching elementary school kids
  • (B) Teaching elementary school kids
  • (G) Slurping down a fresh coconut
  • (B) Sleeping on concrete floor every night
  • (G) Listening to the sounds of the jungle
  • (B) Taking cold bucket showers twice a day
  • (G) Pulling a giant tuna in with my bare hands
  • (B) Being consistently covered in mosquito bites
  • (G) Sitting for hours with nothing to do but think
  • (B) Sitting for hours with nothing to do but think
  • (G) Waking up to the light pitter patter of rain
  • (B) Waking up to the light pitter patter of a 4 inch spider on my chest
  • (G) Slicing through a giant banana tree in a single stroke
  • (B) Chopping my finger with a machete
  • (G) Exploring the mysterious depths of sunken WWII warships
  • (B) Scraping my foot on a rusty shard of discarded WWII scrap metal
  • (G) Being constantly surrounded by throngs of excited kids

My Host Family (11/6/12)

Most of my blogs have been written about the crazy experiences and cultural observations that I’ve gone through during my time in Chuuk. I have drooled over the untouched beauty of tropics, complained about the backwardness of society, and chronicled the daily hiccups of happiness and confusion that have been my constant companions. These tidbits of writing have given a decent overall picture of my life, but I have often left out one extremely important element. I have focused on the things and places of Chuuk, but the part of these islands that truly make them special are the people. The people of Chuuk are undoubtedly unique amongst the varied cornucopia of cultures in the world, and the relationships that I have forged with these people have come to define my experience in Micronesia.
My assignment in Peace Corps was to try to better the local community through education and development projects, but I believe my influence can best be seen within the personal connections that I have made with individuals. And while I have had a significant impact on many peoples’ lives, the way that they have touched my soul and changed my thoughts has far outweighed my supposed humanitarian efforts. When I am old and grey, many of my memories will fade into obscurity and melt into a jumbled mess of exaggerations and blank spots. When I look back to my time in Chuuk I will most likely forget my lessons plans, my secondary projects, and the scenic views; however the impressions of the people are forever burned into my consciousness.
I could talk at length about the cast of eccentric characters that have crossed my path and the quaint island folk that inhabit my village, but instead I will concentrate only on the most important ones. The people that have meant the most to me during the last two years have unquestionably been the Joseph family. The Joseph’s have taken me into their house and literally accepted me as a son in their family. I call my host parents “mama” and “papa”, and refer to my siblings and cousins as “brothers” and “sisters”. From the day that I stepped foot on the island I have been showered with love, compassion and protection from my host family.
Many other volunteers in Micronesia, and other Peace Corps placements around the world, have troublesome situations with their local host families. Misunderstandings about money, lack of privacy, cultural clashes, comfort levels and a variety of other factors lead to a break down of relationships and an awkward tension dwells in the household. To be honest, living with a host family worried me tremendously before I arrived in Chuuk. The idea of a staying with a random family of people in a poverty stricken hut for a couple of years just seemed weird and uncomfortable. I thought I would rather live in an apartment with some Americans and have my own space. Oh how wrong I was. My experience of living with the Joseph’s has been the single most rewarding aspect of my service.
Family is a broad term in island culture and encompasses a much larger group than we westerners traditionally consider. The extended family or eterenges spreads through half the houses in my village and connects everybody into a cohesive system of sharing and love. Resources, children and work are shared amongst these big families. As a result of these ill-defined boundaries of nuclear families, my household has been home to a surprisingly large number of people. Our rotating door policy of cousins and family members is a function of the fact that my family is well respected, well educated and relatively well off financially. There are three houses on my compound, but I am going to focus primarily on the core group of people that have been under my roof for the majority of the two years.
Approximately 30 different people have taken residence in the jungle manor of Benisio Joseph over the last two years. We have 9 permanent members and an alternating cast of characters that flow in and out for random amounts of time. Our usual census count numbers around 15 on average. Some stay for school, some stay for work, some stay for fun, and some just want a good meal and a dry roof.
I will try to keep the descriptions short and only give a quick sketch about this family that has become such a special part of my life. Benisio is the official patriarch of our house and assumes the unofficial role of patriarch for our village. He speaks good English and has been the biggest catalyst for my success during my service. Most of the projects that I have undertaken have sprung from his brain and I have just been in the right place to bring them to fruition. He is passionate about improving his community and bringing prosperity to the people of Chuuk. He has acted as a mentor, language tutor, cultural advisor and intellectual companion for me. Speaking to him is my escape from the doldrums of simple Chuukese phrases and contemplative silence of daily life.
My host mother Mariana is an aging schoolteacher that takes on the responsibility of caring for the multitudes of tenants that stay under her roof. She cooks, cleans, washes and scrubs at all hours of the day. Her soft but high-pitched voice commands the throngs of screaming children and sets them all about their chores that make our circus function. She is deeply concerned with my well being and devotes a ridiculous amount of time to ensuring my comfort. It would be unthinkable for me to wash my own clothes, scrape my own dish or cook my own rice. I can sense her compassionate love for me in the warmth of her eyes and the eagerness of her actions.
My host sister Marben is a bilingual teacher with a growing batch of youngsters. She is wonderful in the classroom and has served as a helpful go-between for the cultural differences that I have struggled with. Her husband Kristino is the spitting image of a high school jock settled down for a life of husbandly duties. When I first arrived, an infant of theirs named Majen came into world but was soon after adopted by cousins in Hawaii (adoption by family members is very common). They just had another little girl named Krisma a few months ago who has enthusiastically provided a soothing midnight rendition of Beethoven’s 5th symphony performed by a melodious fusion of frenzied cries and yelps. Her crying orchestra is sometimes accompanied by the maestro of bawling, the wizard of whimpering, the illustrious virtuoso of temper tantrums. I refer to none other than my toddler niece Kathryn. Despite her crying skills and mouth of sugar-rotted teeth, this cherub-faced munchkin has brought me countless hours of joy and laughter. If she keeps her mouth shut, she could be the poster child for quintessential cuteness. I have been a significant part of her upbringing and spent lots of time swinging her in the air, tickling her belly and sneaking her bits of candy.  Orinta is a 7-year-old girl with bundles of energy and an unwavering curiosity in everything that I do. She is in a typical stage of childhood where toys, candy and movies occupy the entire scope of her universe. Their oldest child of 11 years, Kimberly (or Kimbo for short), is the apple in my eye and my shining light of hope for Chuuk. She is the closest thing I have ever felt to having a child of my own and my love for her exponentially grows each day I am with her. Her flawless beauty, excitable charm and astute intellect are impossible to deny. If my impact on Kimbo leads her to a thriving life of success and happiness, then I will feel that my Peace Corps service and my influence on the world has served its purpose.
My host brother BJ is also a teacher and has been a link to the manly side of life in Chuuk. By following his lead I have learned to fish, work, drink and chill just like a Chuukese man. His son Ennet has been my faithful sidekick for the last two years. He sticks to me like glue and mimics my every move. His explosive laughter and willingness to explore the island have made my time here much more enjoyable. That list of nine people about rounds out the constant group of Joseph regulars, but many others have been here for large chunks of time and deserve a little recognition.
Marino is my teenage cousin who has taken on the role of friend and work companion. He is from another island, but has spent most of the time here on Fefan. I still feel like I am 19 year old kid, so we relate to each other pretty well. Ainer was my best friend for the first year in Chuuk, but he moved out to the main island and my allegiance shifted to Marino. Ainer was my mountain hiking guide and taught me all the basic skills of how to survive as a man in Chuuk; opening coconuts, pounding breadfruit, wielding a machete and jungle trekking. His mom Ainin was our cook, babysitter and clothes washer for a while as well. After Ainin left, a young widow named Rivey took over those responsibilities.   She and her baby son Joen lived with us for several months and brought a silent cheer to the environment in our house.
Since the Josephs are a family of educators and have enough money to feed a few extra mouths, for decades they have kept up the practice of serving as a home for students. Mayreen, Samery, Matry, Ipeace, and Lulu are all girls who have contributed daily chores in exchange for a loving household and positive atmosphere to assist in the furthering of their education. Emiano is a bright-eyed teenager with ADHD to the max that recently came into our house and raised the energy level about eight octaves. He can fire a series of unrelated inquisitive questions at me with machine gun rapidity and then suddenly leap up and seamlessly move into another conversation.
Although the family in the other large house on my compound isn’t officially part of my nuclear host family, they are a big part of my daily life and also warrant a mention. Mama Anti is the spry grandmother who rules our land with an iron first. She is almost 80 years and has haunting memories of the Japanese occupation in WWII. Her hardcore Christian ethic coupled with the stubborn strength of a hardened island matriarch make her a force to be reckoned with. Despite her age, she skips down the muddy road twice a day to church, chops weeds with a machete, brews crazy concoctions of local medicine and regales her grandchildren with ancient legends of island myths. My uncle Benito is a teacher and current principal of the school. He has been my best partner in impacting the education system and has also become one of my closest friends. I talk to Benito about anything and everything. His wife Tere takes care of their slew of children Berency, Benter, Kimiana, Beatrize, Bere and Patterson (the last two just moved to Guam). Each one of them are A+ students with angelic island faces, and I treat them like nieces and nephews.
These people have carved out a niche in my heart and mind that will remain forever. Outside of my real family and closest friends, this group of Chuukese islanders have become the most important people in the world to me. I owe them an immense debt of gratitude for their unrelenting hospitality and love that they have shown me. My relationship with his family is what will keep my connection alive with Chuuk and ensure that I never lose touch with this monumental chapter in my life.