Monday, October 31, 2011

A Few Things Pohnpei Has Taught Me:

1)      1. The definition of true generosity. Now, keep in mind that I am from south of the Mason Dixon line and still I have never experienced such overwhelming generosity. I have mentioned the abundance of free food before, but it’s more than that... you tell someone you like their skirt: they are going to bestow it upon you the next day. You tell someone the snack they let you try is good, they are going to hand it all over to you. There is no end to the giving. My students are constantly offering me pickled papaya, shrimp flavored snacks, and sips of their sodas they have bought from women who set up small shops in the mini-local houses on the school’s campus.  They will clean the classroom without being asked, never let you lift or carry anything too heavy, and will even give up their seat for you. Last week, my three of my students started fanning me when they noticed I was hot. Another day, my female student thought I looked stressed and began massaging my shoulders.

2)      2. The effects of human contact. I suppose this is not something people haven’t always known, but I am realizing the importance of physical contact in all relationships. The idea of personal space does not exist in Pohnpei; my students hug me, lean on me, hold my hand, rest on me, tickle me- everyone is always on everyone else. Sometimes it is hard to tell where one student begins and the other ends because as you look across your classroom students are draped across one another. Boys hold hands with boys and girls walk with their arms around each other. It is how you display familiarity and friendship, and I love it. There is something about always having people hanging on you that makes you feel accepted and a part of something… or more importantly someone. It seems like every place I have traveled to outside of the U.S. does this, why didn’t we cling to the custom of clinging to each other?

3)      3. What community really means. Sadly, I think I have lived my entire life never feeling a sense of community, until now. In America you can live years in the same house and never meet your neighbor. It doesn’t help that I was living in New York for the past two years- isle of independence where even small talk seems to be too bothersome for people who are always in a hurry to lead their obviously, very important lives. Here it’s different. We go to  church with the same people every week, I exercise with them, teach their students, go to their birthday parties, wave to the same people every day and staples from the same little store regularly. I realize that some Americans do live this exact life, but for me it is a new experience to know everyone that I see on a daily basis. I am beginning to understand the comfort of familiarity.

4)      4. How to appreciate natural beauty. I am most likely going to have a problem properly acclimating to American standards of what it means to be presentable after this year is through. Make-up? Not so much. Hair products? Nope. Shoes other than flip-flops? Only when I run. Let’s not even discuss my clothing. The thing about living here though, is that no one else does any of these things either. It would be silly to even try to tame the hair in this humidity. Make up would just melt off anyway, and why raise my body temperature any higher than it already is by swaddling my feet in fabric? I am so used to seeing bare faces that when I see a random student who somehow got her hands on some makeup I am appalled. Made-up girls now look like clowns to me and I used to never leave with first applying “my face”. I am glad my concept of beauty is changing, but I am also mildly worried I am turning into a huge hippie.  

5)      5. Eating with your hands is so much easier. I guess using silverware is more sanitary than eating with your hands, but it really is so much easier to just grab food instead of trying to coax it onto four prongs. Slippery salad? Corn? Tiny Noodles? No problem with the ole’ right hand. I may never be able to use utensils again. Before I know it I will be at a business dinner forgoing a job opportunity in effort to more hastily grab a stray pea that’s been dancing itself around the perimeter of my plate.

6)      6. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. Not only have I become more comfortable with bare faced beauties and eating with my hands, but I can now watch a pig be killed and ripped apart and not even flinch. This Saturday we went to our village’s feast for the Nanmwarki where not only did I watch about fifteen pigs be slaughtered and have their insides ripped out, but then watched children crawl inside the carcasses retrieving organs and handfuls of blood, and then joyfully skip around toting their new found toys. A few months ago it would have made me extremely uncomfortable to watch something like this, but now I am so accustomed to the general treatment of animals and the fact that at the end of the day here they really are just a food source. Do I still wish they would kill them quickly and not let them bleed out? Yes. Do I still think of Wilbur and tear up? Eh, Wilbur Shwilbur.
This is present of a pig in the crate below, giant yams dangling from the above,
all topped off with some sakau and balloons is being loaded up to be taken to the home of the Nanmwarki. 


Around fifteen pigs were carried in to the Nahs and presented to the Nanmwarki, before being cleaned out. 

While waiting to play inside of the pigs, the boys were mud sliding in front of the Nahs, where heavy rains had created the perfect mudslide. 

7)      7. Children are the cure-all.  Well, I hope no one questions my love of America after this post, because there is truly no place like home however there are quite a few charms of Pohnpei that I will forever miss. The kids here are on the top of that list. I am sorry new mothers, but it’s fact that Pohnpeian children are cuter than American ones- no question about it. Not only are these young whipper snappers physically adorable, but each one radiates a unique (and more often than not hilarious) personality. When I am less than enthusiastic about the beginning of the school day, being greeted by the parade of elementary students on the way to my classroom turns my attitude around. During lunch, when I am in need of a little pick me up- I wait for my little friends to come by my classroom and play with me. If I am disappointed about the way my 3rd period went, I can count on those little buggers to cheer me back up with a game of red rover.
One of our favorite little buddies who always keeps us laughing. He came to visit the first day Scott missed school because of his unfortunate injuries experienced after running (and stopping) too fast on a hot track barefoot. Not to worry, he has had a speedy recovery and it now back on his feet after a week of being in a wheelchair. Congratulations Scott :)

8)      8. It’s okay to keep some of your own traditions and comforts. I have learned that keeping some of my menwai habits is not only okay, but probably healthy. At first I felt a little bit guilty if I hung out with all the menwai for too long on the weekends, but I feel better afterwards. I think it’s good to remind yourself of who you are, and spending the night in Kolonia gives me some familiar comforts, like being able to order food out, go to a store, sleep without a mosquito net, and yes purchase the occasional beverage. And there is nothing wrong with that. This weekend for example, we were even able to get in costume and celebrate Halloween! Do you know how hard it is to find festive garb in the third world? Unoriginally, I was able to scrounge up an army jacket and at from a thrift store in town and Waalah! Army girl costume! Some other WorldTeachers were more creative we had Cleopatra, the Brawny man, and Ursula! Happy Halloween Ya’ll! (That’s for you Michael Hilbert.)

Halloween! With the resources we could find Scott became the very creative, Brawny paper towel man!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Day in the Life

Since everything was so busy and new when I first arrived and there have been so many specific events that I have been trying to document, I feel like I haven’t gotten to write much about my daily life.  Keeping a blog is much more difficult than people make it out to be; I haven’t had much time to write about all of my adventures because I am out there living them!  I am going to try to tackle the challenge of trying to put into words what life is like for me here.
                At 6:00 AM the church bell rings next door and I usually awake startled before nestling back in for another 30-45 minutes more of necessary sleep. When I can no longer avoid waking up, I slip out of my mosquito net and slowly and carefully climb down the ladder from the bedroom into the living room, and stumble my way to the bathroom in my sleepy stupor. The next 45 minutes or so consist of me trying to make an outfit out of whatever clean clothes exist, attempting to secure my hair in a way that will foster the least amount of sweating and shoveling down some breakfast before walking to school.
                If it hasn’t rained recently Scott and I can take the shortcut through the woods, but more often than not we take the main road to school. The road is coated with thick jungle on either side, and given its windy nature you can never see too far ahead. On a clear day the walk is stunning, the dewy jungle is glistening with the morning light and just as you round the first bend a view of the mountains greets you, popping against the bright blue sky. The walk to school only takes us about ten minutes, but this minor physical activity jumpstarts what will be for the next 16 hours by personal battle with sweat.
The walk to school. 

                We unlock the padlocks that keep our classrooms secure overnight, and try to prepare ourselves for the day. As I am writing the quote of the day on the board and trying to straighten up my classroom students are shouting good morning as they walk (or run) by. At 8:15 (or 8:30 with Pohnpeian time) a student beats an old metal oxygen tank that serves as the bell and its game time. My first class of the day is my 12A, the highest level of seniors and my most behaved class. I have 35 students in this class, and still they are more manageable than my other classes of 24 and 27. We have been reading Island of the Blue Dolphins and they love it! They are all eager to read aloud and we have been able to have fantastic class discussions. I have not had any issues with class participation like I was told I would. They have been working away on their 5-paragraph essays, and last week we started poetry at which they seem to be naturals. I even let them have a party last week since they have been working so hard and doing so well.

My senior class!
Hard at work trying to fill in the blanks to a Brett Dennen song.
Richenard literally hanging from the rafters. 
Steve and Misako playing cards during their "party."
  At 10:00, my 10E which is the lowest level of sophomores begins. After a stern talking to a couple of weeks ago I have been having less behavioral problems. However this remains a challenging class to teach because they understand very little English and I also have many special needs students so there is a large range of ability and it makes it hard to do some activities. This class is wear my energy starts to waiver, between asking them to be quiet and repeating myself in as many ways as I can think of, by the time the bell rings for lunch my head is pounding.

The elementary kids we play with during lunch. This group of boys also hangs out at my exercise class and  they sometimes walk home with us, taking turns being on Scott's shoulders.

Me tickling Ira, one of our favorite little buddies. 

        The lunch break is where I seek salvation and try to muster up the energy to make it through third period- my most energetic class. The high school and elementary school eat lunch at the same time, so the teachers have to wait until all of the students from both schools have eaten. For the first 40 minutes of lunch my freshmen are coming in and dropping off their backpacks or braiding my hair while a few of my senior boys will come draw on the art walls I have made in the back and play island remixes off of their cell phones. After a lunch of either mackerel, chicken, or sardines is served we head back to our classrooms for the last class of the day.

                I love my freshman students. They are brave and talkative and I have a very close relationship with almost all of them. Their level of comfort with me makes teaching more difficult because they are not shy to speak… so they don’t stop. They are also 13 and 14 and my class is mostly boys, so it is hard to rein them in sometimes but they are all such good kids it is hard to get angry. On Friday they presented their skits they had to create based on Beauty and the Beast which we just read. Given that cross-dressing is something this culture finds particularly humorous, all of my boys were wearing lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara and were wearing dresses. Even though the beginning of class was chaotic and I was questioning my abilities as an educator, when they performed their hilarious skits that actually met the criteria I gave them I felt relieved.

                When that 2:00 bell rings I am ready to sit and stare at a wall for an hour or two which is sometimes necessary. When I am not brain dead I usually make some coffee start grading or on more entertaining afternoons we hang out with some locals. A couple weeks ago Scott was teaching two local boys, their grandmother, and me how to juggle with overly matured beetlenuts. It turns out the grandmother Elizabeth was a natural! 
Scott teaches in his free time too :)

Elizabeth, his best student. 

 Around 5:30 depending on the day of the week, I either go exercise with the local women and Natayla, or a local lady comes to my house for our own session on the off days. I will also be starting a Zumba style workout class at my church for the women to participate in a couple nights a week after church, while the men are sitting and talking. I asked them about it last week, after seeing how much fun they had with the dancing we did for the missionary celebration and they are really excited! Hopefully I will be able to start that in the next couple of weeks.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays when I work out with the group of women in the Nahs 5-10 minutes away Scott comes to pick me up so I don’t have to walk back alone in the dark. The bats flit about overhead as we walk home, saying pong mwau to every passerby. After showering is dinner time, our most creative hour as we concoct new combinations of the same ingredients in different ways and with different spices for variety. At this time it is vital that I thank the Perkins family for sending the wonderful food, our meals have improved greatly! I never thought I would enjoy Velveeta so much.

Scott playing cards with Elizabeth's grandchildren. 
Following dinner we spend our last waking hours lesson planning with a mosquito coil in between us. If we get done early we can squeeze in an episode of Modern Family (thank you Aunt Marni!!) or catch up with some friends at home. Finally, at 11:30 pm give or take a half hour it’s bed time. After securing ourselves in our mosquito netting, we usually use the last bit of our energy to get a few laughs out of the day’s experiences before passing out into a deep sleep. My life is simultaneously the most enriching and exhausting it has ever been, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.


Last Saturday yours truly made a dancing debut during the island’s annual celebration of the arrival of the Protestant women missionaries in 1852. I was the first menwai (pigment challenged person) to dance with the women’s group… ever. This is how I was dubbed no-longer-a-menwai but a “local lady”; not by eating with my hands, scaling a fish, showering in the river, or wearing local clothes, but by shaking my hips. It all started last Wednesday (our usual church night), when we were practicing our ritual dividing of the sexes for the post-service coffee hour when the women told me to come with them up into the attic to do some “activities”. My first thought was something along the arts and crafts line, until I saw the President of the women’s group pop a cassette into an old stereo. Thus I had my first of three nights of rehearsal before the big day.  

Dance rehearsal with middle-aged Pohnpeian women has been one of my most favorite experiences since I have been on island. Typically after church while the men sit at tables and discuss Pohnpeian history, government and life philosophies, the women sit on the floor and chat quietly, shushing the playing children when they get too disruptive. When we were away from the men however I was able to see another side to them. This is how I discovered that gossiping looks the same in every language. I finally got to see some of their personalities shine through while they made fun of my exaggerated dancing and grabbed my derrière in a complimenting fashion. As their giggles bounced off the walls and circled around the room I tried to stifle some of my overwhelming contentment so as not to be that creepy girl who goes around smiling for no apparent reason.  But I was more than just content; I was elated to feel a part of something and not just an observer.

The women headed up to the grave of Annette, the first female missionary who created the first women's group.

                As teaching becomes more challenging it is the cultural activities that we participate in during our limited free time that serve as catalysts for easing my tightly wound mind. The actual event which lasted about five hours included dancing and singing from women’s groups from each municipality. Since I was representing Kitti, I was wearing a white moomoo which my neighbor not only let me borrow, but after seeing me in it and thinking it fit me just right, gave it to me. I also donned a white marmar (roll the r’s) which is like a lay for your head, along with a gardenia and a plastic local flower in my hair and an ample amount of coconut oil rubbed on my body. This was exactly the type of experience I was looking for when I decided to come here. I don’t just want to go to school, teach and come home. I want to be a part of this community and really get to know the people who have been so gracious to us. I finally feel like I am getting to do just that.

Three of the women I danced with. This was taken before the prayer service. 

 This week was chock-full of cultural activities, as we also attended our first Pohnpeian funeral. We were invited by a colleague couple that Scott and I hang out with frequently. It was the third day (a.k.a. fish day) of the traditional four-day funeral.  We were lucky enough to be invited into the Nahs which is only for people with high titles. As we sat listening to legends being told through the clinking of sakau pounding, a pile of fish of every shape, size, and color was continually growing about a foot away from us. During the four hour ceremony I drank the most sakau I have had yet which made finishing up lesson plans when we arrived home a bit difficult.  Upon leaving, we were granted with not one, not two, but three local baskets full of food, and a bag of four of the fish. The generosity is overwhelming sometimes.

The fish we were so graciously given. I scaled and fried the one on  the left for dinner!

 In between celebrating a life and commemorating missionary arrivals we have learned how to make lihlih (which means womanwoman), a pounded, cooked breadfruit with coconut milk pored over, I have shaved my first coconut, gone on a hike to a waterfall, eaten a lifetime’s supply of bananas and played baseball with some of the world’s cutest kids. All while trying to be a teacher. Life is pretty pweipwei (crazy).