By Emily Robison
I snap my eyes open and look at my clock. 5:45 p.m. I've overslept again. A lifelong bad habit. Luckily, nowhere is lateness more forgiven, even encouraged, than in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Where the heck is Micronesia? That is precisely what I asked when I opened my invitation letter more than a year and a half ago. Little did I know, that exact phrase is a long-running joke among the islanders, who are quite aware and rather proud of their seclusion from the outside world.
I had to laugh. After nearly two years of interviews, paperwork and interminable waiting, I was being shipped off to a place so small that it doesn't even appear on most maps. Loaded down with useless possessions, inappropriate clothing and terribly inaccurate daydreams of what life should be like on a tropical Pacific island, I soon found myself on Yap, the smallest and most traditional of the four island states in the FSM.
Nothing could have prepared me for Yap. A hundred years spent in anthropology classes couldn't have taught me to cope with immersion into a culture so completely unlike my own. As it was, four years of anthropology classes couldn't possible qualify me to become an English-as-a-second-language elementary school teacher. Nor did a lifetime of living in small towns make it easier for me to spend two years within the same five square miles.
Each Micronesian state, so distant and isolated from the others, is drastically different. Every few islands, the people speak a different language and have separate customs, and all but one state comprises multiple islands. Of all these islands, the main island of Yap is perhaps the most culturally complex, and I was not prepared.
When I first landed on Yap, its intense beauty mesmerized me. I spent hours staring out over an impossibly blue ocean that blended at the horizon with a heartbreakingly bright sky. I watched as giant waves crashed into the distant barrier reef, keeping the waters surrounding the island pleasantly calm. I walked on village paths, their roadside flora immaculately manicured by hours of painstaking community work from the local women. Lining the roads and leaning on houses were rows and rows of giant stone disks, transported hundreds of years ago from nearby Palau. The Yapese people still use these disks as a form of money. I waited for the sun to set, and I watched the sky light up with billions of stars, from the Southern Cross to Polaris -- more, I imagined, than can be seen from anywhere else on Earth.
Perhaps it was the beautiful surroundings that distracted me for a while from the culture shock I had heard so much about. But when it inevitably hit, I was devastated: So much of what had kept me in awe slowly begun to suffocate me.
Trapped between the Western world and deeply rooted traditions, Yap is an awkward mixture of both. It was subtle at first, but the more I learned about Yapese culture, the more confused I became.
Yap's 39 square miles are divided into 10 municipalities that fit into a complex caste system. Each municipality is further divided into villages that also are ranked from high caste to low caste. In general, caste lines are not crossed. Yap has about 20 inhabited outer islands, some with as few as eight people. These islands do not fit into the caste system and do not even speak the same language.
Revolving around this social structure are several rigid customs involving land ownership and caste interactions. Because the caste system is such a fundamental part of the culture, it is not openly discussed, especially with outsiders. Even now, as I approach the end of my service, I still don't know quite where my family or I fit into the order.
Though the specifics still elude me, I had to be aware of the general rules almost immediately, and the more I integrated, the more uncomfortable I became. It perturbed me that some of my friends would never be allowed to visit me at my home or that I could not bring food they prepared back with me. As a main-islander, I would never be able to openly participate in certain activities deemed strictly outer-island. Due to land customs, the space I was permitted to explore on the already small island shrunk down to less than a handful of villages. After a while, that endless ocean, ever visible from every point of the island, felt more like a cage than the awe-inspiring comfort it had once been.
There were countless struggles, various mistakes and several afternoons spent venting in town over cheeseburgers with fellow Peace Corps volunteers. On innumerable occasions, I forced myself to choke down a ready opinion in the face of an issue I could never fully understand. But eventually, I discovered that I didn't have to accept or adopt a practice in order to understand or even respect it within the context of the culture. This was my first lesson.
I also learned, slowly, how to shed my anxieties, worries and other negative remnants of my own fast-paced culture and assume the quiet, graceful patience of the Yapese. It turned out that I had a great deal to learn from these people, but I had been too self-centered to listen. I didn't realize quite how much I had changed until I met the new volunteers who would replace the group before mine. They came storming onto the island, dragging their heavy suitcases over-packed with useless and inappropriate possessions, announcing their fears and anxieties and making all the familiar, stubborn mistakes.
I couldn't help but laugh -- not at them, but at myself. At one time I was one of them.
Actually, right now I am nothing but late. Dance practice was scheduled at 5:30, and I still have to walk two miles to the end of the next village. I shake off the lingering sleep from my body, grab my practice skirt and the small coconut leaf basket that I carry everywhere, and rush out of my house, shouting goodbye to my host mother. As I walk, I try to work out in my head how late I am going to be, what I will miss and how much I will have to apologize. I am pushing it, even for island time.
I walk as fast as I can, though my feet alternately slide and stick in the deep red mud that used to be the village road before three days of unseasonable rain. My speed is hindered further by the seven-pound grass skirt I must wear as I walk through the village. Though not a normal mode of dress, the colorfully dyed hibiscus skirt, woven to make my hips look approximately two-and-a-half times wider than they already are, is an essential part of dance practice. It is taboo to openly carry a skirt, so I must wear it even though it slows me tremendously.
It takes me an hour to reach my destination, but as I approach the large community house where practice is held, I see a few women still filtering in. I smile and slow my pace. What was I thinking? The elders only said 5:30 to make sure that everyone would show up by 7.
Women are not permitted to approach the layniga from the front, so I pick my way through the grass to the side and struggle up the three-foot raised coral platform, leaving torn chunks of skirt behind.
Almost as soon as I sit down inside, the other dancers spit out their red betel nut chews and move to the center of the long room. We sit in a modified cross-legged position, knee to knee, and begin to dance with our heads, hands, torsos and eyes. It is incredibly difficult for a dance performed while sitting, and I struggle to keep in line with the women on either side of me.
While we move in unison, the other dancers chant a song with nine verses of words that I stumble over.
As an experienced dancer, I jumped at the opportunity to learn this piece of oral storytelling tradition. However, I only get three weeks to study the movements and song before our performance at the Yap Day celebration -- the biggest cultural event of the year. There, I will be expected to keep up with women who have danced this dance their whole lives in front of the entire island, and I'm beginning to regret my initial enthusiasm.
One of the elder women catches my eye and lifts her hands above her head, showing me what I look like. She shakes her head, then shows me what I should look like. It's a correction that has been made before, and my face twists with a scowl of frustration for making the same mistake again. The girl to my right glances at me and whispers a word of encouragement, and I smile back gratefully. The dance ends with a loud "Yaah!" and we all move back to sit near the walls.
A young girl passes me a bag of betel nut, coral lime and leaves, and I fix myself a chew. The effect calms me, and I wait patiently for the dance to start up again. I am corrected and encouraged several more times before the night is over, and by the end of practice, I am exhausted. With a chorus of "Kagabul!" we all part ways for the night.
When people used to ask me why I joined the Peace Corps, I had two answers. The first might be what everyone says: I like to travel, and I want to help people. This is a way I can do both. In an effort to be more honest, however, I would usually follow that answer with a second: I have nothing better to do.
I wanted to change my life, but I didn't bargain for changing myself. I am, of course, fundamentally the same as I was two years ago, but all of my traits have since been poured through the filter of island life, and I have grown. As for being placed in Yap, I don't know if it was luck, but I'm certain that it was fate. No other site on earth could have transformed me in quite the same way.
There are times when I will look out to the horizon and daydream about all the places I might go next, but on nights like tonight, walking home by the light of a billion stars and an almost full moon, listening to the distant crashing waves and the gentle rustling of my gigantic grass skirt, I know that nowhere else is as perfect. There is no place -- and no one -- I would rather be.
Emily Robison graduated from Ohio University in 2006 with a bachelor of
arts degree in anthropology.