Well it’s another beautiful, hot, power-outage day here in the Marshall Islands. I am using what is left of my computer power to write a blog post in an effort to not get too far behind like I did a few weeks ago.
This week marks the first holiday I will be spending far from home. Halloween is this Friday, and it is obvious that this year is going to be unlike all of the rest. In anticipation of feeling homesick over the holidays I came equipped with some classic holiday films. For this spooky holiday I brought Hocus Pocus…hands down the best Halloween movie ever. Since Friday is also the day that report cards from quarter 1 are released (yay we made it! 3 to go), I planned on treating my students with a Halloween party, complete with candy and an exclusive showing of Hocus Pocus. I assumed that Halloween may be a bit different here than in America (everything is), but my field director invited me to a costume party and I keep seeing signs for haunted houses, so I thought it couldn’t be too different. I soon learned the error of my assumption. I have my students respond to a prompt at the beginning of every class, so today I asked “How do you celebrate Halloween in the Marshall Islands?” A couple of the kids said “Just how you white people do it. We sing songs to people at their house and they give us candy or money” (which… is clearly not how “us white people” do it). Most of my 60 tenth grade English students said that they didn’t “believe in Halloween” and neither did their families because they are Christian and can’t agree with a holiday that celebrates the devil. They also said that the haunted houses scared them…so I guess they aren’t too against it to give the haunted house a try. (One kid wrote that they didn’t believe in Halloween because Jesus isn’t dead and that maybe if he was they would believe in it….to which I say…. I think you missed a major plot point in the New Testament..) So that response took me aback a bit (it also made me start to question my Halloween party ideas). I understand that scary, demonic images may be particularly sensitive here because kids are exposed to all the nonsense that American children see everyday on television. However, I have decided that Hocus Pocus is 95% hilarious and 5% magical so we are watching it. I think it’s a good thing to be exposed to Marshallese culture, as well as a good thing to share a different cultural perspective with them. In other words, Halloween doesn’t have to be scary or demonic. You don’t have to dress up like a demon (which ALL of them wrote about in their journal), you can also dress up like peter pan, or a hipster Disney princess, or Hermione Granger, or Elyssa Ramirez (some of my favorite costumes past)… take your pick. I think one thing that may make some people overly defensive is that they legitimately believe in demons here. Black magic and witch craft is a real thing people discuss in regular conversation and use to explain bad things that happen. As I write this post I am becoming more and more uneasy about showing my awesome Halloween classic…. I guess we will just have to wait and see where the hot Pacific wind blows me.
UPDATE: I showed Hocus Pocus and my kids LOVED it. In fact we didn’t have time to finish it in one of my classes and they insisted on coming after school to finish it. Great success. I watched it three times (in three classes) yesterday and didn’t get sick of it…that’s a sign of a cinematic gem.
One thing that has been on my mind lately is how thankful I have become that I don’t have a host family. At first, it was really troubling that I didn’t feel connected to the community at all and felt like my experience here was being wasted without a host family. Now that things have started to settle down I am happy to be a lone agent. Erin (my friend from colleg, for those who don’t know) is living with a host family on the other said of my island and hearing about her life solidifies my feelings. For the few friends who read both of our blogs, feel free to skip this paragraph (I’m sure she is writing about her family in more depth), but it’s still a story worth telling. Living with a host family has its challenges along with its benefits. For starters, the food opportunities are quite different for the two of us. While my stipend is small and makes buying health food challenging, I still have the freedom to buy and eat the food I want. I have been trying really hard to eat healthy food, eating beans and veggies whenever I can. Erin is stuck eating the traditional Marshallese diet (ramen noodles, spam, corned beef, white rice, doughnuts and bread. A LOT of bread). Eating such an unhealthy, sodium and carb filled diet completely effects how a person feels physically, which I imagine effects how they are feeling emotionally. I am very thankful that I am living on my own, in Majuro, and have healthy food options available to me. In general it’s a hard situation, because you are likely to get annoyed and frustrated with your host family, just like you would your family in America, however you can’t really react naturally because these people aren’t actually your family and they are opening up their lives and homes to you. Her baba (dad) is a very sweet and well intended man who would drive anyone up the wall. The family doesn’t have a lot of money (they went a week and a half without electricity last month) and he is the only one working in the family. However, he often doesn’t go to work if he is hung over from drinking with his friends (which is pretty common) and he often asks Erin to contribute to paying for things that the money world teach gives him should be covering. Now I don’t mean to make baba to be some horrible, mean alcoholic, because he truly is so sweet and loving and well intentioned. However, cultural differences and a different way of life make this adjustment a hard one to swallow at times. This society is very patriarchal in the sense that the man is in charge of the house. Homes are passed down through the women though. Many of my students have written in their journals about how “if you respect your man, everything will be ok”…which the feminist in me is like….ok I’ll respect the men if they respect the ladies…. So in Erin’s house, what baba says goes and what baba does, goes unquestioned. Last week he was diagnosed with diabetes (probably because of how bad the Marshallese diet is and how often he drinks). Erin took that opportunity to try and explain to him how much sugar he eats and drinks. They drink primarily soda in their everyday lives, so she tried to explain to him how many grams of sugar were in one can of soda. It turns out he has never learned how to read a nutrition label so he has never bothered to look. In these moments I am so thankful for the education we receive in the United States that we take for granted. I don’t remember ever learning to read a nutrition label….it’s just something I know how to do. Even after she explained everything to him, he couldn’t quite grasp the concepts. Saying things like “I can’t drink soda, ok….what about sprite? That’s fine right?” Additionally, no one in the Marshall Islands really exercise, probably because it is too hot. This combination has made diabetes one of the leading diseases in the country. Another source of frustration is an inability to manage money effectively. Baba recently came home and informed the family that he sold their car for $2000.00 (which is a pretty fair price, since the car was pretty awful). Erin was hopeful that they would be able to put that money away, save it for occasions like last month when they didn’t have enough money to pay for energy, or use it to pay for baba’s medical needs. However, baba went out and had a shopping spree. He bought 6 giant bags of white rice, 6 cartons of eggs, a huge amount of soda and other unhealthy foods at the grocery store that Erin had just informed him probably gave him diabetes. He also decided to buy a 6 foot speaker with a disco ball at the top for $600 from a friend (who “gave him a great deal”) which is now sitting in the middle of their living room. Again, poor Erin is left in the awkward situation of feeling like she should get involved and educate her family on ways to responsibly handle money, but is also technically their “daughter” and living in a society where respecting your elders and holding your tongue are the norm. I’m sure not all host family situations are like this, and Erin does have some amazing benefits of living with them. They are so loving and welcoming, even to me, and she has fun with them quite often. However, these sources of awkwardness and frustration must take their toll.
Speaking of Erin, her and I have been working on a surprise for our friends in the Musical Theatre Club in Geneseo and have finally started recording our video. The details are a secret so stay tuned (but get excited).
One thing that I am still not used to is how shy and mild mannered the Marshallese are. (Unless of course if they are a male watching a female American go on a walk... then it's all bets off and all kinds of harassment). In class it’s hard for me to get people to participate a lot of the time because they are embarrassed to be the center of attention. People are very scared to do simple things, like take a piece of cake at a party (not a joke). Something may be happening to them that they feel very upset or outraged by and they will just sit back and allow the situation to continue without saying anything. They do not engage in conflict, even when it may be necessary. I think that may be one reason things don’t run particularly well here, people are never willing to question the original plan and suggest a better one. For those who do not know me as well as others, I am a very outspoken person (probably to an obnoxious degree) and this is a norm that I am having a probably accepting. My roommate (who is American) is also very opposed to conflict and will hold back her feelings and opinions to keep the peace. While her and I don’t ever fight or disagree really, I have observed situations with both her and other Marshallese people, where they were completely in the right and had valid concerns to voice, but they chose to sit back and let the other person win. In those moments, all I want to do it shake them and get in the middle of the situation to encourage a dialogue to begin. I am trying to learn how to hold my tongue during this year, which is going well for the most part (although it is killing me inside). However, I am doubtful that I would hold my tongue if I was in a situation where I felt outraged by something going on around me…in fact I am positive my outspoken nature would emerge and the opposing party probably wouldn’t understand what to do. Alas, patience is a virtue and in general, everything in moderation seems to be a good motto to live by. (I wear ying-yang earrings everyday here, and they keep reminding me that for harmony you need both the calm and the storm. A theme I have been embracing daily here)
One developing world quality that is starting to irritate me (and making me feel like a brat) is the constant power outages we seem to have on my side of town. This week alone we are having power outages on Thursday, Sunday and Monday. However, they only ever seem to take place on my side of town, on extremely hot days. We are supposed to have a teacher meeting day all day, but it keeps getting canceled and rescheduled because of the planned power outages (which I really don’t understand why they are getting planned and occurring in general), which is confusing everyone in the school about when the students need to be here. Also, it is impossible to sleep in my sauna of a room without a fan or AC, so I am exhausted the following day (not to mention gross and sweaty). At night you can’t really do much because you can’t read without a light, or go on your computer without an outlet or cook without appliances. I am worried that all of my food is going to go bad during the Sunday-Monday power outage, which for a poor volunteer like me would be a really tough loss financially. Also, whenever the power is off the water pump doesn’t work so all of our plumbing also is down for the count. I know I shouldn’t be complaining. Many people on the outer islands don’t have any electricity all year round and don’t have the option to eat food that is refrigerated what-so-ever. This is the type of “roughing it” life I signed up for this year and these are the challenging life situations I knew I would learn from. Ultimately, this is far from the end of the world. However, in the moment, its hell.
Speaking of hell, I started applying for graduate school this week. I have decided to apply for programs that offer a dual degree in Masters of Social Work and Masters in Public Health. I think that program would be incredibly interesting and important work that I would feel good about. The health conditions here are horrible and have made me take an increased interest in the health industry (lice, leprosy, measles, TB are all around, just to name a few). Also mental health is in my (psych major) opinion, equally important and should be given adequate attention. There is a staggering number of teen suicides in the Marshall Islands and it is a topic that is hardly ever discussed. Also, teen pregnancy is huge on the island. It probably because there is nothing to do here except play the ukulele and fish…so kids find better things to do with their time, and the sexual education and birth control options are minimal. To my knowledge, early termination is not an option what-so-ever here, so if you get pregnant, you are having a baby. It’s odd, I kind of see babies as pets here. There are SO many children around all the time, because people just keep having babies. Since this is a communal society, every generation of the family lives together. So adding another baby to the mix is just another mouth to feed. Anyway, it is for these reasons that I have taken an interest in Public Health. I have done a lot of research in the past few weeks and think I have my school choices narrowed down pretty well. I have a lot of work ahead of me (many essays and contacting people, not to mention applying to two different programs within each school in order to get into the dual major). I have also realized that my credentials are not going to really help me a lot when it comes to Public Health programs. I have little to no math and science experience in college (because I didn’t plan on going into any field that would require it) and I am worried that is going to work against me. I studied really hard for the math section of the GRE and actually did significantly better than their average test scored indicate…but my verbal section was neglected due to all my math studying and I am less impressive in that realm. Hopefully my GRE test scores help my case and I can write a convincing essay. I just hope that I don’t pile on all this work on top of my academic workload here for nothing. I am trying to keep the outlook that everything happens for a reason and if I get in somewhere that’s meant to be and if I don’t get in anywhere then maybe that’s not the direction I am meant to go in at this moment. I will admit, getting in no where would be disappointing. I guess we will just have to wait and see and hope that I can pull everything together in the next couple months.
On a completely Marshall Island-less note, I finished the “Song of Ice and Fire” series last week (better known as the Game of Thrones series…even though that’s only the title of the first book). I have bee working on the series since before I left for this trip and finishing it was bitter sweet. I am very anxious for the next book to come out and I can’t imagine how people who have been reading the books from the beginning must feel. I usually listen to the audiobook when I am trying to fall asleep to help with my insomnia and I spent about a week tossing and turning without any kind of story to lull me into a calm sleep. I finally caved and restarted the Harry Potter audiobook series, just to help me sleep at night. It is amazing. Starting the first book made me feel like a little kid again and I am very pleased to be taking this magical journey again. Now all I wish is that I could go back to Harry Potter world when I return to the states.
I also just saw the preview for the Into the Woods movie that is coming out in December. For those who don’t know, Into the Woods is my second favorite musical of all time and they are making it into a magical film, that from the trailer actually looks amazing. I am SO excited to see it and am seriously depressed that there is no way for me to see it when it comes out here. One of my strongest “first world” regrets since being here. It anyone wants to smuggle me an illegal copy, feel free.
Well this post seems quite long enough. I want to thank you all for continuing to support me and give me a reason to write these very long blog posts. I hope they are somewhat insightful and don’t sound too much like a lecture.
Thanks for reading!