This is part two of an interview with Peter Rudiak-Gould, an American student who lived for a year on a remote atoll of the remote Marshall Islands, publishing his first book titled Surviving Paradise describing his experience. Read part one of the interview first. All photos are courtesy of Peter and are printed with permission. Many more can be found on Peter’s website.
Travel Wonders: Can you comment on some of the positive and negative changes that modern western (especially American) influence is having on these remote islanders’ lives?
Peter Rudiak-Gould: The first thing to realize is that, while these people are quite remote and somewhat isolated, there has nonetheless been a huge amount of foreign influence for well over a century. Missionaries, whalers, German administrators and plantation owners, Japanese imperialists and schoolteachers, World War II, American soldiers, nuclear testing, aid money, and the Peace Corps – the list goes on and on. We Westerners have a tendency to think that every remote place is just now opening up to the outside world, and that the latest foreign influence—whether it’s tourism or climate change—will be the one to finally spoil the place. But, despite all of the outside forces over the years, something that is still recognizably “Marshallese culture” has survived all this time – so it may not be quite as fragile as we fear.
Some of the record of foreign influence has been good. Fighting between islands used to be rampant and is now unknown. (This is not evidence that colonialism is good, only that government is good.) Infant mortality is way down; Marshall Islanders traditionally celebrate a new child not at birth but at the first birthday, because half of infants didn’t survive until then. The people are now protected from droughts and typhoons by the Marshallese and American governments; these hazards used to kill people in large numbers. On the other hand, it’s harder nowadays for people to live off the land because of population growth, overfishing and overhunting, and the German replanting of their islands with a cash crop (coconuts) rather than subsistence crops. Once-rare diseases like obesity and diabetes are now common due to lack of exercise and reliance on the empty calories of imported rice and sugar. And there is the not-so-small matter of nuclear testing, which has caused (and continues to cause) a tremendous amount of suffering for people displaced and irradiated.
I’m not going to say whether I think these changes are balance positive or negative, but I do think that if we’re going to make that call, we had better take all of the changes into account, not just the ones that fit our ideology. Diehard believers in modernity would like us to forget the bad points, while diehard traditionalists would like us to forget the good points. Interestingly, that same schism of belief exists in the Marshall Islands itself: if you ask how life was before foreigners came, locals will say “Peaceful – much better than today” but if you ask how life was before missionaries came, they’ll say “Violent – much worse than today”. These are the same individuals talking about the same time period, but the answer is different because the question has been framed in two different ways. So, whether you’re a local or a foreigner, comparing the present to the past is not a straightforward matter.
TW: You reference that Marshallese has 33 words for “wave” and 11 for “coconut” (plus over 100 other related terms). The language appears to have developed independent of too many outside influences. What is there to learn from such “separated” languages and what fascinated you most about Marshallese?
Peter: Languages reveal something about what people have needed to name, the sorts of distinctions they’ve found it useful to make. It’s not surprising that Marshallese has so many words related to staple plants like coconut, breadfruit, and pandanus. To give you an idea of how important these species are, here are some of their uses. Coconut trees are used for food (several varieties of coconut meat), drink (coconut juice and coconut sap), alcohol (fermented coconut sap), fuel (coconut husks), bowls (made of coconut shells), cords for stringing fish, utensils, medicine, rope, shelter, baskets, handicrafts, and copra (dried coconut meat) as a cash crop. Coconuts are even used as pillows! Breadfruit trees are used for building materials and many varieties of fresh, cooked, and preserved food. Pandanus trees are used for fresh and preserved food, medicine, thatch, and handicrafts – and now their roots are used to clean snorkel masks. So it’s not that surprising (though I still find it charming) that Marshallese has amazingly specific words like lajden for “the smallest breadfruit or pandanus remaining on the tree at the end of the season” or ninikoko for “two or more persons sharing one coconut”.
The language is not entirely free of foreign influence. There are hundreds of words from English, like baam (bomb), pinjel (pencil), and jikuul (school). There some Japanese words, too: for instance, tenki for “flashlight” and jambo for “to walk around”. Older people will occasionally even say maak (like the German currency “mark”) for “money”, a reminder of German influence in these islands before World War I. So the colonial history of the islands is inscribed in the language.
TW: Have you met another non-Marshall Islander who speaks the language well?
Peter: I’ve met some people who have been in the country for decades—life-long missionaries, and a man who works with the displaced people of Bikini Atoll, to name a few—and their Marshallese makes mine sound like baby talk. In fact, no one would be terribly impressed with my level of Marshallese ability in, say, Spanish or French. The fact that it’s exotic makes even a workable grasp of the language seem impressive. Same with Marshallese people themselves; even at the beginning when I could only mumble a few stock phrases, locals were delighted. So, while the language is hard to learn in many ways, you get a lot of recognition for any amount that you master. I’m not exactly complaining about that.
Peter: There are too many to choose from, so I’ll use this as an opportunity include a tidbit that I never managed to fit into the book. There are no phones on most of the outer islands, so the main means of communication is by radio. There is just one problem with this (um, other than the deluge of static, the confusion of two different sets of people trying to have simultaneous conversations on the same channel, not hearing what your conversation partner said because you were both talking at the same time, and not knowing how well your joke went over because you can only hear the other side when they’re pressing the button on their microphone)—so, yes, the one problem with these radios is that everyone in the Marshall Islands can hear what you’re saying. So, I submit the following word of advice for English teachers in the Marshall Islands: please do not teach your students Pig Latin. The outer island volunteers need it in order to send coded radio messages to each other about things such as: local dating disasters, embarrassing medical problems, etc. I have even heard of volunteers using Spanish, and Pig Spanish, for the same purpose.
TW: What would be your advice to a new person being assigned a year on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands?
Peter: Don’t be too masochistic. Of course, you’re probably a bit of a masochist, like me, if you want to go there. But you don’t have to, say, leave your books or iPod at home in the name of going native, roughing it, or having a more real experience. (You might have no way to charge your iPod there, but that’s another matter.) To be honest, I didn’t really live up to this advice myself – I had the opportunity have a satellite phone but turned it down. I’m just saying that you don’t have to do that to yourself to have an authentic experience.
You will have expectations of the place, and that’s natural. But to the greatest extent possible, don’t let those expectations color how you perceive things once you get there. Let the place wash over you in all of its complexity. It won’t be the Lost World that some are hoping for; it won’t be Honolulu either. It will be itself. It will be proof of no ideology, confirmation of no simplistic worldview. If you manage to see it that way, you’re doing better than most.
Thank you Peter for your insightful thoughts on this remote island community. Peter shares his thoughts on climate change in the Marshall Islands in a further interview and his book Surviving Paradise is an excellent read.