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Making Sense of Micronesia

Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture

Francis X. Hezel
Copyright Date: 2013
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  • Book Info
    Making Sense of Micronesia
    Book Description:

    Why are islanders so lavishly generous with food and material possessions but so guarded with information? Why do these people, unfailingly polite for the most part, laugh openly when others embarrass themselves? What does a smile mean to an islander? What might a sudden lapse into silence signify? These questions are common in encounters with an unfamiliar Pacific Island culture.Making Sense of Micronesiais intended for westerners who find themselves in contact with Micronesians-as teachers, social workers, health-care providers, or simply as friends-and are puzzled by their island ways. It is for anyone struggling to make sense of cultural exchanges they don't quite understand.The author focuses on the guts of island culture: the importance of the social map, the tension between the individual and social identity, the ways in which wealth and knowledge are used, the huge importance of respect, emotional expression and its restraints, island ways of handling both conflict and intimacy, the real but indirect power of women. Far from a theoretical exposition, the book begins and ends with the real-life behavior of islanders. Each section of every chapter is introduced by a vignette that illustrates the theme discussed. The book attempts to explain island behavior, as curious as it may seem to outsiders at times, against the over-riding pattern of values and attitudes that have always guided island life.Even as the author maps the cultural terrain of Micronesia, he identifies those areas where island logic and the demands of the modern world conflict: the "dilemmas of development." In some cases, changes are being made; in others, the very features of island culture that were highly functional in the past may remain so even today. Overall, he advocates restraint-in our judgments on island practices, in our assumption that many of these are dysfunctional, and in leading the charge for "development" before understanding the broader context of the culture we are trying to convert.16 illus.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3781-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Micronesia—“the tiny islands,” as they were labeled by a nineteenthcentury French naval captain—live up to their name. A couple of the largest are about one hundred square miles, but most are far smaller, the smallest with a land area of no more than a few acres. There are close to two thousand of them in all, but only about one hundred are inhabited. They include mountainous volcanic islands, slabs of continental shelf, and coral atolls that rise only a few feet above sea level.

    The islands stretch in a long arc more than two thousand miles across the...

  6. 1 The Personal Touch
    (pp. 11-23)

    This might be a minor misunderstanding, but it’s one repeated many times over in every part of Micronesia. Common island practice in answering the phone conflicts with what is regarded as proper phone courtesy by a westerner. When islanders and foreigners interact with one another, there are bound to be cultural collisions, and this is simply one of them.

    But there’s more to the matter than this. Underlying the Micronesian’s “rude” response on the phone is a logic that stems from a very different set of cultural values and attitudes. The incident described above is no more than the flashpoint...

  7. 2 Forging an Identity
    (pp. 24-36)

    This American teacher was not the first visitor to the islands to have entertained such thoughts. Albert Sturges, an early American missionary to Pohnpei, wrote a line a century and a half ago that might have echoed the sentiments of many other foreign visitors to the islands before and since. “Humanity here is one viscous mass,” Sturges wrote, “and there is no such thing here as individual action or individual responsibility.” Sturges undoubtedly would have written the same line if he had been in Yap or Palau or anywhere else in the region.

    Everyone knows of numerous instances when islanders...

  8. 3 Limits of the Individual
    (pp. 37-48)

    Privacy clearly does not have the same value in Micronesian eyes that it has for westerners. This is the first lesson learned by Americans who make their home in the islands for any length of time. I can still see the pairs of eyes peering through the windows as I did my daily exercises in the plywood house that served as my temporary home in the village. They belonged to the children who lined up outside the house every afternoon to enjoy the spectacle. Just as there was no privacy in the village, there were no secrets either, I soon...

  9. 4 The Place of Wealth
    (pp. 49-61)

    Micronesian generosity is legendary. Any visitor to the islands can recount tales of island largesse: attending parties and being provided with much more food than he could possibly eat, sometimes being sent off with enough to feed his family for a week. We old-timers in Chuuk always chuckled when a host announced, with typical island modesty, that he had not prepared much for his guests, just “a little bread and some water.” We knew by that time what to expect as platter after platter of food was brought out along with an assortment of drinks. The eyes of the newcomers...

  10. 5 The Uses of Information
    (pp. 62-73)

    Facts are just facts, we westerners would like to believe. Our concern is to know whether the facts are correct or not so that we can construct as accurate a description of the event as possible. Is it true in the situation described above, for instance, that the son had begun drinking heavily a few months before his death, possibly because of some misunderstanding in the family? Was the son angry at someone in his family for a particular reason? My informant, however, had a different agenda. He wanted to know the source of the stories I had been told....

  11. 6 Deciphering the Unspoken
    (pp. 74-86)

    Communication across cultures involves weighing the meaning of words in their context, but it also means interpreting silences and the pauses in speech. Sometimes the gaps in speech, joined with facial expressions and bodily gestures, speak more eloquently than words—at least for one who can interpret what is being communicated.

    Mariano’s silence may be partly due to personal shyness and the strangeness of his new situation at the school, but there are cultural factors that could also help explain his reticence. Most young Micronesians have already learned that it is risky to call attention to oneself, even by volunteering...

  12. 7 Showing Respect
    (pp. 87-99)

    Respect is one of the central concepts in island culture; the word is forever being used in the islands. The importance of respect is a lesson that Micronesians begin to absorb within the circle of their family from the youngest age. Children learn to show respect for their parents and other elders in the family, waiting until older people have helped themselves to food and carrying out assigned tasks in the household as instructed. The mother’s adult sister is entitled to nearly as much respect from the children as their mother. The children in a village family would have called...

  13. 8 The Matter of Sex
    (pp. 100-112)

    Before the era of the modern concrete house, there was little privacy to be found in a Micronesian home. Aside from a small storage space in the back somewhere, the house was one large undivided room with almost no furniture. This single large space usually served as the dining area, the living room, and the dormitory as members of the household unfolded their sleeping mats and picked a place on the floor to take their rest. There were no personal quarters for anyone in this type of living situation. Clothes and a few personal items might be tucked away in...

  14. 9 The Real Power of Women
    (pp. 113-126)

    Like so many other new visitors to the islands, I couldn’t help but feel that Micronesian women were ill-used creatures. Just look at how they’re treated. A young woman tries to intervene to help her drunken brother, who repays her with blows to the face. Men enjoy themselves while women struggle with their heavy work burdens. Other images flash to mind. Sometimes we would see a married couple walking down the road, the man usually a few steps ahead of his wife, eyes fixed on the road ahead as if he were deliberately ignoring her. Then there is my own...

  15. 10 Love and Its Expression
    (pp. 127-139)

    Micronesian parents can be very demonstrative in their affection toward infants. They playfully coddle them and kiss them, whispering sweet words, and then pass them over to their spouses, all the while lavishing their full attention on them. In other words, they behave the way parents anywhere in the world might toward a young infant born into their family.

    But this doesn’t last long. As soon as a new child arrives, the attention given to the slightly older infant abruptly ceases and is refocused on the latest arrival. The child who had once been the center of attention is suddenly...

  16. 11 Coping with Conflict
    (pp. 140-151)

    “Doesn’t anyone ever get angry?” I used to wonder in my first years in Micronesia. The kind of conversation recounted above would happen frequently, as students would relate with a smile on their face, how their last pair of underwear had been stolen or how they had suffered some other injustice. I could only marvel at their equanimity as they joked about their misfortune. People came across as so friendly and gentle in their behavior toward one another, some of us wondered whether they ever experienced strong negative emotions. If they did, how were these feelings expressed and how did...

  17. 12 Handling Uncertainty and Loss
    (pp. 152-163)

    The future is filled with uncertainties for us all. For islanders, limited in their understanding of the workings of the natural world and subject to the powerful social forces always operating on their lives, uncertainty was everywhere. Acutely aware of their fragile control over events, Micronesians were always looking for ways to extend this control. How to guarantee a good breadfruit or taro or pandanus harvest in coming years? How to ensure a successful fishing catch that would feed the family during the days to come? How to cure a family member who was taken sick? And in the old...

  18. In Summary
    (pp. 164-172)

    An encounter with a culture, especially a culture as different as those in Micronesia, is always a wild ride. I’m reminded of a theme park ride I took years ago when we were packed into a car that hurtled through one tunnel opening after another, each offering mysterious and sometimes frightening scenes, all of which we tried to absorb as the car dipped and tilted and plunged. I recall finishing the ride half wishing that I could see it all again, this time in slow motion, so that I could ponder the meaning of those tunnel scenes. It was a...

  19. Suggested Reading
    (pp. 173-178)
  20. Index
    (pp. 179-182)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 183-189)