February 2010

Barbara J. King

features

Peter Rudiak-Gould's Anthropology 101

Peter Rudiak-Gould, newly arrived at age 21 in the Marshall Islands, decided to walk the entire perimeter of the island called Ujae. What better way, he reasoned, to explore the place that would be his home for the next year?

Forty-five minutes later, he arrived back at his starting point.

Next, he decided to walk straight across the island’s interior, from lagoon side to ocean side. This jaunt took precisely 5 minutes.

Ujae, Rudiak-Gould realized, was not only 5,000 miles from home, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, and 70 miles from the nearest road, shower, refrigerator, or store -- it was a very small island.

In Surviving Paradise, Rudiak-Gould, now a graduate student in anthropology, pens an account of his year on Ujae. During that year he taught English to children, learned to live cheek by jowl with his neighbors on his tiny floating home, and grappled to make sense of a culture dizzyingly different from his own. It’s a fun and funny book, an insightful and thought-provoking book that’s fresh in both senses of the word: as it covers some familiar travel-literature ground in new ways, it’s not afraid to be sassy.

Yes, there are staples here of the wide-eyed-American-meets-exotic-culture variety. Rudiak-Gould writes about ingesting the rubbery intestines of the green sea turtle; recalls the past period when women’s bare Marshallese breasts were acceptable but their bare knees were risqué; and marvels at the vanishingly small fleet of planes maintained by the national airline, which adjusted flight schedules to accommodate mourners heading to family funerals. Ujae’s people embrace both traditional Micronesian ways and imported Western ones, so that “the same person who shared with you the ancient meaning of the colored lines on the back of a crab could also recite Snoop Dogg lyrics.”

Rudiak-Gould spares no biting irony for himself: he’s the inept fish-spearer, the clumsy apprentice of any number of Marshallese practices. Welcome as it is, though, it’s not Rudiak-Gould’s willingness to poke fun at himself that sets this book apart. Yes, he was an amusing “infant” in the ways of the local culture, but that piece of self-reflection often anchors this cross-cultural genre; it’s even invoked by the central character Jake Sully in the blockbuster movie Avatar when he first lives among the Navi.

No, this book offers something more. Rudiak-Gould writes about his everyday experiences on the island in service of some big themes: the nature of child-rearing and education on Ujae; the consequences for the Marshallese of the American nuclear testing in the islands in the 1940s-50s; and the all-too-probable future flooding of the islands owing to global warming. By way of example, I’ll zero in here on the kids and classroom part, because this is the most central to Rudiak-Gould’s own experience.

Rudiak-Gould signs up for his Ujae year as part of an organization called WorldTeach. Requesting and receiving an assignment to one of the outer islands, he landed in a school ranked 78th out of the 82 schools in the Marshall Islands. Worse, the UN had rated the Marshall Islands overall as “dead last in educational achievement among Pacific Island nations.” His pupils in all eight elementary grades were meant to learn English from him, but resources were so few, and rote (as opposed to critical) thinking so the norm, that the going was rocky at best.

It’s fascinating to read Rudiak-Gould’s teasing apart of the connections between the kids’ troubles in school and the behavior of their parents. To put it mildly, the culture doesn’t reward warm-fuzzy parent-child interactions and parental rah-rah’ing for kids’ self-esteem isn’t rampant. Instead, the kids’ role “was to obey their parents and get out of the way, and any unauthorized cognition was a threat to that.” Never during his year on Ujae did Rudiak-Gould see an adult engage in a two-way conversation with a child. Discipline and physical punishment of children he did see. The parents were indifferent to the school and to Rudiak-Gould’s efforts as a teacher, though in other ways they were kind and welcoming to him.

This strange juxtaposition of values allows Rudiak-Gould to write about his cultural disorientation in ways deeper than the usual culture-shock approach allows. When, near the end of his stay, an islander refers to him as “Marshallese,” Rudiak-Gould knows the intended compliment is off base. He’s not Marshallese and he doesn’t want to be. For all his immense affection for Ujae’s people, his adopted culture is, as he puts it, fundamentally incompatible with his own heart.

“Once upon a time,” Rudiak-Gould writes, “Western do-gooders were expected to come back from their travels with the following story: we went there, and we saved them. Nowadays, audiences craved a different myth: we went there, and they saved us. Neither story fit my experiences on this island. For Ujae and for me, the result of this time together was not transformation, but memory making -- and that is how it should have been.”

This ability to compartmentalize, to feel genuine affection for Ujae’s people without buying in to all they do, is admirable. It’s sensible to evaluate parental behavior in the context of the whole culture, too. Nevertheless, in one section I couldn’t quite fathom Rudiak-Gould’s sensibility. Explaining the hardships of survival in the Marshallese environment, he faithfully reports a local view, “If someone needed to die, better it be a child than an adult.” That’s fair enough, but does it lead inexorably to the conclusion he reaches? “No wonder,” he continues, “that children were not talked to except to be commanded and scolded. No wonder that corporal punishment was the first solution to misbehavior.”

As an anthropologist; I see well enough that my feelings on this topic emerge from the lens of white middle-class privilege. Even so, the pair of Rudiak-Gould’s “no wonders” left me wondering: Does a survivalist perspective require parents to neglect their children emotionally? Surviving Paradise brims with anecdotes about resentful, lonely, unhappy children who crave some affection from their parents. I suppose all this is part of the fundamental incompatability Rudiak-Gould cites between his own world views and the ones on Ujae, but can he conjure no third alternative to the EuroAmerican indulgence of children and the “no wonders” of the Marshallese ways?

Again and again, though, I appreciated Rudiak-Gould’s good-naturedness, his love of learning the Marshallese language, his awareness that his “umbilical cord of privilege” set him apart as much as did his white skin and his strange habit of wanting to be kind to the kids. And the lighter parts of the book float the heavier ones. Thinking back to my fieldwork days in Kenya, I hooted with recognition at the junk-food passages: “I had a private supply of snack food,” Rudiak-Gould notes, “shipped in from the States by my parents. The Marshallese rule was to share, but I didn’t want to. The junk food kept me sane. When the supply ran empty, all was chaos and darkness.”

Chaos and darkness, joy and surprise, getting to know people through their own language and ways of life: it’s Anthropology 101 compacted into a superbly enjoyable book. The kinds of experience Rudiak-Gould lived on Ujae have a way of getting under one’s skin. Rudiak-Gould is now working toward his doctorate in anthropology.

Barbara J. King’s new book has just been published. It’s called Being With Animals: Why We are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World.