22 Feb Betel Nut

A letter to my Majuro readers:

Iakwe.Welcome to my Marshall Islands blog. As you know, a “blog” is a personal online journal. That’s why there is no link from the official Marshall Islands Story project website (http://mistories.org) to this website. That website is about cultural preservation. This website is about personal experience. I am speaking here not as the director of that project but, instead, as a visitor to a land and a people I hope to understand better.

It’s been brought to my attention that I have gotten some things wrong—about CMI, about the RMI, about the Marshallese, about the ex-pats. Maybe about everything. I am the first to admit that my ignorance is monumental. I know two words of Marshallese: “hello” and “thank you.” It’s embarrassing. But I am here to be educated. Already many people have offered to help me learn. I welcome and greatly appreciate their help.

I am writing this blog, in part, to model for my students the process of learning. I am writing also to show how many Americans think and how they can learn to think differently (see the topic of betel nut below, for example). What I observe the first day on Majuro will be very different from what I observe the tenth day and then the twentieth day and then the thirtieth. In time, as I gain a fuller picture of CMI, of the RMI, and of the Marshallese people, I hope to correct the mistakes I’ve made in my observations. But I have to start with my own ignorance. Otherwise, where is the learning? In other words: if I knew everything I was supposed to know, then I’d be writing an encyclopedia article, not a blog.

So I ask you to be patient and help me where you can. By the time I get to the end of this blog—in July or August—it will sound very different than it does now. In the meantime, I look forward to events that will be surprising, illuminating, and, very likely, humbling (to me). Kommool tata.




laundry Henry read my blog the week I arrived and has decided that I can use his real name: Newton. So the man you’ve known as Henry is actually Netwon. This week Newton’s been distracted with the camp he’s building on Arno, a neighboring atoll my class will visit. This week’s project is the outhouse. So—after much paperwork and running around–he got lumber cut and carefully labeled, loaded it onto a boat (which took five trips in a van), then borrowed one of the carpenters from CMI. I don’t expect to see him for five days. Building anything on an outer island takes a lot of planning. It’s not like you can run down to the hardware store for a box of nails.

Monday, at the start of class, I went looking for my students. Only two had shown up on time. They joked that they should get extra credit. I found three others sitting on the benches in front of the computer lab. Two of them were preparing betel nut for a chew. I’ve heard that 10% of the world’s population enjoys betel nut’s invigorating buzz. Although it’s been prevalent in most of the southern Pacific for a millennia or more, it’s new to the Marshalls. Newton says it first showed up about three years ago.

betel nut The nut looks like a walnut-sized avocado, right down to the pit. You’re supposed to split open the flesh, sprinkle it with a white lime powder (derived from shells or coral). This helps break down the plant as you chew. Next, you wrap the thing in a peppery leaf (from a different kind of betel plant), then you’re ready to pop it into your mouth. Saliva breaks down the plant and releases stimulating “psychoactive alkaloids.”

At first I thought the lime powder was cocaine. This made one of the students laugh. The RMI government is really strict about drugs. There’s no pot here, for example. Still, I was mildly alarmed to see two of my students stoking up on betel nut before class. But what could I say?

I found a fourth student in the computer lab, working on his homework, though I couldn’t tell if it was homework for our class. By the time we returned to the room—fifteen minutes late—only two students were missing. Several had not done their writing assignment and most had not done the reading. So I improvised and clarified and qualified and joked and made sure everybody had a folder for the work and everyone understood the next assignment. We worked in small reading groups. These students continue to impress me with their ability and the fluency of their English. But I’m still trying to figure out how to help them learn better work habits. Patience is the key. It’s early yet.

The centerpiece of the story-telling class is my students’ correspondence with Loyola students. This week I asked my students to tell (in writing) a Marshallese ghost story to their Loyola partners. One student observed that the Loyola students would need an introduction to the tales. Good idea, I said. So that’s what the class is going to do, write an introduction that explains some basics of Marshallese culture so the tales will make more sense.

I wasn’t sure how much of the story telling tradition the Marshallese students would know. They seem to know a lot. This is good news. They’re proud of what they’ve learned from their families and eager to share this. They’ll have a good time when we get into the field.

Here’s what made my day this morning. I was pedaling to work. The road—the only road—was backed-up with traffic. I was breezing along the sandy shoulder. Then, from the rear of a mico-van, a small boy reached out to high-five me. I gently smacked my open hand to his, then he shouted in triumph and waved after me. So it is with the youngsters as I pass. If they’re near enough, they hold out their hands for a smack. If they’re not near enough, they wave and I return the peace sign.

Marshallese children are very sweet because their parents are very affectionate and forgiving. This attitude seems to pervade the culture. Nobody points blame. Everybody gets a second chance, it seems, and then a third and then a fourth. This expectation announces itself among the students—among mine, it is clear. Americans may misperceive this as a sense of entitlement but the attitude is not that simply explained.

The question of why it’s been so difficult to get the grant funds from the government is similarly complicated. The readiest explanations—laziness, corruption, incompetence—just don’t make sense. Every Marshallese who hears of my situation shakes his or her head in dismay. Newton says, “This makes us look bad.” Several Marshallese I’ve spoken with feel that way. But no one offers an explanation for why the situation is this way. When the Historic Preservation Office secretary says they’ve made a phone call to the Ministry of Finance without getting any results, Newton replies, “They know better. You don’t make a phone call. You go down there. You deal with this person to person.”

Maybe that’s the key. Business traditionally was always a face-to-face matter. My guess: the circles of influence that spiral down from chiefs, landowners, and clan-heads still hold sway in many areas. If you’re not there one-on-one to plead your case or see your business through, then your business can be ignored. Still, Newton’s been to the Ministry of Finance three or four times to talk with his cousin, and yet another week has passed without results.

Getting used to my situation, I’ve decided, is like passing through the stages of grief. The first week I was more or less in shock and denial. Now, two weeks in, I’m accommodating myself to a kind of fatalism that allows me to sleep through the night. At bottom, I have no choice in how this thing plays out. The president of CMI said this to me: “Had we told you what would likely happen, you would have misunderstood. Or you wouldn’t have believed us. It’s best that you come here and experience it for yourself.”

I spoke to Jill on the phone finally (via computer). It was a relief to hear her voice. We’ve cobbled together enough finances to stay solvent for a month, thanks to family help, a tax refund, and a check from my college. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself every time I patch together a meal in my room (tonight’s dinner was a salad and a box of cookies). But really it’s a laughable. Jill and I acknowledge that we’re lucky. Too many others under these circumstances would have been ruined in short order. And I’m eating daily when many go hungry. So, yeah, I’ve got four dollars in my pocket, my bank froze my account because it was empty, I’ve got creditors knocking on my door, and the project can’t get off the ground yet. But soon something will happen. And it will be good.

After worrying about the betel nut habit, I did some research. It turns out that betel nut offers the same kick as chewing tobacco. In fact, the similarities are striking, including the ugly things the chew does to the user’s mouth. I recall my Appalachian uncles mouthing “chaw” as they lounged on my grandma’s porch during our Sunday visits to Lenoir, North Carolina. My oldest uncles (my mother had six brothers) worked in the sawmills. Sunday they wore their church suits, were well shaved, and reeked of cologne, their hair flattened with “tonic.” Chewing tobacco, they’d sit on the front porch for hours and stare to the end of the dirt road that led to the wider world.

I was about five at the time. Tobacco plugs, wrapped in colorfully printed cellophane, looked like candy. But I couldn’t fathom putting that damp turd-dark wad of leaf into my mouth. Occasionally, uncle Cliff or uncle Clint or grandpa would wipe at the purplish spittle that had snaked abruptly over his bottom lip. They’d spit into an old tin coffee can, which they passed around. By the day’s end, the can would be half full and the men would stink right tartly of tobacco, their lips stained with its juice.

american chew It’s the same with betel nut. You don’t swallow the rich red spit its chewing creates. Says one Taiwan neurologist, “Betel chewing has been claimed to produce a sense of well-being, euphoria, heightened alertness, sweating, salivation, a hot sensation in the body and increased capacity to work. Betel chewing also leads to habituation, addiction and withdrawal.” Taiwan may be the betel nut capital of the world. Some Taiwanese farmers make their livelihood growing nothing else. It is, in fact, Taiwan’s number two cash crop. As with tobacco, habitual chewing of betel nut causes cancer of the mouth. It is apparently as addictive as tobacco. But, again like tobacco, nowhere in the world is it illegal.

rain barrel It’s been raining off and on this week. As we’re in the midst of the dry season, the showers come and go. One half of the island could be in steaming in sunshine and the other half doused in a torrent. In any season, the rain often comes so fast and hard, you can only surrender to it. I never see anybody run for cover. And I don’t see umbrellas. Why bother?