Letter from Palau Number Fourteen
September 1, 2006

Greetings from room 402 of the PTC apartment house on Malakal where I am hoping to get a jump on this week’s letter by beginning it early Thursday morning.  I just returned from my regular dawn swim at Rip Tide Beach; thankfully once again there was no sign of anything like a rip tide.  (Do you think there is a place called Sleepy Lagoon in the Bay of Fundy)?  I am always the only one there at that early hour, and on a cloudy and rainy day like today not even the Bangladeshi security guards are all that awake.  This morning even the pack of beach dogs that like to swim with the tourists were sound asleep, all curled up out of the wind.  I didn’t stop to say hi as I usually do because I am a firm believer in, well you know, letting sleeping dogs do their thing.  By the time I came back, though, they were stretching and yawning and sniffing and getting ready to deal with whatever their day would bring, just like the rest of us.

Yesterday’s meeting of the Rotary Club of Palau was memorable for several reasons.  No one won the Queen’s Purse, so now there are only 51 cards left in the deck.  Just think of it.  I, on the other hand, won two prizes in the preliminary drawing.  A winning number was called out and I, the one who has won nothing in 14 straight meetings, somehow managed to miss the fact that it was staring me right in the face on one of the tickets I had bought a few minutes before. The number was repeated and then repeated again until I finally tumbled to the fact that it was mine.  The ribbing about my raffle-incompetence and professorial absent mindedness only got worse when I, as the winner of that round, drew a ticket from the bowl for the next round that turned out to be mine also.  First I forget to mail last week’s letter, then this.  I guess Nicky was right the other day when he said (after I locked myself out of my car): Pete, you are getting old.

My excuse for not paying more attention to the drawing is that I was still thinking about some of the things that our guest speaker, Dora Uchel, had said just moments before.  A blind mother of three and a college student with only a few credits left until she earns her degree from PCC (with a double major), she talked about the challenges faced by the blind in Palau.  You could have heard a pin drop as she made her way to the podium, introduced herself, and told her story of being born blind, of being taken to Oregon as a small child by the wife of a former Justice because she was not learning anything in the schools here which were totally ill-equipped to deal with a blind child, and then returning at age 18 to begin to make her way in life.  It was a story of dreams achieved and obstacles overcome and by the end of her talk she had us all enthralled.  Then came the questions, thick and fast, and she answered them all with good humor and better sense.  Next the invitations started to come in—a judge wanted Dora to talk to her son’s graduating class because: If you could overcome what you were faced with to achieve your dreams then there is absolutely no reason for those kids. . . .  And this one from an assistant to the President of Palau:  Would you please consider being one of the keynote speakers at the World Day of Peace celebration on September 11.  The President and Vice President will be there and you should be on the program.

So you can see why I am hopeful that the club will decide to address the issue of blindness in addition to its ongoing projects of bringing clean water to elementary and Head Start students (the latter in partnership with the Rotary Club of Maui which is providing solar pasteurizing units to purify the water in all the Head Starts of the Republic).

Dora wasn’t the only one who gave a talk yesterday.  After leaving the Rotary Club meeting with my winnings (a pack of Rotary playing cards and a Rotary Club of Palau license plate holder), I went up to that same Belau National Museum coffee shop where Isauro had inspected the Southwest Island artifacts last week.  I was there to give a talk to the staffs of the museum and the Bureau of Arts and Culture.  Ninety minutes later, having delivered myself of my thoughts on the past and present of Palau, I was done.

During that 90 minutes I talked about several challenges facing Palau: the emergence of an increasing gap between a small group of very wealthy and well- connected families and the rest of society; the emergence of an increasingly culturally diverse population; and the maintenance of basic infrastructure, both physical and social.  I pointed out that given past experience there is every probability that Palau will successfully meet these challenges, if not always in the smoothest and most efficient way possible.  One point that seemed to attract attention dealt with the question of whether or not Palau has been Americanized.  I said that to me the interesting thing is how Palauanized American ways of doing things are becoming.  This is happening through the application of the basic old Palauan values of land, family, and food (betel nuts, too).  Not everything I said was positive.  For example, in my opinion it is tragic that so much of the best brain power and creativity of Palau’s 20,000 people is spent generating pointless documents destined to be read by no one in response to rules and mandates set by funding sources as a result of the political and economic conditions (and culture) of a mass society of 300 million 10,000 miles away.  Several people in that room spend a good deal of their time doing just that, I think, and I had no suggestions as to how the situation might be improved.  I’m not sure how appreciated that part of the talk was.  In any event now I am in that curious but very familiar position of wondering if it was successful or not.

Not long after I first started giving academic papers I learned to distrust my subjective impressions on this particular issue.  This was because I began noticing that there was a universal answer to the question: How did your talk go?  The response was always: Not bad.  This from colleagues whose incoherent drone had emptied the room within minutes of the start of their talk and from those whose talks, like Dora’s, had held an audience in rapt attention.  How’d your talk go?  Oh, not bad.  And the answer always seemed sincere.  Apparently we are not very good judges of audience response. 

Still, whatever its merits as a presentation, it was for me at least a very pleasant experience.  The audience was well suited to an anthropological talk; the BNM and BAC are the places where over the years anthropology has found a home in Palau.  So, for example, I think people got what I was talking about when I suggested that cultural relativism should address ideas about what is ridiculous in addition to ideas of what is moral.  (To an American, a state with only 200 people but with a full complement of officials is silly beyond words.  But to the people involved it simply is a new system of titles and politics with nothing inherently funny about it.  So if you want to understand it, you have to stop laughing long enough to lay aside your ideas of what is ridiculous.)  My topic, Continuity and Change in Palau, 1967 to 2006, let me say a bunch of stuff I have been thinking about for some time now and it led to questions and discussion that revealed some of the anxieties and hopes people here are feeling about the future of their amazing country.  How to integrate the traditional system of chiefs and titles with the new American-based constitutional legal and political order?  How to preserve Palauan culture and market it to tourists at the same time?  Did the Peace Corps do more harm than good?   Needless to say, everyone was most gracious and complimentary when I asked them how they thought the talk had gone: not a single not bad among all the responses.

One of the people there was my replacement at BAC, Birgit Abels, a soon-to-be Ph.D. ethnomusicologist from Germany who was here several years ago doing the research for her dissertation.  She promises to be just what BAC needs: a smart and energetic researcher/administrator; I am relieved to be turning desk, key, and responsibilities over to her.  She also has proven a mine of information about possible early recordings of Tobian music, which, if I can lay my hands on them, will be a terrific addition to FOTI.  We have hundreds of sound files posted and many more to come as a result of this summer’s work, but only a little bit of music, despite a constant stream of requests for old Tobi music.

Speaking of those sound files: most of the new ones feature Isauro, the former school teacher.  Earlier this week as we were working through a long list of verbs, we stumbled across a word usage that neither of us can really understand.  In Tobian there are two words that mean to eat. They differ in that they refer to eating different kinds of food.  I’ve known this since I first started learning the language and in fact frequently used it as an example of one thing or another in my classes.  But as Isauro and I worked at recording and defining these two words, it became very clear that I didn’t have anything like a complete understanding of their correct usage and Isauro had no good way to explain why it is the way it is. 

Let’s see if I can explain what I’m talking about. One word is used to describe what you are doing when you are eating meat or fish, the other is used to describe what you are doing when you are eating what Tobian English speakers universally call food when they are speaking English, by which they mean rice, taro, sweet potato, etc.  So far so simple, right? Protein versus carbohydrates or as I used to tell students, food associated with men (fish from the sea, etc.) versus food associated with women (food from gardens).  But then Isauro starts wondering why we use the first term for bananas, breadfruit, Micronesian apple, papaya, and lemon as well as fish (a usage I had never noticed).  Maybe that’s because those are fruits you pick from a tree, says I.  Hmmm, says he. Then I think to ask, what do you say if you are eating cooked breadfruit or bananas?  Oh for that we use the same word as for taro.  OK, I suggest, maybe the other word means to eat fish (or meat) and raw fruit.  But, he answers, then why do we use the same word for coconuts whether they are cooked or not and it’s the word we use for taro?  Good question, how come?  At this point he confesses that he has no idea what those old people were thinking of when they made this rule.  So there you have it, a genuine mystery of Tobian linguistics.  I will try to boil it down to a very clear description (what you just read was my first pass at it and I hope it wasn’t too confusing) and we will post it as a mystery of the week on FOTI.  Come to think of it, if we have time perhaps Isauro and I will record the preceding as a dialogue. Dialogue About Words for Eating: mangau and hochoch at http://tobi.gmu.edu/wordweek/eatingdialogue.html.

Of course Tobian is not the only language with unsolved mysteries.  The other day I was talking with Lukas Bekabekmad, one of the first Palauans I ever met (he was a language informant during my training for the Peace Corps), an ex-minister of the government, now retired, and a good friend.  I was passing along a couple of paperbacks which I had finished and which I thought he might enjoy. After thanking me he mentioned that he has just managed to figure out something about English that had puzzled him for years.  It had to do with that not unpretentious little turn of speech illustrated by the sixth and seventh words in this sentence.  Lukas’s example was: Not uncommon.  Since he had been taught that it was wrong to use a double negative in English, he didn’t understand what he was reading when he read not uncommon in a novel.  After all, surely anyone who can write a book must know that rule so it couldn’t mean what it seemed to mean.  But finally he had decided that it must actually mean exactly what it says.  I had nothing to say about this, despite being a native speaker of English since it was the first time that I realized that these little verbal maneuvers were, in fact, not incompliant with the double negative rule. 

Not unbestly cards,

Rip Tide Beach
Rip Tide Beach

Ben Pedro & PWB
Here I am
talking to an
old friend, Ben
Pedro, who is
also blind.

HSG Leadership Meeting
At a Hatohobei State leadership meeting

PCC President's Office
At the PCC President's Office

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