MICRONESIANS: THE INVISIBLE MALIHINI

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By John Bickel

HONOLULU, Hawaii (Honolulu Weekly) - They work, go to school, attend church and hang on tight to their families. Mostly, Hawai‘i's thousands of Micronesians long to return home.

The sun blazes down on the pavement outside of the Richards Street YWCA on Sunday just before 1 p.m. Out from buses on Hotel Street walk dozens of Marshallese churchgoers, the women's dresses in full flower in the morning sunlight. An older woman wears a yellow mu‘umu‘u with a bright red floral pattern on it. A girl wears a lime-green blouse and a green-on-yellow leaf-patterned skirt. One woman with a child comes adorned with a haku lei. The men and boys all wear long pants and aloha-print shirts. This is a Sunday go-to-meeting at the Y, Marshallese style, of the Honolulu Marshallese United Church of Christ, Rensiper Lalimo, pastor.

A man in a suit coat gives the Kir non Kabun, the Call to Worship. The entire service is said and sung in Marshallese. After the spoken words comes Hymn No. 42, "Anij laplap ej ba." A gray-haired man sings into the mic from a chair on the side leading the whole room in song. With the amplification the decibel level rivals a high school dance. Radically different from a dance, however, are the sonorous harmonies sung by the members of the congregation. Without any direction or assigned parts, the Marshallese have an incredible sense of harmony and a range of voices, from deep basses to Marian Anderson-style sopranos.

The tunes date back to the days when New England missionaries brought their Congregational hymns to the Marshall Islands. Facial expressions exude the joy the members feel by participating in the choral music.

While the Marshallese are primarily Protestant, people from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau are primarily Roman Catholic. Some attend St. Patrick's Church on Wai‘alae. Others worship in their own neighborhood churches from Wai‘anae to the Windward Side.

Church gatherings function as hubs of community life among Micronesians in Honolulu. Services are always careful to commemorate family milestones, from first-year birthdays to marriages to deaths. They bring brethren together from far-flung neighborhoods. In Honolulu, there is no "Micronesian" neighborhood. Kalihi, Makiki, Kaimuki, Palolo, Waipahu - each has a Micronesian component. Sunday services are the one sure chance the islanders have to be with others of their same heritage and mother tongue.

Family is foundation

Kaspar Konrat came to Honolulu from Chuuk in 1996. Although some of his family is back in Chuuk (formerly spelled Truk), Konrat would like to keep as much of his family together as he can. Now living with his wife, two sisters, mother, niece and son in two apartments in a building in Kaimuki, he said he would rather have his whole family in one unit in the building, but the landlord refuses to allow that many people in one unit.

"I want to live with my full family," Konrat explained. "It is not the money. It just feels better." When asked about the lack of privacy in such a living style, he said his family really doesn't care about privacy.

Although back in Chuuk (and throughout Micronesia) the society is more matrilineal, in Hawai‘i the gender roles seem to have adjusted and are typical of American society. At home, the wives cook and care for the home. The men are expected to be the major breadwinners. Kachtra Mefy is Konrat's only son. He now lives with his parents in Kaimuki, but he takes his maternal grandparents' family name, a decision that reflects the matrilineal nature of the traditional Chuukese family structure. Mefy was raised for a time by his grandfather in Chuuk. He now attends Kaimuki High School, and described how teachers sometimes think less of his fellow Micronesian students because they are less willing to volunteer answers. "We tend to be more humble," said Mefy when asked how Micronesians differ from other students at his school. Fashion tends to be conservative. Young women wear their hair long, and they're encouraged to wear skirts below the knees. Disputes are resolved privately not publicly. "Sometimes they can get violent," his father noted.

In addition to the general cultural value on humility, there are some strict gender roles, which make American life even more difficult for boys. "Quiet is like being tough," Mefy explained. The male students who are eager to answer questions are not just seen as kiss-ups to the teacher, they are seen as effeminate in the eyes of Micronesia boys.

"Micronesia kids do not sit in front and volunteer answers in class," notes Elma Coleman, a Marshallese advocate who lives in Honolulu. One English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instructor, who wished to remain anonymous, observes a status order in ESL classrooms. Students from East Asia often look down upon Micronesians because of their darker skin color, she said, and the Marshallese look down on the Chuukese. Because most evenings and weekends are taken up with family and church obligations, Micronesian students don't have as much time for homework or social activities with nonfamily peers. School itself becomes their social time, the teacher said.

She added that reliability and punctuality are problems for many of the students. Girls from the FSM, however, tend to become pregnant less often, she said, perhaps because of the influence of the Catholic Church.

Despite official statements that education is compulsory in Micronesia, Micronesians interviewed for this article said that that's not the case. If the family needs to keep a child home to work, said a Chuukese man, they just do so.

The ESL teacher said that, while alcohol is a problem for a number of high school boys, Micronesian students are less likely than others to use illegal drugs. But they do use a legal drug of choice: betel nut. The nut's oil is a mild narcotic and is sometimes applied to the lips of babies to calm them. By school age, some students are addicted to betel nut, and when they haven't had a recent fix, they become moody and cranky, said the teacher. The Hawai‘i Consul General for FSM, Kasio Mida, explained that betel nut was originally used on the island of Yap. Recently, he noted, its popularity has spread across Micronesia and to Micronesians in Hawai‘i, because young people like the high.

"Betel nut trees grow in a few places on O‘ahu," Mida said. "Ask a Micronesian. They probably know where a tree is. They may not tell you, however."

It is said that one tree grows near Sinclair Library on the UH-Manoa campus, but don't expect to find any ripe nuts there; the Micronesians are good harvesters.

Earning a living

It's 9:30 p.m. and I get the munchies, so I head to the Jack In the Box. I pull in to order a shake and discover a pretty girl with brown eyes, black hair and brown skin named Shannon waiting on me. Normally, I wouldn't think anything of this, but I am writing an article on Micronesians in Honolulu. So, after a few questions, I find out she is from Micronesia, but, shyly, she won't tell me where. Since I began this article, I have discovered Micronesians working at Wallace Theatre, 7-Eleven, 24 Hour Fitness and Chevron. They have always been there, but because their features are similar to others in Hawai‘i, I didn't realize they were Micronesian.

"The economy is so bad in Micronesia that many come here for work," reported Dwight Ovitt, a Peace Corps volunteer in Saipan in the late 1960s who now works with Micronesians through the Job Corps in Waimanalo.

The number of Micronesians here ranges from the 2000 U.S. Census figure of 12,622 to an estimate supplied by Ovitt of over 20,000. They work at many minimum wage jobs all around the island. Assuming the greater figure to be correct, they compose a little more than 1 percent of the state's population.

The largest groups of Micronesians in Hawai‘i are the Chuukese and the Marshallese. The Marshallese have a number of identities: Micronesian, Marshallese, and the island each is from. There are at least three mutually intelligible Marshallese dialects: Ratak, Ralik and Enewetak/Ujeland.

At the Constitution Day ceremonies at the McCoy Pavilion last June, migrants from Pohnpei, Yap, Chuuk and Kosrae (aka the Federated States of Micronesia) came together to celebrate their heritage. Each of the four island groups had their own athletic team. This sports rivalry mirrors the linguistic differences among the islands. The FSM has a number of dialects that are difficult if not impossible for others to understand. While the FSM's Honolulu consulate was trying to use the event to foster pan-Micronesian identity, many islanders still identify with their island homes, rather than the nationalist umbrella label.

"Micronesians are very attached to where they come from," said Consul General Kasio Mida. "They get homesick. The idea of extended family is very strong and when you leave home, you miss that."

Even the encouragement they may get in Micronesia to come to America is tempered by the expectation that they will return. "The intent for most of us is to get educated and get some skills, then come back to help in the nation building in Micronesia," Mida said.

Because of their status under the Compacts of Free Association agreements between their governments and the United States, the citizens of the FSM, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and Palau are entitled to enter and exit the United States at their pleasure without a visa. They do not need the usual green card and are entitled to a special work authorization permit. Given the Bush administration's reluctance to increase funding for these governments, the economies of Micronesia's island nations are likely to decline further. This decline is likely to increase the numbers of Micronesians among us.

For the Marshallese, there is the added set of health problems stemming from the 1950s nuclear testing by the U.S. military at Enewetak, Bikini and Rongelap. According to the 1986 Compact, some reparations were made to the Marshallese to cover healthcare costs for those suffering from cancers and other health problems caused by the nuclear fallout. Elma Coleman is working to get more out of the federal government. She said that new health problems - cases of stomach cancer, skin cancer and leukemia - have arisen that need new funding.

Health problems are compounded by traditional differences. "Physical exercise is just not in our culture," said Kaspar Konrat.

Coleman observed that in the old days, when people made their living off of fishing and farming, people got sufficient exercise. Today, however, they have diets heavy with sugar and processed fats, and they get less exercise. Obesity and the accompanying heart problems that come with it have plagued many Micronesians, while diabetes rates are high.

Financial claims

The 1986 Compact had written into it a provision for adjusting financial claims when there was new evidence of health problems. The Marshallese government sent a petition to the U.S. government on Sept. 11, 2000, to request greater funding. The last paragraph of this petition describes the conditions: "The 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons detonated in the Marshall Islands allowed the United States Government to achieve its aim of world peace through a deterrence policy. The Marshallese people subsidized this nuclear détente with their lands, health, lives, and future."

Under the Compact agreement, a Claims Tribunal was set up to award treatment payments for those who could show their ailments were a result of the nuclear tests. By 2000, the Tribunal had awarded over $72 million, almost $27 million more than the U.S. government agreed to pay.

The economies of the FSM, the RMI and Palau rest on subsistence-level economic activity and regular infusions of government money. In the FSM, for example, the Compact of 1986 provided $60 million from the U.S. government to FSM for the first five years. It provided $51 million for the next five years, and $40 million for the last five years. The reason for the tapered funding was that local revenues were supposed to increase and make up for the reduced U.S. funding, Mida explained, "but that has not happened."

The FSM has made some progress in selling fish from its Exclusive Economic Zone to Japan. It turns copra into soap. It also invested in a tourist infrastructure, but that has been a failing venture since 9/11.

Susan Yamamoto of the state Department of Human Services noted that the federal government classifies Micronesians in Hawai‘i who are not U.S. citizens as ineligible for most welfare programs. The state of Hawai‘i, however, does provide General Assistance and other financial assistance to non-U.S. citizen Micronesians. According to Yamamoto, out of the total state-funded, financial assistance programs' annual budget of $87.6 million for fiscal 2001, $3.9 million was disbursed to Micronesians, or 4.4 percent of the total. Using state estimates, Micronesians represent about one percent of the state's population. According to news reports, Governor Linda Lingle announced last week that she would ask the Bush administration to reimburse Hawai‘i and its hospitals for an estimated $14 million in uncompensated healthcare costs spent annually by providers of health services for Micronesian migrants.

"Some people think we come here for welfare," said Coleman. "But that is not true. We come here to work."

A number of Micronesians I interviewed shared this view. They were proud of the fact that they were working, though most work in minimum wage jobs. The Job Corps' Ovitt agrees: "Most Micronesians are not particularly hard-working, but they do not come here to live off of the government. They are more than willing to take minimum wage jobs."

Longing for home

The breeze from Tantalus cools the Micronesians sitting under the trees at Makiki District Park on a Sunday afternoon. They talk story about friends and relatives here and back home. Food is at the center of things, and the dishes are not, for the most part, unfamiliar to an island palate.

Breadfruit is king. The Chuukese make kon from pounded breadfruit. As poi is to taro, kon is to breadfruit. Mores about food, about the sharing of food, are deeply traditional and generous. Guests must eat first and are expected to eat in moderation.

"People in the Marshall Islands do not starve," said Elma Coleman. "They take food to people around them whether they know the people or not."

Alcohol is also a part of the culture. On a Friday or Saturday night, one can find some Micronesians spending their moonlight hours at the Micronesian Club on Dillingham. Despite the expense of the $5 entrance fee and the $4 price for a Coca-Cola, some Micronesians gather here to listen to music. The club opens at 11:30 p.m. and closes at 4 a.m. On a Saturday night, the band was called Neijokko, and their synthesized sounds roared through the room, which is dark except for colored strobe lights reflecting off mirrored disco balls. The band sings some songs in Marshallese and some in English. "I want to go back to the islands" is the refrain of one of the songs, typifying the attitude of many Micronesians about their experience in Hawai‘i.

Among the four main island peoples in the FSM, the Yapese stand out. Dwight Ovitt, for one, noticed a big difference in the Yapese. "They have the strongest culture and are most resistant to change," he said as he described taking a class with fellow Micronesians at the East-West Center. "The Yapese absorb a lot and assimilate little." For this reason, he noted, "there are not as many of them in Hawai‘i as other Micronesians."

Steven Buchun is a Yapese student at the UH-Manoa. "There are still a lot of people with the mentality of keeping their culture," he said. "Women still walk around bare-breasted, especially middle-aged people from the outer islands."

Buchun said that Yapese are often "shocked" when they come to Hawai‘i or go to the U.S. Mainland. Although women in Yap walk around bare-breasted, Yapese are "offended by seeing thighs," said Buchun. In Yap the area between the waist and knees is always covered. Yapese are also surprised by public demonstrations of affection such as kissing in public.

On the way to interview the Konrat family, I walked through part of Kuhio Park Terrace (KPT) where they work. A dozen children no higher than my knees were playing on the sidewalk. Despite the dozen trees in front of the building, the mass of concrete loomed overhead defined the chilly aura of the housing complex. Smiles on their faces, the children did not mind the bleakness. They were enjoying the Hawaiian sunshine, the freedom to play. They have not lived in the project all their lives and will probably not live there much longer.

Like many Micronesians in Hawai‘i they live here a while, enjoy what they can for now, and will move on to paths and places unknown. And they'll have their families and therefore enough food and maybe even contentment with their lives.

December 12, 2002 Honolulu Weekly http://www.honoluluweekly.com/ 

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