I left the newspaper on the table and went down to the hotel’s maneaba. There we met all of the Peace Corps-Kiribati staff, received inoculations, and began processing our in-country paperwork. Tea breaks were frequent throughout the morning, and in the afternoon, we learned about common adjustment challenges, culture shock, and Kiribati phrases and greetings. The most complicated part was learning how to introduce ourselves in I-Kiribati (Ee Key-rey-bas), the Kiribati language.
Mikaio, another trainer, phrased it like this: in your country the big ME is important. Here it is the big WE. While Americans value independence and individualism, the I-Kiribati (a person from Kiribati) value codependency and collectivism. The big me, myself, and I simply cannot exist here, because having an individualistic mindset in Kiribati is isolating and potentially dangerous; their identity is dependent on their relationships with others. This concept is reflected in their introductions.
When I-Kiribati introduced themselves, they highlighted their connections to others and to the land. In Kiribati, land connects individuals to their past, present and future. For example, most people are born on their family’s land. They live their lives on that land, and when they die, they are buried in that land. The cycle continues with each succeeding generation. Therefore, when they speak about their individual lineage and connection to land, it is easy for others to make connections with those introducing themselves. This depth unites all I-Kiribati with others.
Tokan, one of our language trainers, introduced himself to us by saying, Arau Tokan, Ngai kaain Abaiang. Au kaaua, bon Koinaua, arana tamau Mikaere, ao tinau, Nei Areta. Iai teniman maneu ao teuana tariu. My name is Tokan, I am from Abaiang Island. My village is Koinaua. My father’s name is Mikaere, and my mother’s name is Areta. I have three sisters and one brother.
Unlike the I-Kiribati, my introduction began and ended with myself. I focused only on my own personal accomplishments, such as my education and occupation. Shallow, I know, but over time, I learned to introduce myself the way the I-Kiribati did:
Arau Mike. Ngai kaain New York. Arana tamau Ramon ao arana tinau Elena. Iai maneu, arana Jennifer.
Even after I got the introduction down, I knew I still had a lot to learn about the language and culture. In my days outside of training, I would walk down the only paved road in the country, and wave to approaching minivans. Frequently, the drivers gave a honk and wave in response. One driver even stopped to talk. I was both flattered and scared at the same time. The door opened, and the operator shouted toka, get on! Unable to speak the language, I just stood there in silence wearing a look of confusion. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to toka, the minivan erupted with laughter and sped off. These situations only intensified my desire to gain a working knowledge of the language. When I returned to the training center, I shared my minivan experiences with the language trainers. They told me that waving was akin to hailing taxis, and honks indicated that the minivans were full.
As my fluency level increased, my way of thinking changed. I started understanding customs that once confused me, and learned to embrace this different land with different values. In essence, I took on their perspective. This was strangely enlightening and frustrating at the same time.
Eventually, I did get on a bus with other volunteers later in the week. Drivers, hoping to earn more money, asked seated passengers to sit on top of other passengers so us I-matangs (ee mah-tahngs), foreigners, could fit. We appreciated the gesture but passed on overcrowded busses. Eventually, an empty red bullet made its way down the road. Red bullets were the newest and fastest minivans in Kiribati. The minivans had no seatbelts, and speed limits seemed to be open to interpretation. Scents of cigarettes, perfume, sweat and fish permeated the interior as we sped down the two-lane road. It was scary since a blown tire, fallen coconut or a careless dog could have easily catapulted us into both the ocean and lagoon. Trying to keep my mind from thinking about an imminent death, I kept my mind busy with other thoughts. Unfortunately, the only thing that I could think about was global warming. In the states, I hadn’t paid much attention to it. At the time, it seemed controversial and unimportant. If anything were to happen, it would happen first to some random islands in the middle of the ocean before it came to Ohio. Funny how life happens. I was now on that small island in the middle of an ocean… far from Ohio. Speeding down the road with the ocean’s spray soaking my face took my mind off imminent death, but made me seriously contemplate global warming. I wrote this to my mom and dad on November 10, 2000.
It’s so pretty here but scary too. I heard about this thing called global warming before I left home, and I just wonder if it’s true. Being here sure makes it real to me. But, I guess I trust the US Government. They wouldn’t send us here if they thought it was a serious threat. I asked Mikaio what he thought about global warming. He assured me it was nothing serious. You know, Mike, he said, they said Kiribati would go under the ocean in the 1980s and look, we are still here, so don’t worry. God promised Noah to never flood the Earth again, so see, no need to worry.