Surviving Paradise

One year on a disappearing island.

Survivingparadise Cover

If spending a year on a tropical island sounds like your idea of heaven, you might want to read Peter-Rudiak Gould’s book before you pack your bags. In August 2003, a month after turning 21, Rudiak-Gould moved to Ujae, a tiny atoll in the Marshall Islands (population 450), where he volunteered to spend a year teaching English to Marshallese schoolchildren. Picturesque Ujae looks postcard-perfect, but “Pee-tar”—as locals referred to him—found it more paradox than paradise, a curious mix of traditional native life and modern culture. 

Predictably, being a ribelle (“white man”) from the mainland United States, Rudiak-Gould found it trying to adapt to the Marshall Islands lifestyle. To begin with, the Marshallese diet is exceptionally bland (plain white rice, plain flour pancakes, boiled green bananas), except when it is stomach-turning (dog, sea turtle, and octopus). Nor was he accustomed to having lizards, mice, cockroaches, centipedes, flies, ants, and mosquitoes as constant companions. To top it off, he faced the challenge of learning to speak Marshallese, while at the same time teaching English in a community largely indifferent to classroom learning. The collective apathy prevented him from crusading on behalf of education, making him, as he puts it, a “ribelle without a cause.”   

Today, Rudiak-Gould is pursuing a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, studying how Marshall Islanders are reacting to global warming and the threat of sea level rise, which promises to leave Ujae and the rest of the country completely submerged within a generation or two. In the following Failure interview, Rudiak-Gould discusses his memoir “Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island” (Union Square Press), as well as his Marshallese language textbook “Practical Marshallese.” He also explains why he characterizes himself as a failed teacher, in spite of the fact that two of his students passed the Marshall Islands’ high school entrance exam—something no child from Ujae had accomplished in years.

Where are the Marshall Islands? And what prompted you to volunteer to spend a year teaching there?
The Marshall Islands are in a part of the Pacific called Micronesia, which quite appropriately, means “small islands.” If you go northeast (across empty ocean) for 2,000 miles, you’ll hit Hawaii. Go southwest for 2,000 miles and you’ll reach the coast of Australia. The only countries “near” the Marshall Islands aren’t exactly well traveled: Kiribati to the southeast, and the Federated States of Micronesia to the west.

I had barely heard of the Marshall Islands before I signed up to go. That was actually a selling point for me. I wanted the kind of personal test you either put yourself through when you’re young or spend the rest of your life wondering about. It was harder than I anticipated, but I don’t regret doing it.

Describe Ujae.
It’s one of the more remote Marshall Islands. It’s a third-of-a-square-mile large, flat, and features a jungle of breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus trees. It’s also surrounded by coral reef. In fact, the entire island is built from nothing but coral.

What surprised you most about your year on the island? And what was the biggest disappointment?
I wasn’t exactly expecting this remote outpost to be louder than a metropolis, but it was. Between all the children (there are seven for every Marshallese woman), the dogs, the roosters, and the rather vocal style of parenting, the island was more aurally exhausting than Manhattan. Maybe that was the biggest disappointment, too. Ujae was many wonderful things, but peaceful wasn’t one of them.

How is childhood on Ujae different than childhood in America?
There’s a much thicker barrier between adults and children in the Marshall Islands. Youngsters and their elders barely speak to each other, except for parents giving orders. The children aren’t explicitly taught skills, either; they learn by observation and practice. But Marshallese children have it easy in many ways. They can roam anywhere on the island without fear of being kidnapped, there are always dozens of other kids around to play with, and no one is a social outcast.

In the book you say you were a failure at teaching the children. Why?
The person in charge of a class on Ujae is referred to as a “teacher,” but like it or not, the teacher is also a disciplinarian. That aspect of the job is somewhat euphemistically referred to as “classroom management,” which makes it sound like you’re a boss managing employees. I’ve never heard of a boss, though, who had to keep his employees from screaming, throwing rocks onto the roof, or stripping wood from desks to make swords. The equivalent would be running a company where your employees are not only unmotivated to do their jobs, but also highly motivated to prevent you from doing yours. I’m decent at teaching, but awful at disciplining—hence the trouble.

That said, when I compared the kids’ level of English at the beginning to their level at the end, I saw there was improvement, and that I wasn’t an utter disaster in the classroom. My advice to someone going into teaching is that it’s not for everyone, and sometimes the bravest thing you can do is give up.

How difficult was it to learn the native language?
At first, it seemed like a cinch: the verbs don’t change like they do in Spanish, for instance, so before you know it you’re talking in the past, present, and future tense. But then you discover that Marshallese chops up reality in a very foreign way, making it difficult to build vocabulary. There are something like 20 words for “here” and “there,” but the same word means both “can’t” and “won’t.” My host family spoke no English, so I was immersed, and got pretty good by the end of the year.

Why did you write the language manual “Practical Marshallese”?
It was for my past self. I wanted to pen the book that would have helped me before I knew the language. I had the idea to write it before I arrived in the Marshall Islands. I found that the few existing resources to learn Marshallese confused me, even though I already had a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics. One of the resources was written by a brilliant linguist, but it was almost incomprehensible unless you already spoke the language, which sort of defeats the purpose. I wanted to write a book that laid out the grammar in a clear way. You can judge for yourself if I succeeded … if you’re planning on learning Marshallese anytime soon.

In “Surviving Paradise,” did you undersell the nuisance factor of the ants, bugs, and other crawling creatures on the island?
Yes! In fact, I undersold a lot of the nuisances, to avoid the whine factor. Creepy crawlies were constant companions—whether it was the thousands of ants that found my sugared tea within minutes, the five flies that were on my exposed feet more or less constantly, or waking up with a cockroach on my face. Good times.

What’s the most remarkable thing you had to eat during your stay?
Probably sea turtle intestines or sea turtle fat, which the Marshallese call wiwi and consider one of the greatest delicacies. I got to the point where I would put almost anything considered edible into my mouth.

Can you explain the Marshallese relationship with SPAM?
American soldiers brought it when they seized the territory from the Japanese during World War II, and the locals developed a taste for it, along with other none-too-healthy items like canned corned beef. They call it jipaam, the closest the Marshallese sound system can get to “spam.” A Marshallese host would be proud, not ashamed, to serve it to a guest, and the same goes for Kool-Aid. In fact, in one of the country’s [two] urban centers, I saw a SPAM vending machine.

I understand you’re a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University. Tell me about your dissertation.
I’ve been studying how the Marshallese people have reacted to global warming, which threatens to render their islands uninhabitable. More specifically, I’m studying how they’ve reacted to the idea of devastating sea level rise, which outsiders have been warning them about. My core question is: what happens when you tell a country that it is doomed? It’s something akin to telling a whole nation that it has cancer.

There’s been a lot of media coverage about low-lying islands being affected by sea level rise. Has there been visible environmental change in the Marshall Islands?
You can see erosion on many islands: palm trees are falling on the beach, and coastal graveyards are washing away. One case in point of sea level rise threatening Marshallese culture is a very old graveyard on an outer island called Pinlep. Locals say this cemetery houses the ancestral bones of a clan that used magic to halt sea level rise. This graveyard is disappearing under the onslaught of the encroaching tide, being destroyed by the thing it once had the power to stop. Of course, it’s very difficult to ascertain how much of the change is due to global warming; erosion and accretion are natural processes, too. At the very least, these changes are harbingers of things to come, and concrete examples of what scientists are saying will happen to the entire country.

How are Marshall Islanders dealing with the threat of global warming?
For a while, global warming was just a frightening idea that was floating around, without much being done about it. But in the last year there has been an explosion of interest, and local organizations have been holding workshops to educate the people.

Interestingly, rather than emphasizing that industrial countries are largely to blame, these workshops are encouraging Marshall Islanders to reduce their own carbon footprint. This might exaggerate the ability of locals to stop climate change, and it might be blaming the victim, but it could potentially help the islanders make a personal connection to the problem.

Meanwhile, the government has intermittently campaigned abroad to encourage action on climate change, though it hasn’t been as good at grabbing media attention as places like the Maldives, which recently held an underwater cabinet meeting to publicize its plight. And unlike some other threatened countries, the government doesn’t have a last-resort plan to evacuate the islands.

Do the people on Ujae believe their island is doomed?
Some do, some don’t, and some aren’t sure what to believe. Some locals say they don’t believe this scientific prophecy because God has promised not to flood the earth again. Others say that global warming is a punishment for their sins, and a sign of the coming Apocalypse.

Global warming has been pitched to the Marshallese as something that scientists have predicted, so their feelings towards these foreign soothsayers come into the picture. Marshallese people are simultaneously in awe of scientists and distrustful of them, but they already talk a lot about how the past was abundant and the present decayed, and this worldview fits well with the idea of global warming and environmentalism in general.

Have you received feedback from any islanders about your book?
Not yet, but I’m hoping I will. At least a few well-educated or half-American Marshallese people will probably read the book, and I’ve already sent a copy to Ujae’s chief. But no one on Ujae will be able to read it, because of the language barrier. And even if the language barrier is surmounted, there’s still the culture barrier. Ironically, I think “Surviving Paradise” might be quite alien to the people of Ujae, despite being about them, because its perspective is foreign in every sense of the word.

Peter Rudiak-Gould's Web site

438 Days