Surviving Paradise

One year on a disappearing island.

Surviving Paradise

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.

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