“Where America’s day begins,” is how they used to describe Guam years ago. That’s what I once thought, too, during my early visits to the island in the 1970s. Guam always seemed like a marvelous shopping mall to those of us coming from Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap and less developed islands. We could find everything there we couldn’t access in the smaller islands–air-conditioned movie theaters, fast food places, good restaurants that offered the tomatoes and lettuce and other delights we yearned for back on our own islands.
Guam can be deceptive–it doesn’t seem to be a Pacific island. With its fine dining spots and all the shops and conveniences it offers to the million and a half visitors who come each year to vacation there, the island is much more than palm trees and beaches. Even the local people, who speak unaccented English, somehow just don’t look like islanders. Traffic jams at rush hour, paved roads, limitless channels to choose from on TV–sometimes it really does look like middle America to outsiders.
The colonization of Guam and the rest of the Mariana Islands three and a half centuries ago–far earlier than anywhere else in the Pacific–brought the Catholic faith along with a mishmash of customs from Spain, Mexico and the Philippines. It gave Guam an international character, but it also stripped the island of its dances, its clothing and the other exotic cultural trappings that usually make island cultures so distinctive. When the Festival of the Pacific is held here in May, Guam won’t have the same kind of Pacific displays that most other island nations will be showing off.
I’ve met some young Guamanians who wonder whether Guam has a culture of its own. They think of culture as a collection of picturesque customs–and Guam’s look tame by comparison with New Guinea highlanders or even Tonga and Fiji. But the fact is that Guam does have a vital culture of its own–different in its externals from Chuuk and Pohnpei and other such places. It took me all of 15 seconds to recognize that. Just get people talking and you’ll pick up on the sense of humor, the way they talk about their own problems, the lavish island generosity, and so much more that reminds me of the other places I’ve lived. This is a Pacific Island society for sure–a little bleached-looking perhaps, but still the genuine article.
In the few months I’ve been living here, I’m getting a sense of what the issues might be for the people of Guam. One is certainly political identity. Today, when most Pacific Islands have their independence, Guam is still an unincorporated US territory. To make matters worse, the people of the island have never even been offered the chance to vote on what they want to become.
So here they sit with mixed feelings–gratitude toward the US for its liberation of the island back in 1944 and its major contribution to the economic growth since, but bewilderment as to when they will be permitted to run their own political household.
I sense much the same feelings regarding the church. The church has become a home, spiritually and culturally, for so many Guamanians today–but its history is tainted, if only because it arrived at the same time as the Spanish flag at the beginning of a period of cultural upheaval.
People here are required to steer between extremes today, just as they always have. At present they find themselves squeezed between two alien populations: the US military with its promised buildup and the economic benefits this will provide, and the thousands of FSM people who have come to the island looking for jobs they can’t find at home.
In the short time I’ve been here, my appreciation for the people here and the complex issues they face has grown. Once I may have thought of the island as not much more than a rest stop after the real battles in Chuuk and Pohnpei tired me out. But no longer.