Cultural Collisions

The other night I asked one of the men here if he wanted to go with me to see a move that he had mentioned approvingly the week before.? He replied that he didn?t feel in the mood to see a movie tonight. His favorite TV program was on that evening, he was feeling a little tired, and he wasn?t sure that he even wanted to see the movie in the first place.

?Listening to you makes me yearn to be back in the islands,? I told him.? ?At least in the islands a person I was inviting to a movie would save face all the way around by making an excuse for not going to the movie.? I?d really like to go but I have an appointment… or something like that.? People would be ashamed to reject an invitation the way you did:? me… me… me.?

On the other hand, the Americans I?ve met are surprisingly open-handed and generous when confronted with a hard-luck case.? A lot of them make a habit of talking tough, especially when discussing politics??They brought this on themselves. They need to get a job and struggle through it like others had to do.? Or when discussing illegal migrants: ?They have no business being here in the first place. They should go back home and fix up their own country.?? That?s the rhetoric.? But when faced with a needy person, out come the billfolds and the purses.

The other day the newspaper did a story on a 16-year-old girl who aced the SAT test and was reported to be one of the brightest students on Long Island, but she lives in a homeless shelter and is a charity case.? The next day she had her college tuition paid for, thanks to the donations of readers who were touched by her story.? The day after that, someone had provided housing for the girl and her mother.

Strange people, we Americans. I guess I grew up this way, too.? But it?s been so long ago that I?ve forgotten.

Cultural collisions?? This reminds me of something I wrote a couple of years ago, but dusted off and used as the introduction to one of the sections in the book I wrote just last year.

Every so often the American teacher was invited to parties, where he would marvel at the way islanders seemed to anticipate every need.? A napkin?? A second serving of meat or fish?? A second glass of iced tea or beer?? A bowl of water for washing his hands at the end of the meal?? He had it before he could even ask for it, sometimes even before he himself realized that he wanted it.? It was almost as if the hosts considered it a matter of pride to provide their guest everything needed before the guest could articulate his desire. Like other newcomers to the island, the teacher attributed all this to the superb hospitality of the island people.? After all, they were acclaimed for their graciousness to visitors.? But people?s uncanny ability to anticipate the needs of others extended well beyond all this.? If you entered a room at which three people sat around a table, a fourth chair would be placed in front of you instantaneously.? If you appeared at the doorway of a room in which a group of young people were listening to the radio, a hand would reach out to turn down the volume even before you could make your request.

The teacher only realized how much he had come to appreciate this quality in its absence.? In his occasional visits to the United States, he found himself taken by surprise at the degree to which his fellow Americans seem to expect him to verbalize everything.? ?How are you feeling today??? ?Do you want something to eat?? ? What do you think of our new house??? Must Americans demand verbal answers for everything?? Didn?t his own people ever do what islanders were so skilled at doing?scan the scene for visual clues to find the answers themselves?? Could it be that the very people who thought of themselves as owning a permanent perch at the pinnacle of development were retarded or blind?? Why hadn?t they mastered the skills in which unschooled islanders excelled?

Years later, the teacher stood at the doorway of the TV room in his own house, crowded with young Americans, teachers as young as he had been when he first came to the island.? They sprawled on the lounge chairs in the room, with one of them using the only unoccupied seat to prop up his legs.? The teacher stood there silently, waiting for someone to move.? One… two… three… four… five minutes elapsed before one of the young Americans turned to him to ask if he wanted a chair.? If the old teacher had any doubts that his experience in Micronesia had changed his expectations and the way he viewed life, they were removed there and then.? He declined the chair, slowly turned to leave, and realized how much of a stranger he had become to his own culture.

Got Something to Say? Go For It!

About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.