The making of families
On an island in Micronesia, a foreigner discovers a unique way to tackle loneliness.
When I first arrived as an independent volunteer in Chuuk, I didn't know anyone. It was a small island, by my estimation about the circumference of a potted plant, so my loneliness seemed unwarranted. Yet here I was, drowning in heat and standing with my luggage, staring out over a hill that spilled over into the wide-mouthed lagoon below, feeling like the last woman in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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I had come here to teach and to somehow put my anthropology degree to use. Although I was surrounded by people, I felt like an outsider, and not just because I was foreign. Homesickness was pulsating through my body, and I challenged myself to keep busy so as not to let it eat me alive. Where was my family? About 10,000 miles away, on the other side of the globe.
I figured I would have some company. Xavier high school is a boarding school that houses students from all over the region of Micronesia. Boys live on campus and girls live in the villages below with host families. As difficult as it was for me to leave my family, I couldn't imagine the struggle for some of these students, especially the ones from more remote islands who had never been away from home. I knew immediately we would have some common ground. We would be strangers together, we would miss our families together, and together we would keep each other company.
I tried as best I could to learn their names quickly so we could be more familiar with each other, but I learned that names were not always needed. A week into teaching, I noticed a strange phenomenon in my classroom: students calling each other as though they were family – mommy, daddy, sister, grandma. They'd write it on notes to each other, and leave messages on the blackboard before class: "Juz droppin' a msg to my mama Lyz!" "Luv ya daughter! MUAH!"
As an English and literature teacher, this made me cringe, but at the same time, it piqued my anthropological interests.
During morning assemblies, students would profess their love for their dense and ever-growing lineages, be it for birthdays, good luck wishes, or just to say "hello" or "can you please return my skirt?" It was impossible to remember who was whose "child" or "aunt" or "uncle"; their imagined families were so complex it was hard to believe they weren't making them up as they went along.
About two weeks into the quarter, class monitors were chosen who would act as guidance counselors for their given grades. The sophomore class chose a new volunteer, named James. Subsequently, he became the "daddy" for the entire class and though it could be jarring, it was not unusual for me to hear a young 10th-grade girl call out, "Daddyyyy! I need to use the bathroom!!!" in the middle of one of my lectures a few classrooms away. Because James and I were friends, and high-schoolers are alike all over, it didn't take long for them to concoct the story that the two of us were married. Congratulations; I was a mom.