Larisa Smirnova (lari_snova) wrote,
Larisa Smirnova

Micronesia: a Land of “Shadow World Processes”

The Chinese people have stood up
Mao Zedong, September 21, 1949

The massive ruins of Ponape (Nan Madol - LS) speak in their weird loneliness of some dead, forgotten race
Frederick J. Moss
Through Atolls, 1899

Note:The Chinese version of this article was published by the Financial Times China edition:

道可道非常道: the way that you can follow is not the real way, so reads the first verse of Tao Te Ching, the semi-philosophical semi-religious “Bible” of Taoism. 岛可到非常岛, the island where I am going to travel is not any common island, so we joked, while I was preparing for my journey, with my friend Lam Dang, a Vietnamese-born American attorney who serves as the Legal counsel to the Parliament of  Micronesia.

In Micronesia, the region in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses the U.S. territories such as Guam, and several independent island nations, such as the FSM, time slides by slowly. The 47th Pacific Islands forum, attended, besides the FSM President Peter Christian and the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, by the leaders of a dozen of other Pacific nations, lasted for five consecutive days from September 7th to September 11th 2016. Time-wise, the humble PIF took longer than the magnificent G20 summit in China’s Hangzhou that had actually preceded it merely by a couple of days.

Guam: “Know Each Other”

The road to Pohnpei, the capital island of the FSM, where the Forum takes place lies through the US territory of Guam, the most developed island in Micronesia that tacitly serves as a regional gateway of the kind. Logistically, it is relatively easy to reach Guam, primarily known for its two American military bases, one Navy and one Air Force. Guam is located within merely three and a half hours flying time from Taipei, Taiwan. Flights from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Seoul are also eagerly available.

Surprisingly transparent and friendly for what it is, Guam overall feels like a calm Southern tropical town. The population is a mixture of the indigenous Micronesians called Chamorro, the natives of the island, Asian settlers especially of Chinese, Philippino, and Japanese descent, some Caucasians, and some immigrants from other islands of the Micronesian region.

The island offers nice hotels, beach resorts and even some duty free shopping.  The Japanese and South Korean tourists are especially abundant. The U.S. visa regime is more relaxed that in the U.S. mainland: visitors from Russia, for example, who would normally need a visa to enter the United States, can benefit from visa-waiver program upon arrival in Guam and be allowed to stay up to 45 days.

Guam residents feel totally at ease when we talk about doing business or spending leisure time. “We want more Russians here!” Joe, a beach worker says. “Before we used to have a lot more…” The Russians, I am told, are easy-going and tend to assimilate with the locals, except that “some Russian ladies used to walk topless on the beach, which is thrilling but actually illegal here”.

I mention that I live in China. And immediately find out that the Chinese appear to make the locals more defensive than the Russians: “they are good at investing in the hotels, they are already doing it here…” But it seems to be a matter of concern that the Chinese tend to set up their own systems with little regard to the local habits.

The presence of the military is noticeable through the abundance of fit people, including some in uniforms, as well as the occasional routine of a military “air show”, which turns out to be spectacular when performed in an incredibly clear tropical sky over the limpid ocean. The military culture also transcends the way people talk about politics: unlike in free of opinion capitals, in Guam, politics is discussed in Aesop language, or not at all.

“You know, in Guam, we cannot vote in U.S. presidential election”, one friend tells me with a look of an ironical reserve. When I casually mention that I am an international relations major, another acquaintance makes an immediate reference to the Logan Act: it turns out to be a late 18th century U.S. law that prohibits “conducting foreign relations without authority”, though no one has ever been prosecuted under it.

“Atungo’ na dos” (know each other) is the first entry to the University of Guam-compiled dictionary of Chamorro language. It reminds me of the Chinese military strategist Sun-zi: “Know thy self and know thy adversary”. We all feel, from the abstruse tension in the crispy burning air, that something else might be going on, but no one, unlike in loud debates in political capitals, tries to pretend that he is smarter or knows more than the others. And especially no one tries to explain what? how come? or why?

Pohnpei: “Whatever I Have Spoken is Crooked”

Although Pohnpei might sound like a really remote place, the actual flight time from Guam takes less than three and a half hours. The only carrier that serves the connection is United.  The plane heads for Honolulu, Hawaii, making several stopovers on its way, like a long-distance bus that connects several cities or a boat in the island part of Greece that brings travelers from one island to another. Pohnpei is the second stop on the route after Chuuk, another FSM state. The return ticket from Guam costs over 1000 dollars.

The first thing I see at the airport is the New Zealand air force jet. It brought, I am told, the food for the New Zealand delegation. “Why? I wonder. The food here should be safe.” Indeed, after polluted Beijing where I spent much of the summer, Pohnpei feels like an ecological oasis. “It is… Why won’t you try some sashimi?” is the answer. The lack of explanations starts to make my brain wonder and my stomach lose the appetite…

In the morning of September 8th, the Pacific Islands Forum takes a very slow start. Eating, we are told, is as important as attending meetings. Indeed, food is abundant, and the local “breadfruit” with coffee makes a perfect breakfast. While waiting, I start a casual chat with a Turkish diplomat Ersin Erçin, who came to Pohnpei straight after attending the G20 summit in Hangzhou. “Google my name”, he tells me.  The search shows that he had unsuccessfully competed, back in 2011, for the position of the OSCE Secretary General.

“Would you tell me, Ambassador, why the New Zealand delegation finds the food here unsafe?” He doesn’t know. In this place, at least, people seem to admit when they don’t know things.

Feeling bored, I decide to visit the local college library. The exhibits in the library are about a Pacific War veteran who, in 1945, conducted a fact-finding mission to Hiroshima and Nagasaki merely two months after the nuclear bombardments of Japan. I am moved by the humanity of the account: the exhibits specify that the man, who was honorary discharged from the Army shortly thereafter, returned to the US and lived a long life raising two kids with his wife.

I ask the librarian for the “Book of Luelen”, which is supposed to be the best historical account of Pohnpei. “Check the notes volume as well”, the librarian smiles handing over two brochures. “A dance song was included in a manuscript by a man named Ersin”, I find in the notes, and the improbable coincidence with my new Turkish friend’s name makes me burst in laughter.

So I decide to head back and find Ersin. “Did you know, I press him, that more than three-quarters of the population here are under age twenty-five, and half of the people are under age seventeen? And did you know that healthcare is one of the main issues on the island…”

My monolog is interrupted by a sudden thought that strikes me. Ersin is staring at me with his teasing eyes: “Poor guys…”. “Do they have nuclear pollution here?” I squeeze the scary phrase out of myself, as the memories about French tests in Moruroa atoll slide in disorder through my mind establishing the illogical relationship to the food safety. “Hmm, so who is testing? Ersin picks up cheerfully. The Americans? Or the French?”

A Google check of the distance to Moruroa shows there should be nothing to worry about. Yet I double-check with Christian Lechévry, a French diplomat in charge of Asia Pacific and a former advisor to President François Hollande: “Nuclear pollution? he looks thoughtful. I don’t think it is an issue here. The problem is rather obvious in the Marshall Islands, though”.

Monsieur Christian Lechévry (left)

During the relaxed opening ceremony in the afternoon of September 8th, the shamanic looking warrior dances by an aboriginal group take more time than the political speeches.

The forum staff is mainly preoccupied with putting flower garlands, called “mwaramwars” in the local language, on our heads, men and women inescapably.

Amidst humid jungle air, the voice of the Traditional leader of Pohnpei, who, I find out, is not supposed to be known by his personal name, extends hypnotically over a local stadium where the ceremony takes place:

“Our contribution to the world peace is peace within ourselves. We are not talking about war here because we don’t want that and we don’t do that. We are not talking about terrorism here because we don’t want that and we don’t do that. We are not talking about ISIS here because we don’t want that and we don’t do that”.

I am awakened by the audience laughter in reaction to the energetic President Christian’s remark: “My speech is going to be very long! So if you feel like falling asleep, it is totally okay!”

President Peter Christian speaking

“Pirakh me I pwahpwa” (whatever I have spoken is crooked), so goes a Pohnpei proverb. It reminds me of the second verse of Tao Te Ching: “A word said aloud is not the real word”. Or of the poem “Silentium” by the Russian poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev. As the media would unravel later, at that very moment, the complex North Korean nuclear crisis that climaxed in the September 9th testing, was that “really” ongoing global event.

The ruins of Nan Madol, the castle residence of the Pohnpei king and now a UNESCO World Heritage site:

The larger part of Nan Madol ruins is now covered by water

Back on Guam: “Keep Yourself Alive”

On September 10, Lam and I fly to Guam. Lam, as well as President Christian, the Speaker of the Congress,  and a number of other Micronesian officials, are on their way to Washington. Lam is an old friend: he has worked in Micronesia for the last twenty one years, and we met seven years ago when I was working for the World Bank on anti-corruption issues.

“The French made me a knight in their Order of Merit”, he boasts jovially. And adds: “By the way, I thought that I would never see you again…” He probably wouldn’t divulge why not anyway, so I decide to skip the question and simply indulge in the pleasure of our brief and unexpected reunion.

It is through Lam and Robert Underwood, the President of the University of Guam and a former US congressman, that I get to know James Sellmann, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. An expert in Chinese philosophy, Dean Sellmann is the kind of a scholar I tend to “click” or find a common language with.

Bust of Dr Tan Siu Lin (陈守仁), a Chinese philantropist, in the Guam University Library

Dean Sellmann takes no initiative in conversation, and we sit quietly in his office for a few minutes. “You’ve been to Pohnpei. That is my favorite one”, he observes finally, giving me the opportunity to ask questions.

A native of New York State, Dean Sellmann has lived in Guam for the last twenty four years. “It felt alright when I was young, he shares. But now I would like to be closer to my cousins and other family members”. “Are you married?” I ask, reluctantly getting involved in a personal conversation. He points at a picture:  “This is my beautiful Thai wife”.

We sit opposite to each other in an awkward silence as the memories of the Russian veterans start to drift through my mind. Those of the Second World War were, at least nominally, treated as heroes. Those of more recent wars are, usually, considered taboos. “Can you retire?” I wonder. “There is no retirement age here”.

Dean Sellmann hands over to me his paper on Taoism. “The passages that comprise the core chapters of the Zhuang-zi (an ancient Chinese thinker who would be equivalent to Aesup - LS) were mostly written during the Warring States Period (470-221 BCE) when people regularly died young”, I read. “The idea of living out your years or living a natural life span is a recurring theme in Zhuang-zi. Instead of seeking more, the Taoists are notorious for aspiring for less”.

And further: “Dying for your principles exhibits great honor and courage, but it also cuts short the means by which a person advances those principles. Death precludes being able to live well and properly. Thus, Zhuang-zi provides an alternative to Socrates’ and Mencius’ respective proposals that some values are worth dying for”.

“I should probably give you a ride”, James says candidly. “Puti Tai Nobio Street in Barrigada Heights”, I tell him the address, thinking of the excessively talkative airport immigration officer who advised me that “Puti Tai Nobio” means “a way without a boyfriend”, in Chamorro.

In the afternoon, the burningly hot air feels morose. A taifun alert has been issued for the evening. Around 5 pm, Marcus, my usually courteous host, shouts abruptly: “I am leaving in five minutes. If you want to join me to go to the beach, get ready soon!” I wake from my meditative mood, quickly pull on my swimming suit, and rush after him. “They are having a big military drill”, Marcus drops in the car.

吾生也有涯,而知也无涯 (Your life has a limit but knowledge has none), writes Dean Sellmann’s favorite Zhuang-zi. As I go swimming, the sky darkens, turning violet; the rain and the “air show” start almost simultaneously. The stars are invisible, but the roofs and the fences of the hotel are fluorescently golden… It is only the next morning in Taipei that I read in the newspaper that the night before the US Airforce flew two nuclear bombers from its base in Guam to South Korea in response to the North Korean nuclear test.

By Larisa Smirnova, in Xiamen, China, October 1st, 2016
Tags: china, guam, micronesia, north korea, nuclear, sunset, Выбор редакции
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