Living in the Marshall Islands

The following is a personal account from Nancy Snyder, on her experience teaching and living in the Marshall Islands. Her essay is the winner of our Spring 2011 Writers Contest.

I love my life as an international educator. I currently live and teach in the Micronesian nation of the Marshall Islands. I cannot easily explain the Marshall Islands culturally or geographically. Most people have probably never heard of this small nation comprised of isolated groups of low lying coral atolls spread out over hundreds of miles of Pacific Ocean. When I say small nation, I mean small. The population in the hundreds of islands and miles of sea is around 60,000 people, half of which are crammed onto the atoll where I live, Majuro, which houses the seat of government and commerce and the center of what passes for modernity. You might think living in a capital city with half a nation’s population creates a bustling lifestyle and anonymity. I would never call my life in Majuro bustling or anonymous. Before moving here I lived in the highlands of Guatemala and traveled Latin America. I am not naive to differences in culture. Living and working here I have learned so much and been shocked often.

Never being anonymous is painful, annoying, entertaining, and delightful. Tonight I experienced some of the entertainment and delight at a fundraising event to support victims of the recent Japanese tsunami. My delight came as a result of our smallness and lack of anonymity. I recognized a government minister shaking his hips and sing old Beatles songs and pop songs in Marshallese on stage while the public carried dollar bills up to the stage. I saw high school students perform in Japanese. I laughed as members of the transplanted Fijian community danced in matching orange dresses. I smiled as groups of women from local nonprofits danced together wearing sequined sashes and locally made T-shirts reading Japan and Jiban (Japan in Marshallese) with a symbol that combines the Marshallese and the Japanese flags. All the while, I could recognize someone on the stage. I would never have experienced this anywhere else in the world. And where was I doing this? Where did I watch people shake and sing and dance to raise funds for people in Japan? I watched this in a tiny nation where during WWII Japanese soldiers killed civilians, took prisoners, and fought with the US on strips of land.

I have a life ahead of me of teaching in other nations and experiencing other culture and things just as interesting as amazing as tonight. I am sometimes annoyed in this faraway place, but after almost two years I still can’t believe I live here. I can never expect to fully comprehend the Marshallese culture of valuing group above individual nor can I delve deep enough into the connection and history between the Marshall Islands and Japan that allows them to love each other after a connection forged through war; but watching another teacher let loose dancing on stage with a Japanese volunteer while a Marshallese band plays, I can’t ask for much more!