Nowhere Slow: Get a Wife

On the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, Jonathan Gourlay prepares for his daughter’s kindergarten graduation — or at least tries to.

At the Wenik Early Childhood Education Center on the southern end of the island of Pohnpei, my daughter’s teachers treat me as if I am incapable of doing anything correctly because I am 1) not a Pohnpeian and 2) not a woman. So over her entire year of kindergarten, I try to compensate by proving my mettle as a single father and someone who can participate in Pohnpeian culture just like a Pohnpeian. The more I try, the more I fail, much to everyone’s delight. With each defeat, I once again prove that foreigners are inept and that I need a wife (a sentiment that must be italicized).

My failures, which mostly include my complete ignorance of field trips, meetings, or other events for which I have to prepare food or dress my daughter appropriately, are a result of the unique school-parent communication system employed at the kindergarten. All parents at all times are expected to know what to do without being told. All parents must have the same idea at the same time and do the same thing. This communal hive-mind system works quite well for everyone but me.

If you’re wondering what the big deal is, then you don’t live on a small island. One major screw up will haunt you forever. For instance, if my daughter doesn’t wear underwear to kindergarten graduation (she doesn’t like underwear), then I will always be the hopeless single father who couldn’t even get underwear on his child. Perhaps this seems like a bizarre fear. On the contrary, I once had to speed to Wenik before the school bus, swoop in to catch my daughter exiting the bus, and nonchalantly throw underwear on her before she went to school “commando” beneath her uniform-blue skirt. The piercing gaze of her gelatinous yet eagle-eyed teacher told me that I had been found out and sure enough, my reputation as a poorly-skilled-foreigner-single-father-who-can’t-even-get-underwear-on-his-child (a sentiment that must be dashed) was soon well known. I pointed out to anyone who would listen that Pohnpeian children are not regular underwear wearers at home. In fact, there are whole tribes of mostly naked children that stream past my house and through the jungle like feral cats, stopping only for popcorn and knives. (They use the knives to cut whimsical medicines out of flowers and tree bark.)

On Pohnpei, public appearance is of paramount importance. A child who goes naked most of the week will never leave the family compound without underwear, even if that underwear has to be “borrowed” from the laundry-line of a neighbor. Screw around with this rule and you will be branded forever and be unable to leave the house for embarrassment. That is why I had girl’s underwear stuffed in my pocket at Peanut’s graduation (for convoluted reasons, my daughter’s name is Peanut). My emergency underwear was ready in case the pair I certainly knew my daughter was wearing somehow evaporated.

Just as the school year culminates in that thrilling event known as kindergarten graduation, I also expected the culmination of my failures to be duly noted and graduated to a new level of inadequacy. Kindergarten graduation is a huge event. The mothers and fathers of the children at Wenik Early Childhood Education Center know through cultural osmosis exactly what to do. All but one, of course. I have to track down information like a Washington Post reporter. I need multiple sources, multiple interviews just to get the right time and place. Then there is dress and food to prepare. If one bit of the preparation is “wrong,” then that further justifies the sentiment that I can do nothing correctly because I am 1) not a Pohnpeian and 2) not a woman. In other words, more justification for the one thing that is obvious and in italics to everyone, I need a Pohnpeian wife.

One important part of the graduation are the basins of food that we must provide for our child. The basin I was told to prepare was a “one-way take-out ready-to-eat.” In Pohnpei, the meanings of “basin,” “one-way,” and “take-out ready-to eat” are as obscure and Byzantine as a Starbucks menu. A basin is a plastic tub, available at every small store around the island. The empty basin will be filled with fried food, rice, and canned goods, ready to “take-out” and go “one-way” back home after being sufficiently grazed at the graduation. I was pretty confident that I could get my daughter’s basin ready even though I had only heard about it on the morning I was supposed to provide it. I confirmed this intel with the bus driver, my neighbor, and a teacher aide. I was ready to buy a plastic tub and fill it with “soda, cheese balls, and corned beef.” The school would later add fried chicken, hot dogs, rice, and breadfruit to the basin. The big basin-eating event would take place after the graduation ceremony, in a cement holding pen next to a church. Here we would watch our dolled-up children dip their tiny hands into their basins full of greasy food and chow down.

All I needed to do was buy the items and bring them to school. Confident that I could do this simple task as well as any Pohnpeian woman, I went to the cheese ball aisle at the grocery store. It had been a month since the last produce ship docked on Pohnpei and the offerings at the grocery store consisted of various forms of cheese balls, corned beef, soda, and peach rings. The cheese ball choices stretched down the aisle and dared me to make the wrong choice. At first I settled on the familiar blue Planter’s canister, but when I saw the price I had to return it. Would my basin be wrong if I put $4 cheese balls in it? Would such gratuitous spending mark me as “foreign?” I thought of the teachers shaking their heads and sighing, “Only a crazy mehnwai would spend his money on expensive American cheese balls.” So I put the Planter’s back on the shelf and took a few bags of twenty-five cent Chinese “Cheez Balls.” I faced the same dilemma in the soda aisle. Should I plunk down five dollars for a two-liter bottle of genuine, only recently out-of-date Coca Cola or should I instead buy the smaller Chinese version, Sunlight soda? Sunlight soda tasted like straight corn syrup infused with sad, half-hearted bubbles that struggled for air in the sludgy brown liquid. But cheap Sunlight soda would not mark me as a foreigner, would not embarrass my daughter, would win me cultural acceptance. This Sunlight would mark a new dawn of acceptance for me on Pohnpei. No longer would I be a mehnwai.

Mehnwai is the Pohnpeian word for foreigner. After you hear it often enough, the word takes on a quality all its own. It is a very specific term for a certain type of behavior that the simple word “foreigner” doesn’t suggest. A mehnwai is uptight, worried about minor issues, a complainer, quick to anger, inappropriately emotional, unbending, a stickler for rules and laws, a cheapskate who also spends too much money on bizarre items, and unclear on the simplest matters of local culture.

So when I get to Peanut’s school, I am pretty sure that even this crazy mehnwai can’t fuck up a simple basin with soda, cheese balls, and a can of gelatinous Fijian corned beef. (“Why would you want a can of corned beef directly after graduating from Kindergarten?” you ask. I reply, “Why not?”) There in the back room of her three-room cement open-air kindergarten, in her scrungy yet quaint school with re-bar sticking from the roof like skinny minarets, in the bastion of erudition and education that is Wenik Early Childhood Education Center are thirty basins, each with a child’s name on it. The thirty basins are exactly alike. They are big, red, and each have a liter of Coca-Cola and a big canister of Planter’s cheese balls. Somehow, I’ve managed to do even this incorrectly. I timidly hand over my medium-sized blue basin with a can of soda and three bags of cheese balls and the teacher looks at me with her “get a wife” eyes of contemptuous pity. I’m a mehnwai. I’m not married. I am wrong. I have images of my daughter crying over her small basin and small soda and small cheese balls.

Lucy keeps setting up that football for me to kick, and I keep thinking that this time I’m really going to kick it. After I inevitably screw it up she walks over to my prone body and says, “Just give up, Charlie Brown. Get a wife.”

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.