Nowhere Slow: A Slice of Ripe Tomato, Lightly Salted

Jonathan Gourlay tries to count in Pohnpeian but never gets past “one.”

Deon, my Pohnpeian language teacher, has shellacked what remains of his hair with some kind of black paste and it now sticks to the side of his head in thin, sorry strips. He wears a gold watch and some other golden pimpings that mark him as a government worker rather than a farmer or fisherman. His cologne is both cheap and overpowering.

“You want to say ‘his pig’? Americans say ‘his pig,’” Deon chuckles. “In Pohnpei, if his pig is alive you use nah. Nah pwihk. His pig alive. And if his pig is dead you use ah. Ah pwihk. His pig dead. If he has pig on his plate for eating we say kene pwihk. His eating pig. Live pig. Dead pig. Eating pig.”

My classmate, Christina, groans. Christina is an Australian by way of England, approaching a sun-dried late middle age with a stiffness and resignation that is broken only by an occasional beleaguered moan. Today, Pohnpeian grammar agrees with her about as much undercooked eating pig.

Kenei pwihk is your pig for eating. Water, house, car all take different ‘my’ words. Maybe you should memorize them.”

“So if I want to say ‘my beer’, I say ngehi beero?” I ask.

Deon hates questions. He chuckles.

Nime beero. See, because that is beer. Beer is not the same as pig. See? Maybe for you beer and pig are the same thing. I don’t know. That’s American culture.”

Christina and I have reached a grammatical complexity that can only be simplified with gin and tonics. Our ritual is this: we throw worksheets from a Betty Azar ESL grammar book (dubbed the “Black Betty”) at unsuspecting Micronesian students, sputter from school to town in Christina’s Mazda Familia, sit in the Deon’s Pohnpeian class with one other hopeful Pohnpeian language learner, and, finally, retreat to Christina’s house for gin and tonics.

Tantalized by visions of those gin and tonics (mixed very precisely by Christina with an eye dropper of Angostura bitters), we sit impatiently in Deon’s classroom. Lacking the language skills to understand Pohnpeian pronouns, I focus on Deon’s belly. It is held in check by a tight white t-shirt and cascades over an enormous gold belt buckle. Christina is next to me in her usual uniform, a revealing short dress, probably better suited to a much younger woman. The matter-of-factness with which she presents her body to the world has something to do with her entirely reasonable approach to life — of course she looks twenty years younger than her hard-of-hearing husband of the same age. She takes care of herself. She orders her life. For many years, she has lived on remote islands and done it with a kind of “mad dogs and Englishmen” tenacity. She retains a sense of order in the face of an illogical world that is bent on upsetting her plans.

Symbolic of this approach to life are her tomatoes. Tomatoes being nearly impossible to grow on rainy Pohnpei, she decided she must grow them — and she did, though she guarded them with such vigor that I was never allowed to know where they were or when they might be ready. Every once in a while we got a salted slice of tomato with our gin and tonic. She produced it on its own sacred, special plate, like a priest at communion. I half expected her to feed it to me — “This is my body and my blood…” I never admitted that I didn’t really care for a salted raw tomato slice with my gin and tonic. But I understood that the delicate interior architecture of the tomato represented order, culture, and sanity.

“How would I say, ‘Will you dance with me?’” I ask, pen and notebook at the ready. I am always on the lookout for useful phrases, whereas Deon seems to want to impress us with the impossibility of ever learning Pohnpeian. I am thinking of the weekend when I will go to the local disco. I want to know how to say “What’s your name?”, “Will you dance with me?”, and “Would you like to come to my tin shack and visit my bottle of tequila?”

Deon, however, does not like questions. Ask him too many and he will invariably launch into a monologue concerning China O’Brien, a cheap martial arts flick made in 1990 and set in Beaver Creek, Utah. It stars Cynthia Rothrock whose body, in the film, is “the ultimate weapon.” This is Deon’s favorite movie and, in his opinion, a very important cultural artifact from the West that explains quite a bit about the cultural differences between America and Micronesia. Having never seen the movie or its sequel, I take his word for it. As if to punish me for what I thought was a very pragmatic question, he segues from China O’Brien to Pohnpeian counting systems.

“In Pohnpeian, there are thirty ways to count. Americans say ‘one, two, three.’ ‘One beer.’ ‘One pig’ For you, pigs and beer are the same thing. This is funny. Maybe you should think about this.”

We look at him quizzically. How can there be 30 ways to count?

Pwihk ehu. One pig dead. Pwihk emen. One pig alive.”

Christina groans. Deon glares at our class for effect.

There is a way to count cigarettes, sodas, and other oblong objects; a way to count limbs, hands, and fingers which is also the way to count a school of fish; a way to count leaves that is different from the way to count trees or bundles of wood; a way to count piles of shit, bushes, nights, yams and bananas…

Christina and I stare at Deon in utter confusion and disbelief. He has won. We are ready to give up and go home. We want nothing more than to count gin and tonics, watch the sunset, and shout at Jeffrey, her husband.

How can there be 30 ways to say the number one?

Understanding this conundrum seems to be a key to understanding the Pohnpeian outlook. Imagine a typical Pohnpeian scene: bundles of wood and breadfruit, majestic trees, leaves and flowers of all shapes and colors, an open-air wooden thatched hut, hibiscus bark being stripped in preparation for squeezing sakau, stones and coconut shells set out for pounding and drinking sakau, monstrous pigs jammed in small cages near a creek, women washing and beating clothes in the creek, recently caught fish being fried, banana plants with their drooping phallic red shoots heavy with even more phallic yellow fruit. Now imagine that each of these has a different number one, two, three, and so on.

To “think like a Pohnpeian,” if such a thing is possible, means allowing my numbers to lose their abstraction and sink into the scene. There is a difference between one leaf and one tree, one live pig and one dead pig, one day of a ten-day funeral and one day of a week. Yes, these are different things, but how can they take different numbers? Pohnpeian counting systems hang like a many faceted diamond in my imagination: beautiful, extraordinary, yet somehow beyond the powers of my imagination to fully grasp. And therefore, the inner life of Pohnpeians will always remain one maddening leap of imagination away from my understanding.

In my first years on Pohnpei, I thought I could learn the language and understand Pohnpeians the way that I understood any topic: reading and memorization. So I dutifully took Deon’s worksheet to that evening’s gin-session and set about memorizing counting systems.

“Why is a car counted with the same number system as a can of soda and a cigarette?” I asked Christina.

Jeffrey, who was a supervisor for the electric company, took this an opening to say something.

“We went up the river to work on a line today. And did you know that the river has a different name there from the name here? Here the name is something like ‘prepare my salad’ and up the river it’s called ‘lemming sing’ or something. Yes, ‘lemming sing’. But I wonder, do lemmings sing? You see?” Jeffrey said, laughing.

Christina looked at me and groaned. It was a look that cemented our friendship as fellow travelers. It said, “Here I am, the last bit of sanity and reasonableness in a crazy world.” I returned her glance to acknowledge her predicament. We had a symbiotic relationship for many years: she fed me drinks, and I sympathized with her.

When it felt like time to stumble home and leave Jeffrey and Christina to pleasantly bicker away the evening, I would announce, “I’m crossing over to the other side.” It was my attempt at a witticism: the walk home took me past the Last Stop Store and over the little bridge across the bay.

After a few years, Christina and Jeffrey left to go back to Australia. They missed Pohnpei, but Christina thought it was the kind of place that was “better in retrospect.” She wanted to be closer to non-rat-infested hospitals for her sickly husband. So it was a cruel twist, which I imagine Christina met with a groan, when she found out she had a malignant brain tumor. About a month before she died, I wrote to her that I was “crossing over to the other side” about a trip to America I was preparing for. She responded:

…with the failure of my latest treatment, I query what you mean by “the other side.” If one night in your cozy house a strange light appears through a window, just get out a bottle of gin and that may serve to calm my troubled spirit and I will then stop disturbing you.

Christina, I know that gin would just excite you and encourage you to linger. When you come to trouble me, I will place a slice of tomato on a little dish, salt it, and pretend to like it. This will show you all is right with the world and you need not trouble us.

One friend alive. One friend dead. I can almost grasp how one can be two entirely different numbers.

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.