In Surviving Paradise, author Peter Rudiak-Gould recounts his year as a volunteer English teacher for WorldTeach on the South Pacific island of Ujae. Part of the Ujae Atoll in the Marshall Islands and measuring only one third of a square mile in area, Peter circumnavigated his new island home before lunch on his first day.
Fresh out of college and hoping to find a remote paradise, to be a big fish in a small lagoon (actually, not that small, being 72 square miles), it’s not your typical coming-of-age story. He very quickly realized that paradise is an ideal that doesn’t always match reality. While still idyllically beautiful and warm, there were also barking dogs, unruly children, loud music, bland food, and bugs galore. This latter point can best be summarized through a local song;
“Bunniin bunun naam, bunniin bunun naam,
Iban kiki, bwe eju naam ekkan niin”
Translated, this means;
“There are zillions of mosquitoes tonight,
there are zillions of mosquitoes tonight,
I can’t sleep, because there are ludicrous numbers
of mosquitoes and their teeth are sharp.”
Throughout the book we learn along with Peter as he unravels more of this unique language which has 11 words for coconut, 35 words for wind, and where there are both words that have very specific meanings such as dentak (striking needlefish with a long piece of wood as they float on the surface of the water on moonlit nights), as well as words with multiple meanings like yokwe eok, which is used for “hello”, “goodbye”, “I love you”, and “I’m sorry for you.”
He comes face-to-face with his own Western identity as he struggles to understand and accept Marshallese values of kindness, generosity, communalism, conflict avoidance, stoicism, conservatism, strict social roles, idolization of the old, and the marginalization of the young. The overriding rule of the land is to maintain harmony at any cost, which includes suppressing emotions and ignoring the grave importance of suicide and the effects of global warming.
The book is a captivating journey, offering vivid descriptions of life on a small Pacific atoll with insights on how a remote island nation deals with the inevitable influence of the Western world. You can also read Rolf’s interview with Peter Rudiak-Gould as this month’s featured writer.