- Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island
Greg Dening's metaphoric islands and beaches remind us just how painful culture crossings can be—how difficult it often is for individuals to successfully traverse the boundaries that help define who we are and how we understand the world around us. Peter Rudiak-Gould's Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island is a narrative of one such crossing. It is a contemporary memoir of the author's endeavor to navigate the metaphorical beach that ostensibly separates his own American culture and the culture in which he was immersed for a year as a volunteer teacher on Ujae Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The result is a candid—and at times callous—reflection on the commensurability of [End Page 249] cultures and the challenges inherent in culture contact.
In the first six chapters, Rudiak-Gould confronts the disconnect between his own preconceived fantasies of Ujae as a "far-off paradise" (4) and the reality of the Ujae he encounters and tries to get to know. Upon arrival, he is shocked to discover that what he thought would be a tropical "distant haven, a world of nature—preindustrial . . . [and] pristine" is in actuality a site of complexity and contradiction (20). Rudiak-Gould quickly discovers how little he knows about his temporary home and experiences a profound feeling of culture shock that is reflected in the titles of the first few chapters: "Moon Landing," "A Beautiful Prison," and "Tropical Paradox." He feels oppressed by the unexpected heat and bland diet, understands little of local culture and customs, and is largely unable to communicate with those around him. He feels trapped by the island's smallness and isolation, experiences an extreme sense of loneliness, and considers returning home. He is an outsider, a stranger, and Ujae is largely incomprehensible to him. "Sorry, this isn't the Ujae I was looking for," he muses (7).
Despite this shaky beginning, Rudiak-Gould perseveres in his effort to cross the beach. In chapter 5, aptly titled "Learning to Speak Again," he reaches out to members of his host family, neighbors, and soon-to-be students and begins learning what he can about Ujae and the Marshall Islands. After weeks of fumbling clumsily through interactions with people in a language he doesn't understand, he slowly begins to speak and understand Marshallese. He takes every opportunity to explore Ujae's physical land-and seascapes and gradually begins to adjust: "As hard as this new life [is], it also offer[s] moments more sublime than anywhere" (59).
School starts in chapter 7, and the author is immediately confronted with the overwhelming challenge of teaching in an education system and school plagued by the vestiges of American colonialism. He often wonders why he is even there—if his presence in the Marshall Islands is needed or valuable or if "teaching English [is tantamount to] linguistic imperialism, Western paternalism, or worse" (63). He is shocked that Marshallese teachers are required to teach in English (and yet often know very little English themselves) and that the textbooks used by the school are "intended for American children learning to read in English, not for foreign children learning English itself" (72). The effect is that the majority of his students are unable to read or write in either English or Marshallese. This combined with Rudiak-Gould's lack of teaching experience or knowledge of Marshallese culture makes for a difficult situation for students and teacher alike.
By chapter 8, Rudiak-Gould has settled into a routine on Ujae and has in many ways started to cross the beach. His initial feelings of culture shock begin to dissipate as he grows accustomed to the pace of life on the island and develops meaningful relationships with neighbors and members of his host family. In the remaining chapters, he shifts his attention away from what Ujae seems to lack and learns to love Ujae on its own terms. He makes...