2. Forging an Identity
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

24«.«.« 2 ».».» Forging an Identity The Social Identity A high school senior from an outer island school comes in to talk with an American teacher about her plans after graduation. The teacher wants the girl, who is a bright student, to go to college in the United States, but the girl tells her teacher that her mother wants her to stay at home so that she can be with her younger sister and help take care of two cousins who are coming to the island to begin high school next year. The mother has other objections to her daughter going off to college—she thinks that the daughter ought to have other family members around to watch over her. The American teacher reacts strongly to this. “Why won’t your mother let you lead your own life?” she asks, obviously frustrated that the girl is going to endanger her own academic career so that she can provide for her family. The teacher promises to help the girl find a college and the scholarship money the girl needs. She points out to the girl that if she postpones her schooling , she might lose interest in her education, get married, and never have another opportunity to get her college degree. That would seriously limit her choices in the future. The girl listens to her teacher, drops her eyes, and sighs. For a moment she says nothing, and then she mutters, “But my family needs my help.” The American teacher has exhausted her options so she says good-bye to the girl and leaves the school office. Outside, she sees a group of girls, wearing lavalavas and decorative palm fronds around their necks and on their wrists, as they prepare to practice Forging an Identity 25 one of the dances for graduation next month. The teacher pauses for a moment as she watches the girls fall into line and begin the rhythmic hand and hip motions of the dance, each girl’s movements coordinated to all the others. That’s such a good image of what life is like out here, she thinks. Each individual, no matter who she is or what she can do, blends in with the group so effortlessly that sometimes she seems to have no soul of her own. This American teacher was not the first visitor to the islands to have entertained such thoughts. Albert Sturges, an early American missionary to Pohnpei, wrote a line a century and a half ago that might have echoed the sentiments of many other foreign visitors to the islands before and since. “Humanity here is one viscous mass,” Sturges wrote, “and there is no such thing here as individual action or individual responsibility.” Sturges undoubtedly would have written the same line if he had been in Yap or Palau or anywhere else in the region. Everyone knows of numerous instances when islanders have fallen into line and marched off as a group to do something that a number of them as individuals might not have chosen to do. Young men gather for drinking bouts on weekends. Girls, like the one in the story above, stay at home to take care of the family, no matter how strong the personal desire to go on to college. Family members work all day to prepare the food that they will take to a long customary meeting that evening even if they would prefer to join friends somewhere else. To Americans and other outsiders this kind of behavior betrays what they might call the herd mentality: Micronesians thundering off in a single direction regardless of the consequences. To their mind, this group-oriented behavior is just further evidence that Micronesians are always ready to put aside their own preferences in order to fit in with the group. For all their friendliness and good-natured charm, islanders seem to be an embodiment of the old caricature: people who “go along in order to get along.” If cultures were plotted on a scale from individualistic to group-minded, island societies would always run off the latter end of the scale. Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of an islander’s social identity. The Micronesian is first and foremost a member of a social group. “I am because we are” is the often-quoted Bantu proverb 26 Chapter 2 to express the importance of the family in Africa. Micronesians would proclaim a loud amen to that. Indeed, all that any islander had ever become would have stemmed...