3. Limits of the Individual
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37«.«.« 3 ».».» Limits of the Individual Privacy and Personal Choice The new Peace Corps Volunteer had been on his site, an island of a few hundred people, for just under a month. The romance of island life and a strange culture had worn off quickly. He found his goodwill tested by the ways in which his host family was taking advantage of him. His personal belongings had been opened during his first week on the island, and he had found one or two things missing. How could they presume to rummage through his personal belongings like that, he wondered. Then there was the annoyance of the kids in his host family, especially the two young boys, nine and twelve, who were with him all the time. The boys were lots of fun and their magical smiles lit up the house. But he needed time to be by himself for a while, to think his own thoughts and escape the tight confinement of the family circle. One afternoon he slipped away from his host family and walked to the far end of the island, not too far off on an island as small as this but hidden from view by some large coral boulders. There he sat on the sand, shielded by the rocks, as he opened his journal and began to ponder what to write. He couldn’t have been sitting there for much longer than ten minutes when he glanced up and noticed them. The two boys, wearing a concerned look rather than their usual smile, stood silent for a moment or two before one of them said: “Mama sent us down here to watch you. She’s afraid that you might hurt yourself.” It wasn’t until months later, when he had a chance to swap stories with other volunteers that the young American under- 38 Chapter 3 stood what the boys meant. As he listened to other similar tales, it occurred to him that their host families had not yet absorbed the Americans’ need for getting away from other people and escaping into their own thoughts. For a person to wander off by himself to find solitude was so unusual that people regarded it as a warning signal for depression, psychological imbalance, or even self-destruction. Privacy clearly does not have the same value in Micronesian eyes that it has for westerners. This is the first lesson learned by Americans who make their home in the islands for any length of time. I can still see the pairs of eyes peering through the windows as I did my daily exercises in the plywood house that served as my temporary home in the village. They belonged to the children who lined up outside the house every afternoon to enjoy the spectacle. Just as there was no privacy in the village, there were no secrets either, I soon learned. People were quick to ask me how I was feeling the morning after I made a rushed trip to the woods to vomit up my dinner in what I naively presumed was secrecy. In a traditional island setting, privacy was virtually impossible. Extended family members piled into dwellings, mats were unrolled on the floor, and persons slept anywhere they could find floor space. Food was available in cook pots or perhaps wrapped in banana leaves to be eaten whenever a person felt hungry. Even clothes, like so much else in daily life, were often shared by other family members when need arose. Everyone knew when the young girls in the family began menstruating (on many islands they were once secluded in menstrual houses during this part of their cycle), and most of the village was aware of which boys were sleeping with what girls. But how could they not have been? Village life was too confined to permit anything resembling privacy, and family life even more so. It might appear, then, that Micronesian disdain for privacy is simply making a virtue of necessity. But there is more to the matter than this. Even today, when housing styles have changed and homes are equipped with private bedrooms, the island preference for group living seems to trump the desire for privacy. Young people, and even the not so young, often feel more comfortable huddling four or five to a room rather than sleeping in different rooms. People may travel alone Limits of the Individual 39 at times, if necessity dictates, but their strong preference is to remain in the company of others...