Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What being a "Kwaj Kid" means to me


“Where are you from?”

It’s a casual, small-talk question that people habitually ask when meeting someone new. But it was a question I dreaded as an 18-year-old college freshman recently transplanted from a U.S. military base on Kwajalein, Marshall Islands to a small New Jersey college town.

I knew my answer would draw blank stares or incredulous looks or a million and one questions. I didn’t want to be known solely for my exotic hometown. That wasn’t my identity or the most interesting thing about me. Was it? I experimented with telling people I was from Madison, Wis., where I was born and lived out the first year of my life before moving to Kwajalein. After someone familiar with the area started asking me what part of Madison I was from and I was unable to answer, I abandoned that practice.

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of where I was raised. In fact, I was and remain quite proud of and grateful for it. It’s just that the inevitable questions, whose answers now came out like the tired retorts of a seasoned politician, seemed impossible to answer accurately. What was it like to grow up on a 1.2 square mile island in the middle of the central Pacific?

The older I get and the remoter I become from my childhood home, both geographically and psychologically, the more whimsy infiltrates my memories of the Marshalls. It was like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry transported to a tropical paradise, as my dad used to say. There were only two television stations, one that mostly broadcast the news and the other that aired season-old popular sitcoms from the United States. There was no shopping mall to speak of. There were a few restaurants that could be enjoyed if you were okay with dining with the occasional cockroach, which we were. [Disclaimer: I hear the dining situation has improved.]

The lack of prefabricated diversions meant the small community of about 2,500 of us, mostly Americans but also Australian, Filipino and of course Marshallese residents, turned to each other for entertainment. There were no cell phones and landlines weren’t used much. Instead, we’d just ride over to our friends’ homes and walk right through the perpetually unlocked doors. Due to lack of space, nobody owned their own car so we all got around on rusty Huffy one-speeds, unencumbered on our commutes by the isolating bubbles of automobiles.

The relative safety of our island cocoon meant my childhood was an extraordinarily independent one. I was free to roam the streets and beaches, gathering shells and palm fronds for the fort in my friend’s backyard that was alternately an ordinary kitchen or a witches’ lair, depending on what we wanted to cook up that day. The nightly test of the island-wide emergency notification system, known as the “6:00 siren,” called me home for dinner.

My high school was situated across the street from Emon beach and bathing suits were a common uniform during the week for kids who wanted to sit in the sand for a snack or a smoke during their free period.  Our weekends consisted of 6-month old movies at the outdoor theater, campfires on the beach, lots and lots of swimming, and more often then not simply cruising on our bikes and gossiping.

The medley of isolation, tight quarters and boredom resulted in exceptionally close bonds, the likes of which are difficult to form under different circumstances. These bonds, along with the shared experience of growing up on Kwajalein, are what define a “Kwaj Kid.” There is a virtual army of adults across the United States made up of former Kwaj Kids. We’re everywhere. Which means I have brothers and sisters anywhere I could want to go. There is someone, multitudes of people really, in every state whose doors are always open to me and who know they always have a place on my couch.

As I’ve made a life in the United States over the past six years, Kwaj Kids have remained an important, if intermittent, part of it. I’ve skied with them in Colorado, swam with them at Florida beaches, danced with them under the Alabama stars, shucked oysters with them in New Orleans, caught plays with them in Manhattan, sang karaoke with them in Nashville and toasted with them in Chicago pubs. I’ve rarely been able to share a Thanksgiving dinner with my parents in the years since I left home, but I’ve been welcomed into a former Kwaj Kid’s house each and every year, regardless of where in this country I found myself.

When you grow up next to each other, practically on top of each other, strong attachments inevitably form. But I think we owe the sense of family that many Kwaj Kids find amongst themselves to more than that. I think the very Marshallese conventions of friends-as-family, openness and generosity seeped into our bones.

The sense of community in Marshallese culture is the strongest I’ve ever seen. Close friends are considered family in an almost literal sense. Distant cousins are hardly distinguished from brothers and sisters. Special occasions are often celebrated by huge extended families and friends donning matching handmade dresses and shirts, gathering to mark the birthdays and weddings of each member.

Although land ownership is a central part of social organization and hierarchy in the Marshall Islands, the focus on ownership doesn’t extend to other possessions. Things are given away freely to those who want and need them. If you compliment someone’s home decor or clothing you may find her insisting you take it home with you. It is the kind of place where people may literally give you the shirt off their back.

Six years after leaving the islands, it is this spirit of community and openhandedness that I’ve tried to hold tight to. 

So, what was it like to grow up on a tiny island in the middle of the central Pacific? I could write a whole book about it. And maybe I will.  

21 comments:

  1. Lisa, I am not sure you remember me but my family lived on Kwajalein from 1997-2000. You went to school with our son Chris, Chris Graham. I enjoyed your article about being a Kwaj Kid and even though Chris and our son Cody and our daughter Olivia didn't spend their entire childhood on that wonderful little island, they will never ever forget the special place they were able to experience. Olivia doesn't remember the island as we left when she was only 6 months old. Chris has the fondest of memories and would like to return someday. Cody has wonderful memories too. Thanks again, Amy Graham

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    1. Hello Amy! Of course I remember Chris! I think we went up through 6th grade together. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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  2. I'm going to have to print this out and hand it to people when they ask where I'm from :) Great job Lisa!

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  3. Christina Hoover MooreheadJuly 12, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    I graduated from KHS in 1985, and believe me, explaining my/our hometown is no easier now than it was 17 years ago. In my mind a microscopic price to pay for the chance to grow up on Kwaj. Oh, by the way, if you're ever in Kyoto, Japan and need a place to crash or a bite to eat, come on over.

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  4. I was a Kwaj Kid 30 years ago, and could have written an almost identical article. Glad to see little has changed (in such a good way). Nice article.

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  5. Thanks, Lisa! Your article brought it all back for me! I didn't grow up there, but my 3 years there left an indelible (favorable) impression on me!

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  6. Lisa! This is an amazing post. And I know, by everyone sharing it, we all feel this way. It seems even it was only for a summer or years, Kwaj is imprinted on our hearts. Its crazy how even years later, talking to someone who gets that always brings it all back. The memories made will last forever! This is a great post. Thanks for sharing it with us all.

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  7. Simply a wonderful post....I knew your family & many families on Kwaj as Lexy & I spent 11 years there.....as you have written so artfully.....you have to have been there to understand the friendship/family status you attain once you have been a resident of Kwajalein....
    Well Done Lisa!!!
    Cowboy & Lexy Galloway

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  8. Lisa... Thank you SO MUCH for this guest post! What an awesome and very well told story. It has garnered a lot of traffic from the post on Kwaj-Net: http://facebook.com/KwajNet

    Best regards,

    Bob
    kwajnet@gmail.com

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  9. Lisa, you're a talented writer :O) I love your style... I must say, I had the opposite view when I went to college. I was named the "island girl" and loved it! But maybe that's because I was sort of a nerd on Kwaj ... :o) However, now that I am farther removed from my childhood home, the small talk question brings up that awkward feeling. In some ways, I feel like I'm not from anywhere. I'm not from Kwaj anymore... I'm not from Alabama or Texas.... it is a strange feeling. Keep writing and say hello to your parents for me!

    Sincerely,
    Naomi Moseley

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    1. Hey, Naomi!

      Are you by chance Cass Moseley's daughter? She and I knew each other on Kwaj 1991-1993.

      ...and I must agree that Lisa wrote a very profound and well-written blog post. On the same note, if you wish to contribute to the Kwaj-Net blog, just let me know. I'll be happy to set you up as a guest blogger.

      Best regards,

      Bob Raymond

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  10. Kristina Adams (Kiki Bright)July 16, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    I was a Kwaj kid in the 70's and I totally relate to this article. I've lived in various places in the States and I get that blank look when I tell them I lived on a tiny island in the Pacific. I too am glad of my experience there.

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  11. Great blog entry, Lisa! In so many ways it is just so difficult to describe the "Kwaj experience". Thanks for making it a little easier!

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  12. Have lived in Colorado Springs for the last 37 years but Kwaj WILL always be home to me.Check out "Kwaj Kids or Kwajalein Era" on Facebook.Loved the article.

    Brian Buckley
    Kwaj 1967-1975

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  13. From one Kwaj kid to another...excellent description! One thing I might add, that even if you didn't spend time on the island at the same time, if you are a Kwaj. Kid, you are always ohana to another!

    Candace Hergenrother
    Kwaj 1970-1978

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  14. I lived on Kwaj for 3 years in the 70's. A place that the sense of family was shared and thanks to the internet and Facebook is still shared with my Kwaj Kid family. You have worded this the way many of us feel & have experienced. :-)
    Roberta "Robbie" McLaughlin
    Kwaj 1974-1977

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  15. To all of you commentators,

    Thank you so much for contributing to Lisa's blog post. Her writing definitely shows her skills as a J-School professional.

    For all of you ex-Kwajers, if you wish to make a guest blog post, just let me know and I'll set you up as a blogger.

    Although not as eloquently as Lisa, I have shared my thoughts about my arrival on Kwaj and what that acclimation is like here: Postman Bob's Arrival on Kwaj Feel free to leave a comment.

    Yokwe and mahalo,

    Postman Bob Raymond

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  16. It was a unique place to raise children. My family lived there from 1966-69 with approx. 6600 others, & 1977-81. Youngest son. Born in Kwaj. hospital and two older sons graduating from KHS. When I returned to visit in the 90's, I thought some of the changes good, but losing the Yuk not so good! There was no Internet, TV which was good for raising children and intermingling.

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  17. Lisa, is that a picture of you in the article? I could almost swear that it's a picture of me! Lol! I was born on Kwaj in 93 and I think thats one of the Decoster boys in the back there.
    -Sandra Knecht

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    1. I will try to find a comparable picture of myself on kwaj so you can see how eerie the similarity is :-D

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    2. Yep that's me and that is my brother in the background. You should post that picture I'd love to see it!

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