“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.