the best part about being in your 20’s is slowly caring less and less about what people think of you and surrounding yourself with good people
the worst is that I’m broke
It's like...Sometimes I'm here and sometimes I'm there, but most of the time, I'm getting from here to there. You know?
I put some important things away before I went on vacation, you know, for safe keeping…my other bank ATM card, my Taiwan insurance card, my library card. And just spent the last hour trying to find them. TYPICAL.
A few weeks ago I took a trip of a lifetime..or more specifically, the trip of my lifetime. It was the sort of experience that is so engrossing that you can’t quite seem to shake it off even weeks, and what will soon be months and years later. I’m convinced that the time I spent in Palau this summer will forever serve as a reminder of exactly where I come from and even more succinctly, who I am.
I’ll never forget our first night in Palau and the image of my mother crying in joy as we gathered together at my Auntie’s house—all of us fresh off the plane—singing and laughing together.
Visiting Palau with my family (as an adult) has been a lifelong dream..one that for the most part seemed completely out of reach. Over the past couple of years, I’d drop hints here and there about all of us going someday without any real idea of those thoughts actually coming to fruition. But sometime during the past year, it started to seem more and more likely. There was chitter chatter across the globe as my various relatives chimed in with interest and intent of making ‘Palau 2014’ a reality. And all at once every tiny detail was falling into place.
I’ve been located in Taiwan for the last two years—one of a few places that offer direct flights to Palau. I could have gone at any point on my own, but something about that didn’t seem right. How could I visit Palau without my mother? I couldn’t. The dream started out small—simply getting my mom, dad, and sister to come. I was beyond happy when I realized that that would happen. But as if that weren’t enough, over the following months, everyone was confirming their trips. My aunt in California—my cousin in the Virgin Islands—my own beloved brother in Texas—my uncle in Hawaii—my grandma, aunt, uncle, and cousins in Guam—ALL making preparations for the journey. And by some delightful twist of fate, unheard of serendipity, blessings from nowhere but above, our trips happened to coincide with the first ever reunion of our family clan..the Obaks—descendents of our matriarch Remurang.
Needless to say, my expectations for this trip were sky high, which of course is risky. High expectations in whatever context often pave the way for bitter disappointment. But as it turns out, my expectations weren’t simply met, they were far exceeded. The vacation itself and how we spent our days, was not how I had imagined it would be…but in the best way. After coming back, so many people have asked me about my trip, but all I can really do is smile deliriously and say that it was amazing because it truly was. But when I try to explain, it all gets a little lost in translation. On one of our first days on the island, we had to attend a funeral which lasted for a large portion of the day. That might not sound like something you would want to do on vacation, but I was so grateful to witness that display of Palauan culture—a community wrapping their own in love and support during a time of intense loss and grief. And even as outsiders, not having been around in recent years, we were welcomed as any other family was, able to fully participate in every aspect of the ritual. My cousins, sister, and I were asked to help serve food to the masses at the funeral and our family sang together for everyone as well.
In Palauan culture, the different family clans in the community will pool money together to give to the family who has lost a loved one as a way to cover the various expenses and for their grief as well. During the funeral, the immediate family was in an inner room of the house. Outside, the people sang and ate as the money was collected, counted, announced, and recorded. If a family can’t afford to pay, they can also offer valuable items such as turtle shell goods. The current minimum wage in Palau is a meager $2.75 an hour. (The parliament has passed the minimum wage law giving workers an extra twenty-five cents an hour each year unitl it reaches $3.50). From my observation, the cost of living is not so low that this minimum wage makes sense, but what do I know? It seemed impressive and difficult to maintain this costly tradition, but I suppose there is some security in knowing that your investments in the community will come back in your time of need. If it wasn’t for the funeral, I wouldn’t have gained some of this cultural knowledge and I’m glad we were all able to be there and offer what support we could financial and otherwise.
Including the funeral, our first 4 or 5 days were filled primarily with paying respects and other family obligations. When I’ve mentioned that to other people, they mostly remark about how awful that must have been, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t a tourist..at least not entirely..and that realization was a special one.
In a lot of ways, I was looking for this trip to greater define a part of myself that I have never been able to—not completely. As a second generation-half Palauan, with my mother as my sole link to the place for most of my life, Palauan culture and my ties to it have been more of a concept than anything else. I’ve talked about it before, so I won’t get too deep into it, although I certainly could. It’s like my whole life I’ve lived with the aroma of Palau…..sometimes a scent is so strong you can almost taste it. There have been times when I’m with my Palauan family where it has been that strong. A few times come to mind..like my graduation from high school or Auntie Lydia’s funeral in Colorado…but as strong as the aroma has been, I still hadn’t tasted it until this summer. And let me tell you, it was delicious.
Palau is such a specific, obscure place in the grand scheme of things…a population of just over 20,000 people. Even my itty bitty college town (Galesburg, Illinois) has a population of 30k. But with such specificity, comes (in my opinion) an even stronger sense of pride and connection—because it is that rare. Growing up I was so jealous of friends who seemingly had such a clear picture of their ethnicity. My Filipino friends could relate about food, their mother’s homeland querks, accents, etc. Puerto Ricans had their own giant flag in Humboldt Park for goodness sake! We had my mom..some books..the internet..and long distance phone calls.
People so often want to put each other in boxes and preferably ones that they (think) they understand. Yes, you, you’re Mexican American..I understand where you fit in society. You, you’re Polish..I have some frame of reference for that. But to first be othered (for not being white) and then often misplaced into a box was..interesting and at times frustrating. Because of course you don’t really belong in that box..and everyone else who was put there at once knows it too. But when you try to climb out, there’s really nowhere to go. But maybe, I’ve finally found my box. Or maybe there is no box? I TRANSCEND THE BOX. Or perhaps it’s that the box is no longer relevant to me. Because I know that I am distinctly me. Half white, half Palauan..100% Joanna. I can honestly say that the sweet pay-off, the strong sense of pride and belonging I now have, is worth any jealousy or awkwardness I had growing up. And anyone who feels the need to categorize me OR ANYONE into some sort of subset of society based on whatever arbitrary qualifiers in order to make wide sweeping generalizations, isn’t worth my time. I’ll hold out for the people who are willing to get to know me in a real way.
My nuclear family
In final reflection, one specific moment comes to mind. On our second visit to the rock islands, we approached a beach to stop and eat lunch. Wherever we went we were introduced in relation to my grandma, Ebuch, and my deceased uncle, Beches, who was well known and respected. As our boat pulled in, I noticed that the drivers of the boat next to ours seemed to know my uncles. They talked for a bit, introduced us via the aforementioned relations, and explained our situation (having come from the states, back for the first time in years, etc.) The man reached out to my brother, shook his hand firmly, and said very sincerely, “Welcome home. This is your land.”
And it sounds cheesy, but you can’t deny the profoundness of being physically connected to a place and how strongly that ties to one’s sense of self. Going in, I wasn’t sure how we would be received. Not being full Palauan, not being aware of culture and history, but everywhere we went we were welcomed with not only love, but with heart-warming, affirming sentiments saying loud and clear those precious words: You Belong. And that is all I could have ever hoped for.
But isn’t that what we all want? Some small sense of belonging—the security and knowledge of unconditional love. And while my lifestyle often seems transient and unclear, I am certain of so many things. In the words of my Auntie Nina, I am so, so, rich. We all are. I often take family for granted, being so far removed from them for long periods of time. But I have this quiet confidence that no matter what turns my life may take, these people, my blood, will be there with me and for me in times of trial and in times of joy. I am so, so rich. Can you put a value on this God-given resource? Can you quantify love? Can you add it to your net worth? You can’t –and yet it’s worth so much more than any earthly appraisal. I’ll take this love with me to my grave and beyond.
Family burial ground
**Some photos—the good ones, taken by Siobhon McManus
Groot: “We… are… Groot”
Me in the theaters: