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Understanding Chamorro and Micronesian culture on Guam

Understanding Chamorro and Micronesian culture on Guam

Remind me how this World Peace thing is supposed to work. You just take a bunch of people from around the world and strand them on an island until they’re all friends. Right?!


Of the 1.3 million tourists to visit the island in 2013, Guam Visitors Bureau said half came from Japan, 169,000 from South Korea, 65,000 from the U.S. mainland, and some 39,000 from Taiwan. The island is also home to some 12,000 military personnel, and according to The World Factbook, a local population of 160,000 Chamorro, Filipino, Chuukese, Korean, Chinese, Palauan, Japanese, and Pohnpeian peoples.

Though most of us speak English, drink Coca-Cola and get ample amounts of vitamin D, how to get along in a culturally diverse place isn’t always obvious. You’ll learn about island-time soon enough, but many social cues are subtle and easily overlooked.

You talking to me?

My relatives pride themselves on using insults to show how honest and caring they are. If you love someone, you call their cooking salty or and tell them they smell like soup. The direct and assertive nature of mainland U.S. culture can enough of a shock to newcomers that Harvard’s International Office found the need to explain, “Being honest is often seen to be more important than preserving harmony in interpersonal relationships. Being assertive in expressing opinions or making requests is considered acceptable, and even necessary.”

Almost in direct opposition, Everyculture observes that family members of the Federated State of Micronesia (FSM) show respect by avoiding each other, “Micronesian etiquette reflects the emphasis on harmonious, nonassertive, and respectful behavior. In public, people tend to speak cautiously and avoid confrontation with others.” The University of Hawaii’s guide to “Serving Micronesian Youth and Families,” further elaborates on avoiding eye contact and bragging.

Though these are two very different ways of showing respect, the underlying motive is just that – respect.

Get ready to get close

‘Hello’ might as well be Chamorro for mistletoe, as people often greet one another with a single cheek-kiss. Cultural blog The Anthrotarian notes the Spanish do a double kiss, beginning with the right cheek, and Filipinos do a “cheek-to-cheek kiss, not a lips-to-cheek kiss.”

If you’ve never been publicly kissed by a stranger it can be extremely awkward at first, but follow what others are doing, and it will become as natural as meeting a high-five.

Additionally, Chamorros emphasize respect for older generation of manamko. On Guampedia, Lina Taitingfong writes, “Manamko are the living Chamorro encyclopedia.” To show respect to the elderly, one bows and sniffs the hand, to take in their essence. As always, Planet Kyle puts the nail to the hammer and reminds everyone to keep their hands clean.

While it is polite to accept these gestures, most people won’t give it a second thought if you turn a cheek-kiss into a handshake.

Living in a material world

An easy way to offend someone is to make her feel like you ripped her off. So, don’t forget to tip!

Along with federal U.S. minimum wage, Guam also adopts the American custom of subsidizing a server or bartender’s pay with tips. Because it is not customary to tip in China, Japan, or Korea, many restaurants will calculate 10 to 20 percent gratuity and add it to the bill, but usually print that on the menu.

The question I have long struggled with is whether to tip the chef at my favorite rotary sushi spot, after all Japanese do not tip – but he is working in an American territory.

Culture shock is a kind of earthquake

Interacting with different cultures is unavoidable, but it’s also a lot of fun – before moving to Guam, I never knew how to make kelaguen, open a coconut with my teeth, or swear in any language other than English.

When meeting new people, always it helps to have a good sense of humor and an open mind. While an American friend might wear their favorite band on their t-shirt, it might take you a year to learn that your Japanese friend is really into jazz. Call me an idealist, but I believe most people are cool, in their own strange way, and through mutual respect and understanding, we just might be able to get along.

For more information about Guam, click here.

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