A year ago, Elizabeth Reich began a yearlong commitment to teach English on a tiny island named Guegeegue, one of over a thousand small islands and atolls that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands, midway between Hawaii and Australia. Her students learned much from her, but she learned even more from being with them.
In terms of natural beauty, the Marshall Islands provide tourists with romantic coral lagoons and tranquil beaches, shaded by towering coconut palms. But Reich was no tourist. She frequently uses the word chaos to describe her yearlong, headfirst plunge into the deep waters of a culture far different from the one in Forest Park where she grew up.
Reich compared her reactions to an emotional roller coaster ride. Some aspects of Marshallese culture were irritating at best and at worst “made me want to leave here right now – the plane could not come soon enough.”
The Marshallese, for example, have a different concept of time. “If I need a lock on my classroom,” Reich said, “someone might fix it right away – or in three months.”
Accountability was another irritant. She said, “Someone might show up early in the morning and say they needed all the chairs from my classroom, and then the next day when I would need them, they would not be returned.”
Another example of avoiding accountability is the tendency to blame their problems on forces out of their control. “If the bus isn’t working,” she said, “they might explain it by saying that someone put a spell on it. Most Americans would say that if you run a bus into the ground, it’s going to break.”
The lack of privacy was also an issue for Reich. “It’s not unusual for people to look in your window,” she said, “and if you have curtains, they would move them. If you are out walking, it’s not uncommon for people to stare at you for what feels like a really long time.”
At the same time, Reich loved the people with whom she spent a year of her life. “I went through some things that were hard,” she acknowledged, “but the people over there are wonderful.”
She appreciated the Marshallese culture’s emphasis on sharing. “For the most part, everything is everyone else’s,” she said. “They’ll always take care of you. The best way to get a ride is to hitchhike. There it’s unheard of to not stop and pick someone up who is walking because if someone is fortunate enough to be blessed with having a car, they want to share that car with as many people as they can.”
Reich was also impressed by their unwillingness to hold grudges. She is referring to the U.S. decision to use Bikini Atoll as the site for 23 nuclear bomb tests, resulting in the displacement of 167 residents of the atoll and long-term problems with radioactivity in the water and food supplies, and to the ongoing testing of missiles at an American base on one of the Marshall Islands.
“The Marshallese for the most part accept the Americans and are kind of indifferent to them being there,” she said. “They don’t seem to hold a grudge for the things that happened in the past or for the things that are continuing to happen to this day. If I were them, I would just hate us. It’s hard for me to understand why they’re so nice to us all the time.”
Reich admitted that the experience of living and working in a different culture often threw her off balance. While there, she turned to running, writing and talking to her American roommate to restore a sense of internal equilibrium.
At the same time, she sought out the kinds of experiences that, in her words, “terrify me.”
“The chaos, that’s where I find out who I am and what I want to fix in myself. I want to be the best person I can be, and the way I think I can do that is thinking outside the box.”
The 26-year-old said the experience in the Marshall Islands and the two previous years she spent as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Oregon have changed her. “I would hope the last three years have taught me humility,” she said. “I definitely have never felt the difference between how much I have and how much other people have not than in these past three years. I don’t want to live my life oblivious to that. I don’t want to keep entering a rat race to see if I can get more money and more things.
“The things that make me happiest are people and knowing that I’m doing something that makes me uncomfortable and makes me know I’m alive.”
Elizabeth Reich came back home to Forest Park on June 7 and is looking for a job in which she can use the degree in print journalism she received in 2009 from Illinois State University.