Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Botayi Yu'

When I first took a Chamorro language class at UOG (oh so many years ago), I had some sort of assignment, where I needed to write some sort of political campaign advertisement in Chamorro. At that point in my life, I knew about as much Chamorro as I knew Esperanto, and so I asked my grandfather for help with my project. When I asked him how to say "vote for me," he laughed, and responded that it was so simple, he was almost shocked that I didn't know it.

I fought off the urge to remind grandpa, that the reason I don't know already how to say this phrase is because he and grandma made a conscious choice in the 1950's and 1960's to kill the Chamorro language in our family. Instead I smiled and politely asked again how you translate "vote for me" into Chamorro.

Even since that day, grandpa has loathed helping me with my Chamorro homework or anything with the Chamorro language. He always insists that I ask grandma, that she's smarter (it's true) and that she speaks better Chamorro (way way true). Its funny, because grandpa never graduated from high school and that is something that has haunted his identity and his feeling of self-worth for his entire 90 years. And even in something that has nothing to do with education or schooling, speaking Chamorro, he still feels like he's not smart or good enough to answer my questions.

Since grandma wasn't around, I insisted again that grandpa help me. He told me, na ti mappot este, "Bota yu'" ha'. But when I asked if he was sure, grandpa got a little bit irritated, gumuengueng gui', and responded in a very sly way, that he was sure, but if I really wanted to impress my teacher I wouldn't say "bota yu'" only, but I should say "botayi yu'." It certainly sounded cool, and I didn't know enough Chamorro at that point to doubt anything grandpa said, and so I wrote it down and into my presentation.

When I went to Chamorro class, before my presentation I wrote that phrase on the chalkboard, botayi yu'. I then started my presentation. In the middle of speaking, the professor, Peter Onedera stopped me and asked me what was that I had written on the board. I looked at it, embarassed and mumbled "Vote for me?"

Onedera (and the rest of the class), looked at it strangely for a few moments, before Onedera told me to erase the "-yi" since it changed completely the meaning of the sentence. I didn't know then what grandpa had told me to write, but in a year I eventually learned about the suffixes -i and -iyi, both of which imply that a certain action is either being done specifically to a person, or is being done on behalf of that person.

For instance, a commonly used word in Chamorro is kuentos, which means "talk" or "to talk."

When you want to use the verb kuentos to indicate that you are talking to someone, you have to add the -i suffix, which changes it pronounciation and results in kuentusi.

If, you wanted to go further and convey that the talking is being done for someone, or in place of someone. Like you are speaking on behalf of someone or substituting them in a meeting, you would use the suffix -iyi. As in kuentusiyi.

Here's how this all plays out.

Kuentos: Basta enao na klasin kuentos.
Stop that kind of talk.

Kuentusi: Ti hu kuentusi i magof na bikulo' sa' lalalu gui'.
I didn't talk to the happy monster, because he's mad.

Kuentusiyi: Kao sina un kuentusiyi yu' gi i miteng-ta, sa' kifan yu'.
Can you speak for me at our meeting, because my jaw is broken?

So when I said in class, "botayi yu'" it wasn't gibberish, it did in fact mean something, but the strange look that I got from Peter Onedera was because what I was saying was inappropriate. To ask for someone to botayi yu', means to literally ask someone to vote for me, meaning, in place of me.

For those of you who are reading this post in hopes of gaining some Chamorro language tips, I should warn you about this suffix, it can be very uneven in its usage and the way it is understood by Chamorro language speakers. Ideally, you should be able to attach this suffix to any word in order to communicate yourself, but most people only use it attached to a handful of words, and have trouble understanding it when you use it in new ways. For instance, most Chamorro speakers know the construction kantayi, which means "to sing to someone," but if you were to say kantayiyi, your daring adventure in the Chamorro language speaking would be halted with puzzled looks and heads shaking at your "UOG style Chamorro."

I was reminded of this story in the final weeks of my Spring semester teaching at UOG, because the last assignment I gave two of my English classes was about local political campaigns. My classes were divided into groups, each of which was responsible for researching different 2010 Guam gubenatorial teams, and later writing a paper discussing the positives and negatives of each team. When I first gave this assignment to my classes, we had a discussion about voting, what made someone a good candidate, politican, leader and so on. Most of my students were freshmen and so had never voted in their lives, and so hadn't really thought much about who they would want to vote for or why. Much of the discussion was all over the place, with students being uncertain, not feeling comfortable talking or sharing. An interesting, irregular sort of unity emerged however when I asked them all something.

I asked, them that if you grandmother or your grandfather approached you and told you that you were supposed to vote for this person or these people in the election since that who the family was supporting, would you follow their orders? All the students who responded, which was most of them, shook their heads and said "no way." One of them eventually spoke up and said that he would tell them yes to their faces, but vote for whoever he wanted to when he was in the voting booth. Several more agreed that this is what they would do.

All of this reminded me of a class I took at UOG eight years ago, taught by then UOG Political Science professor Robert Statham. The course was on Political Development in the American Pacific, and it wasn't very good or interesting, despite Statham claiming to be a foremost expert on Micronesia and political development there. I believe he named himself the foremost expert, probably thinking no one would notice him snatching the crown. Statham was a right-wing conservative professor, who was very Rush Limbaugh-like in his rhetoric. He would sometimes complain in polite, but racist ways about Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans and so on, which was really very funny and sad, since most of the students in the class (not coming from his particular imagined community), could barely follow the racial logics he was invoking. Despite my opinion of him not being a good professor, students always did seem to flock to him, and place him and his rhetoric high up there on a pedestal.

In one of our seminars, we started to discuss politics on Guam and democracy here, and he spat out one helluva rhetorical gem, which I scratched out in my notes and later copied into the post "The Empty and Untalented Mr. Camacho" in 2006. For this gem, Statham was telling us about how the issue of families telling their children who to vote for, had been handled in one of his other classes:

Now I know that some may see this sort of thing as racist, but its not, it boils down to simple freedom. Family is the bedrock of American life, so it’s not family that I’m against. But here in Guam things are different, family here can be [pause] dangerous…No one in an American democracy should be told who they are supposed to vote for. But here in Guam we have parents and families telling their children whom they have to vote for. That is just plain wrong…In one of my other classes a young Chamorro stood up in front of everyone and told us that he would not vote for whom his mother told him to next election and not vote for just his relatives. He would vote for whomever he wanted! I was so proud of him.
One of the reasons why I was so attracted to the writings of Slavoj Zizek, is his exuberant and passionate willingness to critique democracy. Democracy is one of those things, like puppies, children and so on, which can be so horribly irritating, but which no one is supposed to be against, and everyone is supposed to be ferociosuly for. What I like about Zizek is that he takes great glee in skewering democracy and challenging the fact that even if it appears to be the best possible political configuration, it is far from flawless and can generally suck just as bad as anything else. In the case of my class, their willingness to protect their vote, or take it seriosuly, only when it was challenged by interference of another is one of those endemic contradictions in democracy.

Prior to the me asking that question, most didn't care about their vote, didn't take it very seriously, could care less whose campaign or political career it was spent on. The threat to their vote is based on their defense of a fundamental principle, namely that the vote belong only to the voter and no one else, that the voter be free and self-determined in how it is exercised. They spoke, they owned that vote, only at that most minute of levels, other than that, there was little to no engagement. The result of this is of course, what most modern democracies have, voter apathy and very little participation. This connection they have to their democracy isn't strong enough to actually get them to pay attention or to vote, but it is enough to keep them from letting some old relative of theirs taint it by telling them who they should vote for. Part of my problem with this discourse is this emptiness and uselessness. It reduces democracy to its bare minimum, and creates the feeling of participation through a lazy defense of just that one aspect and nothing more.

Interestingly enough, the Statham that Guam was complaining about disappeared a while ago. The knit-politics of pocket meetings and clans for parties is on a much smaller scale than it once was. These sorts of family networks can still make up the core of large campaigns, but Guam is far off from the days of families not speaking to each other, fights breaking out between camps, or pocket meetings having thousands of people attending. As voting statistic show, Guam has slowly been trending towards less and less participation, which is just another great way that Guam is barrel-rolling towards Americanization.

To conclude this post, when I spoke to my English classes about this, one student surprised me. He is an elderly man, the son of a prominent former politician on Guam. He was the only one who admited that he would be completely comfortable listening to what his grandparents said about who he should vote for, and would botayi siha without any problems. His reasoning was that his grandparents and elders probably know way more about these things than he does, and so unless he is going to actually go out and do some research or find out for himself, his family is probably full of people he can trust to tell him what's best. It was an interesting moment, which I hope wasn't lost on my students, or any of us. Democracy is great, but not without its contradictions or its limits, and it requires active engagement for it to work.

1 comment:

Drea said...

When I first started voting, I depended mostly on my mom's list of who to vote for and why. She would explain to me the pros and cons of each one, and I would do my best to listen and care. Now that I don't have to try to care, it comes naturally, I can have actual conversations with my parents about local and world politics. We don't always agree, but they respect that it is ultimately my vote and I appreciate that. I think it might help if there was a class in high school that prepares our students to become responsible voters it might lessen that apathy.

btw, I saw some of your art work at Burger Fest. :)


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