Monday, March 25, 2013

Chamorro Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas was by far my favorite film of 2012. It was a film I only saw once, but wanted to watch again immediately after I left the theatre. Part of this is due to the fact that a group of actors play multiple roles in different historical eras. Some of them are obvious, others aren’t so clear. The film becomes a type of game trying to figure out who is who. In the credits they flash on the screen each actor and all their roles. You realize then how many you recognized and how many zipped before your vision but you didn’t recognize them.

The story itself is complicated and so that might also create that desire. You want to see it again because there may be a section you didn’t quite catch or weren’t quite sure about. At certain points the jumping across times can be confusing, especially towards the beginning when you don’t quite have your bearings yet. As one of the characters in the film states, a half finished book is like an unfinished love affair. It is unsettling and unsatisfying. I’m sure many people felt that wanting after their watching and would have wanted to return to the film to resolve any loose ends in their mind.

But for me, neither of these are the real reason I felt so drawn to Cloud Atlas and would want to see it again. I want to watch it again because as an experience it was enriching, enlightening and enjoyable. The movie was put together in such a way that it appealed to something in me, so that I felt connected to the film far beyond the details, the content itself. Instead there was something about the world view, the cosmology, the philosophy of the film, the way that it presents the universe, history, human lives and daily choices.

Most people navigate their lives, their communities and the universe in a very basic way. Most people believe in God, and profess a particular faith, but live their lives in a regular absence of God. Those who see God as constantly being around them can sometimes border on appearing schizophrenic because of how they insist that there is more around us than what we can see, and that we should be attentive to those things that we could just be imagining. Whether it be the illuminati, God, demons, people tend to live their lives knowing full well those things exist, but not actually accepting that as a part of how their generic life enfolds.

A similar relationship exists in terms of history. Everyone has history, most everyone will argue that history is important, but does history, as any sort of active construct play any role in their lives? History may be a word we use to provide an explanation for what happened before and what created things around us today. It is a cord that can tie chaos together and make it seem easier to interpret, but how actively do people engage with things that they say are so incredibly important for navigating the gaps between past, present and future?

There is for most people a generic flow to life. The things that we see are so essential, really aren’t. Things that we see structure the world and how we act and what we believe in, really only emerge when we have something to argue, something to prove, or something that we want to claim as ours.

For example, what does it mean to be a Chamorro? Is it jokes? Is it your immediate family? Your extended family? Is it Ancient Warriors with latte-stone-strength? Is it something to connect you to pan-ethnic identities in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America? Is it the essence that gives your religious experience meaning? We go back and forth between these sorts of central identities that we acquire and that other impose on us. They can be things we cannot conceive of living without in one moment, and things that hold us back and keep us down the next.

Despite all the rhetoric of culture needing to be protected, preserved, promoted and so on, most people have very passive relationships to the idea of inter-generational cultural transmission. They make these arguments but don’t truly live these arguments. They don’t actually accept these things in their own lives. They imagine others doing the preserving, the promoting, the protecting.

This is why I always have a strange feeling when I get compliments from people on Guam. Every once in a while someone will come up to me and thank me for all that I’m doing. Someone will approach me and tell me they are so impressed with my daughter speaking Chamorro, and that I should keep it up and keep fighting. While this swells my ego, este muna’dångkolu i ego-hu, it also muna’triste yu’ didide’. It also saddens me a little bit. It always makes me want to ask those people, what are you doing? Do you speak Chamorro? Why not? Hunggan, sina fumino’ Chamoru hao? Pues kao esta un fino Chamoruruyi i famagu’on-mu? Ahe’? Sa’ hafa?

All humans feel obligations. We feel responsibilities. We are connected to so many things around us, even if we don’t realize it, they can pull on us. Problems elsewhere in the world. Suffering. Violence, war. Natural disasters. Perfect strangers can feel very connected to us. But at the same time they can feel completely foreign to us, in fact those who we are most closely tied to in our lives can also feel like they come from a different planet and cannot truly be from the same source as we are. We create ourselves, the I, that we are, by managing those obligations. We assert that we are intimately connected to this. We desperately need to be obligated to this. We can do without that. Someone else can take care of that. Someone else is taking care of that. Those things are not my problem. That person is not my sister, ti che’lu-hu ayu na taotao, ti obligashon-hu este.

For many Chamorros, their obligation to their language and their culture today comes down to recognizing those who they feel are doing something. They count this recognition as part of the struggle, part of the fight. They may not really be doing anything themselves. They may not really be sharing much genealogy, family history, family trades, language, but their role is fulfilled by knowing that someone else is doing it.

Even worse than this however is when people feel that they are participating or that they are doing something through the act of lamenting how nothing is being done or how everything is dying or disappearing. They are connected to things through their sarcastic and pessimistic detachment. They feel that their realistic and negative assessment is right and so it is work in and of itself speaking this difficult truth and so what else can they really do? We see this constantly on Guam as people who speak Chamorro, lament the death of the language, while simply not using it with their children or grandchildren. There are ways that they could help, small, but productive ways, yet their contribution is that depressing assessment alone.

For most people, not just Chamorros, their heritage is filled with abstract shadows and cardboard cutouts. The reason so many people enjoy consuming or representing their heritage through t-shirts, tattoos or stickers is because that replicates their actual relationship to their culture. Their relationship is not one of intimacy. It may be one of pride. This detachment doesn’t necessarily mean they are estranged from their culture, history, heritage or language. But it means that it is perceived as inessential to their lives. Something they provides the extra meaning to who they are, but isn’t really part of their core being. This is not something you break down to simply Chamorros are too Westernized or Americanized. Everyone has these sorts of identity issues. Part of it comes from the lines that perceive as demarcating what is Chamorro and what isn’t. What is this ethnicity, what is that ethnicity. In Guam a lot of it does come down to that which I see as American, and that which I see as local, Chamorro. Colonization intervenes to make this contrast even more stark, where people loathe the local as being inadequate and insufficient and cling that the things they feel are American in order to survive.

In truth most people I would argue see their ethnic identity or racial identity as something extra and so their relationship to things such as language and culture are always a bit detached. Life is filled with so many things that you don’t feel are directly related to your language and culture. While some people will name things that they do regularly, constantly, daily as being ethnic, most people don’t. Is the way you walk Chamorro? Is the way you check your email Chamorro? Is the way you conduct your job Chamorro? Kao Chamorro i magugu-mu? Kao Chamorro i guinaiya-mu? Kao humahagong hao komo Chamorro? Most people have a limited amount of things in their life that they consider as being connected to their heritage or their identity. One of the paradoxes of life is that those who are seen without “culture” or nice, cool exotic things, often see themselves and the things they do as being more connected to their daily activities. Because they see themselves less as being derived from a “particular” essence, they can therefore assume easier that there is a more universal quality to the things they do.

Others however see their identity has engulfing and absorbing the things in their life. They do things the “Chamorro” way or infuse a Chamorro flavor into everything. These people engage with their heritage in a more active way. They see it as not a thing that they get in small doses, here or there or only when they go to the Fokkai Shop or during Chamorro Month. They see it as something that is always expanding and changing. As new things come across their path, they see ways to make it more Chamorro or make it Chamorro. This can be small or large. It can be as harmless as saying “hafa adai” to people at your work, or it can be trying to build a business that is based on older principles of Chamorro economics and sustainability.

This has been a long way of describing what I loved about the film Cloud Atlas. Although the message there isn’t about ethnicity or heritage, it is about connections across generations and time. It is about how the past and the present and the future are all as connected as we want them to be or will allow ourselves to believe. Although most people deny themselves this truth, the connections are there, and the film illustrates this very well.

As one of the main characters puts it:
Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness we birth our future.
 The local anthology Guam Through Our Eyes featured essays and artwork from a variety of local sources. In that anthology you can find examples of my paintings and monotypes, but also an essay written by me about my connection to Guam. One of the questions everyone with an essay in the anthology was asked was, “what is the best thing about living in Guam?” Most people gave answers about the beautiful scenery, the lovely people, the warmth of family. For me, as a Chamorro, who tends to see things very differently than most, this is what I wrote:
The best thing about living in Guam is, for me, the sense of continuing a story that’s been going on for thousands of years, and being someone who can help tell that story, and help write it for the future.
 This is something that the creators of Cloud Atlas portrayed very well in the way they used the same actors to play different characters across time periods. They certainly didn’t do it in order to save money by hiring less people. They did it to emphasis the connectedness of all the players. Separated by social divides, racial divides, decades and sometimes centuries, there are nevertheless ties between them. They make choices that others faced. They make choices that will affect those that come after. The point is not re-incarnation, but that the history, your heritage, your fate all waits beside you in life. Even if you don’t notice it or refuse to recognize it, they are all there.

As a Chamorro, you are part of a story that has been going on for thousands of years. What will be your role in that story? Will you simply do nothing and let others do the writing? Will you let the story end prematurely? Will you soak it in apathetic depressing tragedy? Or will you recognize that role? Recognize what is waiting around you and see that you have a responsibility to keep the story alive and so that it can ripple into the future and inspire, empower and give strength to those who are waiting patiently for us to make our choices, and see what we bequeath to them. 

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