Thursday, April 03, 2014
Clash of the Bihas
It was a day filled with plenty of interesting moments and stories. Chamorros from all shapes, sizes, colors and levels of consciousness came up to me sharing their opinions and concerns and sometimes even offering up their dreams for our people. It was nice to see people coming together under a banner of pride. Although there were still moments of contention, one of them I would say was my most memorable point of the day.
It was late in the afternoon and things were starting to wind down. Two bihas were hanging around the table, looking at the flyers and information on the table, taking turns asking me questions. One was from the CNMI and spoke with a lovely, soft, singing songy pitch. She was amazed to hear about what Chamorros are doing nowadays in terms of promoting their language and culture and asked me a million earnest questions about the different projects Chamorro Studies is working on. She said that her two adult children were not raised up knowing much about anything Chamorro because her husband was not from the Marianas. She regretted that and was excited to see that there was still a chance for them to know their roots.
The other biha was from Guam and had lived in San Diego for quite a while and was a former board member for the Guam Club in San Diego. She was much louder and more aggressive when she would speak and would often preface her statements with "I don't know if you are gonna agree with me or maybe you'll hate what I have to say, but this is what I have to say." She expressed her own frustration with her children and grandchildren not knowing enough about where they came from, but didn't express any regret about it the way the other biha did.
They didn't really talk to each other, but took turns talking to me until the CNMI biha asked me what my family name was. For those of you who don't know what the term "family name" means, it is a clan name, that can often carry more social meaning than your last name. For example, there are plenty of people who are Cruz, Santos and so on in the Marianas. They are not all related to each other however, but there is no way of telling just from their shared last names who might and who might not be related. The family names are an extra layer of social signification. When they are invoked, they provide more details that can be used to navigate who is related, what families have shared village histories and so on. The family names also carry important aspects of family lore, even parts of their history they would rather not have remembered.
I told her, "Flores yu', Kabesa na Flores."
She responded, "Ai Kabesa hit! Siempre pumarientes!"
As we started to talk about the Chamorro Kabesa clan and the convoluted route by which it went from Guam, to Palau to Saipan, the other biha, the Guam biha became a little bit upset. She entered into the conversation with what had become her infamous preface. She went on to say that you know what she really didn't like about our people? The family names!
This was a shock for me. I have heard Chamorros says things that have made me want to raze the heavens. I have heard things that have made my blood boil, my blood curl, my blood turn to depressed jello in my veins. For instance, just that very day I heard several Chamorros say one thing that I have detested since I first heard people say it ten years ago when I moved to the states for grad school, "I am not Chamorro, but my parents are." To this day it hurts my marrow when I hear people say this.
But all the random strange things I have heard couldn't prepare me for a biha from Guam telling me that she hates the family name system. This is such a sacred cow, how could anyone hate it? They are just nicknames for families? How could anyone be against that.
The Guam biha continued. "You wanna know why I don't like it? Because when I meet you, I want to meet you. I don't wanna know about your family, I don't care about them. It is you I want to know."
The CNMI biha politely responded, "But your family is part of you. When you know someone you should know their family and if you know their family then you know something about them."
The Guam biha shot back, "No you don't! Don't fool yourself, you don't know anything about them. If you tell me your family name does that mean I know your grandparents? I don't know your grandparents, I know one word about them. But I don't know them. You are the one in front of me, you are the one I should talk to, just tell me your name."
The CNMI biha politely responded, "But if your parents and grandparents raised you, then if you meet someone, you are also meeting them. You are meeting a person they raised a person they taught to be respectful and friendly. Don't you think that when I meet you, with the way you act, the way you talk you represent your family?"
The Guam biha would have none of that, "No! Are they here right now? Am I talking to them? All I know about them is they are Kabesa, they are Fongo, they are Siboyas. That is all I know. Even if they were here talking, it is like they are only saying one word. Siboyas! Siboyas! Siboyas!"
The bihas went back and forth like this for a while. It was interesting to watch. Even though they were clearly trying their best to make their points, and even if one of the bihas was raising her voice, they never actually seemed angry with each other. They seemed to be more upset with the issues involved. One biha didn't like the fact that there wasn't enough individuality in Chamorro culture, that the family network, even to the extent of family names, seemed to consume people, not allowing them to be them, but marking them as being part of something that may not really represent who they are. I chine'gue-mu ha', ti chine'guen-miyu.
The other biha seemed frustrated that people don't take seriously that fact that you are not ever truly an individual but always tied to your family. People think they are on their own, think they are only responsible for themselves, but this isn't really true. You may choose to shirk your obligations, but you can never leave behind the traces of your family in you.
In Chamorro the word to obey someone and the word to take after someone is the same, "osge'." When you say "Ha o'osge Si Tata-na," it can mean that someone looks like their father or that someone is obeying their father. This is an interesting way of communicating the fact that the way you look is only one way in which you symbolize your family, and of course it is the shallowest. By taking after someone, you are always obligated to more than just looking a certain way. You are obligated to act and behave in a way that will reflect the upbringing and family life you had.
Eventually the Guam biha changed tactics and offered up a completely different reason for why she hates Chamorro family names. She told the story of some youth who were in a Chamorro dance group in San Diego. At the start of the dance lessons, the instructor had all the youth introduce themselves and as part of that they had to say their Chamorro family name. All the kids went around giving their answers, but one kid stayed quiet and he refused to tell them his family name. When they asked if he was embarrassed because he didn't know it, the kid said no, he knew it, but just didn't want to say it.
I asked the biha, "Pues hafa mafa'na'an i familia-na? Sa' hafa mungga gui' sumangan?" She whispered to us both her reply, "Cha'ka!" which is the Chamorro word for rat. The CNMI biha whispered her response of "ai adai, that's terrible," but for me, I didn't quite take this point. There are families that are known as the "cha'ka" families. But it is not necessarily because they are terrible people as in their are like rats. It could be because they had lots of rats in their house, or even because they look like rats. In other words, to be called the rat family is not the end of the world.
The two bihas then went on to name other families with names that are not the most flattering. They listed names like chada', pao'chada', diso', bulachu, yommok, take' and so on. With this they finally found some common ground. They both recognized that if they had a family name like that it would be very painful because people could tease you and they could judge you in a negative or filthy context and only know one thing about you.
For me, the conversation was so interesting because it represented the complexity of any culture in general but Chamorro culture in particular. Most people live their lives not thinking about much, but will hone in on particular things and overthink them. Most Chamorros don't think much about the politics or the dynamics of their culture, but will instead overthink a particular part. Usually they will operate with a certain framework for understanding the things that Chamorros do and the things that Chamorros don't (which often boils down to stereotypes), but there will be some parts of the cultural landscape drenched in razor wire and surrounded by mined soil. For many that is stuff like decolonization, dancing, nakedness, communing with ancestors, chanting and other "controversial" things. But most Chamorros, even those who know close to nothing about their culture would never place family names in that category in that part of their landscape. But, the complexity of culture is that people always can and you will find people who do. So long as culture is made up of people, culture will always bear the inconsistent marks of those who participate in it.