Friday, October 03, 2014

Learning About Our Elders

For the past year I've had students working on the project "I Hinekka i Tiningo' i Manamko'" or the collection of the knowledge of the elders. I originally started this project with Victoria Leon Guerrero out of the need to collect some info and Chamorro sayings to be used in the text for the Guam Museum. It has evolved into a regular project that I incorporate into my Guam History and Chamorro language classes. As part of it students have to go out and interview fluent Chamorro speakers and ask them questions on the Chamorro language, sayings, unique words, and even nursery rhymes or legends they were told when they were young. Students are encouraged to ask other questions related to history, although I try to steer them away from asking questions about I Tiempon Chapones, since there has already been quite a bit of research done on that topic. It could be said that any story from our elders could be important, but I would rather focus my students on learning things about the Chamorro language that might be lost soon if we don't ask about it and record it. 

As a bonus students receive extra credit if they conduct their interviews in Chamorro and ask their subjects to speak in Chamorro, since this will allow us to capture more Chamorro language use from the last generations where Chamorro was a first language and those who used it grew up surrounded by it. As the Chamorro that I and most others use today is very influenced by English grammar and structure, it is important to try to document the way Chamorros spoke a few generations ago so that we can map out the changes that are taking place.

Most students loathe this assignment since it requires them to seek out old people and talk to them for extended periods of time. Many non-Chamorros in my class find it frustrating having to seek out Chamorro elders, but many Chamorros also get frustrated, especially if they don't have any immediate relatives that fit the age requirements. But some young Chamorros, especially those with older relatives that they have never felt a strong, intimate connection to before, end up really appreciating this chance to spend time with their elders and get to know them better. 

I am one person who lived this for many years. Whenever I lived on Guam, I always lived with my grandparents Elizabeth "Bitbit" De Leon Flores (later Lujan) and Joaquin "Bittot" Flores Lujan. For most of my life I slept in the same house as them, saw them every day, talked to them every day, ate at the same table with them, but knew very little about them. I knew the basics of their lives. Grandma loved the SDA church and was really smart. Grandpa was an immigration officer before and a blacksmith. During typhoon time I heard some of their war stories and taotaomo'na stores. But in general they were people who belonged to a different time. They spoke a different language and most of them time I had no idea who they were or what they were saying. I loved them very much, but we lived in different worlds in so many ways. 

Learning Chamorro and becoming more interested in Guam History led me to get to know them in so many more ways. And because of that I learned so many of their stories and in the process learned their language and learned who they were and who they are. 

I hope that more of my students use this project as a means of getting to know new dimensions of their elderly relatives. I received an email from a student recently who underwent such an experience. It was moving to read and I'm so happy to be able to share parts of it here:

I am writing to you because I wanted to express my gratitude towards you. Last semester (Spring 2014) as part of our Chamorro language 101 course, our major and final project for class involved interviewing an elderly person fluent in the Chamorro language and asking them questions pertaining to Guam and Chamorro history. For this project, I chose to interview my maternal grandfather. I spent an hour in his kitchen talking with him about his life - something I had never once done before in my twenty-three years of living. I learned so much about him, so much I had never known before and so much I would have probably never known if it had not been for this project.

I love my grandfather dearly. He has been my primary caregiver throughout my childhood and adolescence when my mother was not able to care for me. Being without my father in my life, he was my only father figure. He raised my siblings and I and he continues to do so, even now in his old age. He has so much love in him. I used to think he was magical because every animal he ever came across loved him so much. He has been such a big part of my life growing up and although I have spent so much time with him, I have never sat down and just conversed with him like this. I have so many fond memories of my childhood spent with my grandfather and I never want them to leave me. My memories are all small bits and pieces of things, but they mean so much to me. Sitting down and listening to him recount his life is the best memory I have now. 

Over the past few years, since I see him so infrequently, I see more and more of his age catching up to him. It’s strange how seeing him everyday never made much of a difference, but seeing him every few months made his aging so noticeable. It saddened me to be able to recognise his signs of aging. It never really occurred to me as a child that my grandfather was getting old. I was so caught up in my own aging that I forgot that as I am growing up, my parents and grandparents are growing old. I had never taken the time to consider how people can just leave in that way. I wish I had known better and sooner.

My grandfather is very old and very sickly. He has been hospitalized countless times in the past and has suffered multiple heart attacks and countless other health issues. His health has never really been at its best and it is now at its worst. For the past few years my grandfather has been growing older and sicker, and I have not been seeing him as much. This interview with him has been the longest duration I have sat with him since I moved away from home in 2009. He has taken many trips to the hospital this year in which I made sure to visit him, hoping that it would not be my last time to see him. Last week, my grandfather was sent to the hospital again for another small heart attack. Aside from having that heart attack, the doctors also found that his kidneys are weak and are failing. My grandfather is under extreme pain and it breaks my heart just thinking about it. He’s begun talking to himself and it scares me. He has denied any surgical procedures. The doctors tell us that he has about a week left. I don’t want to think about it and I’m hoping that they’re wrong and that he’ll be okay, but I know that he’s under a lot of pain and I don’t want to see him hurting anymore. I’m not ready for him to go, but I’m trying to prepare for what may happen.

I am writing to you because I am so thankful that your class project gave me an opportunity to sit down with my grandfather and learn about his life. Without that project, I don’t know if I would have ever had experienced that. I still have my video recording and my interview transcript. I’m watching it and reading through it right now and I can’t help but cry. He ended our interview talking about what a happy man he is and that although his life was simple and he lived in poverty, he is happy. Knowing that he is happy consoles me and makes me so happy for him. That was my favorite part of our interview. That is the part that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I love him so much and I am so sorry that it took me so long to have a reason to sit with him and ask him questions about his life. Thank you for giving me that. I can’t express just how much this means to me.

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