Book Excerpt: Tata Lino and 1968 Peace Corps Training

Posted On: February 9, 2019

Book Excerpt: Tata Lino and 1968 Peace Corps Training

From Chapter 6, Moving On (pages 112-113):


Most of our language teachers spoke Chamorro as their first language. Lino Olopai and Louis Wabol were two teachers whose mother tongue was the Carolinian language. Lino was a twenty-eight-year-old husband and father of four boys who had been a Saipan police officer before coming to work for the Peace Corps. Louis, a husky, athletic high school student from Saipan, was an animated teacher who played the guitar and loved to sing.

I found myself drawn to their ready laughter, friendly teasing, and easygoing manner. As we got to know Lino and Louis, they talked about their history and culture, how in the early 1800s their ancestors had sailed their outrigger canoes northward in search of a new home, after a devastating typhoon had destroyed their home atolls in the eastern Caroline Islands (thus, the name Carolinian.)

These Carolinians navigated across five hundred miles of open ocean, relying solely on the sun and stars, wind and clouds, seas and swells. They made landfall on the shores of the island that is now called Saipan. By the mid-twentieth century, the Carolinians were a minority subculture on Saipan. They had darker skin, broader noses, and stockier builds than the Chamorros, and they remained more closely tied to their traditional ways. Of the nine villages on the island at the time, only two—Tanapag and Oleai—were predominantly Carolinian.

As the training weeks passed, Lino and Louis were always ready to share their language, customs, and culture with us. They were the first to introduce several of us trainees to the beauty of Micronesian music with its simple chord progressions, relaxing rhythms, vocal harmonies, and lilting melodies. Louis played the guitar, Lino the ukulele; their singing evoked the welcoming spirit of the islands.

One folk song that became a favorite of many Peace Corps trainees began with the line, “Upon the hill lies the village of the place that I love best, in my home in Saipan.” [You can listen to the song right here.] One evening Louis wrote out the words to a Carolinian song called “Sugi, Sugi” (“Open, Open” in English) sung traditionally before weddings. I managed to imitate the words he was singing but had no clue what they meant. But it didn’t matter. The literal meaning of the words was secondary to the way in which Louis freely shared his culture. We shared North American folk songs with them. It was an early example of a process I think of as “cultural swapping,” a temporary blurring of cultural boundaries in which music and language are shared on an equal basis.

Toward the end of August 1968, as our training program was winding down and our Chamorro lessons were finished, Lino and Louis took the initiative to offer to interested trainees what they called “tough Carolinian lessons.” A handful of us joined them for the first lesson, among them the Florida couple, Ralph and Bev Chumbley, who had become trusted friends. The “tough” part became clear in the very first lesson. To respond in Carolinian to the question “How are you?” you had to say two single-syllable words—ghatch schagh—meaning “very good.” Both words started and ended with sounds that simply do not exist in English. On our Americano tongues, the words were unpronounceable, but our attempts were good for plenty of laughs.

On one of the final nights of our training, the Peace Corps program put on an evening of skits at the Roundhouse for the people of Rota—so many of whom had warmly welcomed us, served as host families, and invited us to share their lives at picnics on the beach, wedding receptions, and softball games. To add some Carolinian culture to the show, Lino and Louis taught a group of us guys a traditional Carolinian men’s stick dance. Trying to make us look as authentic as our pale skin would allow, they dressed us up with grass skirts made from palm fronds (with shorts underneath), flower leis around our necks, flower crowns (known as mwarmwars) on our heads, and palm fronds strapped around our arms and ankles. It took longer for us to get in costume than it did to perform the dance. Ralph Chumbley and I were a sight to behold.

The audience in the packed Roundhouse hooted and hollered its approval all the way through the dance and then demanded an encore.