Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review: Surviving Paradise by Peter Rudiak-Gould

If you were marooned on a small island, what would you want to have with you? I've come up with the only food I would require, the five books I'd take with me, and so on. And hopefully I'll never be marooned with or without these things. But there's something a little romantic about daydreaming about no longer being tied to all our (unnecessary) material possessions and to the always-on digital world we live in these days, right? It might be thoughts like this that inspires some people to sign up to volunteer for organizations like the Peace Corps or WorldTeach but as Peter Rudiak-Gould makes clear in his book Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, the reality is far more complicated than it seems, especially if you are marooned inside a whole different culture.

Rudiak-Gould signed up with WorldTeach after he graduated from college and asked to be assigned to a truly remote place. He got his wish. Not only are the Marshall Islands remote as a whole, but he was sent to tiny Ujae (1/3 square mile), one of the most remote of the islands in the island chain. He faced culture shock on a grand scale. There to teach English, very few, if any of his students or their families placed much import on education. And he didn't walk into the expected traditional culture but into an uneasy amalgam of the traditional and modern imported American culture. But this is not just a memoir of his experiences living so remotely, it is an examination of his own cultural biases, sometimes embracing them, sometimes pushing against them, but always accepting them and yearning to get back to the familiar.

The personal anecdotes of this memoir and anthropological tale were more interesting than the generalizations, which inclined to more descriptive than active. There's actually quite little about his experience in the classroom and teaching here, as if that was of little importance in his year--and maybe it was given the islanders' attitudes toward school but it seems odd in a memoir of his time teaching on the island. It is clear how much Rudiak-Gould comes to care for some of the people he meets even if he never quite comes to grips with certain aspects of their culture. In fact, learning such a different culture from his own makes him reflect all the more on how much he himself is a product of American culture. Interspersed with his own experiences are musings on the phrasings and the language of the islands, the curious customs, and the structure of the society, of which the foreign teacher will never truly be a part. He tells his tale with humor and frustration and finishes up with a look at the very real danger the islands face from rising sea waters. It sounds as if Rudiak-Gould values his experience with on Ujae but that he wouldn't be so very quick to sign up for another round, even as he wants to protect this unique place before it is gone forever. Armchair travelers and those who enjoy peeks at other cultures will enjoy reading this one.

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book.

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