My first week living on the island of Yap was a crash course in rules and decorum. Of course, there were no written rules; there was hardly any written Yapese anywhere. The only real literature I saw written in the island dialect was part of the Bible and a few children’s books with pictures. Years before, a man called ‘Jensen’ had lived on Yap and developed an alphabet and the rudiments of writing the language. The natives were still using his work to express themselves on paper.
“Whatever you do, don’t pat someone on the head – not even a kid!” my friends told me. “And when you walk in front of an old person, be sure to bow your head lower than his,” they said. “Oh, and when you’re out in the jungle and want to visit someone’s hut, you have to ‘call out’ your presence before walking into their living space. Do that, or you might get yourself killed!”
I thought about the rules of living on this island. Culture is always a study. I wondered where all these rules had originated. Who did what to someone else to get a new rule made, and what were his consequences? I pondered the old tradition I had just learned of that young girls and women who were menstruating were sent off to live for a short time on a section of the island away from everyone else until their cycle was complete. And men had their own places, too. They called them ‘men’s houses.” How original and appropriate! No females were allowed in men’s houses.
Another rule was that the various village chiefs were the only ones allowed to know and recite any person’s family history. They would sit in the village square and chant the history to the beat of a drum. And the most profound of any of the cultural anomalies on the island was the caste system. According to history, centuries before, a group of people arose who had no land of their own. They wanted land, so a deal was struck with the more affluent landowners. Those people could have land belonging to the landowners in exchange for indentured servitude. And so it was; a caste system of high and low caste members began.
The first time I remember seeing the caste system in action was a meeting I attended with mixed castes present. I walked into the room and over half the attendees were sitting on the floor. There were plenty of chairs available, so I wondered what the crap was going on. When I later asked one of my friends why he was sitting on the floor, he said, “The Buchuun’s are here today. The whole family is high caste and we are low, so we can’t sit higher than them.” My friend said those words in a matter-of-fact way that resonated his feelings on his social status. He had never known anything but low caste, and he seemed fine with that.
Another interesting social rule was seen on the roads and walkways throughout the island. When men were present in a mixed group, they always walked a few paces in front of the women. If there were children present, they walked with or behind the women. People walked all over the place because cars were in short supply for many families and villagers. Men always led the way wherever they went as a group.
I learned all these things the first week of living on Yap. I was happy someone explained the rules. Heaven knows what would’ve happened if I broke those customs and traditions – maybe death, maybe a serious beating, maybe a harsh scolding. I wasn’t about to test the system and find out! My goal was to mix-in and become like the natives. I planned on becoming another member of their ‘family.’