The Immigrants

By Fuana Tmarsel —-

I was trying to explain to my friends the matrilineal system of Palau and how it is an essential part of one’s identity and therefore, one’s place of belonging. I began, “in Palau mothers are highly esteemed and therefore, one has to be careful when making references to another’s mother. In fact, I continued, the phrase “your mother” can be a curse word depending on the context wherein which it is used. Though times have change and young people have made the word common, like hello and good bye, as is the use of other curse words, one still has to refrain from using the word because mothers are important part of one’s sense of belongingness in Palauan culture.”

They stared at me trying to absorb the concept. I tried further to give understanding so I said, in the United States you may say you are from California because your house is located there. You could have just bought a house five years ago and then relocated there from Minnesota, but you can say I am from California, because to you being from a place means you have residence there. Your parents’ birth place does not determine where you will be from. However, in Palau, you can be born and raised in one place, but if that is not where your mother claims her origin, you will always be considered, “an immigrant”. You can never claim to be from a place where you live, unless where you live is the origin of your mother, and perhaps your father.

My friends shook their heads in disbelief; one seemed to say, that is crazy, but somehow selected to remain silent.  I smiled knowing that they were thinking of the apparent lack of social mobility, and the resulting stereotypical expectations with such a system. It is hard for one from a culture that encourages individuality and free society to comprehend the nuances of culture defined by group – or group centered society where the consensus of a group is valued over individual leanings, except for the Chief and others with high ranks.

That was a few months ago, but in hindsight; I realize that our identity is closely related to where we are from, and where our families are placed in the social stratification system.  We are either born in it or we’re never it. Perhaps that is why there is so much conflict over the rubak and mechas titles all over Palau. The title means not only honor and respect. There is an extra bonus – opportunity for land gain and the monthly stipend made available by our democratic system.  And those who wish they were are looking at those who are and attempting to revise history to their favor.  Because unlike those of old, whose titles obligated them to serve those in lesser rank; today, those in rank are expected to be served while getting paid for it.

It is not surprising – when monetary value is attached to something, people gravitate to it. After all we all want to feel that we are valuable whether we find kinship with our mothers or fathers, or both. But where there is more money and prestige, there our hearts want to gravitate, or be issued an ID. We all need to belong somewhere.

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