I Was a Trophy Girlfriend in Micronesia
No matter where you reside in the world, it’s difficult to be a woman. I wouldn’t have it any other way, as our experiences brought about because of our gender can make us more understanding and compassionate. Dating is just one of these experiences.
I arrived in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia fifteen days after graduating from Temple University during the stiflingly humid month of July 2014. The humidity, though, is smothering year round. Profession wise, I had gone there to complete a yearlong contract as a teacher through WorldTeach. I chose this program because of the time commitment and the freedom in living.
In Chuukese culture, if a woman is seen alone with a guy it’s assumed that you are either married or have no morals, which my host sisters mildly warned me about.
Out of all the destinations offered by WorldTeach, Micronesia stood out to me because I simply had never heard of it and, perhaps, there’s a chance you haven’t either. It’s located in the South Pacific and consists of four states. There is Pohnpei, the capital and the most Westernized spot. There’s Yap, which Micronesians label as the most traditional. Kosrae is the state that has been described as the most peaceful and religious (Protestant). Chuuk is typically referred to as corrupt and dysfunctional. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with this description, but Chuuk is much more than that. It’s a beautiful place filled with unbelievably friendly people.
I was on Weno (Weta), which is like the New York City of the 200+ islands that make up Chuuk. Within the first three months, I met a guy. We’ll call him Mark. He attended high school in Washington State and had returned a couple of years prior. In Chuukese culture, if a woman is seen alone with a guy it’s assumed that you are either married or have no morals, which my host sisters mildly warned me about. I had different rules because I was foreign. Few foreign women had dated locals, so I was treading through uncharted waters.
After about a week of hanging with Mark, I got a call from my Field Director. She started off by saying that this probably isn’t true, but she needed to ask. “The principal said that there’s a rumor going around that you’re dating a ninth grader,” she told me. I was horrified and explained. We discussed the prevalence of rumors in island culture, otherwise known as “coconut wireless.” The combination of a tight-knit community and the somewhat unchanging daily life, as well as other factors, plays into making the culture ripe for rumor. Secondly, Mark had a ninth grade brother.
I was upset after the talk, for obvious reasons, but really because I felt like I had just been forced into a relationship. I felt as though to prove what was really true I had to tell her about Mark. Even though Mark and I understood that we were merely getting to know one another, that didn’t mean that everyone did. Though I attempted being culturally aware while I started up this potential romance, I was not as aware as I thought.
Mark and I became a couple. I spent a lot of time with his family. He wasn’t allowed on my compound because my host family said that locals steal. This was a stereotype, but I had to respect their rules. With few places to chill, we spent most of our time on his family’s compound.
After a couple of weeks, I realized that most of the island knew we were dating. I didn’t necessarily mind that everyone knew this. What disturbed me was that everyone, including my students, always asked, “Where’s Mark?” That was the worst part. I had to explain to my students that in my culture, asking teachers about such things is inappropriate.
I attempted to express my discomfort to Mark, but he didn’t get it. It later became clear why during one of his drunken spiels—he was “the first Chuukese to date a WorldTeach volunteer.” I was a trophy. I don’t believe that this is what all cross-cultural dating experiences entail. I’m sure he enjoyed spending time with me, but he enjoyed the attention more. Perhaps I sound narcissistic, but it’s true. It happens everywhere (think “trophy wife”). The realization that I was more of an ego boost than anything else came quickly and our relationship was short lived.
My tactic in breaking up was avoidance. Though my host sisters hadn’t really dated, this was the suggested route. I was confused as to how successful this could be with the island being so small, but I went three weeks before running into Mark on my road. He walked with me as if everything was normal until I told him that we shouldn’t see each other anymore.
The realization that I was more of an ego boost than anything else came quickly and our relationship was short lived.
For a while I definitely regretted my relationship and thought I had done something taboo. I kind of did do something taboo, but after forming relationships with people in the community, many people let me know that they approved. Most were appreciative of WorldTeach and liked the idea of a teacher dating a local.
They also viewed someone from the most powerful country dating a person from their culture as a compliment. I don’t agree with this viewpoint, but I understand where it comes from. Many economically poorer countries view the U.S. as a savior and most Chuukese people certainly feel this way. Without dating Mark, I’m not sure if I would have fully understood this. My relationship, as most are, was a learning experience and I wouldn’t have done it differently.
Photo credit: Tony Morris