Saturday, 31 March 2012

Salt, corrosion and colonial ghosts


At the end of February, I was invited to go on a ten day cruise to Guam and Saipan. To be honest, neither cruises nor Pacific islands are my thing. This has less to do with destinations and means of transportation than it does the concepts of travel and tourism. Nevertheless, at the end of March I found myself on the large ship Asuka II, lazily skidding across the Pacific, enjoying buffet breakfasts and specially prepared, elegant, if not a little unadventurous (special order) vegetarian dinners.

On Sunday we arrived in Guam. If Hawaii is a distant seaside play space for America, then Guam is a more inaka, more bimbo version of Hawaii. Just further away. Let me clear up some terms here, inaka is a great Japanese word which loosely translates as "country/suburban/not cool". It is a great word because it embodies both admiration and fear. Bimbo then means poor or impoverished. However, unlike in English it does not carry the same class connotations. In Japanese, it is quite possible to be poor and also have class. Being poor is recognised as a way of being on a sliding scale, it is relative, proportionate and not forever.

It can be said then that Guam is both inaka and bimbo. The following day found me in Saipan, which was quite similar to its slightly more southern cousin but exhibited a number of interesting differences. First there was an abundance of "poker" clubs, next less general wear and tear on the buildings in the CBD and finally a near ubiquitous signage proclaiming acceptance of food stampsas currency for groceries. What this suggests to this amateur anthropologist is that the divide between rich and poor is more deeply engrained in Saipan than it is in Guam. In other words, where Guam appears more rough and ready and somewhat poor on the surface, it is so universally, whereas in Saipan the division is more strongly regionalism. Pacific readers feel free to correct/inform me if I am too far off the mark. Or just flat out wrong.

Meanwhile although both places are somewhat far from mainland USA, and their basic flavour somewhat spiced with local cultural and ethnic influences, they nevertheless feel like America. What I mean is that in terms of shopping, eating and leisure there is an unmistakable emphasis on excess. Everything is BIG. Portions are big, prices are big, and this is all supposed to provide satisfaction. But why don't I feel satisfied when participating in this environment? Why is there a lack of attention to subtlety, elegance and grace? I find a similar situation in Australia, it is almost as though the energy taken in the original colonial impetus exhausted the desire for refinement. Another way of saying this would be that conquering lands and peoples is enough. That conquest itself is the ultimate feat of culture. But is this so, in this post colonial world being recolonised, redrawn and reconfigured along new emerging economic paradigms and practices located primarily in and around China?

So what will be left once the conquering colonising titans of previous centuries and the makers of today's world have been replaced? What will their cultural legacy be? How will they be remembered once their dominance has subsided? What aspects of their culture will be celebrated, fondly recalled and made objects of nostalgia by the new, dominant elite? Time will tell.

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