Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pikininis and Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels

 It is nearly impossible to come out of an environment so charged with political correctness as Washington, DC and not feel slightly uneasy about the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea—Tok Pisin.  I know I keep referring to this (and forgive me if you are not a theater wonk like me) but if you have ever seen the Broadway musical, South Pacific, you have been exposed to pidgin English—Bloody Mary and her “Happy Talk” is a nod to the bastardized English languages spoken to facilitate trade throughout the islands.  Variations of pidgin are used in PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuata, and even northern Australia…and this makes sense as there are 800 languages spoken in PNG alone—you need to have at least one common language to get along, and a variation of English is logical given this area’s colonial past.


But even as Bloody Mary was a source of comic relief in the musical, it is nearly impossible to hear the language, or, better yet, to see it in print, and not smile at the “quaintness” of it.  For example, the Yu No Ken Kam Insait/Yu Ken Stretim Rum Nau sign to hang on the door of our hotel room to alert the housekeeping staff was my first indication that while English is universally understood by Papuans, Tok Pisin is more widely used and preferred by many.  In fact, on many products manufactured and sold here, the instructions on labels and operating manuals are bi-lingual—for example, when you buy additional minutes for your cell phone, you can either “press send and check confirmation on screen” or “presim send na sekim skrin bilong phone lo confemim.”  In fact, the pidgin languages are so widely used that you may need the Lonely Planet guide to help you out!


What has taken me aback in the past few weeks, however, is the common use of certain words or phrases that would be completely out-of the question to use in the United States.  Coming from a culture where use of the “N-word” can get a professor fired or a book banned, where corporate logos are photo-shopped or abandoned (Aunt Jemima no longer looks like a “mammy”) and where team mascots are vilified or boycotted (can we still sing Hail to the Redskins in DC?), it threw me off when I heard someone refer to a couple of local children as “pikininis” without skipping a beat.  Now, if I called a kid a pickaninny on Capitol Hill, I’d most likely get a call from the NAACP…and rightly so.  In the US, that word hasn’t been acceptable usage since the days when Topsy was running around the plantation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Shirley Temple was condescending to let a little black child come to her birthday party, and Little Rascal Buckwheat was so scared by ghosts that he turned white.  Not so here.  In fact, the word is happily used in advertising all manner of children’s products and services, and even by one  local group providing free books to improve children’s literacy called “Buk Bilong Pikinini.”  And, though not since Prince Harry donned a swastika for Halloween have I taken my social cues from British royalty, even Prince Charles thought it acceptable enough when on a state visit to PNG to refer to himself as “nambawan pikinini blong kwin” (say it out loud and you will know what he said)!


So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised this week on Remembrance Day (the PNG equivalent to our Memorial Day ),when I attended a wreath laying ceremony honoring the World War II Papuan soldiers known as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.  For those of you who have been following my ongoing history lessons here, these native soldiers served as the stretcher bearers who were instrumental in pulling wounded Australians out of the jungle during their battle against the Japanese on the Kokoda Track.  Apparently this was, and still is, viewed by all as an affectionate term, and there is no modern attempt to sugar coat or white wash the moniker.  Admittedly, Australian soldiers called them this because of their frizzy hair and undoubtedly with reference to Rudyard Kipling’s tribute to a group of equally nappy headed 19th century Beja warriors who kicked some colonial butt in the Sudan.  (For real linguistic treat, you can read the poem at  Kipling, of course, was also the originator of the “white man’s burden” so perhaps using one of his catch phrases is not exactly politically correct in any era.  Yet, there is a real debt of gratitude owed to this group of soldiers, so much so that there was another poem written by an Australian soldier to praise their actions.  ( 


Given the full complement of dignitaries present at the Remembrance Day ceremony, including the High Commissioners of Australia and New Zealand, Ambassadors from Spain, Germany, China, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, and the Vatican, I guess that it is entirely PC to refer to these war heroes as Fuzzy Wuzzies.  Perhaps only the Japanese ambassador and I had any hesitation in celebrating these men, though for very different reasons, which we both diplomatically kept to ourselves, so as not to brukim sindaun (break the peace/cause a diplomatic incident).   He stayed characteristically stoic amidst multiple references to “the enemy” while I tried hard to banish the refrain of yet another famous poem about a hairless bear from my mind so as not to giggle every time the soldiers were mentioned.  Not very PC, I know, but I am working on it.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport

It is an axiom of expat life that nothing is the same as the last place you were living.  You spend a great deal of time during your first days in a new country comparing it to all of the other places you have lived.  The flora and fauna, the climate, the view, the housing options, the languages spoken, the traffic, the local produce, the indigenous art are all weighed against those in a prior life.  Sometimes, your new home will come up short as in “the coffee in Papua New Guinea is not nearly as good as the coffee in Costa Rica” or “remember how cheap it was to buy baskets and pottery in Mexico?”  Other times, you find yourself extolling the virtues of the new location as in “can you believe my apartment has a stunning view of the Coral Sea and a squash court?” or “I can buy every kind of Asian and Indian spice known to man in my local grocery store!”  It’s like being in a new relationship-- it takes some time to get to know what makes your new partner tick and it is hard not to weigh their faults and merits against your last one.  An added complication in getting my love affair with Papua New Guinea going is that, in some strange ménage à trois-like sense, I am also in bed with Australia. 

This is a new experience for me, because here in PNG, an English speaking nation, my American accent is the odd voice in the crowd.  More likely than not, if you are speaking the King’s English,  you are probably from Australia.  (This begs the question of whether anyone from either the US or Australia can actually speak the King’s, or the Queen’s English; on this, I defer to Kingsley Amis or my brother-in-law referenced below).   I really shouldn’t be so surprised given the intertwined history of both nations and the fairly recent independence of PNG from Australia, but as a result, I am learning about two countries instead of one.  So, for what it is worth, here are three things that I have learned about both PNG and Australia that have endeared me to both:

 Cuscus is Not a Grain and Some Kangaroos Live in Trees
In our first excursions around Port Moresby, we have been able to see a number of plants, animals and birds that are indigenous to either PNG, Australia or both, several of which I didn’t even know existed.  There are two lovely nature parks here, both of which are extremely well maintained and provide, as best any zoo-like establishment can, a decent living space for their menagerie.   We were able to see cassowaries (the evolutionary result of an ostrich mating with an overstuffed turkey, I suspect) emperor pigeons, hornbills, parrots, and the elusive Birds of Paradise, the image of which is ubiquitously used on everything from the flag and boxes of matches to the local beer.  We also encountered flying foxes, wallabies, and their marsupial cousins, the tree kangaroo, which looks like a cross between a sloth and a koala bear.  These are not to be mistaken, however, for another local possum-like mammal called the cuscus which, in turn, must never be confused with the Mediterranean grain.  Much like the Peruvian cuy, or guinea pig (hmm, a connection there?), the cuscus does double duty as both pet and entrée.  In the house behind my apartment building, a local family is keeping a rather fat cuscus in a cage in a tree…I’m nervously waiting to see which way this one goes.
I Might Have Been Eating Sushi Here If Not For The Australians
In my last blog entry I made reference to the fact that WWII had a major impact on this part of the South Pacific.  What I did not make clear, however, was the pivotal role that the Australians played in making sure that the Japanese did not get a toe hold on New Guinea.  If you know your geography, it makes perfect sense…which of the Allies actually lived in the South Pacific?  PNG is only 90 miles away from the coastline of Australia and, much like the Cold War fears of the United States that the USSR would be able to use Cuba as a launch pad for conquest, the Australians did not want Japan to have a nice R&R stop from which to plan an invasion of Cairns or Darwin or Brisbane.  The Japanese made two attempts to take New Guinea—the first, a maritime effort, was thwarted during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) which was the first naval battle using aircraft carriers that never got close enough to even see each other.  For the first time in the war, the combined naval troops of the United States and Australians forced the Japanese to disengage and damaged Tojo’s aircraft carriers sufficiently to prevent them from having full strength during a more famous engagement—the Battle of Midway. 

But New Guinea was enough of strategic prize that the Japanese decided to try a land-based campaign next, and it was on the Kokoda Track, a 60 mile, jungle infested trail across the Owen Stanley mountain range that the Australians proved themselves to be one mean, lean fighting machine.  For six months (July 21, 1942-Jan 22, 1943) in brutal environmental conditions prescient of those encountered by US troops years later in Vietnam, the Australians stubbornly fought a guerilla war against the Japanese, and, also for the first time in the war, forced the enemy to “advance to the rear”—a Japanese euphemism for “retreat.”  Today, many die-hard trekkers (lots of Aussies, I’ll bet) take the forced march across the Kokoda Track stopping at old bunkers and war memorials just for fun.

Many of the Australians, and a few local New Guineans, who lost their lives in the Kokoda campaign and the Battle of the Coral Sea are buried in the stunningly beautiful Bomana Cemetery just a few miles outside of Port Moresby.  Again, I was both surprised and impressed by design layout and maintenance of this cemetery.  My anglophile brother-in-law, Daniel, (who most definately speaks the King’s English) assures me that this is par for the course for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose mandate is establishing, preserving and maintaining some 23,000 World War I and II cemeteries and memorials in 153 countries.  More proof that the sun never sets over the British Empire!
Alice May Not Live Here Anymore, But Alice Springs Sure Does

I will grudgingly admit that my knowledge of Australia has been colored by iconoclastic cultural influences like Crocodile Dundee, The Thorn Birds, all Mad Max movies, Baz Luhrmann’s box office bomb Australia and all of those lovely actors from Down Under—Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Guy Pearce, Eric Bana, Heath Ledger, Chris and Liam Helmsworth, Hugo Weaving, Geffory Rush, Simon Baker, the guy who plays Gollum, and oh, of course, Mel.  I think there are a couple of actresses, too.  In addition, I can sing the first verse of the Kookaburra song, the chorus of Waltzing Matilda, most of the Men At Work early 80’s collection and have eaten a bloomin’ onion at the Outback Steakhouse.   I know that gives me a slanted and limited view of a very vibrant and varied culture, but those are the first images that come to mind.  However, my all-time favorite piece of Australiana comes from the movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which introduced me to the country’s Northern Territory, and its jewel in the crown, Alice Springs.  (I won’t spoil the joy of this movie if you haven’t seen it, but the scenery and costumes alone are worth the price of admission).  

So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that one of the “local” television stations is actually broadcast from the Northern Territory and features advertisements from Alice (no need to add “Springs”, mate).  There’s the Alice Hardware store where you can get your tractors and power generators, Alice Feedlot where you can buy your cattle, Alice Holiday Park where you can pull in your RV or camper, Alice Hare Removal (which has nothing to do with lasers or depilatories), as well as Alice public service announcements about spousal abuse and water conservation.  One of the “ads” for the Northern Territory is a minute long view of a highway where, ultimately, a fuel tanker truck comes rolling on by…I guess to assure anyone going to Alice that there will be gasoline available in the desert.  Now, this is not the town I imagined from the Abba-infused drag show scenes in Priscilla, but I am intrigued enough to consider putting Alice and the Northern Territory on my list of places to see before I die.  But for now, I’m getting my Australian fix right here at home.