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 http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/fuzzy_wuzzy.html). 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. (http://www.anzacday.org.au/anzacservices/poetry/fuzzywuzzy.htm).
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.