It was then that I was approached by the Lagoon girl. She was in her early 20s, moderately pretty, and had a really nice smile. She tried to converse with me, and we managed a little. But her English was about as good as my Chuukese, so communication was difficult. Finally, she got around to asking me where I was going to sleep. I replied that I didn’t know. She then said something to me in Chuukese that I did, in fact, understand, except that it made no sense. She said “Ua tonguk.” Which means, in English, “I love you.” I was really caught off guard. I just stared at her with a befuddled expression on my face. So she repeated it, in English this time: “I nove you.”
OK, so I knew the “nove” was actually “love” and I had heard her right the first time in Chuukese. Now I was definitely confused. Here was a girl I’d only known for a couple of hours, and only talked to for about 20 minutes or so, and she was already in love with me. To make matters more puzzling, romance in Chuuk was supposed to be very difficult and always clandestine and discreet. Was I actually going to “get lucky?” Right there on the ship with a girl I’d just met?
Then she told me that she had a cabin bunk, but that I could use it. Now my thoughts were really taking off. I decided not to say anything, or really do anything, but just wait to see how things played out. I couldn’t really believe that anything would happen. But why did she tell me she loved me?
She took me to a small cabin and pointed to the bottom bunk. She insisted that I sleep there and put my pandanus sleeping mat on the floor for her. There was a Chuukese man using the top bunk. With three in the cabin it was not very conducive for amorous activity, but I still made a couple of half-hearted efforts to get her to “share” the bunk with me. She demurred. Then, feeling less than gallant for having the bunk while she had the floor, I tried to get her to switch places with me but she absolutely refused. I was very confused by then, not really understanding much of anything that was going on, but eventually I fell asleep. The night passed without incident. When I awoke it occurred to me that maybe she wanted me there so she wouldn’t be alone with the other guy.
We reached Polowat in the morning. It lay flat on the sea like a green pancake, with the spire of the old Japanese lighthouse rising up above the tree line. The Truk Islander was small enough to come through the one pass into the tight Polowat lagoon, anchoring just a hundred feet or so off the beach. I said goodbye to the girl and went ashore, anxious to meet my new family and settle in to my new home. The ship left the next day, taking the mysterious Lagoon Chuukese girl with it.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS I was bombarded with new sights, sounds, and especially people. The women wore only a wrap-around lava lava and went topless, including my students in school. The men wore a loincloth and walked with the pride of Polowat, the island of sailing canoes and traditional navigators. The thatched canoe-houses were large, cool, and impressive, though no more so than the sea-going 27-foot sailing canoes they housed.
There was already another Peace Corps Volunteer on Polowat. He had spent a year on Udot in the Chuuk Lagoon and had requested a transfer. We were to become fast friends, but his presence was both helpful and hindering. He already was able to speak the language. I was stumbling along, confusing the hell out of people. So the people would ask him to explain what I was trying to say instead of teaching me how to say it correctly.
One day shortly after I had arrived, he and I were in one of the canoe-houses talking with some men. Barefoot, I accidentally stepped on a sharp stem of a coconut leaf from a frond that was on the floor. I let out a slight yelp and pulled my foot back, a drop of blood appearing at the site of the wound. Witnessing my misfortune, one of the men said something in the Polowat dialect that I didn’t catch. I looked at him for a moment, then he repeated it in Lagoon Chuukese. “Ua tonguk.” There it was again. I just stood there, a puzzled expression on my face, and he said it, haltingly, in English: “I love you.” Now I was really confused. I knew there was no homosexual implication at all in the situation, but there was something I just wasn’t getting.
By this time, my fellow Volunteer had a big grin on his face. “He just means he feels sorry for you. It’s what they say when something bad happens to someone or if someone has an accident or a bad day or doesn’t get what they want or misses out on something or whatever. They say “I love you” to express sympathy, it doesn’t mean they’re coming on to you.”
The light of sudden understanding nearly blinded me. Now everything made sense with the girl on the ship. And indeed, in the weeks and months to come, I’d hear the phrase used over and over again in situations where Americans would never think of saying “I love you.” Someone would bump their head, or get really sick, or not catch very many fish, and out would come the “I love you.” After a while, I got used to it.