A Writer Writes

“I Love You” Is Not the Same in Every Language

by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)

    THE TRUK ISLANDER, a 95-foot long copra and supply ship, pulled slowly away from the Weno dock to begin its journey to a group of atolls 180 miles west of the Chuuk Lagoon. There, at last, I would begin my Peace Corps assignment. I would start teaching school, something I’d never done before. I would live the whole time without electricity or plumbing, something I’d never done before. I would go shirtless and wear the brief one-piece loincloth traditional to the Central Carolines, something I’d never done before. And I promised myself I would — whatever it took— definitely learn to speak the language. Learning to speak a foreign language was also something I’d never done before despite four years of French classes in high school and college.
         As the dock receded I waved to the three friends who had come to see me off, Volunteers waiting for another ship to take them to their islands. I had been on Weno, at that time called Moen, a vestige of some 19th century explorer’s mistake, for about two weeks. Weno had all the charm of a ramshackle but lively frontier town. Pick-up taxis with people piled in the back wove their way through pot-holed roads past quaint and musty stores in corrugated tin buildings with some inventory items that probably hadn’t been handled, or dusted, since first put on the shelves years ago. It had been an interesting couple of weeks. Weno at least had power and some plumbing. There were restaurants and stores with cold drinks, a few make-shift movie theaters, and several tacky bars that were best avoided. Most of the Peace Corps and ex-Peace Corps who had stayed in country, along with other Americans who found themselves in what was then called Truk, another mistake in transliteration, preferred places like the tin-covered-by-thatch roofed Maramar Hotel. It had a breezy, comfortable, screened-in restaurant where one could have a reasonably decent breakfast or lunch and look past the coconut trees to the broad Chuuk Lagoon, pretending the rusting hulk of a ship in the view was a war relic when it actually was some fishing boat run aground in a storm in the ’50s or ’60s. “Is that Somerset Maugham at the next table?”
         Then there was the language. Chuukese was everywhere because — well of course — that was their language and in the 1970s, that’s just about all anybody spoke. We had spent ten weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii in training. The language portion for the training had been good. Four hours every morning of intense immersion, no English allowed. But in the end, we arrived in Chuuk with only a starting point. Actually learning to speak and understand would be up to each Volunteer. It was hard to get used to the sound of Lagoon Chuukese. Choppy and often spoken in a quasi-falsetto, it was hard for us to make sense of it. Then there was that thing with the Ns and Ls. The people of Chuuk could not pronounce the L-sound. It wasn’t used in their dialect, and when speaking English their Ls sounded like Ns. Outer islanders however, who spoke different dialects, had no trouble saying Ls.

    THE TRUK ISLANDER headed for the Northeast Pass out of the huge Chuuk Lagoon, a 40-mile wide expanse with several mountain-tops poking up out of the sea all surrounded and enclosed by a single barrier reef. Physically, it was beautiful. In the bright tropical sun the greens of the islands and blues of the water were overpowering. As we slid along the Weno shore with the island of Fefen dropping off to port, the engines thumped reassuringly somewhere in the bowels of the ship and the smell of diesel mixed with the fresh salt air. Yes, I was off to my great adventure.
         It took about an hour to reach the pass. We slipped out between the two flat reef islands on either side and headed into open ocean. The swells weren’t too bad, but it was easy to tell we were no longer in a lagoon. By the tim, dusk was approaching and I watched the mountain tops of the lagoon islands turn grey and shrink lower on the horizon.
         The passengers consisted of only one Polowat family returning home to the island where I would be stationed, and a strange Lagoon Chuukese girl going out to one of the other islands on the ship’s itinerary.
         As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was riding deck passage. I had purchased a pandanus sleeping mat, but there was scant room on the ship’s fan tail for it. Besides, the Polowat family was there and had practically made a tent from a sheet to help keep out the wind. I don’t think I even thought much about where or how I would sleep. I had been too busy enjoying the experience and watching the scenery.

         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.

    MY EXPERIENCE WITH the love phrase made me even more determined to learn the language. But it wasn’t easy. For one thing, we had been taught Lagoon Chuukese, but the dialect on Polowat was markedly different. First were the phoneme shifts. An s in Lagoon was pronounced as an H on Polowat. Likewise a CH in Lagoon became an unrolled R. And it was very important, when speaking the Polowat dialect, to make sure and use the correct R, for if you rolled the R in a certain word when it was supposed to be unrolled, you could be talking about a rather private part of the female anatomy. The shift from S to H and CH to unrolled R gave the Polowat dialect a completely different sound from Lagoon Chuukese. The Polowat dialect, variations of which were spoken on about nine islands west and northwest of the Chuuk Lagoon, sounded like a deep-throated, flowing rumble. In fact, few Lagoon Chuukese could really understand it.
         Then there were the vocabulary differences. It seemed that most of the easy words, the words we had learned in Peace Corps training for such things as “big” and “many,” were all different on Polowat. In Lagoon, “big” was wattei. But on Polowat, it was likap. Likewise “many” in Lagoon was chamong while on Polowat it was tolap. And so on, and so on.
         The frustrating thing about learning a language is that it starts so slowly at first. One month on the island and I still felt lost. Perseverance is the key. It is also vitally important to dive in headfirst and not be afraid to make mistakes. Even if you roll the R in the wrong word in mixed company. Two months on the island and I realized I knew three times more than I did at one month, and by three months I actually began to feel that I could do this. With a language, the learning curve accelerates rapidly. The more you learn, the more you can learn. By the end of that school year, with a ship coming to take me back to Weno for the summer, I felt comfortable. I could communicate quite well, could understand easily when questions or comments were addressed to me, and could even pick up the meaning of most overheard conversations.
         By the end of my two years, I was fluent in the Polowat dialect. I felt proud of that. I was finally bi-lingual. My accent, especially, was pretty good and I was even occasionally able to fool some islanders who heard me talk from behind them. When they turned around to see who it was, they were quite surprised to see me. Of course, I hadn’t learned any major language like the French I had studied or the ubiquitous Spanish or even Russian or Chinese. No, I had learned a dialect that, in the early 1970s, was spoken on nine tiny islands by a total of 3,000 people or less. Not something that would be terribly useful in the future unless I stayed in the area. I had also managed a working knowledge of Lagoon Chuukese, a language spoken at that time by about 50,000 people.
         For all Peace Corps Volunteers, I think learning the language is vital. Language, to a large degree, determines how people think. To really appreciate the culture and the whole experience of living in a different society, learning the language is a must. But not all PCVs do. In Chuuk, most outer island PCVs became relatively fluent. Volunteers assigned to the Lagoon islands other than the main island of Weno also did pretty well if they made the effort. But those assigned to Weno, where much more English was spoken, sometimes never picked it up. A few years ago I showed slides to a group of Micronesian PCVs who had come to Guam for a mid-term conference. Less than half of them said they were learning the language.
         Well, OK. Everybody has different priorities I guess. But to those PCVs who spend at least two years in a place and don’t bother to learn the language, I just have this to say: I love you.

    Reilly Ridgell taught for 28 years in Chuuk and Guam and since 2001 has been Dean of the School of Trades and Professional Services at Guam Community College. The fourth edition of his textbook, Pacific Nations and Territories, and the second edition of its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors, has recently been released by Bess Press of Honolulu. His anthology of Peace Corps stories, Bending to the Trade Winds is available on Amazon.com.