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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pisikoa Pacifica

Jaime R. Vergara

It was on a trip to Samoa and Tonga in the early ’80s that I heard of the term "Pisikoa" for the U.S. Peace Corps in the Pacific. Acquaintances derisively used the term for volunteers who kept unkempt appearances, had reportedly gone "native," much to the chagrin of the peacock-headed local ones.

Our Wesleyan colleagues in Apia and Nuku’alofa commented that PCVs stayed hairy in order to avoid becoming attractive in the heavily male-dominated society. Polynesian males were assertively imposing. The hippies were in vogue in the ’70s, and some of the PCVs who were America’s youth in transition appropriated the lifestyle.

A Majuro health aide recalled an experience when she took the interisland boat. She provided classes on hygiene to mothers’ groups. It was in one of her official voyages (she normally flew) when the engine of the ship quit and the floating mass listlessly remained stationary while the crew radioed for a technician to figure out how to get the engine started.

She had become friendly and trusting of the pleasant crew and relatively young passengers who culturally would not hurt a fly. In fact, Marshallese at that time committed suicide first before imposing homicidal trauma on another. In an evening of illicit brew, in the heat and isolation of the moment, the young lady consented to join what evolved into an inebriated feast where she became the main course passed around from one caress to another.

While she realized she was not altogether an innocent bystander, or a helpless victim, her resistance to becoming a convenient piece of meat was mostly mental, and she resolved from the experience to stay an unshaven Pisikori, if her sanity survived the ordeal. It took the kindly ministration of an elderly missionary couple to nurse her back to healthy self-esteem.

In the next decade, I worked on community development in the Pacific that took seriously the human factor at the core of the methodological equation. Economic viability utilized local resources—natural, human, and technological—before depending on external investment. It initiated procedure that led to the political "we" (participatory democracy), and the culturally determining value (human consciousness), which refereed the inevitable conflict between individual survival and communal welfare.

When we moved to Saipan to pastor the Immanuel UMC, we immediately took a liking to the genial bonhomie of Sam McPhetres, history and poli-sci professor at NMC, erstwhile PCV director of Truk (now Chuuk), and linguist in the archival disciplines.

We discovered Jeff Schorr at OIA who was PCV director in Tonga two years after we conducted a two-month Human Development Training School there just before a devastating August typhoon. It was a former Micronesian PCV vet of the first batch in the late ’60s, now a specialist in penal law in Arizona, who ushered us to our demo project in Majuro, and getting the Kabua and DeBrum names into my vocabulary.

Growing our development prowess in Sudtonggan on Mactan in the Visayas, in a demo project site and training center, we were often invited to orient PCVs on community development methods that seriously engaged the diverse stakeholders to meet their own requirements. For a year, after Majuro and before returning to Micronesia, I joined the local Manila office’s PCV training staff to conduct orientation events for newly arrived volunteers. It was in that capacity that we ran into a young PCV named Larry Lee.

We watched and applauded Sam’s conscientious efforts in relevant educational ventures at NMC until we left the Commonwealth. Jeff and Hannah remained civil acquaintances, though our contacts grew infrequent when their son was born. Jeff’s retirement from office coincided with our 67th b-day, but we remember him most while watching him during what we considered an intense "spiritual" discipline of picking up trash along a street in Fina Sisu during his lunch hour.

Larry Lee had his hands full at NMC when we briefly popped into his office a couple of years ago to borrow an Economics textbook to get us reacquainted with econometrics after we decided to lecture at Shenyang Aerospace University.

We recall all these because Jeff and Larry are in the news of late. Jeff had been the only OIA officer on Saipan for the last 25 years, finally getting a replacement almost a year after his retirement. Larry found himself in an awkward position at NMC as Susan Hart decided it was time for thorn-on-the-side teacher Lee to revisit his CV.

It was the common thread of Pisikoa Pacifica that got us reminiscing after straying lately into matters military, and previously viewing the PCV program as an alternative rite of passage for America’s youth. While the PCV is attributed as the initiator of the local penchant for the weed and the metamph, one of our distinguish CNMI immigration and labor lawyers was a PCV in Africa’s West Coast islands of Sao Tome & Sao Principe. A diminutive but dedicated nurse colleague was also an NMC teacher before she retired. The mixed review is handled openly and in good humor, and that makes it more human than the secretive conduct of classified stealth operations of fireballs and drones.

Our service in the Peace Corps always calls us at solemn attention, and in the process, we do not hesitate to touch the tip of the open palm on the brow!

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