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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Micronesian Blues - hilarious, challenging, sensitive and well worth the read

By Bill Jaynes
Wishing he’d worn waders instead of running shoes as the blue sewage from the toilets sloshed up and down the aisles of the Air Micronesia Boeing 727 island hopper on every take off and landing, Bryan Vila arrived in Saipan on June 15, 1978. The “Micronesian chapter” of his life had begun, and so begins “Micronesian Blues”, a book by Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris, originally published in 2009 and now available as a Kindle Reader book on If you’re looking for the “bottom line” early on in this review, let me give it to you now—buy it, but be warned, you may not be able to stop reading it until you’ve read the last page.
In association with the publication of this review, for the next week it’s on sale for only $2.99 on Amazon, and no, I don’t receive any kick back. I just loved the book despite my early misgivings. “Micronesian Blues tells the hilarious true story of former L.A. street cop, Bryan Vila’s rollicking road to cultural awareness as a police chief and trainer in the remote Pacific Islands of Micronesia,” the book’s synopsis says. I’ll be frank, the synopsis worried me. I was afraid that the book would poke fun at Micronesian law enforcers in the waning Trust Territory days as the Micronesia region moved toward independence. When the same synopsis described sakau as a “hallucinogenic substance that bore a close resemblance to elephant snot”, I rolled my eyes. I’d never heard of anyone ever having “hallucinated” on sakau, though the “elephant snot” evaluation was right on in my estimation. I have to admit that when Morris gifted the e-book to me in June of 2013, I didn’t give it much of a chance. I made a few cursory attempts to download it for offline reading but when I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen, I moved on. But Morris was persistent. In mid January she sent me an email asking when I might get around to a review of the book. Embarrassed that I’d not given it a thorough go, I dug deeper and found out that downloading the book isn’t all that difficult. For the next couple of days I was completely captivated, wondering what Vila would be up to next and how he would deal with what he encountered. It’s a page turner and I had to turn my iPhone to “night mode” while I read it in bed until late into the night.
If I didn’t know better I would swear that the book was a work of fiction, but the story is true. It reads like a novel, peopled by characters that most of us in Micronesia know, though a good number of the names in the book are necessarily false. Still, many of the names will be familiar to Micronesian readers. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time that I read a book that so fully engaged me. Despite my early misgivings that the book would be the culturally insensitive ravings of an expat who had once lived in Micronesia, I found it to be entirely respectful of Micronesian law enforcement officers and of Micronesians in general, sometimes even reverent. “Micronesian Blues” is far more than a chronicle of Vila’s adventures as a law enforcement advisor in Micronesia at the eclipse of the U.S. Trust Territory days.
If the stories were just funny the book wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. It’s also a self deprecating story of a man who strove to understand the Micronesian culture wherever he was. When in Ponape, as it was then known, he drank sakau, not as some poseur but as someone who truly wanted to understand the culture. That was on his second day in Micronesia. In Yap he whiled away the hours with local law enforcement officials while chewing and spitting betel nut juice for the first time in his life. In Palau, he ate “bat” with Tommy Remengasau and other members of the Micronesia Constitutional Convention, though he couldn’t bring himself to eat the head. By the time he was in charge of the Trust Territory law enforcement response during a protest by Marshall Islanders in Kwajalein, he had gathered enough experience that he understood the importance of traditional leaders. He knew that while law enforcement was vital, force would be counter-productive. In Kosrae, he learned the language in order to interact with the officers during his short command there. I think that any Micronesian would appreciate “Micronesian Blues” if for no other reason than to recap Micronesian history at the end of U.S. Trust Territory days. The Pohnpeian name for expats is “mehnwai”, or people from the island of wai—the island of far way. Kosraeans call us “ahset”. I will not delve into the origins of that name here other than to say that we probably deserved it.
Regardless of what we are called here I think that “Micronesian Blues” should be required reading for all of us expats before we step off the plane on any Micronesian island. Life would be so much simpler if all of us, expats, mehnwai, ahset, and Micronesians operated on the basic assumption that we are all different but equal and that we can all learn from each other. It’s probably one of the biggest messages I got from “Micronesian Blues”, though I’m not at all sure that is what the authors hoped to communicate. The Kindle Reader version of the book on Amazon usually sells for $5.99 but until March 2 you can get it for only $2.99. You don’t have to own a Kindle device to read the electronic version of the book. Simply download the Kindle Reader application for any computer, I-product, or Android device, buy the book on Amazon and then prepare for your life to be completely disrupted until you finish it. It’s that kind of good whether you’re a Micronesian, an expatriate, and even if you’ve never heard of Micronesia.