When you arrive here, you hear a lot about Melanesian culture being based on communal sharing, and on patterns of kinship and loyalty, collectively called the Wantok system. Like most things cultural, it sounds quite different in theory from the way it really is on the ground. It has taken us quite a while to work out what is going on in terms of gift-giving in this culture. For instance, where’s the gratuitude?
Quite often it turns out there isn’t any. What is supposed to happen is that the big-man (that’s me or Louise in this instance) demonstrates power through largesse. A small gift may be repaid or reciprocated in some way without loss of face or status. That’s how wantok sharing works. But an act of gift-giving without the possibility of reciprocation is a demonstration that you are in control of a situation and the people in it, meaning that you can commnd loyalty and obedience. You are buying people. Graditude isn’t in the equation.
This makes perfect sense in the context of the overall culture but is extremely strange to deal with on a one-to one level. Here’s some examples from my time here (Louise has similar ones).
I gave a pair of shoes to a guard who used to work here. They were old work boots but still better than anything in any of the Chinese shops. Purchasing them would have cost him a month’s wages. He put them on and wandered off without saying a word. Later I asked him about them and he mumbled that they were ‘fine’ and looked away.
I bought a coffee for another guy while we were waiting to go diving. Later, when he found out the price, he asked me to never take him there again, and said “I’m Melanesian. That’s too much to pay!” He almost seemed annoyed at me for shouting him the coffee.
We recently paid the school fees of our house-mary, Afu. This is a common act of generosity from expats and not a great deal of money for us, but a fortune for her, about three month wages. She behaves as though this is totally normal because we already command obedience from her. She has said thankyou once, in an offhand way. I think she did it as an afterthought, after remembering what she’d heard about gradtitude in Western culture.
What is particularly weird is to compare therse reactions with the reaction you get if you stop in the street and ‘story’ with people. Chatting for two minutes about how “it was rainy yesterday but its cleared up now” will elicit a cheerful “tankiu tumas” and a “nice fo lukim iu” and a wish to see you again soon. People don’t mind giving gratitude for things they can reciprocate, which is probably why the ‘story’ is such a well-loved social currency over here: it’s completely free. You can’t buy another person with it.
Anyway, understanding another culture is all very well and good but we still wouldn’t mind a bit of fricken gratitude every now and again! We’re like junkies for it! Maybe I should thank Louise for paying Afu’s school fees and she could thank me for giving our guard some boots.
“Thanks, Louise. Thanks, Steve!”
Aaaaahhhh, that’s the stuff.