Middle of Nowhere, RMI

"Where are you from?" is a question I both love and loath because the answer is anything but simple. Sometimes I answer "Seattle," because I lived on Whidbey Island for a few years as a kid, and well, it's the easy way out - but where is home for me? The Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Cue the usual response:

"Oh, Mercer Island?"

Or a soft smile with a confused, blank stare.

Don't get me wrong, I'm so incredibly proud to call this unique and stunning country my home, but as an American-born child of northern European descent who discloses the RMI as my home, it takes quite a bit of an explanation to fill those blank stares. I'm noticeably not Marshallese and I have a West Coast accent, but other than that, everything I knew was left behind in the Marshalls when I came to Washington for college, leaving my family and friends for a country and culture 5,000 miles away that was foreign to me. So, I thought it was about time to let you in on my unintentionally best kept secret and honestly, the foundation for the life I live today: life as a Kwaj Kid in the Marshall Islands.

Where the Heck is the Marshall Islands?

Break out a map, plant your finger smack in between Hawaii and Australia, and you'll find my tiny piece of paradise. From the continental US, you first must fly to Hawaii before boarding a five-hour United flight to Kwajalein (Kwaj), my home island. The Island Hopper, as we like to call it, is the only airline that flies to the Marshall Islands (which means it's not cheap!). From Oahu, it stops in the capital of Majuro before a short 45 min flight to Kwaj. It then continues on to the Micronesian Islands of Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk before arriving at its terminus in Guam.

If you've never heard of the country, you're the vast majority of the world. Those who are familiar with the islands are likely a World War II buff, they've read up on the years of atomic bomb testing in Bikini Atoll, they've heard the rumors of Amelia Earhart's final resting place, or they've seen it on a list of countries hugely affected by global warming. But through the country's vast troubling past and even as they face an indeterminable future, the Marshall's are a stunning country rich in culture with a people so welcoming, kind, and happy that will forever hold a special place in my heart.

As much as I'd love to give you my understanding of Marshall Islands history and the many flaws (to put it lightly) in our government's relations, I'm afraid I'd go on forever. I'll keep this post to my personal experience growing up on Kwaj, but if you'd like to learn more about the RMI's past and present, start by reading up on the Compact of Free Association linked here.

The country consists of 29 atolls (once a series of volcanoes that eventually collapsed beneath the ocean; coral then grew on their rims, creating these circular island formations) and thousands of islands, most of which are no more than a mile or two long and just a couple feet above sea level.

Language: Marshallese

Population: ~53,200

Capital: Majuro

Currency: USD

Status: Sovereign state in free association with the United States under a Compact of Free Association.

My Kwaj Kid Life

I arrived to this tropical paradise in the 4th grade and, naturally, I thought my life was over.“You’re taking me away from my friends!” I remember scream-crying to my mom when our packout was in full force. My stuff suddenly stashed in boxes against my will and all that was left was a suitcase I’d be living out of for the next three months. I wasn’t a dramatic child, but my entire existence was being uprooted and moved across the ocean farther than I had ever been before. Ok maybe a little dramatic. I was scared, as any 10-year old would be. But now, and even just a few weeks after I arrived (if I remember right), I thanked my parents for ignoring my stagnant mentality because moving to Kwajalein was easily the best thing that ever happened to me.

The island itself is just 3 miles by 1/2 mile – you could catch a glimpse of water at almost any spot on this over-sized coral head – and the entire stretch is run by the government. This means there’s next to no crime, drugs, weapons, or any other danger present, so kids are allowed to run free. I spent my childhood barefoot, playing in puddles, collecting hermit crabs, splashing in tide pools, and riding the currents on floaties only to return home for dinner cued by the beckon of the daily 6 p.m. siren. Dial up internet, no cell service, and just nine TV channels encouraged us to find entertainment elsewhere. Instead of “Bop-It” commercials, we had “Guess that State Capital” and the “Can’t Touch This” parody “Can’t Ship This,” among other kitschy infomercials that I could probably recite to this day.

As we got older, building sandcastles turned into beach bonfires and splashing in waves turned into surfing them. We still rode the currents but we did so on uninhabited islands on weekend boat trips and jumping off partially sunken vessels from the World War II days. We’d play man hunt or 40/40 on Friday nights and partake in Teen Center events or dances, returning home at midnight for the island-wide curfew (except for the rebellious nights where we’d sneak from one friend’s house to another, diving in bushes each time a cop drove by). We spent afternoons with friends, family, and the great outdoors and man did we get creative.

We lived an independent lifestyle, biking to school side by side because residents aren’t allowed to own cars (sometimes 10 across at approximately 1 mile an hour - the adults didn't like that too much) with our friends and engaging in after school activities and sports (softball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, scouts, clubs, volunteering opportunities, and jobs). Our small community of about 1,500 encouraged the kids to get involved and contribute. But, with such a small community, you’re bound to get island fever and the small-town lifestyle setbacks, if you will. I.e. my teachers knew wayyyyy too much about my personal life, which led to some interesting Monday morning conversations about weekend shenanigans. But it was all part of the small town island life I grew to know and love. Friends became family and remain so today.

The Marshallese community has their own language, culture, and customs and I feel so lucky to have had them influence my upbringing in such positive ways. They’re some of the kindest, happiest, gentlest, warmest, and most welcoming people I know and they've unintentionally taught me so many things that I've embraced, internalized, and will strive to bring with me throughout my life. Family is everything to them, love is second nature, and there's always a reason to dance and sing.

Two schools educate Kwaj’s children. The first is K-6 and the second teaches grades 7-12. My graduating class was a whopping 17 people; some had just arrived, some were born there, some moved away and moved back, but most flew in in various years between. Transplants from Massachusetts, Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, California, Washington, Illinois and more joined a few Marshallese families on the island. All from different backgrounds, culture, norms, religions, and customs, but all with one thing in common: we're Kwaj Kids and with graduation fast approaching, we were about to enter a world we had never known.

There are generations upon generations of us Kwaj Kids. We're all over the world and we'd do absolutely anything for one another. It's nearly impossible to explain what that means, but in the simplest terms, we'll always have a Kwaj Kid couch to crash on no matter where we go. There's just something that comes with experiencing the limitations and frustrations of island fever and the intricacies that come with living on this unique military-run patch of coral that keep us together regardless of our distances. From spending night after night posting up in backyards for spontaneous uke jam sessions and sitting out front of the Community Recreation Center (CRC) after hours because we had nowhere to be, we did everything together, we knew everything about each other; we didn't always like each other, but we'd set aside our differences, making us that much stronger.

As we gathered for what would be our last photo together after we moved our tassels, leis piled high above our eyes as graduation gifts, I realized this was it. We were about to go our separate ways, back to the place where our families had originally moved from, a place that we were told were our real homes but we never really spent much time in, leaving our families and friends behind and entering the real world on our own spread thin over the U.S. and the world. Tears, so many tears flooded my eyes when I realized I had no clue what I was doing. I didn't even know what Spotify was as a 2013 graduate. Talk about sensory overload.

Moving Stateside

Suddenly I had access to high speed internet whenever and wherever I wanted; I didn't have to worry about Surfway (our local grocery store) not having milk that week or purchasing expired bread. So this is what fresh fruit tastes like? I had a ton of pop culture to catch up on. I had to get my drivers license. I was introduced to new restaurants instead of just Subway, Anthony's, Burger King, and my favorite local dishes and island staples: lumpia and fried chicken. I had hundreds of shampoos to choose from and more toilet paper brands than I knew what to do with. And I knew no one.

I know, I know, poor me, growing up on this tropical paradise to have immediate access to the states and everything they have to offer, citizen and all. I'm aware of how lucky I am, especially when our Marshall Islands neighbors on Ebeye (island) struggles with natural resources, high unemployment rates, and health inequity and can live in the states but aren't granted US citizenship. I couldn't possibly compare my situation to theirs, which is why I'm doing my best to articulate my personal experience as a Kwaj Kid.

The first couple years stateside was... challenging for me to say the least. I was thrown into a community of highly educated students and I felt so behind in schooling, world news, pop culture, and even things as small as using a debit card or a cell phone. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. I slowly figured it out thanks to a Kwaj friend who was a senior at the University of Washington as I came in for my freshman year; I caught up on my movies so I could finally understand all the references, learned the latest songs, opened a bank account, got my drivers license, failed my first class, lost my tan, made new friends, and experienced more new and exciting things than I thought possible. Six years later, I've fully transitioned to a Monday through Friday work week (instead of Kwaj's Tuesday through Saturday to parallel stateside workdays thanks to the International Date Line), I'm living in an apartment with my best friend from college in my favorite Seattle neighborhood of Ballard and I've been lucky enough to see many Kwaj Kids over the years, either in the Marshall Islands or in their home state or mine, or a wedding, as was the case with one of my closest friends a few years back. We always seem to find each other sooner or later, no matter the circumstances. I'm still hula dancing, and I've found that finding that little sliver of familiarity can go a long way.

And, because my family still lives on that tiny island, I'm fortunate enough to visit my home every once in a while, but that won't always be the case. Because it's a military base, you have to be "sponsored" to be able to visit, which means us Kwaj Kids are isolated from our homes as soon as our family moves away - an inevitable fact I'll have to face someday and one I can't bare to think about. But, lucky for us, home is more than the tropical water, the sandy beaches, the palm trees, and the sun, it was the community, so a quick trip to Arizona, North Carolina, California, Florida, Alabama, or Illinois to visit my Kwaj friends is all it takes to feel like I'm home, although a quick surf sesh now and then would be nice 😉

I truly believe that the time I spent outside playing and engaging with others and truly just "being" in the Marshall's paved the way for the lifestyle I'm proud to live today. It taught me to be independent, confident, and a go-getter as well as the importance of community. I'm constantly pining for new adventures whether it be a mountain hike, a surf sesh, a road trip, a snowboarding weekend, a cabin escape, you name it! I'm actively seeking off the grid locations where cell service doesn't exist and where experiences are a plenty, and I owe it all to my childhood in the RMI. So ultimately, thank you mom and dad for forcing me to move away from my friends in the 4th grade, even when I thought you were ruining my life. Thank god you didn't listen to me. And to all my Kwaj family out there, I LOVE YOU! Thank you for literally everything and for being such a positive influence in my life. You all are amazing.

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