When I was reading everything I could possibly read on PNG during my PhD days at NYU, I would absorb those things that sounded familiar (and there were lots of those, having already lived in Hagen), and deflect those things that didn’t ring true, or, in my arrogance, sounded overly filtered by European preoccupations. I still flinch at a lot of academic anthropology, and not because I now stand in the ‘applied’ side of anthropology and believe everything else to be indulgent---because I don’t---but because I am all too aware now of how distorted one year’s experience in country can be (even if it’s very remote fieldwork). I tend to prefer reading anything and everything from people more seasoned by many years in or with PNG, and probably that’s natural, an impulse to form an exclusive club of which I will always be an esteemed member.
There is a concept once expressed by ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougal that certain cultures are compatible with each other, or sympathetic, which makes them easier to enter and describe. This is the commonsense explanation for why so much highlands ethnography is so readable to westerners, especially Americans. The idea of a culture pre-adapted to capitalism, as Ben Finney says about the Eastern Highlands, and of entrepreneurial hucksters-charmers being ‘first among equals’ in the Western Highlands, as per the Stratherns, invites too many parallels, and certainly made Hagen more real to me, as a middle class American. It was almost too easy to think of the Western Highlands, in fact, as American monopoly capital doppelganger, where a culture simply conflated certain levels of reality and looked like a caricature of all things American, or all things apparently egalitarian but actually very hierarchical. In fact, so much of it was attractive for being less ...well...occluded than the world where I grew up. At least in Hagen women confessed that they liked a man for his money, or expected friendship in return for gifts of food and money. They also viciously fought each other for the attentions of men, without any pretense of sisterhood, and continued to feel allegiance to their own people after they’d married and moved away. I got that, it made sense to me. I understood the idea of being owed as an indicator of importance, rather than hoarding wealth, but at the same time coveting the flashiest car or biggest house as a marker of one’s generosity as much as your accomplishments. And I could see how people talked about clans and subclan rankings even though they also revered democracy and Horatio Alger. The way they attended two churches, to hedge their bets, and carried a Bible with their homemade shotgun. Maybe it’s the Irish in me.
So now, twenty years later, there are far less ‘aha’ moments, and less frission between my original and my adopted culture. Ironically, that makes it harder for me to write about PNG on one level, and easier to grasp its changes on another, more subliminal level. Now that I have been largely shaped by PNG, I find it less interesting to be its interpreter to westerners. At the same time, I am stuck in limbo between two sets of slightly shifting values. I remember when my son Chris first came to live with me, and how impressed I was by the way he talked about my affection for him, how I would want the best for him, how I would want to do something for him. The words parodied opportunism, if I didn’t already know it came from a belief that once you step into a role you take on all its emotions (---you are my mother, so you must love me). So simple, so clean. After a childhood of thin-skinned ‘individualism’ and fretting over everyone’s less than unconditional affections for me. All I had to do was be a mother to have people assume I loved them, and they loved me. No more umbrage and personalizing every gesture. I could also yell at my kids in full fervor, call them names, spit the dummy, melt down all over them, and they would never ever take it personally. They might walk away (driving me into greater frenzies) or look hurt, but they never let it hit home, and always rebounded with love when I came around. Nowhere in my harangue would I throw sharp and nasty barbs, just general 'you should be ashamed' grievances. This is not personal, its about my exasperation more than their failures, and so they ake it that way. It's a world of appearnces, of acting one way and thus feeling that way. No more of a certain kind of deception, where you chronically worry about each gesture and assume the act is only a role. Here the role is the reality. You are what you appear to be. You say and do what you want yourself to be. People brag unashamedly because they want to be exceptional, not because they are. They act pious because they want to be a pastor, not because they’re reborn. It’s the world appearances that shape behavior rather than vice versa. Some call it cargoism, when, for example, a person signs a formal letter as the Secretary of a nonexistent landowners association, because it is true that believing you are something is not the same as being that something. But in a world where that letter may effectively establish a landowners association, or where having such a letter may open doors and garner respect in the village, the act of mimesis is not really mimetic. Someone is performing a productive act.
This doesn’t make everything transparent, but it means the opacity of people’s behavior is different. Tonight an old Hagen friend rang up to offer me his son. He asked if any of my kids were living with me at present, did I want to take in his son for company? In fact I know he wants me to look after the kid as he’s struggling now, living in the settlement. But he also, very sincerely, wants to do me a favour. He wants me to have company, to have a son in the house, and to thereby feel indebted to him and perform favours in return. It is at once self-serving and very gracious. Quintessentially Hagen. Unfortunately I have kids with me and no room for another, and had to thank him for the thought but decline, even though, as I hung up, I also knew he might want just want to ask me for the kid’s school fee. If so, he'll probably show up at my door with garden veggies.
This afternoon another old highlands friend, the ex-wife of a prominent businessman in Madang, came by for a chat. Like so many conversations in PNG, it revolved around her expenses, and the kids she puts through school, the hard work she’s putting in, and so forth. Its whinging but not really whinging, just prelude to asking for a loan. In fact she was very efficient, knowing that I could read her motive up front. We chatted and shared complaints, and I saw the question coming and even prodded her toward it. In this way, we had a genuine catch-up, and I didn’t resent her for a minute (despite the fact that she attempted flattery by saying I'd put on so much weight!), even though years ago I would have flinched thinking ‘another person hitting up the white missus.’ This was someone Ive known for years, who will probably pay it back, in favours if not in kina, and who knows I will be here for her again and again if necessary, just as she will be for me. In fact, I had completely forgotten that she once came with a big plate of Chinese food on my birthday. When she said, ‘You’re doing so well now, I knew I could ask you,’ it meant something entirely different from what an American friend would mean in the same circumstances.
Last year, for example, I pissed off one of my US relatives, a wealthy woman, younger than me but much more accomplished, who has always been good to me---given me refuge in her home, for example, time and time again. On a sensitive family issue, regarding the inheritance of a piece of property, I rudely told her she should not be in the debate because she’s only married into the family. In turn, she lashed out and called me selfish in many different and ungodly ways, not the least of which being my egregious sense of ‘entitlement.’ I was dumbstruck—partly because I knew this was the correct posture to assume (when in doubt, look innocent—it works in PNG), and partly because it had been years since I’d been in a shouting match with a relative (something absolutely not done where in PNG--the business hard throwing hard words like squash balls is too dangerous here--people have harangues, lobbing small land mines that may explode in private tirades later, but never ever do they stand up and hurl personalized insults expecting to get as good as they give--unless they're prepared to get violent; so in a sense, this tongue lashing was an unexpected call to arms for me, an invitation to go at it with me, when all I could do was stand and absorb it). I recognized that the anonymity of business life, of the competitive game of showing face, and testing mettle, allows for this kind of argument , even trains people for it, and builds a kind of public life's thick skin that then, miraculously, sloughs off when you deal with friends and family, because the same corporate women who perform pointed tirades are also always very testy and prickly about their own selves. There were echoes in this tirade of other friends of mine, 'successful' women, who have grown used to being snitty, sharp, affronting---and collosally self-protective. They have been socialized in an entirely different way than my friends who are, say, artists or housewives or teachers. Wewalth and power gives them enormous, disproportionate permission, you might say. Years ago, when I worked in film and TV I understood the difference between ‘talent’ and ‘crew’ as that between people with overweening narcissism and everyone else. This is similar, I think. But it's also very highlands. Beneath the so called level field of competitive materialism, there are strong lines drawn between the rights of the rich and those of everyone else.
But my point is, I also saw something else in the argument: I had never thanked this relative for everything she had done for me. Maybe I’d pecked her cheek and said thanks as I left for the airport, but I’d never made it known how much I appreciated her kindness to me. Her screaming at me sounded a lot like my screaming at myself and my kids when I'm acting the unloved martyr. I do this artfully by now, though, because Ive heard the same pitch from so many wounded expatriates who believe they’ve given blood to people who haven’t the good graces to acknowledge it. In the belief that Im more reflective than that I tend to complain about people being rude on PNG terms--for not reciprocating, for being inept, and so forth. But I suppose my point really is, how rude-- how unjust to me! how Ive been cheated! At this point the whole body of writing about cargoism in PNG comes crashing down, and I sound exactly like the earliest interpretors of European behavior who felt criminally short-changed in the cross-cultural transaction.
But what also occurred to me in the middle of being chewed out was how Papua New Guinean I’d become, how much like my kids, my friends and associates here. When someone has more, we expect more from them. People are constantly hitting me up for money, and its only fair: I may not make a lot of money, but its enough to be generous. And because this is how the system redistributes wealth, there’s very little need for people to say thanks, or go out of their way to pay back a loan. When they have money or food, they’ll be giving it to me. Tourists and expats always comment on the incredible largesse of villagers here, who are happy to give more than they can really afford. But villagers are working on a long-term model, where everyone they give to, by custom, will be there to return the favour. Tourists are anomalous and always receive disproportionate generosity, largely because no one knows how to ratchet the system for short-term associations. When people come to live off me for weeks, when they eat my food and also ask for cash, they're not really grubbing--no more than I am in the village. Besides, they're fully aware that I'll be living off them sometime in the future. It's a transaction of goodwill that stands somewhere between karma and quid-pro-quo. By now, my reaction is also typical, I'm sort of flattered people think me a 'big woman' enough to take care of them. Yes, thank you for living off me...But when the times comes for planting me in a hole somewhere, I know my US family will be choked, and some will cry, but a larger crowd of Papua New Guineans will be keening and wailing over the coffin, claiming secret affiliations, looking like jackals at a corpse, but they will also be the ones who bring food, buai and grog and sit for days under the verandah.