Native Ex-Pat: Grandpa’s Girl and the Dictionary (Revisited)

At the tender age of twenty-eight, I looked at my bank statement and realized that I had enough money for a plane ticket to the Republic of Palau. So I bought one. And I showed up on a seemingly mythical island in the Northern Pacific, the islands from which my parents arrived when Disco was king.

The idea of visiting my ancestral homeland was both exciting and daunting. I had been dreaming of “The Motherland” for all of my life, but had never experienced her majesty and splendor in real life. The stories I’d heard from Palauan-American kids often featuring horrific tales of strange foods and even stranger tongues.

“And then, they brought out this bowl of soup with a WHOLE BAT in it!” recounted one relative, “And I had to keep calling my mom because I didn’t know how to tell these people that bat isn’t a food. It’s hardly even a pet.”

As my departure date grew closer, my nerves began to fray like a poorly cut rope. On one hand, I was desperate to explore my roots. Twenty-eight years of being a queer woman of color in the Pacific Northwest had essentially made me an anomaly in even my own ethnic community. And I wanted, perhaps needed, to see if life was better being in the majority.

On the other, I was scared to death of remaining that anomaly. The mantra-like question of “What if I still can’t find a place to belong?” drowned out all my other thoughts, like too much reverb. Despite my lofty goals of finding myself through my roots, I was on the verge of canceling my trip.

But that’s when I remembered that my parents had, to the chagrin of many Palauans in the 1980s, given me the upper hand. Not only did I grow up with an intense love for Palauan foods (still not eating bat soup though), I grew up speaking my native tongue at home. Albeit, I speak it with a heavier American accent as an adult — but I do *know* the Palauan language.

“Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine and become successful in a labor market that is increasingly competitive and globalized.”

-Luis Fortuno

My maternal grandfather was a talented writer and orator. Palauan words flowed from him the same way I pretend English words flow from me. As far as the Palauan language is concerned, Salvador “ Bador” Ongrung was my hero. I never had the good fortune to meet him in person, but he was the reason I loyally purchased international calling cards throughout my high school years.

My grandfather inspired in me — via handwritten letters and telephone calls — a strong fascination with the Palauan language. I want to mold and manipulate Palauan words into humorous narratives and thought-provoking essays. But first, I need to improve my vocabulary and grammar skills. And with that, I took on the endeavor of reading the Palauan-English Dictionary.

Proverbs are an awesome way to learn language and also to learn about a culture. You can learn a lot about a culture just by looking at the common subjects and meanings of their proverbs. Take the word MELEMDEM, meaning “to level, equalize…calm.” The sample sentence is a proverb I heard as a kid: “A UNGIL MERREDER A UA CHULL EL MELEMDEM ER A DAOB.” This sentence translates to: a good leader is like rain that calms the ocean.

Based on this proverb, we can infer two pretty important things about the Palauan culture: (1) it’s a strong sea-faring culture and (2) diplomacy in leadership is a culturally-valued trait. The proverb implies that a leader should be a person who can calm down disputes and settle problems.

“Our native language is like a second skin, so much a part of us we resist the idea that it is constantly changing, constantly being renewed.”

-Casey Miller

So here I am, the Native Ex-Pat who went home, then came back… And, clearly, I’m a nerd.

I’m the kind of girl who’d rather spend her minimal free time with her nose in a book. I still don’t own a television and don’t plan on owning one in the foreseeable future.

Seriously though — I read the dictionary for fun.

It didn’t do wonders for my social life in Palau, but it’s definitely a good attribute to have in the pursuit of linguistic excellence and literary artistry. It opened up doors to knowledge that, within my age group, is quickly dissipating from our collective cultural memory.

All the while, it brought me a little bit closer to my much-missed Grandpa Bador.

“Once a language is lost, humanity loses a part of our rich heritage.”

-Robert Alan Silverstein

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