Every few years, my home island of Guam enters the national consciousness. Mainlanders see headlines that North Korea is pointing its missiles at this island in the Pacific, then wonder:
What is Guam? And … where is it?
I realize I’m not being fair to those of you who do know what and where Guam is. But the reality is, I’ve spent more than a decade fielding questions from mainlanders who genuinely were not familiar with the concept of Guam. I was born in Korea but raised on Guam. I grew up there until I turned 18 and went to college in the mainland United States. I go back home to Guam every year or so.
I started Guamsplaining in the ninth grade. I attended a summer program in California with kids from all over the country — part of my parents’ plan to mitigate the culture shock I might experience in college. I was hanging out with other kids in the common area one night, and they wanted to know about Guam.
“Are you related to the chief of Guam? You must be, if you flew all the way out here.”
“Why aren’t you wearing your coconut bra and grass skirt?”
“How do you get to school? By boat? What’s it like living in a grass hut?”
I’m actually the chief’s daughter, I told them, and technically, you’re supposed to bow when you see me. But it’s okay, you didn’t know. I bought shirts and pants at the airport during a layover. I do row a boat to school, and living in a hut isn’t that bad — but it sucks when it rains!
Then I realized they were taking me seriously.
This was one of the most absurd episodes, and of course, we were just teens. But the questions I’ve been asked throughout college and in my professional life weren’t too far off in ridiculousness.
Over the years, people have asked me the same basic questions about Guam so many times that the answers flow out of my mouth on their own, in the same rote inflection. I’m happy to oblige, since I’m often the first person from Guam that person ever met.
So if the news this week has gotten your mind drifting toward the western Pacific, here are answers to real questions people have asked me over the years.
Question: Really, where is Guam? And what’s it like?
Answer: Guam is the largest island in the Mariana Islands and has been a United States territory for more than 100 years. By plane, it takes about three hours to travel there from Japan, and about eight hours from Hawaii. Guam’s motto is “Where America’s Day Begins,” because it literally is, as the westernmost American land.
We’re a tropical island located about 13 degrees above the equator. You can see your toes in the ocean water, and our sunsets are like neon light shows in the sky. No matter where you are on the island, you can get to a beach within a 15-minute drive. They say Mount Lamlam, the highest peak on Guam, is the tallest mountain in the world if you measure from the bottom of the sea level, because Guam sits above the Marianas Trench.
Q: Isn’t everyone there with the military? You must be a military kid.
A: I’m not. Guam is so much more than a U.S. military base. It’s a diverse island with an eclectic culture. It’s a hub for immigrants from East Asia and the Philippines, and a true melting pot of families like mine who moved to Guam because we wanted to live in America.
Q: How are you so good at English?
A: Again, Guam is an American territory. Since President Harry S. Truman signed the 1950 Organic Act of Guam, people born in Guam have automatically been U.S. citizens. The native language and people are called Chamorro, but English is commonly spoken. We have a U.S. education system, and yes, we use the dollar.
Q: What do you call people from Guam? Let me guess: Guamans? Guamese? Guamish? Guamafricans? Guamidians? Guamers? Guamma Mamas? (I’ve gotten each of these at least once.)
A: Guamanians. Personally, I like Guamma Mama.
Chamorros, the natives, are believed to be descendants of early settlers in the Marianas, who arrived as early as 4,000 years ago. So even though you may have heard of Guam in the context of the Spanish conquest in the 17th century, Japanese occupation during World War II, as a U.S. territory or a favorite rhetorical target of North Korea, the Chamorro people have had a rich history of their own. (For more, check out Guampedia, an encyclopedia of the history of Guam and the Marianas islands, and the Chamorro heritage.)
A: Guam’s cuisine reflects our mixed history — Chamorro dishes, some with Spanish and Japanese influences, combined with some island-favorite Korean, Filipino and Chinese dishes. The common dishes are red rice, barbecue ribs, tinaktak, kadun pika, kelaguen, eskabeche, pancit, japchae, potato salad, poke, lumpia, adobo and of course, the military-menu staple, Spam.
We love to socialize over food, and barbecue parties (fiestas) embody our island spirit. Family, friends, neighbors and strangers are all invited to a fiesta, which may be held in someone’s yard, on the beach or at a church. Local Chamorro musicians play on ukuleles and guitars (here’s an example), guests dance to cha-cha music and you always leave home with a plate of leftovers (“balutan,” in Chamorro) packed personally by the host.
Q: I once met someone from Guam! I’m not sure if you’ll know them, but …
A: I might. What’s their last name? What village are they from? What high school did they go to? Our population is about 160,000, and there aren’t many degrees of separation among those of us who now live stateside. I can usually find someone I know through Guam connections wherever I go, whether it’s San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, Phoenix or Washington, D.C. It reflects the connectedness of our community.
Q: Aren’t you worried about this North Korea stuff?
A: It’s become routine for North Korea to threaten Guam during heightened U.S.-North Korea tensions. Through many cycles of escalation and de-escalation, Guamanians now question when to take escalation seriously — since every previous threat turned out to be empty. Still, with my family in Korea and Guam, I can’t help feeling anxious. The alternative to an empty threat is unthinkable.
But we can’t live in fear, and we don’t. Guamanians have prevailed through our history of colonization, and we have rebuilt after the countless supertyphoons that have ripped through our island. We’re wary and ready, but our proximity to North Korea does not define our island or our community.
Q: Wait, I’ve heard of Guam before. Isn’t it going to capsize?