Peter Rudiak-Gould is twenty one years old, fresh from teacher's college, when he decides to be a volunteer English teacher for a year on Ujae. Ujae is part of the Marshall Islands - a very tiny part - 1/3 of a square mile to be exact. And the school - officially one of the worst in the Pacific.
"...an idea that there was a place so far from everything, so tiny and little known, where men still fished with spears and women still healed with jungle medicine. It was a place unknown and therefore, maybe, perfect...I wanted Ujae to be my far-off paradise."
When Peter steps foot on the atoll, his dream collides with reality. He is not greeted with a welcoming committee as he had imagined. As he settles in for his first night with his host family - "I considered my situation. I was already lonely to the point of physical pain. I had been ignored and welcomed, avoided and stared at, indulged and deprived. All I had learned was that I knew nothing."
I think I really enjoyed this book because of Rudiak-Gould's complete honesty in writing it. Having exposed his naivete in the first two chapters he goes on to candidly document both his observations, feelings and emotions for the remainder of his year. (Yes he lasts the entire year!)
Marshallese society is much different than the North American version Peter grew up with. Children are pretty much on their own from age 4 on. Schooling is not given great importance - this is quite frustrating to Peter. Interaction between child and parent is limited. Indeed, Peter is the only adult who plays with the children. Elders are revered. Peter is being treated well by the Ujae people, but because it differs from his North American expectations, it takes him a bit to figure out the social nuances of social interaction.
"Living in another country had finally made me realize how much I was a product of my own country."
He perseveres and participates in fishing expeditions, festivals, makes friends and learns to speak and write the Marshallese language. (He has since written a Marshallese language textbook)
As for the subtitle? Ujae atoll is in danger of being swamped by the raising ocean levels. Indeed global warming is a threat to much of the Marshall Islands. Rudiak-Gould is currently working on his doctoral thesis, studying indigenous reactions to the threat of climate change.
Surviving Paradise is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, educational, but above all eye opening. I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir!