It was a typical hectic morning at A.B. Won Pat International Airport in Guam. The majority of travelers were from Asia and were cueing up to the security checkpoint with bags full of luxury gifts and splurges. Their skin was burnt lobster pink by the tropical sun and there was sleep in their eyes.
A few of the travelers that day were young Chamorros leaving Guam for the first time but for good. As one young man said his goodbyes, there were tears and tight embraces, but there was something more. Amid the gaggle of international tourists, a single Chamorro family encircled the young man, holding hands, and singing a well-known Chamorro song, “O Saina.” At first their song was quiet, but the volume and emotion rose as the family raised their arms heavenward in a blessing for their beloved son, brother, nephew, and cousin. There wasn’t a dry eye nearby. Even passersby were visibly moved by the send-off.
This single event perhaps crystalizes the Chamorro experience on Guam for a young person — a tight-knit circle of family nurturing and protecting, always aware that “getting off the rock” is a dream for many young Chamorros. Fewer and fewer seem content not to at least try a new life in the mainland U.S. considering how easy immigration seems.
Other Chamorros marry a mainlander and choose to raise a family near their in-laws. And some join the military and are stationed in the States. Whatever the reason for leaving, most Chamorros who migrate from Guam admit there are serious challenges. With the shifting politics and fragmented race relations in the U.S., Chamorros have to walk a tightrope to make their way successful.
Life in the Fast Lane
Not everyone from Guam has exhilarating vacations in the States. And some vacations to mainland U.S.A. turn out to be a one-way trip. After arriving, some find traffic and high speeds to be natural, while others are shocked at the difference.
Speeding up to 60 mph on the curve near the post office in Barrigada or screeching to a stop at the bottom of the hill at Harmon Industrial, are hardly comparable to the high-speed, breakneck driving of the Mainland. Harmless moves on the road are more stressful at high speeds. Of course, getting stuck in traffic on Guam is as frustrating as in any other place, but in the mainland, traffic jams can stretch for miles rather than just blocks.
There is no such thing as “island time” when it comes to school, work, and social engagements, especially in big cities like Seattle, San Diego, Sacramento, and New York where Chamorros migrate. Being late has far more consequences in the mainland than in Guam, and employers, teachers, and friends will be less forgiving. A “no show” is very bad form at the workplace or for a job interview in a place where who you know is far less important than what you know.
Travel and punctuality are comparatively trivial things that Chamorros in the mainland U.S.A. have to deal with after moving. Coping with homesickness can be the worst of all challenges for Chamorros living outside Guam.
Island life is pretty isolated. Being tightly bound to family and having intimate connections across the island and then removing those relationships may give a migrant a serious case of homesickness.
Sharmayne Monique Perez Long is a Guam native now living in Sacramento, CA.
She has a long list of things from home she misses.
“I miss my family and getting together with them at our grandma’s house or our family beach, the year-round warm weather, living island style, dancing for Famagu’on Guahan, legit fiestas, the summer carnival, mango trees, Chamorro Village, and learning the Chamorro language in school.”
Homesickness has a way of challenging some Guamanians over time. Others find the secret is visiting and making home a part of life again.
Gordon Lau, 58, of Bremerton, WA says, “I had the privilege to fly for the Air National Guard and was able to visit many times during my career, so even if I wasn’t living in Guam any longer, I was able to see and enjoy my home for short periods of time.”
Lau is originally from Yigo and moved to Indiana in 1976. “It was difficult knowing I would never come back to Guam to live,” he says.
Perez Long has been living stateside since 2001 when she was a teenager and describes the challenges.
“Some of the difficulties of moving to the mainland were the culture, the food, and the environment,” says Perez Long.
“Adjusting to the culture was difficult because I was used to being around the nationalities that are predominantly on Guam,” she says. “Adjusting to not only a new place, but new people with different perspectives, customs, and interests was a lot to grasp. The plus side was that people found me interesting because they’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about Guam. So it was and is still a great topic of conversation when I meet people.”
The large scale of everything is not to be ignored. Parents migrating their family to live in a city or even a superb should remember that the size and availability of so many new things and places can be overwhelming.
Chamorro restaurants have popped up on the West Coast, but they’re still rare. This leaves islanders missing uniquely Guam goodies.
Perez Long recalls, “I wasn’t used to eating pizza (with ranch) or chicken strips and French fries for lunch at school. I was used to buying from the canteen that would park at my school in Guam and getting a lunch plate that had red rice, finadene, chicken kelaguen, and spare ribs. We definitely need a Chamorro food truck in Sacramento!”
Likely a Chamorro food truck would be welcome in many cities across the mainland because of the popularity of BBQ. There are several Chamorro groups in the U.S. that specialize in keeping the home fires burning, literally keeping the meat cooking over an open flame.
Perez Long says she misses more Chamorro foods and restaurants than she can name.
“Shirley’s fried rice, McDonald’s breakfast (spam and Portuguese sausage), the Chode store, what we called the “blue box” in Dededo which was a neighborhood stand that sold goodies (like pickled papaya, pickled mango, “sweet and sour,” etc.), are just a few of the things I miss from Guam,” she says.
Can’t find a Chamorro restaurant near you in the mainland? Link up with a local Chamorro group such as the North Carolina Chamorro Association or the Chamorro Association of Central Texas. Guam BBQ will never lose its flavor as long as faithful Guamanians keep putting the char on the beef, pork, and chicken.
Don’t Let Racism Get You Down
It won’t help anyone to leave out this most unfortunate topic. It’s better to be forewarned and forearmed. Guam residents living in the U.S. may have the same experience that Perez Long relates.
“On my first day of school, my first class was geography and my teacher mentioned that I was from Guam, so she asked me to show the class where Guam was on the map. Guam is obviously really tiny on a map and at the age of 11 or 12, not many kids know where or what Guam is. After I had shown the class where Guam was on the map, a classmate came up to me and asked, ‘Do you know what a VCR is? Did you live in a hut? Do they wear normal clothes in Guam?’ I was offended at first but later realized that it was a great opportunity to teach her about my culture and where I come from. We ended up becoming friends.”
Hopefully, for most migrating to the open spaces and large cities of continental U.S.A., there will be welcoming arms of family or other open-minded and progressive Americans. Better to be prepared for the opportunity to “teach” others about Guam than to be offended by comments from the misinformed. Share Guam with everyone and make the ignorant person more island-smart if possible.
Never Say Never
Considering a move back to Guam after meany years on the mainland, Perez Long describes her feelings.
“I’m torn!” she says. “There’s definitely pros and cons to both. I’d say the mainland because of the opportunities and experiences I’ve had and have yet to take on. I’d say Guam because there’s no place like home, I miss it a ton, and I definitely get in my moments where I contemplate giving up everything I have, to go back and live the simple island life.”
If there is anything that is sure, It’s that things will change. Sometimes thing change for the better.
“To be honest, I haven’t kept up with the education on Guam, but if my husband and I were able to find good jobs and my son would get a quality education, I would consider moving back.”
Says Lau, “I prefer the mainland, but Guam will always be home.”