Daily Archives: 11 October 2008

Wordcatcher Tales: Susokman

From Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea, by Michael French Smith (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 164-165:

In the mid-1990s, Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington interviewed dozens of Wewak’s more affluent Papua New Guinean residents, including “lawyers, doctors, nurses, bankers, clergy, teachers, managers, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, army personnel [and] civil servants,” both male and female. They also mingled with them at Rotary Club events, the Yacht Club, and the Wewak Resort and Country Club where these business and professional people went to socialize and network….

[I]n order to take part in the life of the urban elite, Papua New Guineans generally have to weaken their ties to their village kin. In villagers’ eyes, attending the university, working for the government, or habitually wearing shoes and socks should not dissolve the bonds of kinship. But the wearers of shoes and socks (the susokman, as they are called in Tok Pisin) find that it is difficult to live up to village definitions of their kinship obligations and simultaneously provide for the basics of urban life—housing, food, business clothing—and take part in urban elite social life, including the professional networking that goes on in restaurants, in clubs, and on the golf course. Gewertz and Errington argue that villagers tend to define success as meeting a wide variety of kinship obligations; but for the urban elite, success means providing an affluent life for one’s immediate family, and that usually means putting strict limits on generosity to more distant kin.

Village kin may see this as lack of generosity, but they are judging by the moral ideals of village society. In terms of those ideals, material wealth is for creating and maintaining social bonds, and wealth gained at the expense of social ties is tainted. But what looks like antisocial greed to the village is necessity and prudence to the urban elite. If they fall on hard times because they have given unstintingly to their village kin, their urban peers will not praise their generosity; they will criticize their moral weakness. To join the elite, then, Papua New Guineans have had to work hard; but they have also needed good luck, and they have had to enter a different world of morality.

When I arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1976 to start linguistic fieldwork, the first thing I did was to throw away the worn-out tennis shoes I had traveled in. All during my student years in Hawai‘i during the 1970s, I rarely wore any footwear but Japanese zori (rubber slippers). When Hawai‘i Loa College required caps and gowns when I graduated in 1973, I went barefoot beneath my gown.

The second whimsical thing I did in PNG, on the taxi ride in from the airport to Port Moresby, was to stop by Koki Market to buy betel nut. (I got some for the taxi driver, too.) It was my first chance to use the Tok Pisin I had studied in grad school to prepare for fieldwork.

I arrived from Australia during Easter holidays and had trouble reaching my contact at UPNG, so I spent the first night at a downtown hotel, where I discovered that the dining room required shoes and socks. That was a new way to distinguish the elites from the hoi polloi in the newly independent nation, since discrimination on the basis of race was now prohibited. That evening I decided to order supper to my room.

Betel chewing was also prohibited inside the hotel, so before dinner I took the makings of several betel quids—areca nuts, betel pepper catkins, and slake-lime powder—outside onto the near-empty holiday streets. A young Papua New Guinea man soon came up to chat and I offered him a chew. It was my second chance to practice Tok Pisin in country, but it ended soon after I figured out what my new acquaintance meant when he asked me, “Masta, yu laik takim kok o nogat?” His native language must have been one in which [t] and [s] are allophones of a single phoneme, which sounds like [s] in front of /i/ (as in Kiribati) but sounds like [t] elsewhere. When I belatedly deciphered his accent and understood his intent, I laughed it off with “Ah, nogat ya!” and turned my unshod feet back toward the haven of the shod and socked.

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