Pacific Intimacies

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Having taken 50 nights to cross the Pacific Ocean, I’ve learned a strong respect for its immensity and recognise the cultures surrounding and engulfed by its waves. There is a refreshingly diverse series of practices that characterise differing degrees of intimacy and interaction.

When it comes to meeting and greeting, bowing for the Japanese is interpreted as an important part of the process and a sign of respect. The act of bowing (ojigi) varies from a slight bow of about 15 degrees (eshaku) or a full bow of about 45 degrees (keirei) to a very low, worshipful type of bow that involves the nose nearly touching the hands (saikeirei). When one meets someone extremely important, one might even consider pekopeko, which translates as bowing one’s head repeatedly in a fawning or grovelling manner.

Gifting is another opportunity for individual customs. The Kiriwina of the Trobriand Islands had an elaborate gift exchange system called the kula. The islanders set off round the islands in large, ocean-going canoes and traded red shell necklaces (veigun) in a clockwise direction, and white shell bracelets (mwali) in an anti-clockwise direction. The round trip is several hundred miles.

More dramatic generosity was known in Canada. To demonstrate their wealth, the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island chose to destroy it. Their chiefs publicly burnt food, blankets, canoes and ornaments in the ceremony of potlatch, a word that means ‘giving’. A potlatch might be held for various reasons, varying from group to group and including puberty rights and death commemorations. It involved a great feast at which the host lavishly distributed valuable property to all the assembled guests. The hitch was that the guests had to reciprocate at some future date with interest of up to 100 per cent.

Within Fijian families I had the personal privilege of understanding among some villagers the custom they observe of vasu that gives a son certain powers over his mother’s native place. He may take anything he covets from the houses, tear down the fruit trees, and behave generally in such a way that if he were a stranger he would be clubbed to death.

As for friendship, Tahitians constitute a formal friendship between people not related by ancestors, which involves the sharing of everything, even sex partners. This ‘taio’ relationship can be male-to-male, female-to-female or male-to-female.

As for romantic intentions, in New Guinea there exists a bukumatala. It translates as a ‘young people’s house’, where adolescents go to stay on reaching puberty. The main aim is to keep brothers and sisters away from the possibility of incestuous sexual contact. And so close relatives will never stay in the same house. The boys return to the parental home for food and may help with the household work. Meanwhile the girls eat, work and occasionally sleep at home, but will generally spend the night with their adolescent sweethearts in one bukumatala or another.

When lovers do get together in Japan for Valentine’s Day it is celebrated on two different dates: 14 February, known as White Day, is the date when girls are allowed to express their love to boys by presenting chocolate; while 14 March is the day when the male has to return the gift he received. The chocolates given in this way are interpreted as sincere and are known as honmei choko, which translates as “true feeling chocolates.” However, women are also obliged to give chocolates to all the men in their lives, meaning large numbers of co-workers, bosses, etc. These are known as “obligatory chocolates”, giri-choko. Less generous spirited than some perhaps!

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