Micronesia Country Information

The Federated States of Micronesia, or the FSM, is made up of an archipelago of 607 islands, also known as the Caroline Islands. The FSM extends 1,800 miles east to west between the Marshall Islands and the Philippines and is divided into four island states. They are, from west to east: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. Each of these states is named after one larger island. Yap, Chuuk, and Pohnpei also include a variety of outlying atolls, thin ribbons of low land around lagoons, some hundreds of miles from the main island, known collectively as “the outer islands.” Pohnpei is the seat of government of this loosely bound federation of island states, which actually vary greatly in language and culture. WorldTeach volunteers are placed on the main islands of Pohnpei, Kosrae and Chuuk.

Mainland Pohnpei is the largest island in the FSM at 129 square miles. Kosrae is somewhat smaller at 42 square miles. Both are “high islands;” the towering, long-inactive volcanoes that make up these islands are now covered with lush vegetation fed by some of the highest rainfalls on earth. Rainfalls are lower near the coast, where virtually the entire population of these islands lives. Pohnpei’s coastline is fringed with mangroves leading out into a lagoon surrounded by a protective reef. Kosrae is ringed by sand and coral beaches, as well as some mangroves, and a diverse coral reef. Chuuk's main island of Weno is encased by mangroves, but the small picnic islands dotting the lagoon offer sandy beaches in nearly untouched tropical paradise.

Most people earn their living from subsistence agriculture and fishing, from running small businesses such as food stores, and from government jobs (including school teachers). Fishing rights to the vast ocean area of FSM bring in $20 million annually (in licenses sold to foreign tuna fishing companies), which is about 30% of the country’s domestic income. Tourism is a budding industry, with spectacular scuba diving throughout the FSM. Truk Lagoon in Chuuk attracts scuba enthusiasts each year, with the number of WWII wrecks in the crystal clear lagoon.

The Compact of Free Association with the US gives the FSM government and citizens special rights, such as military protection, freedom to live and work in the United States, roughly $92 million a year in “direct assistance”, and tens of millions in government grants. In exchange, the United States retains, among other things, the right to use the islands as military bases should the need arise. The Compact was first entered into in 1986 and was renewed in 2004. The FSM gained independence in 1986; from the end of World War II to that time it was administered by the United States under a mandated United Nations Trusteeship, as were the Marshall Islands and Palau. Between World Wars the region was under Japanese domination, and before that the Germans and Spanish governed it.

Pohnpeian, Kosraean, and Chuukese are the native languages, respectively, of Pohnpei and Kosrae. English is the official language of government and business in the FSM. Elementary school, grades 1 – 8, is compulsory, and all education is nominally in English from 3rd grade onwards, though students' English ability varies greatly. Admittance to public high school is by examination. About one-third of students who take the examination pass and are able to attend the public high schools, which is where most WorldTeach volunteers teach. The high school curriculum is very similar to that of the United States.

Unique Challenges for Micronesia Volunteers

Pohnpei, Chuuk and Kosrae are small islands and gossip is commonplace. Rumors, whether true or not, may spread within the local community. These might have no factual base whatsoever, and could be based upon a volunteer that served 3 years prior that you have never met. Locals may compare you to these people, and your actions will be under a microscope because you’re an outsider. It will take time for you to make a name for yourself in the local community (this can be either positive or negative), and be known as a different person than any of the volunteers that came before you. Micronesians are very friendly, yet shy. It can be a challenge to bridge that divide and feel as though you’re making deep, meaningful relationships. It takes a lot of initiative on behalf of the volunteer to build these relationships, and is often done through community involvement outside of school.

Rumors can flourish among the expatriate crowd on island as well. They may know you’re name before you’re even on-island. Some expats are long-term and others only for months at a time, but gossip is part of the entertainment of a small community where everyone knows everyone else. The ever-present coconut wireless is a part of island life.

“Island time” exists in abundance in Micronesia. Local time is very different than western time, meaning almost everything starts late. School meetings, assemblies and at times, class. You may show up for an assembly and wait for two hours, or get to school in the morning to find out class has been cancelled for a funeral. The notion of time, along with several other traditional island customs, are things you will see battling the increasingly western influence across all islands of the Pacific. Curiosity to learn why things are the way they are is always better than making assumptions based on your own culture. Patience and flexibility are key otherwise you may find yourself frustrated all year.

The family dynamic is different in Micronesia, along with the socially acceptable roles for men and women within the community. Domestic violence and alcoholism are common. You may see both displayed in some of your students, and will certainly hear about it from others. Females, you may be stared at as you walk down the street. It is more appropriate for women to spend time with women, and men to spend time in the company of other men. Outside of the school setting, it is inappropriate for you to spend too much time with a local of the opposite sex. It will be assumed you are dating, and this can cause a great deal of trouble because volunteers often to do not know the labyrinth of family connections/history on island.

Dress is very conservative in Micronesia. Thighs, or the shadows of thighs, are viewed as an erotic part of the female anatomy and need to be covered. Women wear skirts and dresses, and the length needs to reach the knee. Shoulders also need to be covered, meaning spaghetti straps are not allowed. Thicker strap tank tops are only appropriate when at home. Female volunteers will collect local skirts and muumuu’s, and wearing these often shows your interest in getting to know the island culture. Locals respond well when volunteers choose to embrace the island style of clothing. For men this means Hawaiian shirts. Swimsuits are not worn, so the standard of dress for men and women are knee-length board shorts and a t shirt.

The islands are also very remote. You cannot simply get off the island for a weekend breather by taking a trip somewhere else. The United flight only comes at set times each week, and flights to any other islands in the FSM, RMI or Guam are very expensive. In most of our programs, volunteers can travel to the capital city or another destination during extended school breaks. This is not possible in Micronesia. Hiking to a different part of the island, or camping on a picnic island within the lagoon are considered common Microensian weekend breathers.

Web Resources for Micronesia

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