Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Wantok.  It's an island word that means, quite literally, 'one talk'.  In a nation where languages differ from island to island, wantok is the word used to describe someone from your place.  Someone who speaks your language.  Someone who shares 'one talk' with you.

A wantok is obligated to give food and shelter when you show up at their door.  If your wantok is driving the city bus, everyone else might have to pay, but you won't.  If a wantok has a need, you fill it.  You might not be related, but you're family.

Here in the States, we just celebrated Independence Day.  Of all the words in the English language, I think that one describes us best:  Independent.  Our national mantra is, "No thanks, I can do it myself."  We live sometimes hundreds of miles away from family, don't know our neighbor's names, and build high walls around our properties to ensure our privacy.  We go from living in isolated homes, to driving in insulated cars.  And then when we get out of the cars, we flip open the cell phones so we won't have to look at or talk to anyone.  Independent.

I recently got a friend request from a Luaniua islander on Facebook.  As I sat drinking my morning cup of coffee, his status update popped up on my newsfeed:  'Goodnight all'.  Smiling at the irony of being online simultaneously with someone half way around the world, I posted, 'Polaoi.  It's morning here in America.'  Polaoi means 'goodnight' in Luaniua language.

This comment by me provoked an ensuing conversation as people wrote in, curious as to why an American was commenting on his status.  In reply, he simply explained, 'She's a wantok.'  

That word arrested me.  The unquestioning, immediate, enveloping acceptance brought tears to my eyes.  I had forgotten what it was to belong not only to a nuclear family, but to an entire community.  To live in a place with no walls, where every cook fire is open to you at meal time, to always be surrounded by protecting and watchful eyes.

And I miss it.


  1. Oh, you almost made me cry! I miss some of the same things about my time in Ukraine - the way that, if you showed up at someone's door, and they were obviously in the middle of some big project or laundry day or whatever and totally not expecting company, they still thought nothing of dropping whatever they were doing and dragging you in forcibly to sit down for tea and conversation. And here we are, acting like it's an inconvenience when someone stops us for a second in the middle of an errand. Because, you know, being next in line at McD's is so much more important than finding out how a friend is doing.

  2. Community is something I crave, even though I haven't had much of it. I try to encourage our family's dependence on one another. They sleep together and share everything. They go places together and are expected to include each other. I also keep my babies dependent on me as long as I can, despite the cultural push for independence at a young age. I remember my Indian co-worker telling me about all the difference in raising young children when she raised her children there and being ready to get up and move there myself. It does take a village.