We wanted to talk about the feel and the look of Guam because it’s such an interesting mix of cultures and ideas. We had no idea going there what it would be like. The Koreans we had talked to didn’t like it and said it was “too American” which we thought was laughable because it is American.
Growing up so close to Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, and Navajo Reservations – we can say that Guam felt a lot like that. Except on an island.
A really cool thing is that people still speak the Chamorro language, it’s taught in schools. We saw an elderly man talking to a young shopkeeper in the language so it’s not dying out and not just taught for show. It’s also on all the history signs (along with Japanese, more on that later)
The most common thing is Hafa Adai (sounds like “haffa day”) which just means hello but everyone greets you like this in all the stores, gas stations … everywhere. It’s a big deal – written on all the tourist attractions/souvenirs. Basically everything has Hafa Adai written on something shaped like a Latte stone. Which is awesome.
There are loads of cultural villages and like Hawaii there are cultural dances and songs for tourist entertainment.
The poverty comes partially from the run-down-reservation feel of it, but also because it’s an island. If you are down on your luck, you can’t just move to a new place to get a job without flying somewhere. To make things worse everything is expensive because it’s imported.
Guam has a very high rate of food stamps, partially because of the island import prices on food but partially because of joblessness.
There’s also a lack of care about stuff that reminds us of the res but also down-to-earth-island-feel. People drive around with cars that are rusted through or the windshield is completely smashed in. People fish where they aren’t allowed because it’s their only source of income, people destroy the reef to make money with fish. Many of the homes are pretty run down.
Of course it’s not all like this- here is what the average residential neighborhood looked like
The worst thing was the trash. They have a massive dumping problem. We drove off the beaten path and found the most amazing dumping grounds, hundreds of old TVs and even some new broken plasma screens, laptops, coffee makers, a refrigerator, a car door, a bag full of children’s toys…
The final bad part was all the feral dogs. I’m sure this is a mix of poverty/res and also island. Pets get out or are abandoned and reproduce so there’s quite a population of feral dogs. There’s obviously not a trap-neuter-release program going on with them.
Asian Feel and Catering to Asians
Another interesting thing about Guam is that there really are no western tourists (besides Russians from Vladivostock). Everyone who is western (i.e. not Asian) are probably in the military, so everyone assumed we were a military family and were very surprised when we said we were tourists. “Why?” was actually asked a few times. Why fly from the USA over Hawaii to visit this little 30-mile-long-island?
Of the 1.1 million people visit Guam a year, 71% are Japanese, 14% are Korean, 4% are from Taiwan. American tourists supposedly make up around 3% of this but we imagine they’re counting military families more than just normal tourists. The rest of the numbers go into small percentages of Philippines, China, Russia and others.
Guam is like an Asian-America. All the signs are in Japanese as well as English. The hotel rooms cater to Asian tourists with slippers and baths. There’s more ramen than you can shake a (chop)stick at. And of course with Asian tourists comes the pushy-ness, photography/selfie addictive attitudes (take a picture of me at the Applebees, take a picture of me with this gallon of grape juice, take a picture of me standing on and destroying this coral reef).
It was super interesting to be surrounded by Koreans and Japanese (and some Chinese) but be in America. All the stores had an explanation of the money system – our coins are pretty confusing to people because the dime is worth more than the penny and yet it’s smaller. Most places do it by size. It was also funny to see how they act as tourists – not good. The pot calls the kettle black that we need to understand Korea’s unique culture. There was a lot of expectations that Guam needs adapt everything for them.
Also some places only catered to Asian tourists – there were plenty of rental car companies that only worked with Koreans or only Japanese and an ecotourism place called Fruit World that didn’t even do English tours unless you called ahead. Who knew?
Go to the grocery store and you’ll find American food (poptarts, Ranch dressing, Koolaid, Reeces and Rootbeer and some Tums to get that all down). But you’re also going to find chips, ramen, drinks, and sauces imported from Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Every store we went to had kimchi in the refrigerator and a few restaurants had it as a default side dish.
Guam is very obviously an island. It runs on island time where people are late more often than not, and theres a “why worry” attitude about things.
You can also feel it when you go grocery shopping. We didn’t have any milk for the 2 weeks we were there because it’s extremely expensive to get fresh. Chips and everything else were expensive – a bag of Funyuns were about $6. Last I checked they weren’t that much in the US. You could add about a dollar to the price of nearly everything just because of the cost of importing it.
A cool thing is that islands are all about Spam, and Guam is no exception.
There were more flavors than we could imagine or had ever heard of- in this picture there’s Hot and Spicy, Portuguese Sausage, Turkey, Jalapeno, Tocino, Chorizo, Teriyaki, Black Pepper, Lite, 30% less sodium, with bacon, and normal. That’s 12 different kinds of spam.
Something islands always seem to have are wild chickens everywhere as well as wild boar.
Bu they also have a native water buffalo (see muddy print above) called a carabao. We saw a couple and followed one guys tracks on a hike. The boar are probably not to be reckoned with but the carabao are friendly docile guys who just want to munch on grass. The chickens, of course, don’t care about anything.
The last thing that makes it islandy is that the water is not exactly drinkable. At least according to the locals. It tastes like chlorine but we couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone if it’s downright bad to drink or just tastes bad. Either way we bought water or got it filtered from the hotels. This was a bummer because Korea’s water isn’t drinkable either so we had been looking forward to drinking from the tap like good ol’ America. Interestingly enough there isn’t enough water- the US talked about adding soldiers from Japan to Guam but Guam wouldn’t have the water facilities to handle more people.
Actually while we were there a bunch of wells tested for Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid – something that makes fabrics, packaging and cookware resistant to water, it’s also used for fighting fires. They had to shut down a few wells across the island, and it was a pretty big deal.
Guam is all around American.
There’s deer hunting, hummers, corvettes, off roading, American money, American brands, and all kinds of American foods and all those famous fast food restaurants. People are friendly and say hello, people hold open doors, people say excuse me rather than pushing you out of the way. This was amazing after 2 solid years in Korea.
You also don’t walk anywhere. Not because of safety but because it’s your American right, dammit, to drive. People were shocked when we told them we had walked anywhere. People declared it “impossible” to walk from the airport to Applebees (we did it anyway at 1.8 miles uphill with a wheely bag, it’s not that hard).
We had to rent a car because the public transportation, in typical American fashion, is lousy. But a car! What a treat to drive again! We ended up renting 2 cars. The first week we rented a lovely Nissan Versa. We had to give it up and figured we would play on the beach for the weekend. But it was too hard to live without a car. And like we said, its our god given right as an American to drive. So we rented a car again. This time it was a crappy 2014 Nissan Versa Note – which is a hatchback style. It didn’t have ANYTHING, no power locks (lock each individual door by hand), no power windows… their wasn’t even a light, so if it was nighttime you couldn’t see what gear you were in. And if you pulled down the shade things there weren’t any mirrors. Its interesting to us because we had both figured that they had stopped manufacturing cars with manual window cranks about fifteen years ago, but they’re still going strong.
Of course the most wonderful thing was the lack of communication barrier. To just talk to anyone about anything was fantastic.
We couldn’t really get a straight answer/feel. Do Guamanians identify as being American? Yes. Are they American? Yes in passport and citizenship. Many also identify, of course, as Chamorro. There are different opinions regarding mainland interference and the military bases. As we said some people think they should have the right to vote in American elections. Interestingly enough some people we met from the Philippines also said they should be allowed to vote.
Others would be happy with just more representation in congress. I don’t think they really want to be a state, I don’t think they would like the long arm of the US government interfering with marriage laws, gun laws or anything else like that just because of the nature of the place.
They actually join the military (American, obviously) at a higher rate than any US state. Guam is #1 in men enlisting for the armed forces. 14.5 out of every 10,000 Guamanians will join the military. In perspective Montana is #2 on that list with 8 people out of 10,000 joining.
A couple times we saw bumper stickers about how America needs to pay rent for the military bases to the tune of 1.4 billion a year for the use. Another person was talking about the military enlistment and deaths in the Iraq war saying he had felt pressured to join the military because of some “Guam-owes-the-US-for-the-liberation” mind set. I don’t think this is a common feeling but we didn’t talk to too many people about this.
As we stated earlier the military bases cover 30% island which made it a little difficult to travel and meant some famous sights were completely off-limits. We’ve been told this can be good because it’s helping preserve some species that are being over hunted by the whole poverty thing.
Guam’s American side in a few pictures:
A Kmart and Little Casesars- I didn’t even know Kmart was still in business
A “Mac and Cheetos” from Burger King. What is more American than mac and cheese breaded with Cheetos dust and deep fried? Nothing. Nothing is more American than that.
American root beer and pop-tarts but also Asian tea and spam musubi, (A block of rice with Spam on top held together with seaweed) also some local hot sauce. And of course American-style-Asian ramen.
Ranch dressing and fresh veggies!!!
Gas prices at $3.50. Do these compare currently to the mainland?
We got to be red blooded Ameircans for 2 weeks -speak English, drive a car, use our American money/debt cards, eat ranch dressing, sip root beer, use Drive-thrus, and do it all with cheap gas.
The mixed up side of poverty/island/Asia is really evident in tipping. The service charge is included at restaurants because the Asian tourists don’t know they should tip. So it’s included. BUT it’s only 10% which is lower than the recommended 15% (more like 20%) so we still had to tip. Or still felt obligated to even though the Asian tourists weren’t. Messy.
My all time favorite thing about the mix of all America and Asia is that (and I’m sorry we don’t have any pictures of this) Japanese shooting ranges. Not like that. Shooting ranges for Japanese tourists.
The advertisements are all in Japanese, the service is mainly only for Japanese tourists to experience guns and gun culture. Because it’s America! Some are wild west themed with cowboys, others go for a Hollywood/American action movie theme. It’s hard to say exactly what was offered. It looked as though the amount you paid depended on which gun, or how many different guns, you wanted to test. $45 seemed to be the base price.
We went to Lonestar Steakhouse (steaks, cowboy art, leather gun holsters on the walls, country music playing, etc) and were the only white people in the whole restaurant. And at a hamburger/hotdog restaurant and we got freaking kimchi on the side!
All in all, we felt a tad out of place, we were tourists, but not Asians, and we were Americans but not military. But it still felt like home, and we were completely comfortable there.
So last time we told you about what Guam is, and now you know what it feels like to be in Guam. Next time we will finally write about what we did while we where there.