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Culture of respect still alive in Guam

An ancient people perpetuate customs.

TUMON, Guam - It is Chamorro custom to kiss the hands of elders. This has been true for as long as they pulled parrot fish from the sea with hand-thrown nets, for as long as they farmed the earth, for as long as they built oceangoing canoes.

Over 4,000 years, the gesture has reduced to the younger lowering their heads and lifting up the elders' hands, but the custom persists because the Chamorro, the original people of Guam, do not discard the past - the knowing of who they are, of what they are.

I saw Chamorro knowing and pride during a week there, where I was with my darling Half-Pint, who is Chamorro. As usual, I withhold details because the Internet allows people with souls as hard as walnuts to cause trouble.

Guam is 4,000 miles west of Hawaii, across the International Date Line. It is in the East, where cultures are different from Europe, which has "advanced" away from some sound traditions that had sustained it for centuries.

Guam retains a culture respecting age and wisdom. In the rest of the U.S., "old" and "grandpa" or "grandma" are epithets. The young do not grasp that someday, if they are lucky, they will pass 50 and realize they know more than they did at 25.

Some of our young embrace every new idea as a Messiah, except that most of them have sworn off religion. They haven't lived long enough to learn that not all change is progress.

Half-Pint hadn't been home in three years because the flight is long (17 hours) and expensive. She keeps in touch by phone, email and Skype, but nothing beats having your feet on home ground and a plumeria in your hair. (Hers, not mine.) We stayed at a beachfront luxury hotel overlooking Tumon's curved, clear, shallow bay.

With her family, I got the Royal Tour - from the north, where Andersen Air Force Base owns the crown of the island, to the south of "villages," stunning ocean views, a ferocious native drink called tuba and a monument to those captured, wounded or killed during the Japanese occupation of 1941-44.

At the small War in the Pacific Museum, Half-Pint was stunned to see her grandfather's heroics in fighting the Japanese commemorated. She knew that he had fought bravely, and hopelessly, with other Chamorro against the invaders, but she had no idea that he was pictured in the museum.

Because the island is small - 30 miles by 8 miles - and has so few people - roughly 180,000 - Half-Pint was always running into close and distant relatives and friends.

We were there for Easter, and after Mass the immediate family gathered at Mother's for lunch - beef, shrimp, potato salad, corn soup. Then, at 5 p.m., the extended family assembled on Barrigada Heights, which had been the family homestead, the house still standing but not occupied.

On the lawn, some of the cousins grilled steaks, others did barbecue (very big on Guam). Under a tent, the women served red rice (a Guam favorite), crab legs, mussels, pickled mango, papaya, corn on the cob, cookies, cake and pie. Plenty of bottled water and bottled beer.

The adults arranged an Easter-egg hunt for the kids, with nearly all the brightly colored (plastic) eggs in plain sight. The kids got a kick out of it.

This gathering has been going on for generations, and the youngest - preschoolers - were directed by parents to kiss all the adults on the cheek as a sign of respect. Chamorro custom.

When the barbecue fires died down, and night surrounded us on the hillside, out came a guitar for a sing-along - for some of the family, anyway. With more than 50 people there, a certain amount of clumping takes place, some kin closer with some than others.

The point is, they were there. And they will be there next year. It is about family, it is about respect. It is the Chamorro way.

Phone: 215-854-5977

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