Book Review and Author Interview: Surviving Paradise

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I've got such a fantastic book to share with you today! Penned by Peter Rudiak-Gold (a doctoral student in Anthropology at Oxford University), Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island was published this fall by Union Square Press, and is one of my VERY favorite booksSurviving Paradise was National Geographic Traveler's Book of the Month for November 2009.


Filled with astute insight into the challenges of living in a different culture, Peter shares his intercultural journey and truly takes the reader along with him. This is no small feat for a memoir! Peter lived on Ujae, one of the Marshall Islands (often viewed as paradise, especially by those who live in colder climes) for a year, volunteering with WorldTeach. 


There were limits to cultural integration. Living abroad was an
opportunity to test-drive foreign values, but it was also a time to
notice my own values - and occasionally, horror of horros, reaffirm
them. I could have embraced the local belief that pain is a legitimate
tool of control, and it would have been a cross-cultural success. BUt
it would also, in my opinion, have been an ethical failure, and ethics
trumped cultural integration any day of the week. The Westerner at home
is encouraged to heed his conscience; abroad he is expected to silence
it. I stubbornly stuck to the first route. Ethnocentrism or courageous
conviction - it was always hard to tell the difference.


Filled with challenges both large and small (language, customs, food, an entirely different attitude toward education), Peter writes compellingly with both humor and self-awareness. He's a master of noticing cultural differences - and living through the difficult times and coming out at the other end more aware than ever. If you could see my copy of Surviving Paradise, you'd be surprised that I am *only* going to share three incredible quotes with you. Peter's writing is filled with intercultural insight, so much more so than I have ever seen. He's a true cultural anthropologist, writing of both himself and the culture he's immersed within - and the changes that each effects on the other.


Culture shock was something other than what I had been led to believe. The typical memoir of cross-cultural disorientation presented it as a case of the sniffles, a mild ailment that any mildly open-minded traveler could overcome with a dash of humility and humor. A single chapter might present the difficulties; this was followed by a tidy epiphany of cultural relativism or the moral superiority of this authentic lifestyle over the soulless degeneracy of the West, and everything afterward was a cozy celebration of cultural integration... So culture shock, for me, wasn’t a sharp sting: it was a dull ache, a basso continuo of frustration and confusion.  I never overcame it.  But one thing did fall into place, perhaps in April.  I realized – to my surprise – that their way of life made sense.  So much that had once seemed accidental now revealed itself to be deliberate.


SEE? I started reading this book with intrigue - and ended up reading it twice, back-to-back. I just didn't want to put the book down! It took over my life, as great books do. My background in cultural anthropology (before international education took over) had given me just a taste of the joys of truly exploring, in detail, another culture. Peter Rudiak-Gould has taken the fields of memoir, travel writing, and cultural anthropology and truly created a new standard for cultural exploration.  BRAVO, Peter!


The greatest insights that I had gained were into my own culture;
the only true realization was that, as inscrutable as they were to me,
I was just as strange, if not stranger, to them. Discarding my
binoculars in favor of a mirror, it occurred to me that my own culture
was just as brilliant, exasperating, delightful, and paradoxical as
theirs. I had achieved the beginning of understanding, if not
acceptance, and now I was scheduled to leave with a month. 



Ujae, Throwing a Fishing Net, Peter Rudiak-Gould

Throwing a Fishing Net



We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Peter (who's also our Wandering Anthropologist Editor) about his book, the Marshall Islands, intercultural adjustment, and more. Here's what he had to say...

WE: Please tell us about your new book, Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island.

PRG: It’s a memoir about the year I spent as a volunteer English teacher on a remote village in the Pacific nation called the Marshall Islands. You could call it a travelogue, too, but I didn’t move around much: I was confined for most of the time on an island named Ujae that you could walk around in 45 minutes, or across in about five minutes. It’s a cathartic account of the joys and frustrations of teaching, and of living as the only foreigner in a very foreign culture. It’s a portrait of a country of 1,225 islands and just 70 square miles of land, where atomic bombs were dropped and sea level rise looms, and where daily life is a combination of paradise and survival.



WE: What led you to write this book? Did you write while you were on the Marshall Islands, or mostly when you got back?

PRG: While I was still living in the country, I actually had no idea that I would write the book. I knew I wanted to write a book about something, but I didn’t appreciate that the experience I was having at that very moment might be book-worthy. Probably that’s because, by that point, all the strange and interesting things about that world had come to seem commonplace. Most of my communication with the “outside” world during that year was actually with other Marshall Islands teaching volunteers (via the somewhat quaint method of handwritten letters). So it started to seem like ordinary, humdrum existence—the kind of thing everyone is bored of hearing about—to live as a cultural castaway on a tiny, flat coral island. It was probably for the same reason that I neglected to take photos of the most intriguing local things; I had forgotten that giant coconut crabs or spearfishermen could be considered exotic.

For all these reasons, I didn’t start writing until I returned to the U.S. If you’ll forgive me a slightly pretentious reference, Rainer Maria Rilke said “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity”. As I started to record my experiences, I reminded myself: don’t write this for publication – write it because you need to tell this story, to your future self if no one else. (That said, when I found out that there was a chance of getting it published, I didn’t exactly resist.) One reason I felt I needed to write the book was that there were certain ideas I had been given about cultural exchange, about teaching, and about tropical paradise that just didn’t work at all for me. I didn’t have the experience I was supposed to have; it was something different, worse, better.

Another reason to write the book was that the Republic of the Marshall Islands is an unsung place. The few accessible books about the country focus mostly on the history of nuclear testing. This is an important story to tell, but there is so much more to this nation, too – nuclear testing forever changed the country, but it did not wholly define it.



Ujae, Sailing Canoe at Dusk, Peter Rudiak-Gould

Sailing Canoe at Dusk



WE: What sort of impact do you feel this year-long teaching program has on the people of the Marshall Islands?

PRG: I was part of a volunteer organization called WorldTeach. I’ve heard some criticisms of the efficacy of organizations like these. The critics speak of young, inexperienced teachers entering the country unversed in the language and culture, blundering around in the classroom, and then finishing their teaching assignment before they really get the hang of the job. There is some truth to this. But there are two important things missed in this assessment. First is the enthusiasm that volunteer teachers bring. That counts for as much as experience. Second is that the point of teaching abroad isn’t just the teaching but also the abroad – it’s intended as a cultural exchange, in which the teaching is, in a way, just a job for you to do while you immerse yourself in local life. (A little-mentioned fact is that two of the three mission statements of the Peace Corps say nothing at all about helping underprivileged people. They say “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and “Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”.)

So I would say that the biggest impact of my year wasn’t the teaching itself, but the exchange between me and the local people. I was an exotic, amusingly inept guest who was always entertaining to watch. I was a source of information about the United States and the world in general. (Not that people there are totally isolated and unfamiliar with the rest of the world—they’re incredibly good at picking up information through various channels—but there were still a million things people were dying to ask me.) And my interest in the place, I hope, made the islanders feel just a tiny bit prouder of their homeland and their culture.

At the same time, I don’t mean to sideline the educational aspect. There was an impact there too. By the end of the year, the children spoke noticeably better English than before. Not that this was any great feat on my part: the school I taught at was one of the worst in the country, and the starting point of my students was abysmal, even after the good work of the previous volunteer. I am rather proud, though, that two of my students passed the high school entrance exam, something that hadn’t happened on this island for five years.



WE:  Will Ujae be a part of your life in the future, or are you moving on?

PRG: I did return once to Ujae after my first teaching stint. It was three years later, and I returned for five weeks of research. But that might well be the last time I see the place. When I was back in the Marshall Islands last summer, I wouldn’t have minded a week or two on Ujae, but spending only that much time there had become a tricky proposition: the unreliable plane service meant that I couldn’t be at all certain that I wouldn’t be stranded for several months. (Granted, the first time I was there I stranded myself for longer than that, but there are only so many times you are willing to do that to yourself.)

Ujae will always be part of my life, although I may never set foot on it again. The Marshall Islands experience has defined my life; everything before it now seems to be leading up to it, and everything since it has been its aftermath. These days, my job is to write a thesis about the Marshall Islands. And my main “extracurricular” has been Surviving Paradise, also about the Marshall Islands. It’s my literary and/or academic muse, I suppose. It’s like an old flame you may never see again but keep thinking about.



Ujae, Basketball, Peter Rudiak-Gould




WE: You write so compellingly about your intercultural adjustment. Do you have any advice for people embarking on a long-term immersion experience?

PRG: There are manuals galore on this topic, but I would like to add one thing that they sometimes miss: you are not required to enjoy everything there. You are required to be polite and respectful, but that’s not the same as enjoying everything. We have convinced ourselves of a funny thing with regard to culture, a little bit like the old “to understand all is to forgive all”, except now it’s “to understand all is to enjoy all”. I’ll quote something by Nigel Barley (who is, by the way, a man after my mind, not only because he penned the best travel book I’ve come across, The Innocent Anthropologist, but also because he lived out my dream to be both a travel writer and an academic anthropologist.) He said, in his book Ceremony: “enjoyment is often used as an approximate yardstick of understanding. The idea is that if an anthropologist does not like anything he encounters among an alien people, this is ethnocentrism....This curious fact has led to a bizarre slanting of ethnographic monographs, wherein the fieldworker is depicted as wallowing in unmitigated delight in the things he experiences.” So, I say: do your best to understand and enjoy as much as possible. But you will not understand everything, and you will not enjoy everything. And you will not enjoy everything you understand.

On a related note, you don’t have to be a masochist. The meaningfulness of your experience doesn’t have anything to do with how many privations you endure. Again quoting Barley: “There is a tradition in anthropology that the amount of physical suffering of the researcher is a measure of the value of his data. Like many other presuppositions, it is tenacious in the face of good negative evidence.” But if, like me, you just felt a primal urge to go the ends of the earth, you won’t regret that either.



WE: What are you doing now? What's up for you in the future?

PRG: I’m a doctoral student in anthropology, living in England, writing a thesis on how Marshall Islanders react to the threat of climate change, which may force every single one of them to leave their country in a few decades or generations. I study not just how people react to actual physical manifestations of global warming, but how they react to the idea (which scientists have communicated to them) that their country is doomed. I’ve done a little bit of research on the Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, and their views of climate change, but I’m still mainly focused on the Marshall Islands. My two trips to that country after teaching there were both for research.

I’d like to be a professor of anthropology as well as a writer for a wider audience. The line between the two can get rather blurry, and I want it to. If you’ll let me dream for a moment, what I really aspire to be is a public intellectual, a term which bridges the academic and non-academic worlds.



WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

PRG: Well, I’ve always been fascinated with Marshallese given names. I included some in my book, but here are more that I came across in my latest trip to the Marshall Islands: Lister, Mersly, Scyler, Bethlynn, Hemlynn, Boardlyn, Ruthlynn, Tiplynn, Margetline, Giffleen, Odaniel, Ferlando, Helty, Jelentina, Rocky, Rilly, Julinda, Jeltina, Luminda, Rolenta, Joreeny, Sitburnd.

WE: Thanks so very much, Peter. For more information, please see:


All photos courtesy and copyright Peter Rudiak-Gould


Note: We received a review copy of Surviving Paradise from Union Square Press.