An Anthropologist in New York 

November 23, 2023

In the late twentieth and early twenty first century Polynesian anthropologists travelled to Europe and the United States and wrote vivid accounts of their encounters with strange cultures and practices. Real work of great academic merit was done only in the late 1990s when Dr. Suma Odombe’s personal diaries and ethnographic riddles were discovered after his death. All of Dr. Odombe’s work has deep roots in traditional linguistic research. While exploring social evolution, he was keen to lay the foundations for cross-cultural communication, but felt that ethnic differences would not allow behavioral co-relations to be actively recorded. ‘I noticed there’, he wrote in his seminal work The West is but the East with better Roads, ‘over the course of many years a quaint culture with outmoded forms of family rituals. Many adult couples engaged in fertility rites producing children that added to the burden of a nuclear unit. Personal traits and conflicts there provide clear evidence of deviations from the norm, and shed light on the deep-rooted cults and rituals developed in isolation’. Since his Ph.d thesis the main focus remained the American east coast. The 12 treatises on the ‘Sexual Life of the Long Islanders” now recognized as a classic study, were found amongst his personal papers in the University of New Guinea Department of Anthropology where he taught Cultural Ethics for 65 years. After his death in 2012, he continued to teach for another seven years, even though his lectures were low key and subdued. 

It is not known whether these intimate private diaries, kept in long hand during his extensive fieldwork on Long Island were intended for publication. However his second widow proceeded to publish some of the translations and perpetuate a growing debate on the lack of anthropological conscience amongst 20th century ethnic portrayals in academia. First on view were the savages of an area referred to by ethnographers as the Eastern seaboard – a coastline more densely populated than even the Waloonga Atol.

Fieldwork: Week 37, New York and Environs – Observation 17

I found strange customs amongst Wall Street accountants in a distant place called New York in eastern North America. Here, newly married couples were actually ashamed of their relatives and used all manner of elaborate social rituals to avoid their company. In certain tribal communities the mother-in-law will cook a special meal for her son-in-law but forget to invite him, or do so only once the meal is over. This is presumably to establish an expected pattern of social distancing. In Olongan practices this would generate friction between the older members of the Olongo tribe (Eastern New Caledonia – Diloma, 1979) who are carnivorous and frequently consume the mother-in-law in the course of the marriage ceremony itself, often in small fried portions. As a long-settled society we Olongons are extremely superstitious in such matters. That is why only Polynesian spices can be used for cooking the mother-in-law. The recipe from the ancient ethnic text called ‘101 Easy Dishes of Polynesia’, now available as an e-book, maintains that slow hot oil cooking is preferable to microwave, because it ‘preserves the juices and the bile’ especially if the meat is leathery and old. 

In small tribal communities on an insulated far-flung island called Long Island, I encountered curious rituals which even forbade the new bridegroom to have regular intercourse with his mother-in-law, an awkward denial of the menstrual order of family routine, which to me felt like an archaic trans-cultural misnomer guided by anthrogenic beliefs (Warren, 1843) .Staying with a ‘family’ in a place called Great Neck, considered by many to be an upscale neighbourhood, I couldn’t understand what was upscale about it. Most houses were large and set away in their own compounds, where ‘families’ used noisy machines on weekends to stop the grass from outgrowing their neighbour’s. In Bata Bora, when people become rich, they abandon their homes, lawns and all, and move in with each other. What surprised me was the complete lack of social interaction amongst members of the same family. In the three weeks that I spent there, not once did I see the father having sex with his own daughter; although, it was obvious to me that both had reached puberty and seemed attracted to each other. It appeared that an unwritten law of sexual prohibition applied to intercourse between members of the same family. This is clearly a substitution of the Embrion Complex where a father sees himself as his own future son-in-law. Primitive societies clearly process meaning through a lack of verbal communication as a substitute for metacultural discourse (Grim, 1963). But the truth is, the observer also misreads many contradictions of behavior in alien, especially Transatlantic cultures (Colonga, 2012)

The actual significance of such avoidances between relatives I found difficult to gauge. Was it merely a protective measure against accidental childbirth? The real reasons could be many possible social taboos and inhibitions or even violent emotions like ancestral love and pre-natal tenderness. As in Olongan ritual 203/A, when a boy desires a girl from another tribe, he must indicate his intentions to the girl by having sex with her mother in a nearby forest grown specifically for such purpose. Sexuality’s basis is the first delicate detour that allows the forging of a healthy human relationship with all but the chosen one. Primitive civilizations like Long Island suffer from the hierarchal homogeneity of antiquated folk beliefs (de Santis, 2003). 

This was especially so amongst many women who even covered up their breasts in a special garment they called ‘bra’, a curious article made of cotton with two cup-like features that clasped the breasts and kept them hidden from view, even from the neighbour. Such practices were doubtless saturated with outmoded secular beliefs, and left me wondering if they grew out of primordial impulses or were a carry-over as an antidote of community barbeque rituals where animal meat is exposed, cooked and consumed out in the open, in direct contravention of socio-cultural ancestral formulations (Ella, 1964) . 

One of the formal devices a culture uses for decodification is to influence vested power structures in a bid to socially invest in each other (Jones, 1922) and thereby define select “zones of contestation”. I took several rides on a ‘Number 7 commuter train’ and found to my surprise that no man could be seen suckling or fondling the breasts of women sitting within easy reach. Obviously human purpose and motivation doesn’t always rely on established cultural mores (Basham, 2003) but demands a misappropriated subcutaneous inquiry. The reason for such anti-social behaviour was unclear to me and I could only conclude that in local tribal custom they thought human touch could provoke the wrath of the Skin God. In New Caledonia certainly wives keep their breasts hidden from their husbands, but only for reasons of territorial integrity and salivary contamination (Cannara, 1958). However in the company of male strangers or village postal staff they are always left exposed. I sat next to a woman with straight yellow hair and while she worked vigorously on a small movie screen which she carried with her, I reached deep into her bra and massaged her large breasts between Great Neck and Little Neck stations. The action was a critical and a much desired cultural exchange that helped establish a bi-lingual trust between two diverse civilizations. Most people around keeping their faces hidden behind newspapers.

Fieldwork: Week 43. Long Island/Beauty – Observation 4/C

What did disturb however me was the misunderstood aspect of beauty in Western culture. Unlike the Bata Bora tribal cult, where the skull of newborn females is placed in a bamboo press to reduce the size of the forehead, I found local women on Long Island had heads as large as their male counterparts. This aspect of human beauty – or lack thereof – astounded me. I could only think back to my own exceptionally beautiful wives who have virtually no forehead, and their eyebrows form the hairline of their heads. I could not see how the residual imperfection of the human body and face should be constrained by such obvious limitations. (Note: Must refer this to Journal of Racial Taxonomy). The absence of a forehead in a woman was so crucial a quality of beauty that I found myself undervaluing my hostess because this important anthropological aspect seemed to be missing.

Obviously, there are no precise available transnational definitions of specific cultures, only idiosyncrasies – what I term (Olonga, 1999) prescriptive patterns, explicit and implicit, within and without symbolic value, of and for actions taken, intended and or expressed (Koehler 1953). What then of post-pubescent genetalia, what Doegan’s 1971 paper on Sexuality among Settlers in the New World refers to as ‘private parts’, revealed or restrained. In advanced tribal societies like the Canugas in eastern Samoa, mutilation of the genitals is a common practice to stop incest between husband and wife. At breakfast, I brought up the subject with my Jewish hostess Margaret, and was horrified to learn that all family members had their genitalia intact. ‘Many males on Long Island still retain their testicles even after reaching puberty,’ Margaret explained. This, I assumed, was based on social prehistoric assumptions which place no customary intersexual restrictions on the tribe, allowing complete freedom to engage in incest within families, even encouraging intercourse between the patriarchal male and his matriarchal spouse. A perplexing thought. Although, it may be easy to explain this deviation in linguistic rather than post-pubic terms, the motivation for these practices reveals a far greater ontological complexity, and may have its origin in another deviant domestic ritual – the separation of food consumption from its natural bodily expulsion.  In some Long Island houses I found not just two entirely separate arenas for the functions, but also separate timings at which to perform them, each with its own mysterious view of privacy. Aberrant behavior in new cultures often goes unnoticed, because self-conscious markers of normalcy are missing (Crasta, 1993).  In Bata Bora we eat and defecate at the same time and frequently conduct a conversation about local politics or who is likely to succeed in the upcoming elections for chief and deputy chief. Eating an elaborate soufflé and immediately expelling it from the body can be done in a single sequence. I tried explaining to Margret that it hardly seemed sensible to create complex rituals and secluded private quarters for tasks that took up so much time in the day, and then came up again a few hours later. It left me wondering why certain tribal groups always tend to enlarge on trivial autoerotic experience.

Fieldwork: Week 43. Social/Manhattan Island, Observation 12d

Many of the women I met during my stay on Long Island belonged to a wide variety of diverse tribal groups. Some had possibly been captured in battle from another local clan or were a byproduct of a recent migration from a nearby rural area called ‘Greenwich Village’. One evening in a bar on the southern tip of another island called Manhattan, I noticed many men accosting woman of a different gender than their own, and using beverages laced with some de-inhibitors, clearly a form of cultural betrothal as a lure to a sexual encounter. To me it suggested the presence of idiosyncratic traits absorbed from surrounding tribes, or a collective will ruled by an excess of social motivations (Harrison, 2007). Where Polynesian culture is highly individualistic and promotes a distinct private identity, Americans do not have equal access to public forums to voice their concerns, so tend to ‘congregate’ in offices, bars, even family homes. Such boundaries I found were critical in a society that was in effect insular and relied on group-based activity for social survival. What surprised me was the fact that many of those who went off with one another had no inkling of the other’s ethnic tribal links or hereditary background. In my home, the penalty of intercourse with a known person is usually death, after which there is a long social rehab process before you get accepted back into society.

Fieldwork: Week 27/Culture/Observation 8c

(Note: Must spend a day or two on critical ethnocentric approaches) While in New York, I was always searching for situations that described a sense of ‘the other’ within and without the influence of the significant other, till I was privy to a long engaging social encounter with two couples who were invited by my host to dinner one evening. A cursory examination of their evidentiary taxonomy and paleo-racial ancestry confirmed them as ‘white Caucasoid’ also from the Eastern Seaboard region. Throughout the evening I was looking for signs of ethnic intolerance bred as it were through biological inheritance, and any expression of purity of the genetic structure of one group contested against another. Oddly, their discomfort with their shared Caucasian background became apparent only by the gradual process of constructing meaning through continuous social communication. In a society that distrusted authority, the host was constantly offending his guests with threats and traditional insults. They sang, talked, drank wine, told jokes, ate and laughed to the point where it became clear they were really mismatched, and were trying hard to repress racial hostilities and prejudices based on common cognitive and psychological experience. As friends they had gotten so good at it, they were entirely unaware of the ‘xenophobic’ context of their social encounter – what I have often label as ‘unicultural intolerance’ and ‘geotonic self-interest’ (Olonga, 1993). As an odd corollary I found many of them belonged to institutions that gave them individual freedom to think and do what they liked. 

On a portico extending into the garden, an animal sacrifice was in progress. A sacred cow’s rear flank was rotating on a slow flame. And it left me wondering how different societies practiced sacrifice in the field of religious and cultural experience. Where for instance were the other parts of the animal, I wondered aloud to my host. And was hastily and I dare say, a bit surreptitiously informed that they were being grilled by others in a social ritual called barbeque, possibly not far, in a neighbourhood much like theirs. It left me gasping and disoriented and in a difficult private conundrum that a cow would be so brutally and cruelly used for human pleasure and be casually roasted in parts all over town. At home such savage cruelty was strictly forbidden and only the invited guests are allowed to provide a succulent and healthy child for the evening meal. 

After a long hot summer, Dr Odombe returned to his native Bata Bora, carrying with him not only the existential baggage of a strange new culture, but also a new Jewish wife, Margaret Odombe, his Long Island hostess, who he married at the Kennedy Airport lounge on his last day in New York. The two lived several happy years in the bamboo family home on Tora Bora’s swanky beachfront where a century earlier Gauguin had made his home. Then, one special day, the day of the marriage of Dr Odombe’s youngest daughter, Margaret was specially spiced and lathered with oil for the occasion, cooked at high heat, and served in small portions to the wedding guests. The touching love story is still available to the public in Annals of Polynesian Anthropology, vol. 13.

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