Marriage and Family
Because any display of affection between members of the opposite sex is considered inappropriate, meeting at night (locally called Kabbok driturin, or “nightcrawling”) is the typical method of courtship. A boy approaches a girl's house at night, crawling and throwing pebbles to get her attention. After courtship, the next step is to koba, equivalent to living together in a common-law marriage. A couple makes a commitment to each other, starts living together, and might start raising children. Many people later formalize their relationship and marry in a church.
The family is the basis of personal and hierarchical relations and land ownership. Generally many relatives live together as an extended family. Informal adoption is common, and children are often cared for by members of their extended family, especially grandparents. This arrangement is very flexible and can extend beyond blood relations. Because older people are greatly respected, they are also taken care of. The society is matrilineal (land is passed down through women), yet men often act as representatives and wield a great deal of day-to-day power. Women are responsible for child rearing and cooking. They also work outside the home, contributing to copra production, food gathering, and traditional weaving.
Agricultural products in the Marshall Islands include coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, limes, taro, pumpkins, and papayas. Fish, chicken, and pork are also part of the Marshallese diet, especially during kemem (feasts). Imported foods include rice, flour, sugar, coffee, tea, and canned meats. They compose an increasingly greater proportion of the diet. There are few customs regarding which foods are appropriate at which times. However, dinner, which usually includes fish, is the main meal of the day. Kwanjin, breadfruit baked on coals and scraped, is popular. So are jaajmi (raw fish) and taituuj (fried banana pancakes). Cooking on outer islands is often done over open fires or in ground ovens.
Most Marshallese foods are eaten with the fingers. If food is presented but a visitor is not hungry, custom dictates eating a small amount to show appreciation to the host. The more guests eat, the greater their appreciation. A host is disappointed or confused when a guest refuses an offer of food, because hosts enjoy the opportunity to be hospitable. It is better for guests to wrap up offered food and take it with them than to give it back. A common expression, Kan dikdik kan in iokwe (“Little food with lots of love”), reflects the importance of sharing food even when there is not enough left for the family. When there is an abundance of food, many meals or small snacks may be eaten in a day. Young children are usually fed first. If a family catches a big fish and cooks it, they are expected to share it with neighbors and members of the extended family. They might, therefore, take a plate of tuna to a friend or relative, who would return it laden with bananas or another food a couple of days later.
Iokwe is the all-purpose greeting appropriate in almost any situation. Like Aloha in Hawaiian, it has many meanings based on inflection. It might mean “hello,” “good-bye,” “love,” or “like,” and in certain situations it can be an expression of frustration or remorse. While shaking hands is not widespread, when people do shake hands they might continue shaking for a prolonged period, even for an entire conversation. Another common greeting is Itok im mona (“Come and eat”). It is used both literally and as a general greeting. It is typical for people, particularly on outer islands, to invite passersby in for conversation and a drink of ni (coconut water), jakaro (coconut sap), coffee, or whatever is on hand. When people address one another, names are not usually used. Instead, a more general reference such as motta (“friend”) might follow Iokwe.
Visiting is an important aspect of Marshallese society. If people do not visit or accept visitors, others may wonder if something is wrong. Taking a short stroll or a longer boat trip to visit and chat with friends or family plays a major role in Marshallese life. The practice is referred to as jambo, and individuals and families jambo at all hours on any given day. Hosts offer guests refreshments ranging from natural fruits or fish to imported rice, canned meats, and drinks.
Visitors are seated on jaki (mats) woven from pandanus leaves. New jaki are used as sleeping mats, while old ones are used to sit on. It is customary to remove one's sandals before sitting down. Men sit cross-legged and women tuck their legs to the side. Out of modesty, women are particularly careful to cover their thighs. Many people also lie down (babu) to converse, propping their heads on a large stone, coconut, or window sill. Visitors and hosts often sit without speaking, simply enjoying each other's presence.
Socializing is the main recreational activity. Sports, including volleyball, basketball, baseball, swimming, and canoe racing, are popular. Most schools and towns host local field days, and the Marshall Islands send a team to the Micronesian Olympics. Storytelling is also enjoyed.