Rules and Regulations of Yap (part I)

In case anyone was wondering, I have not abandoned this newbie of a website. Instead, I have been busy delving into my life here on Yap. The following is a list of social rules that I have discerned thus far on the Island of Stone Money. I have either been told them expressly during orientation, caught them in passing, or heard about them from stories over a drink at the bar. These laws are often relics of a traditional culture which appears to have been focused on avoiding conflict and keeping peace amongst the different castes on the small island of Wa’ab. Thus many of the rules focus on humility and respect for other people and their property. Whilst the rules have logical origins, some struggle to fit in with the modern age… but not for a lack of trying. I would be remised if I did not say: these 'rules' are based off of Yap Island, not Yap State, as customs on the outer islands may vary.

I should also note that as a tourist to the Island these rules will seldom apply to you, as for most transgressions people will just look away (privacy of the eyes). However, the Yapese are immensely appreciative when you offer the respect of trying to follow their traditions. A little respect goes a LONG way on this island.


Let’s start with some basics you may have heard of before:

Women cannot show their thighs. It seems like thighs would be too sexually tempting for them to be exposed. Conversely, unlike in our western culture, breasts are not sexualized and are commonly exposed. Supposedly when the missionaries first came to the island they gave shirts to the women who promptly cut two holes in the shirts so they could breast feed. Practical am I right? These days women typically wear a shirt. Finally, in light of the climate of matters like this in the west, I have little else to say about this other than it’s a practical rule. No one wants their thighs to be touching in this humidity.... Trust me.

Hair must be pulled back or tied up. Hair is considered too beautiful and sexual. Since humility is the basis of many Yapese rules, it only makes sense that you cannot flaunt your hair. While this is applicable to both sexes, it is predominantly affecting the women of Yap (most men have short hair). Our high school is considered a ‘safe space’ where traditional rules such as this are not enforced. The other day I had a discussion with one of my classes about how wearing a top-knot every day can damage hair follicles, and it was very interesting to see the faces of the men in the room as they reassessed what this rule meant for their female counterparts. Again though, 95% of the time you want your hair tied's too darn hot.

All land and things are private property. Let’s say you are walking towards a village; you are allowed to pick a leaf off someone’s hedge in order to pass through the village. However, you are not by any means allowed to pick someone’s flower, or heaven forbid someone’s betel nut. If you do, it will not end well for you – and apparently the police are not likely to intercede. If you are here as a tourist, these rules are slightly slackened, and you will probably only hear about the need to carry a branch or asking permission before walking across someone else property, however for those of us who should know better, that’s just it, we should know better.

No Exploring. You have to have a purpose to go anywhere. This rule shakes the core of my being. Knowing that I cannot leave the main road without an invitation is like Tantalus staring at the low hanging fruit. After living here for two months I have been receiving more invitations and I have been able to exploit the loopholes, but the rule still exists.

Now on to the slightly less familiar rules…

If you are walking through a village you need to carry either a basket of a leaf. This is a symbol that you are not being mischievous. Essentially if you are a tourist, you need to have something in your hand; be it a water bottle, a camera (less couth), a leaf or a tote bag. FYI, there are some leaves you shouldn’t pick because they are used by the Yapese as toilet paper; however, I cannot for the life of me remember which one it is… Maybe one day you will walk through a village thinking you are being considerate and all the people watching you from the jungle will think you are just entering their village to take a shit. *Also if you walk through a village at night, you need to carry a flashlight.

Baskets are considered your home away from home. I mean what do you not keep in your basket? Standard contents seem to include knives, flashlights, wallets, car keys, betel nut and other daily essentials. Some people on this island don’t own too much more than that (particularly the homeless or the adrift), so the basket truly is their home. Seeing as these baskets are revered in such a manner, to steal from someone’s basket is just as serious as breaking and entering.

Never walk over someone, or any parts of their person. This rule supposedly reveres the dignity of the individual. You can watch Yapese walk the long way around a building to avoid having to step over someone if they are relaxing on the veranda. That being said, it is your responsibility, as the person laying on the ground, to ensure that you do not inconvenience someone else. Additionally, keeping in mind that baskets are considered an extension of a person, you cannot walk over someone’s basket either. It would be equally disrespectful.

Stay quiet in the villages, especially after dark. This is one of the rules I can definitely get behind. However, this does also include keeping the radio in your car low enough such that as you pass-by someone they cannot hear it…and seeing as you need the windows open to even breath in the cars here, that means to volume is really low.

You can ask who someone’s parents ARE, not what do they DO. Again this is harking back to the cultural humility. It would be improper to force someone to put themselves above someone else … so employment or unemployment can be a touchy subject; one that is best just steered away from.

Never ask what village someone is from. Remnants of the pre-European caste system can leave people touchy as to their social standings. Thus, you can chalk this one up to the humility thing too, as it would be impolite to force someone else to show they are above another person from a lower caste. I suppose in that way it is somewhat similar to parts of the Scandinavian Jenteloven. It is perfectly acceptable to ask about municipalities though.

You cannot speak the name of people who have died. You can talk about them, but you cannot mention their names. One might imagine this can lead to some interesting misunderstandings; such as thinking someone died, only to find out they were just off island.

Yapese people greet each other and give directions with their noses, not their hands. If you ask for directions, you may get a head nod in the direction you should go, with the nose leading the way. So far as greetings are concerned, supposedly the only people who wave at you are Mormons; however, I would dispute this as Yapese people always wave at me when I run past. Then again, I guess they must think I am a Mormon…

You cannot be higher than an elder. This rule is again based ideals of dignity and respect. As with all other cultures, one should respect their elders. On Yap this respect is manifest by the need to be below the level of your elders in stature and in positions of authority. This is the reason why many Yapese will apologize before addressing a large group (you may inadvertently be putting yourself above someone older than you, both in action and in physical height). *Note: this does not apply if you are climbing a tree.

And now a few more rules concerning women:

Women cannot be higher than men. If men are sitting, historically the women are required to crawl on the ground so they are never higher than the men. I have yet to see this, but I imagine it is similar to the scene in The King and I where Anna must bow lower than the king. Interestingly, the responsibility is supposedly placed upon the male relatives to never inconvenience females into having to crawl on the ground. However, I suppose we can all get distracted from time to time? I am not too sure how pertinent this rule is these days, as I have yet to spend too much time in the villages. Yet from what I hear this rule is still applicable in the outer islands.

No dating (at least in public). Traditionally, due to the caste system, marriages were arranged. Additionally, in the days of women’s houses (similar to the red tent if you ever read that book) there was an intergenerational exchange of knowledge regarding sexual health (at least on the outer island of Ulithi). However, in the modern era, young adults do not tell their parents there are dating... they cannot even be seen in public together... This lack of communication has health and wellness ramifications; as the women are no longer necessarily telling their daughters about the birds and the bees at an early age. Thus when the kids sneak off to the taro patch in the middle of the night, teenage pregnancy and STDs become an issue.

Women are not allowed to enter a taro patch whilst menstruating. According to some Yapese, the taro patch is sacred. As with Islamic traditions, women are not allowed to enter sacred spaces during this time as they are considered unclean. When I asked a few Yapese women about this rule and there was a generational disagreement. I guess you could say it is similar to the idea of saying grace before a meal, because in the old days everyone had to do it, but today it varies a bit more from family to family.

Traditionally, women are not allowed on boats nor are they allowed to fish. This rule saddened me greatly as I yearn to learn more about way-finding, but alas, I am a woman. Classic. That being said, I do get out on the water regularly and have been in quite a few boats, including outrigger canoes, so I maintain hope. The reasoning for this tradition segues into the next rule as Moana (Polynesian word – not Yapese- for ocean) is a jealous woman…

Men cannot sleep with their wives the night before they go fishing. Traditionally, men are married to both their wives and the sea. The thought here is that when men are on land they are with their human wives (unclear about the polygamy here), but whilst out on a boat they in a relationship with the sea. However, the sea is a jealous wife. If she can smell the scent of another woman on the man out in a boat, she may exact her revenge on him for cheating and whip up a storm or send creatures from the deep. In order to avoid this, the men are traditionally required to stay in the village men’s house the night (if not days) before going out to sea. Interestingly, they also stay in the men’s house upon return in order to wash away the scent of their aquatic wife before returning home. I have no idea if this rule is still abided by today...

I will keep listening and learning, so stay posted!



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