Even to me, Cary, the mathematics teacher in Chevak, was immediately dislikable. Everyone else in my class, the loud, rude, unrestrained and so-frequently-hostile native students, decided they disliked her before I did, and partly for this reason I tried not to dislike her - to see the good in her and give her my sympathies. At first, it wasn’t hard to sympathize with her, because the Native students had no inhibitions whatever about saying horrible things directly to her in class and reveled in their own horridness. Still, even in the first few days it wasn’t difficult to see what they disliked about her, and although I don’t know how much my antipathy was colored by theirs, in time I came to dislike her for reasons of my own.
I’ll work from the outside in.
To start with, she was ugly. “Ugly,” is the Natives’ go-to insult. They throw it around pretty indiscriminately, even at each other. They used it on me more times than I can count, and need I remind you that I’ve been recruited by Cosmo? So she could probably pretty easily get by on the thought, “They don’t actually mean it, so I needn’t take it personally.” But she was, and there were no two ways about it. She was an old white woman with round, watery, dull eyes under thick, meaty and wrinkled brows, a thin and tapering face, a fat-ended nose, too-thin scraggly hair dyed metallic red, and a podgy frame.
It is shallow, it is base, and it is unfair, but appearance is always the first thing we judge a person on, and her’s was the first unpleasant quality she possessed.
The second thing was the stories she’d tell. Stories from her life, the way she’d talk about other peoples’ quirks. Natives, and Cup'iks especially, put a lot of stock into conformity and normalcy, and so even I could tell that she was stupid to talk about the stranger moments in her life and the weird people she knew. Once she talked about her mother who, when asked about the location of a sought-after item, would describe its location in excruciating detail; you ask her, “where’s the shaving cream?” and she’ll answer, “It’s upstairs in the bathroom first door on the right, on the second self on the left-hand side of the shower, to the right of the conditioner.” And these stories would be met, often not with answers, but with a general atmosphere of, “That person’s obviously stupid, then. Why are you wasting our time telling us about this stupid person we neither know nor care about?”
Once, when we were living in teacher housing, and I had to escort her to some place or other, I asked her whether the apartment we were heading to was to the left or right, and she indicated with her hands, then went on to explain with an odd air of import that she couldn’t keep track of left and right in her head, but always had to refer to her hands to be able to tell, or she’d get them mixed up. It was another one of those things that made it seem like she was rather disconnected from the human race, and my private contempt for her grew a little - although I’ve never repeated this story before today.
She was, of course, always a little disconnected from human social norms. I always privately despised her for the seeming ease with which she seemed to brush off her students’ brutal insults, ignoring them outright and scarcely breaking stride unless one of them swore, in which case she would threaten to send them to the office. Of course, all they really wanted was to get a rise out of her, and you could say that her having responded would merely have been giving them what they wanted, but even for myself I felt a little distaste for her complete lack of any human reaction - a distaste I can only imagine amplified in their herd-like collective consciousness.
Most egregious, though, was her smugness and self-importance. They weren’t intended qualities, of this I’m certain, and she probably would have resented being called such. I hesitate to use the words myself, feeling them somewhat… inaccurate to describe precisely what she was, but it was there in the effect she had on people.
On my first day in her class, after I’d already completed my assignment, I took out my copy of the translated Koran and began to read. At one point, she leaned over my shoulder and asked what I was reading, and I told her truthfully, and she nodded airily while saying, “Oh yes, it’s a BEAUTIFUL book,” before walking off to look at the papers of a few other students who hadn’t finished the assignment, and then about 6 or 7 seconds later, drifted back in my direction and affirmed, “And yes, I HAVE read it before,” in that same airily self-important tone, as if I had doubted her to begin with, to affirm her accomplishments, as if I cared at all, and on some higher level I resented her for trying to connect to me - to say that we had anything in common. I, being white and bred for civility, never made any manifestation of my distaste for the woman known, but over the semester I would grow subtly less patient with her.
Another thing I know was a blight against her was her stubborn refusal to buy a snow-go (that’s “snow-machine” for gussuks). Every Cup'ik family, no matter how poor, could afford at least one snow-go. They made life easier, and if you participated in subsistence like most of them did, they were a necessity.
But Cary refused to buy one. She lived in Chevak on a village teacher’s salary, plus the PFD, year after year, and yet every winter she’d be seen walking from teacher housing to the corp store, easily half a mile away and back, with her groceries. This added to that sense of self-importance. When asked about why she didn’t get one, she said it was because she neither needed nor wanted one. Not because she couldn’t afford it or couldn’t drive one, but that she simply didn’t want one. THAT was not acceptable. Having a snow-go was simply what was done in Chevak, and intended or not, her refusal to shell out made it clear that she thought herself above getting one.
I still remember when our family got its first snow-go. It was a while before I rode it for the first time, but after I did for the first time, I found that I liked it. Riding a snow-go was so simple. I was going way, way too fast for my usual hecklers to cast their insults at me like clumps of mud, and being seen going through the village on my riding machine like the other villagers made me feel like I was a little bit more of one of them. Like I was a tiny step closer to being able to be accepted.
Whenever you visit a Cup'ik or a Yup'ik village for the first time, the residents are always incredibly friendly to you. They make you feel sooo welcomed, and everybody wants to know your name and be your friend. But if you intend to stay for long, you better have the same enthusiasm to get to know and become friendly with every single one of them as well.
Cup'ik hospitality is given to strangers only. Once you move in, you’re on a grace period. They’ll send you their emissaries to get to know you, but your initiation into their society has already begun, and you better assimilate fast.
A quick guide to gussuks on survival among Cup'ik/Yup'iks:
Hang out with somebody every day. Hanging out with friends is a normality among them, and if the only time they see you is when you’re buying groceries, the way it is in white society, they’ll assume it’s because you think you’re too good for them, or that you just don’t have any friends because you’re a freak. And you are, after all. Introverts are freaks - they’re just not normal.
Be prepared for any question: When you first arrive, especially if you’re male, you’ll be peppered with the usual barrage of new-comer questions to make sure that you’re smart, normal, and to gauge your level of morality. If you’re still a teenager, they’ll ask if you smoke, drink, do weed, or jack off, and you need to have your answers ready. They’ll probably also ask if you’re a virgin, and if you are, one of them will probably be elected to get you hooked up with a woman while you’re still fresh. This can be seen as a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.
Beggars are choosers: When they ask you for some of your snack food, some of your cheetos, say, expect them to take full and greedy handfuls. If you deliberately apportion them “a few,” as in, like, five, you’re “cheapo.” I know, I KNOW that you’re giving them your food out of the goodness and generosity of your heart and that they should be grateful for whatever they get, but it’s just how they are. Just accept it. And remember to put your gussk instincts aside and take full handfuls yourself when the moment comes.
Expect “visitors”: Cup'ik children from an early age are often kicked out of the house to amuse themselves from dawn to dusk, and when you’re new they’ll ask to visit you often. Getting on well with the kids is a great way to get in friendly with the adult locals who will be glad to see somebody looking out for the tykes. Amuse them, keep a game console with several kid-friendly games handy, and feed them. They’ll always tell you that they just ate recently, but that’s probably a lie, and you’ll see them down several servings of whatever you cook. They’ll also want to look around your house when you first move in, so be sure to set ground rules.
If invited hunting: On your first hunting trips with the Cup'iks, gas expenses are on you, and they get whatever you “catch” (this means “kill” when used in reference to hunting). I’m telling you right now not to climb on your high horse so you don’t have to climb back down later - it is NOT unfair, and you are NOT being taken advantage of for being a gullible outsider. It’s an ancient rite of passage that all of them have been through themselves. Whenever a Cup'ik man goes out on a hunting trip for the first time, he proves his generosity and worth to the community by sacrificing everything he catches to them. This will be the only time you’re expected to pay for everybody’s gas and give up your catch, so just suck it up, pay up, and be glad you won’t have to do it again.
Be normal: If you don’t know anything about rap or hip-hop, learn. If you didn’t come with your wife or girlfriend, order some condoms. If you didn’t get a down payment on a snow-go while you were in Anchorage, start saving up, and start boasting now of the wonderful model you’re going to buy. If you’re an introvert, put on some party jeans and pretend not to be. Know the difference between your snow boots and your mud boots, don’t wear your winter gear before it becomes necessary, no matter how eager you are to break it in, and for god’s sake, learn everybody’s names no matter what it takes, because they’ll certainly know yours.