Chapter 12. Equality of Value, Difference
As the two friends began
to discuss their plans, Alan was climbing the stairs to his hotel room.
The Territorial Administrator had looked at his papers for a suspenseful
moment, and, not willing to torment Alan by making him wait, had said in
a brusque but friendly manner, “Everything looks fine. You have permission
|Upon the accuracy with which
similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived,
depend our taste and our moral feeling.
—William Wordsworth, Preface to the
second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800)
His application had
been approved! He had already, that day, begun to buy supplies for his
trip to the interior. He was enormously excited.
At one of the numerous
Chinese Stores that day, which would be called general stores in rural
America, or dry goods stores, he had seen from the street two young black
children run out the door followed by the proprietor. The proprietor spat
at them and shouted something furiously. Alan felt suddenly enraged by
the virulent hate the storekeeper showed to these children.
He thought of his
past, when he was in elementary school in the suburbs, and many black children
came to school in sneakers and worn shirts. He felt ashamed of how he had
thought he was better than they were. The shame of this clung to him. He
could still feel it. He had always felt he was somehow better than other
people. The very word “I” he cherished and abhorred. He would look at himself
in the mirror and sometimes felt he looked like a rodent. People, he thought,
didn’t like him.
Why, beside his sheer
injustice, had the storekeeper shocked Alan and made him so angry? Perhaps,
without knowing it, the young anthropologist saw in him the worst thing
That afternoon he
had begun arrangements to have trunk-size metal patrol boxes made and smaller
metal boxes, all water-tight. He bought a fine camera, Japanese color film,
Australian sandals, short pants and long socks.
He had taken a pathway
out of the center of town which led between villages, and had lost his
way. It was a cheerful young black man his own age who guided him back
to the hotel. Alan was hot and tired, and not a little frightened, and
the young man climbed a coconut palm that must have belonged to his family,
threw down the ripe coconut, stripped the husk with a bush knife, and opened
the nut itself—handing it to Alan with a flourish, for him to drink the
fresh coconut milk.
It tasted smooth
and clean—unlike any coconut he’d had at home.
He was moved that
the young man could be kind to him and think of his feelings. What could
he give the young man that would have the same value to Alan as the coconut
had to the young man? It would be insulting to give him money, thought
Alan. He thought of the labor it took the family to take care of their
precious tree for years, and the hard work to climb up that smooth trunk,
and the considerate thought that went into the man’s thinking of giving
him a drink on the hot road; and how few nuts remained up there under the
feathery crown of fronds. Do I have something I can give him which has
equivalent value to me?
He had studied the
labor theory of value and agreed with it. The value of an object was equivalent
to the value of the work a person has put in to create it.
Alan had benefited
from, but hated, the fact that American currency was so valuable that for
a throw-away single dollar, worth not so much to an American, valuable
services and valuable goods could be bought in many countries. A man could
sweat a week to earn what he, Alan, could toss off as a tip, because the
rate of exchange had so much overvalued the American dollar.
He wanted to approach
the people of New Guinea on a basis of equality. So instead of going the
easy way, and giving the man a shilling that meant little to himself, but
much to the man, he thought of giving him the black leather belt with a
real silver buckle he was now wearing in his shorts. That had a bigger
value to Alan, and it was a new belt.
He pulled the belt
from his waist and gave it to the young man, who immediately, with a smile,
rolled it up and put it in his bag. He looked very pleased to get it—“About
as pleased,” thought Alan, “as I felt getting the coconut milk.” He licked
his lips in retrospect. He felt good because he’d gotten close to a real
equivalence despite the fact that he and the young New Guinean neither
spoke the same language nor shared the same culture.
Back at the hotel,
Alan went back up to his room. The walls reflected the last light from
the sea. The sun was going down now and at the horizon line the red light
of the sun met the cool blue ocean and merged with it.