I HAVE always found the phrase “the elephant in the room” a bit strange, and so I would like to propose a local version of it. Let’s say “the karabao in the room.” When you think about the size of a karabao, the smells it might have, it’s large stature, it can still be an imposing presence in a room.
If there was a random karabao in your room, how would you respond? Would it be with surprise, shock, frustration, anger, fear? Or would it be something else? After all, when a large animal is just suddenly there, what are you supposed to do? How can you get rid of it? How did it get here?
When all of these issues and questions cascade down upon you, it can feel overwhelming, and so the notion of there being “a karabao in the room” conveys how there is something very important and pressing that people
have to deal with, but since no one might know where to start or what to do, everyone would rather just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Guam’s colonial status is a very large karabao in the room of this small island. The inevitable purpose of the large animal in the room metaphor is that you recognize the futility of not recognizing it. If there were a large karabao in your room, you might choose to buy a hundred bottles of Fabreze in order to mask its smell, but that does not solve the problem of the karabao being in your room.
You can hang several copies of The Last Supper on the karabao and pretend it’s a wall, but that doesn’t solve the problem of there being a karabao in your room. You can cover the karabao with the American flag and a quilt stitched together with U.S. passports and applications for federal assistance and it still does not solve the problem of there being a karabao in the room.
If your friend who is an admiral in the U.S. Navy comes over and tells you there is no karabao in your room, you may nod
politely and say he’s absolutely right, there is no karabao in this room; but even this doesn’t solve the problem of the karabao being in your room.
You can spend your days pretending there is no karabao in your room. You can buy nose plugs to block the stench, you can even wear a blindfold to simply ensure you see nothing at all including the creature, but all of this activity to deny the existence of the karabao only makes it harder for you to ever actually get rid of the karabao in the room. Even if you can convince yourself that everything is fine and you are far better off doing nothing, that large beast of burden is always there, waiting in the corner of your eye to remind you of its existence.
Such is true with regards to Guam and political status. It is something that sits right in the middle of this island. It takes up so much space, affects so much, but the majority of people would rather just not deal with it or talk about it. Instead they would rather do as I’ve described above, create elaborate means of not thinking about it, not seeing it, pretending everything is all right.
You can argue very effectively that Guam is not the worst colony in the world; that it doesn’t “suffer” as a colony, but what kind of argument is that? That doesn’t go very far in terms of legitimizing the relationship, or arguing that colonialism is good for Guam. If you were to ask anyone if they wanted to have a fundamentally unequal relationship with another power, very few would enthusiastically shout “yes!” even if the United States was the potential colonizer.
Former Guam Delegate to Washington D.C. Robert Underwood sometimes tells stories about how other voting representatives,from states, would joke that everyone in their districts would eagerly line up to become a territory since it would mean paying no federal taxes while still getting access to all sorts of federal programs. Underwood, notorious for his rhetorical reversals, would counter that a trade in status should take place where those eager first-class U.S. citizens would finally get their long-cherished
change to become second-class citizens! At this prospect of living in a territory, every thinking congressperson would quickly back away, their rejection revealing the obvious truth – that no one should actually want to be owned by another, to be territory to another, even if it means you get some benefits.
Every place will always have their own elephants or karabao in their room. The funny thing is that here on Guam, we have a karabao in our room that no one else would want.