How to Survive on Yap

How to Survive on Yap

Surviving while hiding out in the jungle would be a piece of cake with all the fruit trees around but surviving socially is another matter.  Here is an list of expectations and taboos in Yapese culture.   It is undoubtedly incomplete and over simplified but is what we were able to observe and discuss from our American perspectives during a short stay on the island.  Yap is probably one of the most preserved cultures in the whole Pacific and the community there is dedicated to maintaining that culture into the future.  It is actually one of the founding principles in the preamble of their Constitution (1977).  Here is a peek into some of the ideas that the culture is based upon.

–         Women do not show their thighs.  Pants, shorts, or skirts much reach the knee.  Showing your thighs in Yap is like walking around topless in the US.  Walking around topless in Yap is no longer the norm but is traditional dress for Yapese.  Nowadays, most women wear shirts during day-to-day life but always dress traditionally in grass skirts without shirts for dance performances.  Some outer island women still do not wear shirts in the villages and around town.


Outer island woman from Woleai with her sixteen year old daughter.

–         Do not enter a village without permission. Do not use roads or stone paths that are not for your village/caste to use.

A stone path in Weloy.

A stone path in Weloy.

–         If you are walking through a village, carry a green leaf to show residents you have peaceful intentions. 

–         Do not walk through a village without something in your hand.  People without anything in their hands don’t have anything to do and are likely to make trouble.  Carry your green leaf.  Or have your palm basket (a purse carried by all Yapese women and men to hold personal items and betelnut).

–         If walking through a village at night ALWAYS carry a flashlight and have it ON.  If you don’t have a flashlight you are probably trying to conceal yourself and might be up to no good.  If you are caught in a village that is not your own by the residents at night they may apprehend you and tie you to a tree until morning.  This will definitely happen if they catch you making trouble.

–         Be respectful of people who are in a higher caste.  Do not enter their villages or walk on their roads.  Stick to roads of your own caste.  The caste system in Yap used to be more like division on labor and was constantly in flux as villages challenged and fought with one another.  Since German colonialism though, the caste system is frozen and low and high caste villages have kept the same status for decades and do not have a route to change their place in the caste system.

–         Greet people with “see you later” or “goodbye” (not “hello”) when just passing by.

–         Do not take fruit or betelnut from  someone else’s yard or village.  You can be beaten or tied to a tree is you are caught.  Within the legal system you could also be fined.  Ask. If your request is reasonable it will most likely be granted.

–         If you commit a transgression against someone from your or another village you should make a traditional apology through a meeting with the chiefs and present the person with compensatory stone or shell money.


Stone money in front of a men’s house.

–         If you are accused of a transgression that you actually committed admit that you did it straight off the bat.  Don’t get involved in trying to prove innocence if you really did it.  Own up to it.

–         Do not step over people.  Whether they are sitting in a small place and you have to get by, squeezing past seated people in a row of chairs, or lying across the middle of the road.  You do not step over anyone’s body.

–         When seated in a group, do not sit higher than anyone else.  You might sit lower than elders of people of higher caste though.

–         When walking by people of higher caste bow or stoop slightly as you pass by to show respect.  If they are seated, you might ask them to stand so you can walk by without being physically higher than them.

–         Always keep your knees bent when dancing.  Men with their weight on one foot, women on both feet.

Yapese dance performance.

Yapese dance performance.

–         Men traditionally wear a thu, which is like a tied sarong loin cloth with a long bolt of cloth draped over the front and back.  While some men now  dress more conservatively by wrapping thu material around their hips like a skirt, some other Yapese look down on this new style.

Pete leaving Yap in his thu.

Pete leaving Yap in his thu.

–         Traditionally men wear a blue thu.  Yapese men add a new layer and color to their thu as they age.  By their late twenties men are wearing red, white, and blue layers in their thu.  The layers are put on one at a time and white can never be the outermost layer.

–         Outer island women where lava lavas, loom woven wraparound skirts that come in different colors and patterns.   Lava lavas can be worn tucked in or with a belt underneath a fold to keep them up.  Tassels on the two ends of the cloth go in the front of the skirt so the tassels dangle between your legs when sitting or squatting..

Me in my lavalava sailing back into Guam's Apra Harbor.  I wish I had pictures of Yapese women in lavalavas!

Me in my lavalava sailing back into Guam’s Apra Harbor. I wish I had pictures of outer island women in lavalavas instead!

–         On certain outer islands all people, men and women, Yapese and visitors, should not wear shirts.  It’s considered extremely disrespectful.  One example is mogmog, which is one of the islands in Ulithi.

–         Do not take food from someone you do not know.

–         Brothers and sisters are not friends.  They do not spend time together, play together, and should often be in separate places (ie if the brother is inside, the girls play outside; if he goes outside, the girls would go inside).  Thus, often siblings of the opposite sex hardly know one another.   Even outside of the family boys generally hang out with boys and girls with girls.


Some boys hanging out in Colonia.

–         Despite not really knowing your siblings of the opposite sex you should be on good terms with them, especially males.  His sisters will be the ones to come up with the names for his children.  The name that the child is given determines land ownership and inheritance so it is very important.

–         No women in the men’s house.  Traditionally, if women came to the men’s house or men came the women’s house then the men/women of the house that they visited would have the right to have sex with the visitor.  So you might’ve tried to avoid bringing your boyfriend/girlfriend there.

A village's men's house is almost always built near the water.

A village’s men’s house is almost always built near the water.

 –         Make leis and nunu (head garland) for friends and family who are leaving or returning home.  You can wear either any day you feel like wearing one though.


–         If someone complements you on your nunu, you give it to them.  I don’t know if this is usually the case, but everytime I said “Oh! What a pretty nunu!” The person would reply with, “Here, you can have it!” which then I could negotiate my way out of.

Michelle works at the grocery store.  She gave me her lei the first say I was exploring Yap.  We became friends.

Michelle works at the grocery store. She gave me her lei the first day I was exploring Yap. We became friends.

–         Only fish on the area of the reef that belong to you or your village, unless you have permission and (in most cases) are escorted.

Traditional and modern boats are both used for fishing.

Traditional and modern boats are both used for fishing.

–         Women are in charge of gardening, cooking, and tending the taro patch.  Men fish.  And do tuba circles.  More on this later.

Taro patch in the forest.

Taro patch in the forest.

–         When your friends embark on a journey, send them off with bananas and coconuts.  We left with 15 coconuts.

–         Give things away.  Don’t accumulate wealth.  And if you do, share it.  Definitely do not flaunt your wealth. Honor is not established by accumulating wealth but by who gives the most stuff away.

–         AND WHATEVER YOU DO, do not go into, touch, step over, or kick someone else’s basket.