That’s the Samoan version of ‘hi’, and I’ve been using it endlessly during the past few days! I’ve been meeting a lot of new people, seeing a lot of new landscapes, and trying a LOT of new foods. Oh yes, and learning a lot of new norms. There are definitely some differences in our cultures, to put it mildly, so I’m constantly on the lookout to make sure I don’t do anything offensive.
First off, the scenery. As you would expect, it’s absolutely gorgeous! I never thought I’d be in a place where you can see both the mountains and the ocean just by turning your head. There are tons of exotic butterflies, and flowers bloom endlessly in the optimal (for plants) heat. All the ladies wear flowers in their hair, tucked behind an ear, Hawaiian-style, which you can pick off of any bush you come to, no questions asked (cutting them from someone else’s yard is a no-no, though). It is a bit warm for me still, having come from chilly Ohio, but at night it’s very pleasant. The first full day I was here was unusually hot, I’m told and am hoping. It was a shirt-clinging-to-your-back, sweat-dripping-off-your-nose kind of humidity, where clothes were damp before you put them on. Today was more temperate—it was still warm, but not quite as humid.
Yesterday, while she unpacked, Hannah gave me the cultural low-down—what would be offensive, what would be unusual, what would be normal. Here’s what I learned:
- The Samoans are very big into respect for one’s elders. In the States, we respect people for what they’ve done and what they can do, but here, age is the main reason for respect. “If you’re young, you’re nothing,” was how Hannah put it. So there’s a code for how a younger person treats those who are older. Case in point: a younger person should never be standing or sitting higher than an older person. Hannah usually gets down lower when asking something of Pastor Civale or Miss Emi, especially when there are other Samoans around. Not showing respect is a serious offense!
- Samoans do not like to be asked how a job should be done. If you’re doing the dishes, for instance, they do not appreciate being constantly asked, ‘And where does this go? Do you want the table wiped? How long should the water boil?’ They would rather you do the job wrong than to be asked questions about it!
- Samoans always put on a happy face, even if they’re feeling down. They expect you to do the same.
There are some other things, like not eating while you’re walking and not sitting on tables, but that’s pretty much what the talk boiled down to. My first ‘social event’ was yesterday evening, and I was so nervous that I would mess something up, offend someone, or blot my copybook in some way. The deacons and their wives were putting together a meal for us as a way of saying ‘Welcome home’. I’m going to change tenses here so that you can experience a Samoan dinner along with me. Ready? Here we go!
In the early evening darkness, you walk down the sloping concrete walk from the Civale’s house, past the church and into the first room of the single-story school. As you enter, a chorus of happy voices greets you; strangers, smiling broadly, start coming up to you, hugging you and kissing you on the cheek. This feels a little awkward, since both men and women are doing it, but you just smile and murmur ‘Malo’ over and over. They seem delighted that you speak any Samoan. It is made clear that you are to sit and be served, so you take your seat on one of the plastic patio chairs around the table, smiling brightly. Everyone is looking at you. Pastor Civale then prays for the meal in both Samoan and English. Everyone keeps passing you food, smiling away and obviously trying to coax you to take some of everything. There’s barbequed chicken, egg sandwiches, fried spaghetti-o sandwiches, a sweet-ish soup, and some traditional Samoan sweet bread, slightly spiced. One of the ladies serves you a mug of traditional, slightly-bitter cocoa. An adorable little girl with curly black hair keeps wandering into the room and peeking at you from behind her daddy’s chair. Everything’s going great—and then you notice a bug has fallen into and drowned in your cocoa. What do you do? Take it out and risk offending somebody? Ignore it and risk swallowing it? You whisper your dilemma to Hannah, who assures you that you can pick it out without causing a scene. Eventually the pace of eating slows down and the talking begins. It’s all in Samoan. Hannah can throw in a word here and there but you’re clueless. Eventually Pastor Civale leaves, and then you’re free to take your dishes to the back and slip out the door. You did it!
Seriously, the people here are lovely—very friendly, and the kids are just adorable. Tanya would fit in very well here.
Tomorrow is my first day of teaching school. We’ll see how well that goes!