As a Pisikoa in Samoa, much of your reputation precedes you. Samoa is such a small country that everybody knows about Peace Corps and has a story to tell you about the person who taught them to use computers, or got the money to build a school in the village, or the person they named their kid after. Everyone has a story. I have been fortunate in my village because there wasn’t a PCV here within the past decade, so I am not fighting against the memory of an all-star. I am fairly free to carve my own space in the village because I am a primary school teacher (the previous PCVs I’ve heard about were a secondary school teacher and a water sanitation worker). My principal is pretty lax about my schedule, so basically, I get to define my own job, enforce my own schedule, and decide when I’ve earned a break. In terms of Peace Corps in Aufaga, it’s me.
The other side of my reputation that is predetermined as a Pisikoa is that of palagi. This reputation is much more difficult to overcome because it is culturally engrained. As a palagi, I have plenty of money (which I do, I have more than enough money to live comfortably in Samoa), and I don’t share (according to fa’a Samoa¬ – which is, what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is everybody else’s – I don’t do this to the degree that everybody else does). These two ideas are very pervasive in fa’a Samoa, and as a palagi, I’m not doing things right. In addition to not always giving away everything I do and don’t own, I listen to the wrong music, engage in the wrong activities (no volleyball?), eat the wrong food (why don’t you have some of the pig?), and never know enough Samoan for whatever conversation I’m in.
On one hand, it is absolutely worthless to care about my reputation because there is really nothing I can do about it. My reputation is solely what other people think about me, and I can do nothing to change that. None of my habits or actions can make a dent in my palagi reputation. I have come to this conclusion because of various interactions with my neighbors. I love my neighbors to death, and without this relationship, I could not survive in my village. They are my family, and they have told me as much at every opportunity. Even so, I am still a palagi to them. My neighbors, who know me better than anyone else in my village, still assume that I hide everything in my room so I won’t have to share with other people, and I am rude because I don’t know better (which is probably true – I’ve told them a million times to tell me if/when I’m doing something inappropriate because I don’t always know, and they assure me they will…I’m not so sure that always happens because it has never happened so far).
This upsets me at times because I try so hard to fit into my village – to follow the routines and schedules as much as possible without deviating from things I refuse to compromise on (food is always the hardest because it is such a big part of fa’a Samoa and I am still a very picky eater despite my attempts at flexibility). I share my food with the kids on the porch if they come running up while I’m eating (the other day I shared my Craisins with two girls from across the street. They promptly spit them out after putting them in their mouths). I stop to talk to people on the way to and from school. I wear knee-length shorts while running. And I am always the first person to give up my seat for someone else on the bus. The little that I do know about fa’a Samoa I genuinely try to put into practice. But that never seems to make enough of a difference to cancel out my palagi identity.
I’ve decided that compromise isn’t always the best solution. I can compromise on some of the things I do, but I can’t completely compromise my identity. I have a cultural background too, and as much as I try to mesh myself with fa’a Samoa, it will still be there influencing my thoughts, reactions, and behaviors. I think this is OK. Again, conscious self-reflection is a big player here, and as long as neither side wins out completely, I’m doing alright. By attempting to bow to fa’a Samoa when I can, I build the social capital necessary to being a successful PCV in my village, and by refusing to compromise on some aspects, I keep the shreds of sanity that help me survive (the other conclusion I’ve come to is that you really have to be crazy to do Peace Corps. At least a little bit). While I can put in all the effort I want, always getting unbearably frustrated with why nobody ever notices every little aspect of my good behavior, there’s really not much I can do about my reputation. That’s not a reason to not care at all about my reputation, though. Although you can’t really change it – because it is only made up of what other people think of you – your reputation is important. It may be the first thing people know about you before they actually know you, and you never get a second chance at a first impression. Care, but don’t care too much. Try, but don’t go crazy (keep those shreds of sanity). It matters, but it doesn’t. Just one more of those finagled balancing acts that we all have to constantly negotiate throughout life.