Sunday, February 26, 2012

Stages of Samoa

I didn’t really get to Samoa until I moved to my village. Ya, I was here for training for almost 3 months, but that doesn’t really count. You’re in class all day, so you don’t really know what your average day will be like, you’re with other PCVs all the time, so you don’t know what the village will feel like, and you’re only a temporary guest, so you don’t know what people will do when you’re no longer new and exciting. After I had been in Samoa for 3 months, I really arrived in Samoa.

In the beginning, I was always comparing everything to my time in Mexico. As part of the INVST program, I spent almost a month in Mexico (a week on the US side of the border, a week and a half in Mexico City, and a week and a half in rural Mexico). Everything about Samoa reminded me of Mexico – the green, the plants, the lack of understanding, the host family, the strange eating schedules, not being able to drive myself anywhere, the smallest activities were the biggest adventure, and so on forever and ever. I also spent a lot of time thinking about home – the States – during this period in Samoa. I wasn’t exactly homesick, but I had spent a lot of time thinking about home while I was in Mexico, so I just assumed it was part of the newness of it all. I knew that at the end of the next four weeks, I would still be in Samoa, instead of on a never ending bus ride back to Colorado. I didn’t want to go back home, but I think I wanted something familiar. I would call this time the time of the Grocery Store (I can’t tell you how many times I have ended up in a grocery store, usually King Soopers, in my dreams). This was facilitated in many ways – I was constantly comparing the stores in Samoa to the stores in the States, stacking up the deficiencies of Samoan grocery stores, and thinking how the village shops in Samoa were exactly like the village shops in Mexico. Mostly, though, I think it was due to my Sunday morning tradition. In the States, I go to the grocery store every single Sunday morning. Every single week. I walk up and down every single aisle (which I know by heart, having walked them so many times), looking at every single food item that I have already inspected a million times, making my minimal, necessary purchases, then leaving. The whole trip usually took at least an hour. As much as I try, it is impossible to spend an hour in a grocery store in Samoa. Also, I generally can’t get to the grocery store on a Sunday morning because of church. So instead of trying and failing to keep up with a Samoan church service, I was mentally retracing my trips through the grocery store. When church was really long, I would visualize the car ride to and from the grocery store. This was the first part of my time in Samoa – comparing it to Mexico, and thinking about everything I no longer had access to.

About eight months in, sometime in August or September, that all changed. I was leaving town on a Saturday morning. Normally, this had been a frantic activity. Trips to town generally involved me rushing through the few stores in the capital to find the precious foods I loved (wheat bread, peanut butter and jelly, crackers, and cheese) but couldn’t or wouldn’t buy in the village, trying to spend 20 or 30 minutes online to catch up with e-mail, then getting to the bus at least a half hour before it left because I wanted to make sure I got a good seat, and to make sure I would catch the bus. Sometimes the bus left early and I never knew until I got to the bus stop and my bus wasn’t there. That has created problems a few times, but fortunately I can count them on one hand. I had been in town for a book club meeting, and had intentionally finished my shopping the day before so that I could just go to the bus stop, get on my bus, and go to my village. And that is exactly what I did. No stress, no missed bus, no worry. It felt wonderfully…normal. I remember sitting on the bus and being struck by the thought “Ya, so?” (or maybe “What’s the big deal?” or some other anticlimactic variation). I was recalling this incident a week or two later, and the person I was talking to said that is the sign of assimilating. Counting from the very beginning of my time in Samoa, it only took almost a year for me to get the feel of things. Yes!

If stage one is the time of the Grocery Store, and stage two was the time of Normal, stage three is definitely the time of Home. While I was in Australia, Samoa was the place to compare to. The stores are so big here! There are places that are open 24 hours a day?! I get this whole seat on the bus to myself??!! And while I actually felt homesick in Australia because so much of it reminded me of the States, Samoa was still the place to come back to. I was waiting at my gate in the Sydney airport, and a woman from my village saw me and gave me a hug – she was on the same flight as me – and it made me so happy. I couldn’t wait to get back to my cat, my families, my friends, my kids – it’s all mine now. More than being normal, things are becoming familiar. As soon as the school year started, people began telling me that this is my last year here, that I will be leaving soon. I always think “Don’t talk about it! December doesn’t have to be so close, and I’d rather focus on everything that is happening now instead of talking about something so far, but so close, in the future!” December really does feel far away, but as I’ve said so many times before, there is nothing left of my time in Peace Corps. These months will just fly by (although I am sure there will be plenty of times when the days move slower than a snail). I had a dream a few weeks ago (no, I didn’t end up in King Soopers) that reinforced this feeling for me. I dreamt that PC called us all into the office and told us we were being transferred to Armenia for our remaining 9 months of service. I spent one night in Armenia, woke up freezing to death, and told the administrative officer (the Samoa AO recently transferred to Armenia) “I need to go back to Samoa. I am devastated (that was my exact word choice in the dream) that I am not with my students right now.”She told me to just take the next plane back to Samoa, and so I did. Samoa is home in so many ways, but with the thought of returning to the States so soon, I’m developing a double notion of home. I have my home here, and I have the home that is waiting for me back in the States. It’s hard to imagine life back in the States – what am I going to do? Will I remember which side of the road to drive on? How long will I be entertained by limitless internet access? Mostly, I think about what food I am going to eat first – it’s still a toss-up between a burrito, hot wings, or a bagel – but I can’t really imagine life in the States and I don’t really want to. My time here is so limited, and therefore so precious, that I don’t really want to spend any of it thinking about anything else. (Again, this is how I feel right now, so remind me of this when I have 6 months left and can’t manage another day without Cheez-its and with too many kids who call themselves my best friend.)

It only Samoa had a King Soopers, I think everything would be perfect.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I Don't Give a Damn About My Bad Reputation

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.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I was spending some time with my host family way back when I first moved to my village, and one of the kids asked me “What is the color of America?” I asked her to repeat herself a few times, but she always said the same thing. Unsure exactly what she meant, I said “red, white, and blue,” thinking of the flag. Then she told me “The color of Samoa is green.” Sa’o lelei. The Samoan flag is also red, white, and blue, but the color of Samoa is, without a doubt, green. Green also happens to be the color of envy, and it is my depraved and decadent desire to inspire envy in you, the faithful reader of my blog, for my beautiful, green, tropical island life. My apologies to those of you back in the States stuck in the unpredictable almost-end-of-winter, but life is a beach in Samoa 

The things that always get me about Samoa are the transition times – sunrise and sunset. I always say Samoa has an infinite sky, and I can’t adequately describe how beautiful it is. I love how fire lights the sky as the sun comes up, but recently I watched a sunrise in shades of blue instead of shades of fire, and it was equally as beautiful as any other sunrise I have seen. The sunrise paints the sky, as the first gleam of color shades the horizon, then everything shades into red, pink, orange, and finally the sun inches over the horizon, throwing light across the ocean and into a golden blue sky. The colors are fierce. While the sunrise is always stunning, I think I like sunset a little more. The sun comes up to the accompaniment of roosters and other stirrings of life, but the sun goes down in the calm. I watch the color fade from the sky, a reverse fire silhouetted against feathery palm trees, until all that remains is a dim outline of trees against black. I don’t have the words to paint the picture that actually happens every day, but trust me, it is amazing.

I pulled this excerpt from one of the books I was reading because he is also trying to capture the unspeakable beauty of art in motion across the sky.

I press into the desert, aiming for a spot to watch the sun break. Every ten steps I check the east and it changes as I walk. Black gives to blue and it is a blue like no blue on any painting or picture. This is living blue, changing from one hue to another, shifting slowly the way color only does at morning.
…To the east, the first tint of red arrives in weak shades through overpowering blue. There are clouds now, and as the light comes in slow, the great vapors establish form; tall clouds with thirty-thousand-foot lifts. And though tremendous in size, they are guarded by the length and depth of a black-blue sky…
Morning lifts with her finger first, stretching her long bones into the clouds…The black hills ghost to gray, revealing crags and cliff lifting up toward their summits.

Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts

No, I really can’t do it justice, but hopefully these pictures will inspire some “green” thoughts for you if my words can’t 