Thursday, October 6, 2011

365 Days of a Samoan Summer

I write this on the eve of our one year anniversary; when it’ll make it to blog form is unknown. I’m not sure I’m willing to offer any great abstract concepts at the current time about what one year stuck on an island in a foreign culture has taught me. I’ve learned things about myself as well as lost things (or perhaps they’re just dormant for the time being). I’ve wished I hadn’t come here while already knowing what I’ll miss, while already dreading a few goodbyes at the airport, already knowing there will be people I will never see again, but who I will miss for a lifetime.
I’ve been to four of Samoa’s ten islands (Upolu, Savaii, Manono, Namu’a). I’ve tipped a dug-out canoe…twice…by accident. I’ve swum under a freshwater waterfall. I’ve heard the ghosts of Samoa singing under moonlight. I’ve eaten palolo and sea urchin; I’ve declined fruit bat. I’ve been stung by one giant centipede and killed a dozen more. (As I write this, there is a dead giant spider on my windowsill.) My possessions have been gnawed on by rats. I’ve been to the national hospital and three different clinics. I have not gotten typhoid or ghiardia, two of the weight-loss programs Samoa offers. I’ve been to a circus and a hip hop dance competition. I have frequented YNot, VBar, On the Rocks, and EvaEva, but I have yet to step foot in Crabbers. I’ve been proposed to and I’ve climbed a coconut tree (just kidding, the coconut tree is a lie.) I’ve opened a coconut with a machete, strangled a chicken with my bare hand, and failed to weave a palm leaf basket. I’ve been to Samoan fa’alavelaves: weddings, funerals, riding the bus. I’ve been on a bus that broke down and another that blew a tire. I’ve been awoken in the middle of the night by a drunk guy wanting me to come outside (he was then fined $1000 tala by the village –nobody messes with the Peace Corps). I have “gone local,” dating two Samoan boys, one of whom has become my best Samoan friend. I’ve tried to impress people with my Spanish when my Samoan wasn’t good enough. I’ve marched in the Samoan Independence Day parade. I’ve performed the “Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy” by Franz Doppler on national television. I’ve met a Minnesotan who played under Dr. Nimmo. I led the flute section of the National Samoan Orchestra at the Fourth of July celebration at the ambassador’s house. I’ve been very rudely asked to leave the ambassador’s house (some people would call this being kicked out). I’ve learned the dance to “Thriller” with members of the orchestra. I’ve danced a Samoan taupo, a sasa, and a dance to the song “Fa’amalolosi.” I’ve lost a grandmother. I’ve said goodbye to another volunteer. I’ve missed the births of new family members, and the wedding of a cousin. I’ve watched children be hit with hands, rocks, sticks, and pipes. I’ve wanted to hit children. I haven’t hit any children. I’ve read sixty-four books, and watched almost two seasons of “Glee.” I thought I was going to be trampled at the wharf Easter weekend. I have run and jumped off a very high dock numerous times at the legendary Peace Corps hangout of Lucia’s (best stress reliever in Samoa). I requested a village transfer. I’ve been told “You are doing more harm than good.” I’ve been told how pretty I am, that I have cat eyes. I was among the last people on earth to say goodbye to 2010. I had my very first truly snowless Christmas, but my twenty-fourth birthday did not disappoint. I’ve gotten used to everything not going as you expect it to.
Warm showers are a luxury. Bingo paper, no matter what some people do, will never be toilet paper. Ants can and will go everywhere. The mosquito net is your friend. Rain pounding on a tin roof is a sound of relief, of renewal. Brown-bottle Vailima is better than green. The rhyme “I love you, I love you, I love you, I do, but don’t get excited, I love monkeys too,” is always a hit. Teaching every subject in English when half the class doesn’t understand still doesn’t make sense to me. Taro will never be as good as a potato. Always wear blue when Manu Samoa plays. Always. Getting a package or a letter will make any day better. Always clean the leaves out of your yard. Always. McDonalds is a guilty pleasure and the Yacht Club is the best restaurant in the country. Fish and chips is its own food group. Cereal covered in ants is not to be thrown away. The Peace Corps medical manual and kit are saviors. You can never smell too good. You can never have too much phone credit, but don’t let anyone know that. CCK rocks. People you’ve never seen before will know your name and what you had for dinner last night. Everywhere you go there will be someone who knows you. The world is not small; this is just an island. Do whatever you want on Sundays (after you go to church), just don’t let anyone know you aren’t sleeping. People do not eat grubs, contrary to the episode of “Bizarre Foods.” The current season of “Survivor” was filmed on my island. As much and as often as you clean up those little effing millipedes, there will be more in the morning. Mortein will kill cockroaches in a blink and probably an entire country, but it still won’t kill those tiny brown ants. What’s up with that?
And now for my very serious and honest one-year-in advice to Peace Corps prospective. You will not change the world in the Peace Corps. If you’re lucky you might make a difference. You will win no cultural battles; you won’t even be able to begin to fight them. But when it comes to your everyday life, you must never be a push-over. This is an experience unlike any other; it will throw every challenge at you that it can, and more. Survivor Samoa. Who knew?
One year in and I still can’t put my lavalava on right.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Sure Rains a Lot Here"

"Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder....And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles."

On the eve of leaving the United States and setting out for Samoa with the Peace Corps, all of us wide-eyed frightened little trainees were in a hotel in LA. Also at the hotel was a group of men in one of the military corps. An old man walked up to one of the girls in our group.
     "What are you all here for?"
     "We're leaving for the Peace Corps."
     He offered his hand. "Well, thank you for your service."

Let's face it, the Peace Corps was created by a president facing a war that was just around the corner. We'd all be naive to think Kennedy and Shriver created the Peace Corps just so some hippies could go plant some trees in Peru or teach English in Botswana. This is no Debbie-Do-Gooder mission. After being in the Peace Corps for almost ten months, I've certainly developed new ideas about this government Corps. We are in a battle. A preventative battle. One of the goals of the Peace Corps is to promote an understanding in America of other cultures and in other cultures of America. In short, we're in a subversive mind-battle. Of course, I'm not comparing the Peace Corps to being in war (however, I do think a lot of things soldiers and Peace Corps volunteers go through  culturally are probably similar), but we are providing a service to our country not completely unlike the military corps. As a matter of fact, when we were sworn in, we too had to take the "I will protect the US against enemies foreign and domestic" oath. I think some of the theory in originally creating the Peace Corps was just to put Americans in foreign countries to sort of make friends. Perhaps one day a world leader would say, "Hold up guys. Maybe we shouldn't nuke the US. I had a teacher once who was a Peace Corps volunteer and she was the best teacher I ever had." Bam. War averted. OK, obviously it's not that easy, but you get the idea.

The (perhaps correct) stereotype of Peace Corps volunteers is that we're all "Down with the man" and anti-war. But the joke's on us. The Peace Corps got the type of people who would never volunteer to fight in a war, to do just that. Let's travel back to the opening quote by Eugene Debs. It's no secret that the "elite" often get out of fighting in our wars and often lower-middle and lower class people end up dying in these wars that they can't so easily get out of. The easiest example is that if you were in college during the Vietnam War, you could not get drafted. Well, thinking about that master and subject class idea, where does that put Peace Corps volunteers? As far as I'm concerned we're serving our country too, nonviolently, and with a pen instead of a sword (ten tala to whoever can tell me who said that phrase because I can't remember right now). Unlike those who didn't go to Vietnam because they were getting a college education, one has to h ave a college degree to be in the Peace Corps. Are Peace Corps volunteers perhaps some third category? Not subject class because we had a choice and were not forced to do this out of some sort of necessity, but not master class either because if we were part of this category, we definitely wouldn't be here. But we've got the education of master and perhaps the wherewithal of subject. Maybe the secret is this isn't a subject class fighting a master class' war. Perhaps it is truly just a class of people who believes no class should have to declare or fight a war.

There is a poem written by a soldier during the Vietnam War that I consistently come back to when considering my current Samoan experience:

APO 96225 by Larry Rottmann

A young man once went off to war in a far country,
and when he had time, he wrote home and said,
“Dear Mom, sure rains a lot here.”

But his mother — reading between the lines as mothers
always do — wrote back,
“We’re quite concerned. Tell us what it’s really like.”

And the young man responded,
“Wow! You ought to see the funny monkeys.”

To which the mother replied,
“Don’t hold back. How is it there?”

And the young man wrote,
“The sunsets here are spectacular!”

In her next letter, the mother pleaded,
“Son, we want you to tell us everything. Everything!”

So the next time he wrote, the young man said,
“Today I killed a man. Yesterday, I helped drop napalm
on women and children.”

And the father wrote right back,
“Please don’t write such depressing letters. You’re
upsetting your mother.”

So, after a while,
the young man wrote,
“Dear Mom, sure rains here a lot.”

Imagine this next bit as a cute little footnote:
Here is another tricky thing the Peace Corps accomplishes with us. It's no secret that a lot of volunteers meet their future spouse in their country of service. But here's something probably lesser well-known. If a volunteer gets pregnant by a host-country national during her two years of service and decides to keep the baby, she is sent back to the US where she will give birth; she also cannot finish her two years of service. (You can also not get married while in service.) So this half-American, half-host country baby has conveniently been born in the US, which grants it US citizenship, but not dual citizenship. So this baby can only legally have loyalty to the US. Now say a volunteer in Samoa goes back home to have her half-American, half-Samoan baby and sixteen or so years later, there's a war in American Samoa as Samoan warriors threaten their lives (think "Boy Meets World" when Cory, Shawn, and Topanga are no that quiz show and get speared by Samoans for every wrong answer). Well, naturally America w2ould step in and this little child has to fight with American Samoa and try to kill his half-brother who grew up in Samoa. (Like the Civil War, pitting brother against brother.) Oh, tricky, tricky Peace Corps.  (If some of my logistics are wrong, at least this is only a footnote.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Red Sequined Flip Flops

Bed Bugs, Giant Centipedes, and Rats. Oh My!
If Dorothy had figured out within the first ten minutes of the film that the Wizard of Oz was never going to be what she expected, would she still have done the whole thing?
I once knew a place that was black, white, gray, and sometimes a tone of sepia would pop in there. Growing up, as we all know, steals that easy dichotomy of right and wrong, black and white. We’re thrown into a land of color, Technicolor, and as we try to figure out what we should be doing with our lives, how to make this all matter, we find ourselves following yellow brick roads. Well, throw me into a blue and white checkered smock because now that I’m in Samoa, my hair is often in braids like dear Dorothy (one braid and to the side, but trust me, the metaphor will work despite the lack of hair fidelity).
The witch’s hat has been replaced with a pair of sunglasses and a fake flower. She doesn’t have green skin, but the Wicked Witch of the West does strike fear into little short people. When my nemesis appears, children stop whatever they’re doing, laughter ceases, smiles fade, eyes lower, and voices quiet. Fear. The little munchkins are truly afraid of her. For the sake of ambiguity, I will not state who the Wicked Witch is, but if you have spoken with me in the last few months, trust your instinct. She is who you think she is. And if a house fell on her, a house we will call MESC, I wouldn’t be heartbroken. I would probably do a celebratory click of the heels with Toto. Toto, of course, would be my little brother from Tafitoala, Tala. I don’t think he’d be afraid to bite the heel of Mrs. Gulch, which he would immediately follow with a dance of his own.
I’m afraid I wasn’t able to imagine quite perfect metaphors for Dorothy’s three amigos. Rather, the three things they search for, I fear I have lost and am now trying to regain. Ironically, these three things, heart, intelligence, and courage, were the very things that made me travel to the fabled land of Oz. Facing a completely new culture, one has to compromise oneself. Don’t be frightened by that statement; it’s a fact of Oz, a fact that anyone hoping to be caught in that tornado and thrown into a foreign land needs to know before looking into that crystal ball. Vast generalizations are often made by us volunteers from observations we have made. These stereotypes may be wrong, possibly, but this is quite a small place and we have seen most of it and in so doing, we have unfortunately lost some of the tolerance, some of that hope that compelled us to come here in the first place. I, for one, have also realized that maybe, just maybe, grad school would have been the right decision immediately after college. I’m dying to learn more, but my legs are wobbly and the straw is falling out. Courage? Well, it got me here. I’m counting on it to help me stay.
I don’t know where those flying monkeys got their wings, or their little vests and fez hats, but if I did, I would surely purchase them in bulk and outfit the cheeky men of Samoa to match their Oz counterparts. Ever-annoying, and really just clueless, a lot of Samoan men, not all, but a lot have no idea what it means to be respectful to women. There is no place one can go without an annoying flying monkey saying, “Hey baby,” or grazing your leg as you walk down the sidewalk. Just as you are about to pick an apple from a tree, the tree turns on you, and a freakin’ flying monkey comes out of a nowhere to ruin any good mood that existed. Can’t the monkeys just take off the wings, lose the vest, forget pretensions and be respectful? Why they always gotta be harassing Dorothy? She’s just doing her best, trying to get home in one piece, and maybe along the way, saving those little munchkins from a tyrannical ruler.
Now, Glinda the Good Witch. I bet if one were to look up literary or film analyses of the Wiz, Glinda probably turns out to represent some sort of hallucinogen. Well, not much has changed. Glinda, with her feel-good vibe, is most likely Samoa’s own Vailima beer. Need I elaborate more?
Sadly, my Oz doesn’t have nearly as much singing or dancing. Unless we are all at VBar. And thanks to one volunteer, we can all do the hip-out-swivel-drink-in-the-air-eyes-to-the-sky choreographed number. Oddly enough, though, we do often find ourselves rocking out to the occasional Backstreet Boys jam. (Sorry NSYNC; I know, one of you brought sexy back and all, but “Bye, Bye, Bye” just hasn’t stood the test of time like “I Want it That Way.”)
How does the story end? Well, we all know it. After Dorothy’s long trek, she finally meets the Wizard of Oz. She pulls back that curtain and realizes he was never what he was meant to be. Well, I’ve pulled back that curtain too and behind it is disillusionment and disappointment. That man behind the curtain is the whole Peace Corps experience, the whole bravado. The mythology.
Although the Wizard of Oz so succinctly tells us the moral of the endeavor, even though it may be true, I will not be so cliché, but I will end with a little T.S. Eliot.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Fa'alavelave of the Red Puletasi

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fa'alavelave is defined as "a huge pain in the ass." In short, anything that is immensely incomvenient or causes some sort of disturbance is a fa'alavelave. Funerals, weddings, going to Apia, strappy sandals in a country in which one must take off shoes before entering a home, trying to get something sewn on extremely short notice.

To my great dismay and frustration, last Friday I discovered that I was supposed to have a brand new red puletasi for this Monday for training that was taking place at our school. As another pisikoa said the other day, "Knowing what's going on in your life is a luxury in Samoa." And let the fa'alavelave begin.

Saturday after an early rehearsal with the National Samoan Orchestra, I ran to a store in Apia to buy the puletasi fabric, ventured back to my village, and quickly walked to a neighbor's house. Sina would accompany me to the suisui (seamstress) in my village in order to quickly get around any language or cultural barriers that would slow the puletasi process. (For those unfortunately unfamiliar with Samoan fashion, a puletasi is what teachers wear to school; it's basically a wrap-around skirt with a top. A puletasi immediately identifies anyone as a teacher. I now have ten, which I think is equivalent to having seventy pairs of shoes.) After arriving at the suisui's house and unceremoniously waking up one of the family members, Sina and I quickly realized after said family member monotonously tries to wake the suisui from her slumber in the Samoan way we have all still raise an eyebrow at, that we were out of luck. This lady ain't waking up to sew no puletasi today.

Next option, a fa'afafine suisui in Lalomauga, the next village over. (Fa'afafine is the third gender in Samoa, also known as fifty-fifties. In a short generalization that does not do the subject justice, a fa'afafine is a man who was raised as a girl so that she can perform both male and female duties. Sometimes fa'afafines are homosexual, sometimes not. They usually always dress as a woman.) We get Sina's brother, Peni (pronounced Benny) to give us a ride there (which is a fa'alavelave in and of itself in a country where cars are not the norm). We arrive at the suisui's house, but she is not there. So we leave the fabric with the intention of coming back the next day before church to get my measurements taken. She'll then sew the puletasi and we will retrieve it Sunday night, just in time for school Monday.

However. (Of course there's a 'however.' This wouldn't be a fa'alavelave without a 'however.') My pulea'oga (principal) came over Saturday night to inform me that I must take my fabric to a suisui in Solosolo, a village halfway between here and Apia, because she will put a pattern on the fabric and sew the puletasi so all the teachers are completely uniform. Is it possible, my ever-so-understanding pule wants to know, if I can get my fabric back from the suisui in Lalomauga? Why, of course. It's not like I've been going out of my way for this puletasi anyway.

Sunday morning comes and I head to Sina's house. She thinks I've arrived to go get my measurements taken, but no. I have to inform her that we somehow have to culturally and politely get my fabric back. Turns out, this isn't so hard. My pule has informed me that she will come to my house sometime Sunday night to take me to Solosolo. What time, you ask. Well, who knows? That's really not important. Needless to say, my pule doesn't come. Luckily, the puletasi will be for Tuesday and not the very next day. One day of wiggle room.

After a day of boring training that doesn't really apply to pisikoa, I head to Solosolo with the teacher who lives there. The suisui isn't home. Is she at bingo? Nope. She's in Apia. We'll just have to wait until she gets back. So, while my teacher, Lola, stays at bingo, I head to the nearby faleoloa (shop) where the pisikoa from Solosolo, Katie, hangs out. and we kafao. This word, kafao, learn it. Next time you are in Samoa, just say, "Kafao," and you won't have to do anything.

After drinking two free Cokes from the store and chatting with the store owner and her daughter Jebra (that's kind of a sweet name) about some slang we recently learned in our own training (things like: "Aua le pesto," or "Sa pese agapo?", or what's good to know but never to say to someone: "Fai ska mea?") the little pepe (baby) Angelo toddles outside. This kid is adorable and makes me hardcore miss Tala from Tafitoala. Lo, as he's called (Samoan names get shortened to the last part), can hold up one finger when you ask how old he is, moos like a cow when you say, in Samoan, "cry cow", and when you say the Samoan word for 'tease,' he sticks out his tongue. What more can you ask for in a one year old?

Well, bingo finishes and the suisui still hasn't shown. So Katie and I head to her 'house' on the school compound which is really a small classroom that has been renovated into a suitable living situation. She gives me the grand tour and shows me the whole in the fence from where, the previous night, someone got into the compound and...wait for it...stole four pairs of underwear which were hung out to dry, which, inevitably and undeniably becomes a huge joke in her village. And let's face it, it is pretty funny. Creepy, but here we like to say that it's funny and a good Peace Corps story to tell later. After sufficient kafao at her house, we head back to the faleoloa so we dont' get stuck at her place during sa, or curfew. And we just sit next to the faleoloa while the matai (high chiefs) patrol the roads to make sure no one is walking. this is the allotted daily time for prayer. Do it. If you don't do it, make everyone think you do it. Turn down the volume on your TVs, pray if you really want, sing if your ambitious (or just really want the village to know your undying devotion), maybe a little 'Fa'fetai i le Atua'.

(At some point earlier, I really can't remember when, the suisui did show. We bring her my fabric, she takes my measurements, and then we wait, like everything in Samoa, we wait.) Back to curfew. It's uma (done). So we go to Lola's house and Katie and I depart ways so she can get back to her house before her water is turned off. Lola's family has just finished singing their evening prayer and I awkwardly sit next to the man of the house who is seventy-six. We talk about how old my parents are, if they're still alive (oddly enough, this is not a strange question here, the assumption being that if a palagi leaves their family it must be because they have no family), the shock that I'm an only child (something that always baffles Samoans) and that I'm a long way from home. I talk to Lola's daughter who is a year 6 at my school and watch while a few babies wander around. At one point, Lola's thirty year old son comes out of nowhere and chats with me. He gets a phone call and leaves and the man of the house asks, "Do you know him?" Nope, not at all.

Eventually Lola and I head back to the suisui's house. Her husband has just arrived and he will do the print. Her name is Vailolo and his name is Toa. They are two of the nicest people I've met recently. While he rolls the print on the fabric and she dries the print with a blow-dryer, some neighborhood tamaiti (children) call out "PALAGI! PALAGI!" (White person! Non-Samoan! Foreigner! Take your pick.) I wave. They continue shouting as their giggles permeate the night. Eventually I yell back, "O fea le palagi? O fea? Oe?" (Where's the palagi? Where? You?") This gets huge laughs from the kids and from Lola and Vailolo. It might've scored me some brownie points with Lola too, and I will take anything to impress the teachers at my school. The kids keep coming around, sticking their faces around the corner, so I make faces at them, and they laugh, and run. every once in a while, a call of PALAGI will be heard again. I catch one of the kids before he runs away and reply, "SAMOAN!" Again, this cracks everyone up and I am immensely pleased with the reaction. This is the kind of politically incorrect joke that wins hearts here. But Vailolo and Toa are super cool and know that it isn't the coolest thing for their kids to be shouting out my skin color, so eventually they yell, "Soia. Sasa." (Stop, or I'll hit you.) the sewing machine continues, Vailolo's foot pushes the pedal, a pig is found under a bench in the kitchen, a cat with half a tail walks around. And rain pounds on the metal roofs. Rain here is like rain I've experienced nowhere else, perhaps because the sound of the drops echoes off the roofs and bounces between houses.

I'm using Samoan when I can and Vailolo and Toa dont' care if I can't say everything in Samoan. The sewing is nearing its conclusion and as I try on the top piece and tie the bottom around my waist, Vailolo tells me that next time I need a puletasi made, she will do it for free. This is one of the nicest things someone has offered to do for me in a while, and I feel honored. Toa tells me I'm the first palagi he has hosted and as he and his nephew drive me back to Falefa around 10:30 with a finally-finished red puletasi, he invites me to toana'i (Sunday post-church lunch) any time I can come. As some of you readers may know, I've had a really, really difficult time lately, but Toa says possibly the one thing I've needed to hear for a while now: "You're volunteering here to help the children of Samoa. You're in a completely different country. A free puletasi is the least we can do for you. Thank you."

I sit in the back seat, a slight smile on my face, maybe a tear or two appearing in the corner of my eye, as I look at the stars in the sky and the ocean waves crashing against the rocks next to the road, and the wind blows back my hair.

And that red puletasi? It might be my favorite one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What Am I Doing Here?

Besides asking myself that question quite often, I'll tell you what I'm doing here.

Basically, every morning I wake up and go to school, which is roughly a ten minute walk from my house. As soon as school starts, the kids have assembly. They pray, sing, and practice marching drills. I'm not sure what for. And they aren't seriously marching; hardly any of them even march in beat. Two year 8 boys get the cool job of doing the drumming; one of them holds an old cracker tin while the other drums the beat with two sticks. I hope I get to be them when I'm a year 8 boy. The school also has prefects. Yep, like Harry Potter. And also like the magical wizard, we have houses. On sports day, every other Friday, the school divides into four houses, blue, red, yellow, and green, to play various games. I'm leader of the red house! I like to think of us as Gryffindor, but as our past performances in the games might indicate, I think we're probably actually Hufflepuff.
The Green House

Sports Day!

Anyway, after assembly, it's time for school and time for me to teach. I start the day teaching year 7 English. And it's not like I'm teaching English how we know it; I'm teaching a foreign language. And the ability levels of the kids are all over the board. Keep in mind, they've been learning English since year one (equivalent to our kindergarten). So my year 7s are about 6th graders, about 11 years old, but their English reading and writing skills re probably equivalent to our kindergarten-third graders. Their speaking ability...some don't understand any English while a few can hold an open-ended conversation with me.

We teach from the scheme, a book thing given to us by the Ministry of Culture, Education, and Sports (Ministry! Harry Potter again.) The scheme is a blessing and a curse. It gives us an idea of what to teach, but it is also way past the level of most of the kids and wants you to fit three hours worth of material into one class period. The scheme is basically impossible to use how it was meant to be used.

"Man, detention with Sema sure is fun!"

And my discipline program for the chilluns, since I don't hit them, is to write their name on the board when they misbehave. Three checks next to your name, and you're out. Once they get three, then they get one mark on the detention poster. Dun dun dun. One mark equals fifteen minutes of detention, which I have them serve after school one day a week. In detention, they usually work on homework if I've given them any for then ext day, or they write their spelling words until I tell them they can go. Sometimes a few of the boys just rack up detention marks, so I'll have them come over to my house and pick up the rubbish, and by "rubbish" I mean leaves. That's right, leaves in your yard are a big no-no. And I hardly ever clean up my leaves. I think it embarrasses my host family too. They've started having the kids come over after pastor's school on Monday to clean up my yard. I'm pretty sure I'm the equivalent of the person back home who lets their grass get way too long in the summer. My yard is an eyesore. I think it's kind of funny.
"Geez, why doesn't that girl freaking mow her lawn?!"

Then I usually work on lesson plans until lunch/interval. Lunch is provided for the teachers by the families of the students. Every day, a different family brings lunch. It is usually taro (which I don't eat) and some kind of soup with chicken, and either tea, coffee, or niu (coconut) to drink. Yes, we drink straight out of coconuts. A few of the moms set up a little stand outside and serve the kids noodles for lunch.I'm not sure if the kids have to pay or not; I think they do. After interval, I usually teach a remedial reading class for the struggling readers in year 7. Sometimes we have class in the library or outside under the breadfruit tree. This class is a challenge; it takes most of the kids who won't listen to me and the kids who can't read and puts them all together. Right now, we're just working on phonics. If I can get these kids to read by the end of the school, year, I will consider it a success. (The Samoan school year starts in February with breaks in May and October. School ends in mid December.)

Monono Island
Rob, Olivia, and I Tipped the Canoe in the Background
Twice the Previous Day
 After reading, I hang out for a while and work on lesson plans again until school is done, which is never the same time. Some days I stay longer to do make-up spelling/vocab tests, or for homework help, or when it's a detention day. ((I'm also thinking of doing an extra reading class after school one day a week for the kids in my year 7 who are good readers. A lot of the smart girls always ask if they can join my reading class.) Or some days I'll leave earlier if I have to go into Apia for something. And every other Wednesday is teacher payday (not for me...we don't get paid, we're volunteers, remember) so that means school gets done early and all the teachers go to Apia.

To end the day, I usually walk home with some of the kids, usually they year 7 girls who love to giggle when creepy guys stare at me too long or the younger guys try to flirt. The year 7 girls get a kick out of it. And some days, there's a little boy who always greets me with, "Fa, Palagi!"

The Giant Centipede that Bit Me
This is After I Killed It

Coolest Little Brother I've Ever Had

Visiting Tafitoala
(Clockwise from Top Left)
Avei, Oneaka, Me, Poulima, Laupama, Ruka

Lauina, Baby Mikaele, and Sa

Keeping Cool at Sports Day

Eni, Lesina, Ina, Lisa, ma Rosanna Chilling
On My Porch

Boat to Monono

The Real World--Season Two

It's a world of bills, taxes, employment, unemployment, houses, or living with the parents. I believe this is known as "the real world." You know, that phrase that was drilled into our heads over and over again in high school.

A few days ago, with the miracle of a borrowed computer and skype, I talked to some of my best friends back home in the good ol' US of A. An offhand comment was made, something to the tune of, "Sam, when you get back to the real world..." Well, throughout college, I always joked about never joining the real world, and let's face it, college was definitely not the real world we'd been told about. Even when we pisikoas first arrived in Samoa and were walking down the sidewalks of Apia dripping in sweat, I was still joking about not being in the real world. However, after living here for more than five months, it's become painfully clear that this is a world more real than what most of my friends back home are experiencing.

No, I am not living in what high school indoctrinated us to believe would be "the real world." No, I'm not looking for jobs back home, or applying to grad schools, or paying bills and taxes (that's a lie, I'm still paying taxes and the student loans are still rolling in and grad school will happen when I get back home). But I am living in a world that everyday tests who I am, that everyday challenges everything I thought I ever was. Last time I checked, job applications don't make you question who you are or what you are made of.

I'm living in a world where people tell me men are better than women, where my words are twisted, a world world where I see children hit every day, where I'm told to simply "lead by example" when it comes to corporal punishment. This is a world of "Hey baby"ies and being randomly touched in a crowd, a world that makes me glad I took self-defense my last semester of college (let's hope I never need to use it). This so-called not-real-world is a place where I had to evacuate my house on the ocean after the earthquake in Japan because of a tsunami scare. (Samoa was hit by a tsunami in September 2009; you ever hear of that one?) A world where I am constantly being judged on how many leaves are in my yard, by every preconceived (usually wrong) notion people have of palagis (my oh-so-favorite word), and my level of Samoan. Again, let's be real. When I go back to the States, I'm probably going to be able to speak Samoan better than, what, 90% of the country? (And how ethnocentric is it that Samoans learn to speak English because ours is the dominant world language. In other words, we don't have to bother to learn Samoan.) A world where, when I can politely do so, I throw in that I can also speak Spanish just so I don't look like some ignorant, young girl, which, I'm sure a lot of people think I am. This is a place where I am solely seen as a pretty little girl teaching school; I am no longer the smart, talented, flute-playi9ng, writing, performing, phi beta kappa person who I was back home. Nobody sees that here (I played flute with the National Samoan Orchestra on TV and more people recognized me when they saw me on TV in the audience at Samoa's Best Dance Crew.) This is a life of just hoping some of my students will be literate by the end of the year, of wanting them to want to learn, but I fear that is too much to ask. This unreal world is a place where I worry about three little girls with an alcoholic father. It's somewhere where I've turned down marriage proposals. I've been bitten by a poisonous Giant Centipede and yeah, that might be something out of "Alice and Wonderland" or the movie "James and the Giant Peach" (I kid you not, that effing centipede looked just like the one from th movie), but how often do you get bit back home by a bug that makes you simultaneously laugh and cry as the injury swells?

No,I'm not living in y our "real world." I'm living in a world that's realer than real. (Ahem, Sean Cobb, I believe we talked about a very similar phrase last year in Senior Sem. I think I've finally figured out what it means..)

So for anyone who thinks I'm not living in the real world, I would encourage you to think of the last time you saw a piece of wood broken on the back of a child.

Monday, February 28, 2011

One Stick at a Time

I have made it no secret to those I've talked to at home and some of the other volunteers here that the corporal punishment/child abuse that I see nearly every day is quite bothersome, to say the least. This post is a continuation of a past post entitled "Observations on Sasa."

My presence, which would hopefully prevent some corporal punishment, hasn't really seemed to accomplish that. Today may have been the first day at school I didn't see a child get hit really hard; probably because I was the one teaching them. (That's right, today was my first official day teaching my own classes! I teach Year 7 English and a remedial reading class for some of the Year 7 students. They're about sixth graders, but their US English equivalent is about kindergarten to 3rd grade). However, sometimes I do overhear in Samoan, "I'd hit you right now, but Sema's here."

A few weeks ago, I had my first (and only) triumph against corporal punishment. It was the first time in Samoa that I have felt like I did anything that I envisioned Peace Corps to be about. The Year 7 teacher, our only male teacher, hit three students in one day with a huge stick. And when I say stick, I don't mean some little branch. I mean a 5 to 10 centimeter width stick. To the back and to the legs. It was the first time I ever showed a reaction to a beating. All the kids know I don't like it when they get hit, so when these kids got beat with a stick, all their eyes were on me to see my reaction. Usually, I try to look judgemental or like I am looking my nose down at the teacher doing the beating. But this time, I couldn't conceal a flinch and a wince. I wanted to take the kids outside and comfort them, check for whelts. I didn't. But at interval (lunch/recess) I talked to the Year 7 teacher. "Can you not use the stick to hit the kids? It's really hard and it leaves marks." That honestly was the jist of my argument. He didn't say he would stop and just kind of tried to justify himself: "They make me so mad." Well, later in the day, I noticed him getting mad again, but he wasn't going for the stick or raising a hand. Then he explained half in Samoan, half in English that "Sema gave him some advice" and he won't use the stick to hit the kids anymore. One of the boys, Junior, turned to me and gave me a thumbs up. Another boy, William, mouthed "Thank you." At least for that one moment, my being here actually made a difference. ...........That, however, doesn't mean that the kids don't still get hit.

A few days ago, I was in my kitchen and I heard these loud whacks. I looked out a window and a group of kids was staring into the not-so-far distance. I looked out another window, and there was the faife'au (pastor) beating two girls with a giant stick. My first reaction was, "What kind of a place is this where 'a man of God' is beating children with sticks?!" But then another Peace Corps reminded me that, "Pastors back home rape little kids." That did not help. Besides, pastors raping children is not happening right in front of my eyes; it is not something that I can stop so easily.

This next one qualifies as a Peace Corps horror story, so if you're squeamish or have an all-too-romanticized view of the Peace Corps, turn away, and join me in the next paragraph. This story comes from another Peace Corps volunteer here in Samoa. The taule'ale'a (untitled men) were at his school cutting the grass with machetes (that's just how they do it). One of the men had his hand in a door. A kid accidentally shut the door on his hand. The man then sliced the kid's hand open with the machete and proceeded to chase the kid while the child's hand gushed blood. Not until a teacher yelled, "Stop. The Peace Corps is here" did the man stop.

Another kind of disturbing facet of the hitting culture here is that girls will even whale on other girls. Or male teachers will slap female students. Oh, and as a reminder, or in case I haven't said it yet, corporal punishment is illegal in Samoa.

Back when we lived in Tafitoala, the first time we ever went to watch youth siva practice, the woman in charge hit nearly every person there. (These are 15-23 year-olds we're talking about.) It became a game for Mikaele and I to guess who would get hit next; it was usually my host cousin Sene. Anyway, afterward, one of the girls came up to us. "Do you know why she was hitting us so much? It was because she was showing off for you two." Can we just remind everyone that showing your power or dominance by hitting someone else went out of fashion quite some time ago?

More observations:
The school kids do this thing when they get nervous or when they get an answer wrong or don't know the answer. The put up their arm and scratch their head. We were told in training that this was a mannerism a lot of kids have. But after being in the school, I think I've figured out where this conditioned response has come from. Brace yourself, 75% of the time that kids get hit in school is because they got the answer wrong. Kids put up their arm when they don't know the answer or get it wrong, not because their head itches; they're blocking a hit they think will happen.
It's also nice to know that if you're about to get slapped, puff out your cheek. Seems to temper the blow.

And here is a recent journal entry from Feb. 24th.
I think I just made a huge realization about hitting the kids....My pule said something I've heard multiple times before: Samoan kids need to be hit. They need to be hit; it's all they know; it's the only discipline they'll respond too. Basically, beating them is for their own good. And here's what I realized: we said the exact same thing about African Americans during slavery. The need to be whipped; it's all they'll respond to. As if Samoan children and black slaves were somehow genetically or biologically incapable of understanding any sort of discipline besides physical abuse. The kids aren't what need to change; it is the culture and the attitudes of those doing the hitting. I've often worried that the kids don't really care that I won't hit them, that they think or want me to hit them, and yes, they're right. Sasa is what they know, but that doesn't mean they like it or that it doesn't hurt.

Can I write something amazing about the beating of Africans during slavery in tandem with the "Samoan kids need to be hit" atttitude an present it to my teachers? Will the racism thing even translate (like what a problem it is)? Would racist comments be made? Samoa is very homogeneous and I've become aware that I miss diversity. Racism towards whites in Samoa doesn't exist; at least, I haven't experienced anything blatant. However, we have heard a few anti-Muslim comments. But, is that what they think, or what they think we as Americans, with our War on Terror, want to hear?

Can I just hand out copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Samoan kids don't want to be hit. They just don't know it; after years of conditioning, they don't now there's another way.

And I'm not trying to compare the life of a Samoan child to slavery, although, their lives are very servant-like. I have said many-a-time that I'm glad I never had to experience a Samoan childhood.

You know what else is crazy? The smart kids are the ones whose parents encourage them to practice, to read at home, the ones who've been given an inch and taken an ell, to semi-quote Frederick Douglass, one former slave who really knew the value of an education.

...Another great argument that I've heard from Samoans is that "Fa'apalagi doesn't hit kids, but in the Samoan way, the kids need to be hit." But this can't mean it's just the "white way" to not hit kids because look at America. The "American," multicultural way is to not hit kids, so in this instance, "palagi" must mean foreign, everything not Samoan. In which case, how did the rest of the world get off so lucky with having kids that apparently don't need to be hit? How did the inhabitants of this island in the middle of an ocean bear such children that are somehow more inherently inclined to be so rowdy and unruly as to warrant beatings?

And the way this "fa'apagi vs. fa'aSamoa" argument is presented seems to imply that it's just a cultural thing, it's just a difference, a difference that I, a palagi, should accept, like mean wearing lavalavas, or the unfailing church attendance, or the fact that a man with a machete shouldn't be perceived as an immediate threat; he's probably going to the plantation to get food for his family. Well, let me just give you a crash course in cultural relativism and universalism. Where's Martha Nussbaum with her article on female genital mutilation?! Or can I just get a copy of the paper I wrote in college in Ethical Theory and hand it out in pamphlet form?

But let's face it, the problem still remains that the kids don't know there is any other way and until they find that out, they're going to expect sasa and until a "po i lou nuku" (slap in your mouth) happens, they aren't going to know they're doing anything wrong.

Everything i've been taught in my life has been to not be an apathetic, silent witness. But now, when I've come to a place that has directly put me in the face of injustice, how can I just forget all that, just let it go? Everything I've learned has instilled in me to not have a silent voice. Even though it's the hardest test of my life, I don't intend to lose that voice.

Call me an idealist. But if I remember correctly, Gandhi said....and amazing quote that, no, I can't remember right now, that was something about one man making a difference. Martin Luther King often used this quote too. (Anybody know the one I mean?) It only takes one person.

Corporal punishment in schools is already illegal in Samoa, but clearly the law has not made an impact. And so too were slavery and segregation illegal, but we all know those two things didn't stop just because there was a law against them. The culture and attitudes need to change. We need to change "hearts and minds."

Religion is a huge thing here in Samoa; I think 90%, if not more is some sort of Christianity. But go back to Gandhi and Martin Luther King and say you did something to put you in comparison with them. It'd probably feel outrageous because they are almost like gods on a pedestal. You can't touch them. They faced injustice and they brought it down, peacefully. Christianity teaches you to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to live your life like He did. I can't say that I'd give anyone the shirt off my back, or wash the feet of the homeless, or die for anyone's sins, but I will try to walk in other footsteps. I see an injustice. Now I just have to do something about it, one stick at a time.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Tossing the blog over to you! If you have any questions about anything Peace Corps, Samoa, cultural, or whatever, shout it out!!! Post a comment and let me know and the next time I post a blog, I'll try to answer some of the questions.

In the meantime, here are a few fun pics!

Dear Lopati

Tafitoala's Hip Hop Crew with Lance and Saigi

Me and Rosanna
Host Sister in Falefa


Friday, February 4, 2011

The South Side -- A Home Away from Home

The South Side-- Makes me think of The Outsiders every time. Who knows, the EFKS and Catholic church could have a rumble one day. But who would be Ponyboy?

Tafitoala. I've talked about it many times and made references to it here and there. It was my training village and it is located on the south side of the island, just west of Cross Island Road. Basically, while in training, the twenty of us were split into four training villages, five pisikoas to a village. Tafitoala had Karen, Jenny, the two Mikes, and myself. Little did I know on my first day in the village when my family's bus pulled up with a handful of drunk men that this village would become a second home and that I would find so many great people there. This post is devoted to them.

Mika and Meke at Culture Day
 We'll start at the training fale. Our teacher was Lumafale. She was great. Tehre were two kids who lived at the training fale: Susanna (6 or 7) and Meke (5). Susanna was one of my famorites and Meke the monoki (monkey) was our mascot.

Then it was Karene's family. They own a faleoloa, the one nobody really goes to. Her host mom, we, the pisikoas, affectionately called Diva; it hapens withn you wear the flashiest sunglasses and dresses. Karene has two brothers in their twenties who I knew: Sese and Kusi (whose name is also the word for "two write" or "book," but ironically, Kusi is illiterate).


Tafitoala is located off the main road (the orad that goes around the island) so going down the village road, the next Peace Corps house was mine. My host mom was Tuputala, host-dad Fuga (he'd just recovered from a stroke when I moved in; he's also a matai, a village chief). My thirty-year old brother was Amigi, named after "the great Idi Amin" as I was introduced to him. Yep, that's the genocidal dictator of Uganda. My nearly forty year old brother was Moeva; he is a teacher at one of the other training villages, Fusi. His wife, my host-sister-in-law, was 27 year old Sialei. She was basically my go-to persion. They have three children: Falelua (7), Jessie (6) who I adore, and Tala (2). My relationship with Tala had quite the evolution. In the beginning, he always hit me or threw things at me. By the end of training, he had nothing but hugs. And this kid will siva (dance) on command. He's prety spectacular. And seeing him walk around with a machete was not uncommon (don't worry, it's really not that weird). One of my favorite memories from Tafi was a dance party I had with Falelua and Jessie one night. They also know my parents' names; I had a video (before my computer crashed) of Falelua saying, "Malo, Darren," and Jessie saying, "Malo, Deb." And one of my favorite accomplishments so far, was teaching the three of them to say, "Hey, dude," especially Tala since hse doesn't even speak that much Samoan yet.

Me and Sa in Mikaele's Fale

A little further down the road is Mikaele's family. They own the other faleoloa, the one to go to. His mom was Louina matua (kinda like Louina Sr.) and his dad was Uri. His host sister (23) was Louina laititi (little Louina) and she is hilarious! Her husband is Vavega (24). They have three kids: Vanessa (5 or 6), Sa (2), and a brand new baby boy who they named after Mikaele!! Mikaele also has a host sister named Faautu (17 or 18) and another named Masani (1). Their fale was the place to be Saturday and Tuesday nights; while the viallage played bingo next door (which is huge in Samoa), Mikaele, Mika, and I would usually play cards, drink cofee, and eat cookies. Outside of their fale was the popular ploace for boys to fagota i le auala--fish on the road--aka try to pick up girls. Theis alone was reason enough for Mika or Mikaele to always walk me the fifty yeards home after bingo.
Next to the bingo hall, lived Sene. She just lived with a host-mom, also named Sene. Her and Mikaele's family are closely related.

Backtracking a little, I also consider two other girls a part of my host-family. Sene (17) (different from the pisikoa Jenny) and Limu (22). Sene is Siale's little sister and I think Limu is a cousin.

Me and Lance

Around the corner of the road, across from the ocean and next to the EFKS (Congregational) church hall was Mika's family. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this family. Avei is the mom and Yulio is the dad (possibly the hardest working matai in the village). Mika's host-brother wasw Saigi (19) and his host cousin was Lance or Lasi (18). These two are partners in crime; you hardly see one without the other. Honestly, for about a month and a half, I thought Saigi was Lance and vice versa. Leki (16?) is the second brother; I think I only ever met him once. Mika's host-sisters were Poulima (18), Oneata (14 or 15), ruta (10), and Laupama (!!!, 7).

And on the other side of the church hall, lives the faife'au (pastor). One of his daughters, Sera (21), also became our friend.

After the Sasa at Culture Day

Some brief glimpses into a few favorite moments from dear Tafi: the last day of teaching practium at the primary school, sivas in the church hall, blowing bubbles with Jessie, walking down the road and hearing, "Sema! Fa! Fa, Sema. Fa. Sema! Ia, Fa!," being the go-to person for the Samoan food prayer (Faafetai Iesu, foa'i mai mea ai, tausi ai matou le fanau. Amene), seeing Tala crash every dance there ever was, dance party with our host-moms at our farewell party, dancing and singing to "Faamalolosi" at our last siva, doing a sasa (another type of dance) at culture day, taking Ruta and Jessie to see "Harry Potter" with Mika, visiting for a family reunion at New Years and feeling like I'd gone home.

Mika, Sene, Poulima, Me, Faautu, Vanessa, and Mikaele

I've said it many times and I'll say it here, if I could've stayed in Tafitoala for these two years, I would have in a heart beat.

Here's to Tafitoala and to the friends I'm already dreading having to say goodbye to one day. "Nothing gold can stay."

A Silent Witness: Observations on Sasa

I'm not sure I can say anything new on this topic that I haven't already written in my journal somewhere, so for this post about child abuse in Samoa, I'll mostly quote from journal entries. But here's some background info. Sasa, or "to hit," a child can put you in jail where I come from. Here in Samoa, sasa is the disciplinary action of choice. Corporal punishment in schools has been ruled illegal. That, however, does not mean we pisikoa have not witnessed children being hit at school or beaten at home.

Some of these journal entries are pretty charged; these were moments when I seriously considered quitting, when Peace Corps didn't seem like it was right for me. Keep in mind, we've all had moments when we've wanted to go home; probably every Peace Corps around the world considers quitting at some point. And as a disclaimer once again to cover Peace Corps' butt, these are my thoughts and observations.

"No matter how true my story, I cannot save the children here, now." That is a loose quote from Anderson Cooper's memoir Dispatches from the Edge. It was almost nearly this quote alone that made me decide not to go to grad school for journalism. Keep this in mind while reading this post.

From entry dated November 22nd, 2010: (names will be changed for this blog post.)
Hearing the screams of a child as he gets hit kind of renders you numb. Last night...Child A screamed and cried like I'd never heard him before. Someone was hitting him. And I couldn't do anything about it because Peace Corps has taught us that that's Samoan culture and from observing, we've learned that because hitting is all the children know, that it's the only way to discipline them. And so we sit there and let the kids get hit, but I've never heard cries like A's last night...I realized I've become everything I've been against. I am a silent witness. My silence is complicity. My silence is approval. I've accepted cultural relativism when universalism should be applied. Peace Corps is teaching me passivity and apathy. Instead of continuing passivity though, I need to become even more passionate about what I'm against. America's got it right on the importance of not hitting a child. No child should scream like the screams I've heard.

The following day, Child B was hit in the back with a rock by another family member. I was in a car with another pisikoa and a member of my host family when B came running up to the car. I knew she'd been hit, and hard. Her face was flushed red, her cheeks wet with tears, and her breathing labored like I'd never heard. And Samoan kids are tough; they hardly ever cry. I was visibly upset by this one, and my host-family member asked me the common question: "Are you happy?" "Yes," I quietly choked out, while inside my heart was pounding. A child I'd truly come to love was in pain and I could do nothing to stop it.

From November 26th, 2010:
[Another pisikoa] said today how it's funny that Peace Corps are people who give a fuck, but we get here and we aren't supposed to give a fuck (about anything except teaching). Maybe I'm the one pisikoa who'll go home because she does give a fuck.

Even though I cannot directly tell someone not to hit a kid (Peace Corps has told us that is not why we are here...and there are tons of cultural issues it would raise), I can and will lead by example.

From January 31st, 2011:
And [my pule (principal)] even told the other teachers, and this is semi-quoting, there will be no more sasa of the children, no more abuse, because Sema, a palagi, is here. Has my presence alone already made such a difference?

From October 28th, 2010:
My one piece of advice to anyone considering the Peace Corps: if you want to change the world, the Peace Corps probably isn't for you. We don't and won't change the world, but our trade-off is that we might possibly give one person the opportunity to change their own.

Some of these moments made me seriously think I'd made a mistake by joining the Peace Corps. I wasn't changing the world, or saving lives. I'm teaching English. But what if because of me putting in extra time to help a year 8 student practice English, he or she does better on their national exam which determines which college (our equivalent of high school) they get into, and subsequently the university and they go on to do something to end beatings?! Maybe; it's probably all of our hopes to impact a child like that. The hope of every teacher probably. That you make a difference in one student's life and they go on to influence others (hopefully in a positive way). And here I'd like to throw in a huge thank-you to all my teachers. Job well done if I do say so myself.

However, sasa is a complex thing. Kids smack each other all the time. This was the first week of the new school year (we've finally begun what we came here to do!), which means it's a week of cleaning the school grounds, which has given me the opportunity to observe the kids. When they hit each other, it's not like they're bullying each other or starting a fight. It's more of a knock-it-off-smack. But sometimes a hair-pull will be too hard, or a hit upside the head seems completely unjustified and I'll say, "Aua. Soia." (Don't. Stop it.) Or I'll do a common Samoan lip sound that I've picked up as a new mannerism (it's somewhat like a "tsk") that you make with the corners of your lips against your teeth followed by a quick "a'e," which shows disapproval or anger.

And then there's the ponytail hit that some of the girls around my age do. Most Samoan girls wear their hair in a bun (I'm kind of a cultural faux-pas because I only do the bun when I'm really sweaty) and sometimes in a sort of you're-being-stupid-but-I-love-you-anyway way, they'll just knock the bun forward, which is usually folllowed by that lip sound and a smile from the girl who got the ponytail smack. This one seems more like a sign of affection. I've gotten it twice from two of the girls in Tafitoala, and it made me feel like I'd been accepted.

But don't think my acceptance of the hair-tap means I will let anyone hit me. One of my guy friends from Tafitoala once playfully hit my cheek--in a way that it didn't even hurt--(but as a friendship hiatus during college showed, one hit--or push-- is one too many with me), but to get my point across, I slapped his cheek. Hard. "Sole, that actually hurt." "Good, it was supposed to hurt. Don't ever hit me again." (One of my favorite Samoan words is "sole," which loosely translates to "dude," but I feel like it's often used as a term of endearment or affection.)

This would be a lovely transition into assimilation vs. integration, but that's another topic that kind of irks me, so we'll skip it for now.

I guess the moral of the story is that culture is a complex thing, and to a point relativism maybe should be applied, but the next time I see a kid in a completely unnecessary amount of pain because of an adult sasa, universalism will come into play. I didn't pay thousands of dollars to take Ethical Theory in college for nothing. And here's a shout-out to a professor who influenced me so that I can now use fancy words when I talk about right and wrong.

And to update the situation, I'm pretty sure I'm in the Peace Corps for the long haul. Differences will be made.

Minority Report

It's a four letter word. Well, it's really six letters, but it's come to be pretty offensive to some of us pisikoas.

Palagi. Pronounced puh-long-ee.

At first,hearing this word shouted  from multiple fales as you walked down the road really wasn't a big deal. To be blunt, palagi means "white person." For a while you can pretend it means "foreigner," but that isn't sa'o (true) once you find out Asians or Africans are called something different. For a while, I even liked to think it just meant someone who doesn't really know fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way), but this was clearly sese (wrong) when I moved to my new village and met a white Samoan. There is a little girl here, half Samoan, half "palagi" who has white skin, blonde hair, and brown eyes. She's maybe around kindergarden age and has spent her whole life here. They call her "palagi." This word clearly means "someone with white skin."

Maybe it's American (another overgeneralization) political correctness, but a few of us have come to dislike being called this word that is a huge racial overgeneralization. And yet, I remember a day back in training in Tafitoala when a car drove down our pretty secluded road with two white people in it. I said, "What are those palagis doing here?" It was honestly surprising to see someone white who wasn't a pisikoa. I hate to be called it, and yet, I still use it. I can call other white people "palagi" but I don't like to hear Samoans use it. Reminiscent of anything? The N-word, maybe? Which is kind of ironic because we've taught a few Samoans not to use that word to which they ask, "But it's OK for them to say it to each other? Because it's in their music."

One of the most disteressing things for me in Samoa is when I hear vast overgeneralizations about "palagis" or am told that I should teach people fa'a Palagi (the white way), as if I could speak for every culture of Caucasion descent.

Just today, I walked to the faleoloa (shop) and a little boy across the street yelled "palagi" at me the entire time. Sometimes my response to being called a palagi is, "O fea le palagi?" (Where is the palagi?) After I bought what I needed at the store, I alked over to the boy. "O ai lou igoa?" (What is your name?) He was too shy to respond now that I was only a few feet from him. "O lo'u igoa o Sema. Leai palagi. Sema. Fa." (My name is Sema. Not palagi. Sema. See yah.)

Even though I'm trying to get he kids not to call people palagi (I really don't think anyone means it in a derogatory way) and I am very adamantly against answering questions for all white people, being called palagi hasn't bothered me that much. Until one day, I went back to Tafitoala to visit for Tausaga Fou (New Years). It was early morning, which means my host family was awake and bustling while I was still moe umi (sleeping long), but really, how long can you sleep when you hear someone's name monotonously called for two minutes until they finally answer (other pisikoas know what I'm talking about here)? Relatives from overseas were visiting and I heard my host-mom talking about me in Samoan and saying "palagi" over and over. I just lived with you for two months and comptely fell in love with your village and now you start calling me palagi?! I have a name, you know it. Please use it.

Use "palagi" as a descriptor if you want, but don't use a cultural overgeneralization to replace my name.

P.S. Sema is pronounced Same-a.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

War Comes to Samoa

I asked my host brother last night, "When was the last war in Samoa?" He paused for a while and then said, "I don't like history." It's kind of strange to live in a place where wars are not common knowledge, where an eleven year old child cannot ramble off the name of the wars of the last century, where one can even say "wars (PLURAL) of the last century."

I honestly don't know when the last time was that Samoa engaged in a war. Maybe it was a tribal war before colonialism. However, that doesn't mean that Samoans aren't affected by war, by our war, the War Against Terrorism. (Insert patriotic American flag here.)

Right now, I am staying with the faife'au of the EFKS church in my new village. (That's the pastor of the Congregational church.) His wife went to the States for Christmas because her children live there. A week or two ago I asked when she'd be coming back. He said that she was already supposed to have come back, but her daughter, a US citizen and member of the Navy, is getting sent to Iraq, so she stayed an extra week.

War's worldly impact.

Where Are You, Sam Neil? or Dinos, Cigarettes, and God: Belief and Doubt in Samoa

At some point before these two years are up, I really hope Sam Neil pops out of the jungle being chased by a T-Rex. No joke. Parts of Samoa look like they come straight out of "Jurassic Park." I'm just waiting to get sneezed on by a brontosaurus.

Which brings me to today's topic: Belief and Doubt in Samoa. One would be hardpressed to find a Samoan who said they didn't believe in God. Maybe you'd find someone who doesn't like to go to church, but I'm not sure anyone doubts the existence of God. He simply is, no questions asked. Samoans (and here comes an overgeneralization which I am well aware of) believe in God without needing empirical proof of his existence. It's as simple as that.

Oddly enough, we once ran into a few Samoans who asked if we believed in dinosaurs. Well, um, yes.

One of the boys, while smoking from a pack of cigarettes with a picture of a rotted lung on it, was asked, "Do you believe in that? That cigarettes can do that?" His response was, "It's not a matter of belief. That's science."

I've drawn no conclusions here, but it's interesting that the existence of dinosaurs and the deleterious affects of cigarettes, which have been scientifically proven, can be doubted, while the existence of God is believed in, unquestioned.

Is belief a choice? Or is "belief" a fancy euphemism from "indoctrinated maxim"?

"That Lady is Not Jesus"

"What if God was one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make His way home?"

There is a woman in Samoa, some would call her crazy, others, perhaps, just eccentric. I don't know if the fact that she wears her sunglasses upside down is any indication of her mental stability. Let's face it, what one day made people believe in prophets is what has sent some people to the looney bin in recent history. Give it a shot, tell people you've been talking to God. See how they respond. Anyway, this woman, if you've seen her once, you won't soon forget her. After one particular center day during training, Mika and I took the same bus back to Tafitoala. Next to him sat supine-sunglasses herself. When I saw her sit next to him, I knew he'd be in for a good ride. When we arrived in Tafitoala, Mika said she mostly said semi-crazy things, until, completely lucidly, she turned to him, mumble gone, and asked, "Do you think Jesus could still be alive today? Walking around?" I don't know what his response was, but that one question resonated with Mika. The next day in our language class, he told the story to our teacher, Lumafale. Now keep in mind, Samoa is a very religious country and Fale is no exception. Her response was, "That woman is not Jesus." She then went on to tell us psuedo-Iesu's story. This woman was once in love with a palagi (a non-Samoan person/ a white person). They were engaged to be married, but one day, out of the blue, he just up and left, went back to Australia, New Zealand, America, wherever he was from. After that, this woman who was apparently incredibly smart too, starting slipping. (Another version of the story I heard was that she got a scholarship to go to school in New Zealand and when she came back, well, by then she'd forgotten which which part of the sunglasses is designed to rest upon your nose.) Fast forward to our last day in the training village, the Tafitoala five plus Fale are in a taxi van on our way to Apia after saying our tearful goodbyes to our host families (our wonderful host families who truly did become second families to us), as we turned onto Cross Island Road, there she was, standing on the corner. Like she was wishing us luck on this next leg of our adventure.

That lady probably isn't Jesus. But then again, maybe she is. Who can really say? (Well, I'm sure the pope would have something to say about it.) During the week following Tafitoala and before we were sworn in as volunteers, one of our training sessions in Apia was about religion and culture in Samoa, something we'd seen and experienced for over two months at that point. A faife'au (pastor) gave the presentation. He definitely had his moments where I think most of us looked at him like, "Did you really just say that?" For instance, he said something, I forget exactly what, "makes it so easy for Muslims to be terrorists." He seemed to immediately realize he'd said something we weren't OK with because then he back-tracked and said, "I hope no one here is Muslim" which really meant, "Shit, I hope I didn't just offend anyone" but what sounded more like, "I hope none of you are Muslims because that's a bad religion to be." (And here again, I should probably mention that these are my observations and opinions and not those of the Peace Corps.Coincidentally enough, I'm writing this from the computer of a faife'au.) The  point I'm trying to get to in all of this is that this faife'au also said, "You can't just walk off the street and preach. You have to go to school." Is that right? Then how did the prophets of the Bible do it? I'm pretty sure they didn't go to any theological school. Maybe preachers who go to school just learn the motions; maybe the "crazy" people preaching on the street are the ones we should listen to.

"If God had a face what would it look like? And would you want to see it if seeing meant that you would have to believe?"

Dickens Said That, Right?

Contrary to what my last post would probably lead one to believe, Peace Corps on a tropical island is not just suntans and sivas. I've already had plenty of days in which I've wanted to pack it all in, to go home and live how I imagine I'd be living, days when I thought what I was doing was pointless because I witnessed, silently, injustices we'd been instructed to ignore. This hasn't been just a walk on the beach. And honestly, there were a couple of weeks where I'd cry at least once a day (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it was just a stress reliever). I even wrote in my journal once that if I knew then what I know now about the Peace Corps, I wouldn't have done it. I don't think I feel that way anymore, but it is true that this is not what I thought it would be; pre-conceived notions of the Peace Corps and even informed and educated judgements do not hold true to actual life in the Peace Corps.

That all being said, I am learning so much here. Everything I learned and talked about, studied and read about in college is now practice, has now become reality.

And I know this, the first three months were probably the hardest I'll experience, but they also held some of the most memorable moments. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Beach Corps

A few highlights from moments with the Beach Corps.
The Two Years Finally Begin

Mikaele (Jeter), Sene (Jenny), Sema (Sam), Lumafale, Karene (Karen), ma Mika (Mike)

Celebrating our New-Found PCV Status at Y-Not

Flute Music Drying Out after my Room in Falefa Flooded

Visiting Tafitoala for X-Mas/New Years
Poulima and Oneata
In a Dress from my Host Sister

Faleolupo, Savaii
Where we Spent New Years!!

Last Sunset of 2010

Mika and Mikaele!
In another Dress from my Host Sister

Epitome of the Beach Corps
Baseball on the Beach on New Years Day

Me and Laupama!
Love Her!
...and a photo bomber

Me and the Tafitoala Host-Sibs
Falelua, Tala, ma Jessie

Last Night visiting Tafitoala