Living in Paradise: An Inside Look at the Samoan Culture Vicki Marie
In Vicki Marie’s essay, we witness the process by which an outsider attempts to understand and adjust to living within another culture. With enthusiasm and respect, Vicki moved to Samoa, only to discover that her preferences about a variety of common social experiences (greeting others, resolving conflicts, desiring privacy, displaying courtesy and respect) have different meanings among her Samoan colleagues and neighbors. Vicki’s essay also introduces some of the ethical issues that inevitably occur when crossing cultures: how and when should one conform to behaviors that are inconsistent with one’s own beliefs, values, and experiences?
Living in Paradise: An Inside Look at the Samoan Culture Vicki Marie
In 1988 I was an adjunct instructor at several nearby colleges and universities. One day, while commuting between campuses, it occurred to me that while I was waiting for a full-time position, I could be teaching abroad. I researched overseas teaching opportunities and sent out a dozen resumes. I received three job offers. The assistant professorship of language arts at the College of Samoa was the most appealing. I accepted an 18-month contract, left California a few months later, and arrived in Samoa in January 1989.
Except for holiday travel, I had lived in California my entire life and knew little about Samoa. I read eagerly about Samoan history, geography, and culture, and talked with people who had lived in Samoa and taught at the college. Yet I arrived believing that my Samoan students would be motivated by the same values and would aspire to the same goals that I considered worthwhile. I was surprised to discover that my worldview was uniquely European American and my attitude ethnocentric. Samoa became the classroom and textbook that taught me about cultural relativity and intercultural communication. I discovered I had much to learn about Samoa and even more about myself.
The U.S. and Samoan governments have been intertwined since the end of World War II, yet many Americans are unaware of the vast northern ocean area of Oceania. Samoa is one of many tiny islands that comprises a string of more than 2,100 islands and atolls lying in four major archipelagos: the Mariana, the Caroline, the Marshall, and the Kiribati islands. These islands are scattered across an area as large as the continental United States, yet they are so small that their combined land mass amounts to approximately 1,000 square miles, about the size of Rhode Island. The inhabited islands are home to more than 375,000 people, who make up five constitutional governments. While these political divisions also represent linguistic, ethnic, and cultural differences, the people native to the islands are all classified as Micronesians.
Despite 175 years of contact with foreigners, Samoans have maintained their traditional politics, languages, and family organizations. Changes, though, are inevitable. As a result, I found island life to be an amalgam of traditional and Western influences. Samoans wear Western-style clothing, drive imported cars, eat in Japanese restaurants, and socialize in American-style bars. Yet these same people are equally comfortable wearing traditional island lava lavas, reciting ancient folklore in native languages, and masterfully pounding sakau, the local kava drink.
Although Samoans can move easily between ancient traditions and modern ideas, they have distinct value systems unlike those in the West. I found that it wasn’t always easy to consider-much less appreciate-our contrasting worldviews. And what huge differences in worldviews we had! The following list summarizes some of the significant differences in cultural assumptions that I encountered while living among Samoans:
Nature will provide for us in time.
We must change our world, control nature, and make it work for humankind.
What will be, will be. Human life is controlled by destiny.
We create our own future by what we do.
There’s no use rushing away from what I’m doing now. There’s always plenty of time.
I have to hurry and meet somebody now. See you later.
Worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
Save for the future.
Work a little, rest a little. Whatever you do, try to keep other people happy.
If I work hard enough, someday I’ll make it to the top.
What I have is yours. What you have is mine
What’s mine belong to me.
The wise person is one who knows his place in the world, respects authority, and does what he is supposed to do.
Sensible people strike out on their own, learn to do things for themselves, and make their own decisions.
The feelings of others are more important than an honest answer.
Always tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts.
My life belongs to the family and God.
I am a god.
As you can tell from this list, the potential for intercultural misunderstandings is great. I found these cultural differences to be interesting, irritating, amusing, or stressful, depending on the situation.
As time passed, I moved through predictable and trying phases of adjustment and assimilation. The first few months I was euphoric just to be in Samoa, and everything seemed perfect and beautiful. I walked around with a big smile on my face and wrote letters to my family that recounted every blissful event. My euphoria plummeted the morning I discovered two flat tires on my Jeep. As a prank, the boys in the village had let the air out of the tires. I took it very personally and cried. A few days later, someone stole my sandals off the porch. I wasn’t sure what to expect next in my new surroundings. I coped with the uncertainty by writing letters to everyone I knew “back home,” socializing primarily with American and European expatriates and occasionally retreating to the solitude of my bungalow. Eventually I settled into a routine in which uncertainty became entertaining more than threatening. I reached out to people with varied cultural backgrounds and broadened my social circle.
I enjoyed new cultural experiences. I drank sakau and ate eel at feasts, visited with neighbors, hiked in the rainforest, learned to scuba dive, and enjoyed the challenge of teaching English to Samoan students. With each experience I gained valuable insights into the culture and into myself. As I learned about Samoan ways, I came to better understand my own cultural conditioning.
My American assumptions were often laughable in the Samoan context. I felt anxious about wasting time and reprimanded students who were late to class. I was impatient when meeting times were disregarded. I took pride in accomplishing a list of goals each day. Then one day a Samoan dean questioned why another American professor always walked so fast. “What’s his hurry all the time?” the dean wondered aloud. Knowing that I easily outpaced my American colleague, I realized the question was indirectly aimed at my own task-oriented style. I felt embarrassed about looking foolish to the dean, but it seemed right to use my time wisely.
My notions of being direct and straightforward also were challenged. One day my friend Maggie stood me up at the hospital. I had agreed to assist her by talking with a physician on her behalf. She had health problems that she didn’t fully understand and agreed to meet me at the hospital for an 11 A.M. appointment. I took a taxi and arrived at the hospital 10 minutes early. After reading a book for 20 minutes I roamed around the hospital, looking for Maggie. I was concerned and wondered if a problem was keeping her from being on time. After I’d been there 45 minutes, Maggie’s brother found me, staring toward the main door, and told me that Maggie was sorry but she couldn’t make it that day. I was disappointed and frustrated. Unlike the earlier interaction with the dean, the cultural implications were not obvious. Months later, after observing similar incidents between others, I realized that Maggie never intended to meet me that day. Apparently she felt that saying “no” would have insulted me.
Shortly after moving to Samoa, I discovered that an important key to understanding Samoan culture lies in the pervasive traditional political structure, which is a hierarchical social system with strongly embedded political and relational values and social norms. Even when Samoan communities are affected by the maneuvering of government politicians, the traditional system factors strongly into negotiations and outcomes of most political transactions. For example, the negotiations required for paving the road that encircled the city were lengthy and complicated. Government officials proposed a plan that had to be approved by each of the five districts’ leaders. The negotiations for land rights took months of meetings, discussions, gifts, and other traditional courtesies. Eventually, after each traditional chief felt satisfied that his community had been sufficiently compensated, the road construction began.
Typically, each district on an island operates within a status hierarchy: hereditary nobility, landed gentry, and commoners. Each island district is ruled by a nanmwarki, or “high chief.” Below the nanmwarki is a group of high-titled nobles. A second set of nobles is headed by the nahnken, or “talking chief.” Each male title has a female equivalent. The male leaders, however, are the decision makers and the most highly revered in traditional culture. They are bestowed with much respect; others must address them in a “high language,” which is an honorific language with special vocabulary reserved for nobility and authority.
Commoners and outsiders like me are expected to stand when talking to nobility, to respond to rather than initiate communication, and to cast our eyes downward to convey humility and respect. One evening I was introduced to a nahnken who had entered the restaurant where I was dining with a colleague. As the nahnken approached us, my friend quickly coached me: “Stand up, shake his hand, and cast your eyes down.” I reluctantly followed his direction, feeling very awkward. In that instance I was abiding by the local custom but violating behaviors that I considered to be courteous and comfortable. I prefer to use direct eye contact and a sincere smile and believe such gestures conveyed confidence, honesty, and mutual respect. At that moment, I struggled to avoid eye contact and felt resentment and tightness in my stomach as I tried to abide by social norms that collided with my own standards of equality and status. Gender Roles
Unlike in U.S. society, where equality is the desired value, the roles of men and women in traditional Samoan cultures are quite well defined. Many gender roles were apparent. In the morning, women hung their laundry, prepared meals, and swept their living areas. Men returned from early-morning fishing outings to repair homes or head for their jobs in town. During the day, men built houses, repaired canoes, sailed, fished, and gathered breadfruit and coconuts. Women prepared meals, cared for the children, cleaned, and tended the taro patches. In the early evenings, men met at the “men’s house” for socializing or all-male community decision-making. After their homemaking chores, women played cards or walked through the village, visiting with friends along the way.
In business and government centers on the more developed islands, many women have moved into the workplace, operating businesses or working in government offices. As women’s roles have changed, so have gender communication norms. Traditional hierarchies still dictate the intrinsic status of women, but the subtleties are not obvious to an outsider. I learned about social status by talking to Samoan men and women.
Traditionally, social expectations in Samoa dictate where and to whom women may speak, but norms have shifted as women have taken responsible positions in community affairs. In more traditional settings, however, predictable gender communication norms remain intact. Women, for instance, are not supposed to speak during village or community meetings. Above all, women should not challenge or confront men. As a European American woman, I found that notion foreign. I learned the hard way about hierarchical gender communication in Samoa.
My bungalow was situated between the only sakau bar and beer bar in the village. Over the winter holiday season, both bars had ongoing parties. Because sakau is a soporific, the more the patrons drank, the quieter they became. The beer had the opposite effect on the patrons in the second bar. As the evening progressed, people and music became louder, and the noise continued until dawn. After two sleepless nights, I approached the bar owner with a direct but courteous plea to end the party at a reasonable hour. He reluctantly agreed to turn the music off by 10 P.M. and close the bar at midnight. I felt relieved, but that evening the music continued past midnight. I walked over to the bar, asked to speak to the owner, and pleaded with him to turn off the music. I made, I thought, a reasonable and polite request, but the music continued into the early morning.
On my way to campus that morning I was confronted by the owner’s daughter, who accused me of casting shame on her father. Although the owner and I had had a private conversation, my directness was perceived as aggressive and disrespectful. I tried to explain my position to the daughter, but she wouldn’t listen. As an outsider and a woman, I had overstepped my boundaries and never had a chance of persuading the owner to comply with my request. Interestingly, my landlord, a well-respected businessman, eventually intervened. From that night on, the owner conformed to a 10 P.M. curfew, and I finally got some sleep.
Even in family settings, women must temper their comments. A Pohnpeian colleague once explained that if she was bitterly angry with her brother’s wife, she would not dare say anything to her brother about her feelings. To do so would be disrespectful to her brother and would cast shame on herself. She said she limits her conversations with her brother to “asking for his help or advice.”
I learned that women who initiate conversations with men are considered forward or flirtatious. The college maintenance man went out of his way to help me set up my office and bungalow. I thought he was very nice-until he made a pass at me. I was informed that my outgoing personality and friendly small talk had been interpreted as romantic interest. I thought it was silly, so I just ignored the misunderstanding. To avoid an unnecessary conflict, however, I was courteously warned by my Samoan friends about the man’s jealous Chuukese wife and told to avoid him.
A similar situation occurred after I stopped one day to look at a hotel construction site near the lagoon. One of the owners, who was married to the college secretary, was on the premises. I was pleased to meet him and chatted about his new hotel. A few days later, his wife told me that he thought I was flirting with him. Thankfully, she didn’t take him seriously. My Samoan friends trusted me and guided me when necessary to avoid misperceptions. I was grateful for the support as I maneuvered my way through a new culture.
I learned, for instance, that despite the cultural constraint of gender, Samoan women hold a position of power and community esteem in island life. When a dispute occurs, the first-born woman, who is the female head of her clan, is sent to settle the conflict and reconcile the two sides. Her judgments are almost always obeyed, because if they are not there is the risk that the conflict could reemerge to plague the community.
True to their collectivist nature, the Samoan people consider social harmony an important cultural value that is critical to community welfare. Women are called on to ensure that such harmony prevails. Harmony must prevail in this culture! Family and Children
Like most European Americans, I tend to belong to several unrelated groups. Samoans, however, belong to one relatively unchanging group: their family. Having grown up in a small family I found it intriguing that Samoan families include all relatives in their clan. The extended family is composed of generations of matrilineal relationships. Several members of the extended family commonly share a single household. The larger clan is composed of descendants of a common female ancestor. As a Westerner, I was confused by the matrilineal nature of Samoan families. Descendants always come through the woman and are considered members of the mother’s clan. Children refer to their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other significant women as “mom.” Their siblings and cousins are considered “brothers and sisters.” When the girl next door told me that she had 19 brothers and sisters, I laughed because I thought she was joking. When I asked Millie, the daughter of my friend Maggie, how many brothers and sisters she has, she began counting on her fingers but finally threw up her and hands and exclaimed, ” I don’t know a lot!”
Rank in the clan comes from birth order, not age. The children of the oldest daughter will have higher rank than the children of a younger daughter, regardless of their ages. For example, if the older daughter’s son is 25 years old, and the youngest daughter’s son is 35 years old, the older daughter’s son would have the higher rank. He would be regarded as a big brother by the older but lower-ranking man. Rank for females follows the same pattern. Grandparents, by virtue of their position in the family, are highly honored and treated with great respect, love, and care by their children and grandchildren.
Respect is the most important value to Samoans. It is expressed in the guiding rule to “be humble; don’t put yourself up.” This social rule, which extends to all relationships, discouraged our college freshmen from initiating conversation with sophomores. In some circumstances, though, such as in a classroom, students switched to an egalitarian style for practical reasons. But they did so with discomfort.
I asked my college students to explain status norms. One responded, “The rule about talking to higher-rank people is to be polite. We honor the higher title person.” Another said, “We use high language for leaders and important people like the elders. If you don’t use appropriate language you are considered impolite and disrespectful. Following the rules in our culture is very important, which is why I don’t like to communicate at feasts with traditional leaders.”
In general, only a few expectations constrain children’s behavior. Parents allow their children to do whatever they please as long as they display respect for others. One afternoon I sat visiting with my friend while her three young children played nearby. During our four-hour conversation, her children would stop to listen to us talk but did not once interrupt. Occasionally my friend or I would speak to her kids. They responded immediately to their mother but were more hesitant toward me.
Respect is the value embedded in the strict rules that prohibit children from initiating conversations with elders. An elder is loosely defined as anyone older than the child. When responding to an elder, children are expected to use “high language.” They use honorific language to answer their parents, grandparents, or older siblings, especially the first-born son. Samoan children will rarely vie for attention or interrupt adults. So, although children are included in all community events, they are typically “seen but not heard.”
If a child does something displeasing, the parent will usually attempt to modify the behavior by making the child feel ashamed. For instance, if a girl uses her mother’s money to buy something without permission, the parent may talk about the child within her hearing range to make the child feel ashamed for spending the family’s money. Disputes among family members are strongly discouraged. Children are taught this value at a very early age and are made to feel great shame if a dispute occurs. Courtesy, respect, and politeness are constant themes found in each household and in the community. Intentional rudeness or malevolent behaviors are looked down on. A person exhibiting such behaviors is considered amalgam tekia, a Chuukese phrase meaning “haughty.”
Samoan parents do not praise their children for good deeds. Children might hear indirectly from a third party how pleased their parents are with their behavior, but Samoans find it awkward to express and receive compliments directly. I would tell children how beautiful or talented they were and would be surprised to hear in reply “I’m not.” My Samoan friends were more likely to express their appreciation through caring, gifts, or favors. In fact, providing enough food is the primary way in which a parent shows affection for a child. Being hungry would imply to others that the child is not taken care of properly and is, therefore, unloved.
Family members who are hungry are expected to help themselves to food. But a hungry person may be too embarrassed to ask for food, for fear of implying that the family is neglectful. To avoid embarrassing family members, Samoan people assume that any person coming into the house, including a visitor, is hungry and is thus greeted with an offer of food. Family members generally serve themselves from the communal bowl. Eating together goes beyond the mere intake of food to satisfy hunger. The spirit of sharing is a way of showing oneness and, more significantly, mutual trust and love.
Displays of affection among family members, as practiced by many groups in the United States, do not exist in Samoan families. Children display affection for their parents through loyalty and by performing certain duties or responsibilities for the family, such as sweeping the floor without being asked. Although Samoans seldom hug or kiss children, a mother will lovingly nuzzle her child’s nose.
I attended a church wedding and was surprised that the Western tradition of the husband kissing the bride was eliminated from the ceremony. I was told later that public displays of affection are considered inappropriate. Holding hands with others outside the family circle is more common, especially among those of the same gender. The only time one is likely to observe hugging and kissing in a family is when an adult is playing with a baby. In fact, children are not allowed to observe kissing. Millie told me that it made her shake (nervous) when she saw Americans kissing, because it was bad. I had seen her cover her eyes during a kissing scene in a film. She told me that her mother said she should never see kissing. I heard stories of teenage girls being punished for inadvertently witnessing Westerners kissing at the airport. The taboo is apparently a strategy for discouraging promiscuity, although I am not sure how well it works. Language
Many language differences exist in Samoa, although each language derives from a common Malayo-Polynesian source. Several major tribal languages, with dialect variations, are spoken in Samoa. The islanders I encountered knew their native language and at least one other language. On the islands that were heavily influenced by Japan, inhabitants know some conversational Japanese. Because of the diversity of native languages, English has emerged as the lingua franca used in government, education, and other intercultural contexts. For most Samoans, English is a second language; for others, it is their fourth or fifth and, thus, the language with which they feel the least secure.
At the College of Samoa students appeared confident when switching between tribal languages but seemed reluctant when communicating in English to me. I spoke with students who had varying degrees of English proficiency. Some disclosed that they were afraid of appearing “stupid” to native English speakers.
I taught an evening class for two weeks before I realized that the majority of students didn’t understand me. They pretended to understand by simply nodding and smiling. When I spoke to them individually after class, I realized that in fact they understood very little English. Samoans who live and work in city centers and who have frequent contact with native English speakers are able to express themselves as clearly in English as they do in their native languages. When they speak fluent English, it is easy to forget that our cultural perceptions may actually block clear communication.
I sometimes wondered about the illusion of shared meaning that existed during my intercultural conversations. There were times I’d expect a particular outcome but it wouldn’t occur. I learned, over time, not to take the language for granted. I tried to be empathetic toward students who spoke in a foreign language, especially when I heard them struggling to express themselves clearly. Actually, I admired their ability to speak multiple languages.
Samoans seem to be simultaneously extroverted and introverted. As a group Samoans find it easy to talk with others, and they perceive themselves to be friendly, dramatic, and animated. They also appear interested in others, demonstrating goodwill when they communicate.
Because it is difficult to accept compliments, Samoans generally do not openly give compliments. They admire people silently or indirectly. Generally, if a person wants to compliment another, he or she will pass the compliment through a relative rather than acknowledge the person directly.
When I praised our student clerk for a job well done she giggled, blushed, and turned away from me. I observed the same reaction when I openly praised students for well-written essays or other course work. One day in front of my office, I encouraged a young man to present his exceptionally good speech at our upcoming speech festival. He turned his body away from me as he flipped his hand chest-high in a gesture that meant to communicate “stop” or “go away,” because it was difficult for him to accept the compliment. Each time I encountered these common nonverbal responses, they were coupled with self-effacing statements that were said with a smile, but it was quite clear that the student was extremely uncomfortable. One student explained: “People are uncomfortable with praise because they do not want to be perceived as thinking they are `big’ or better than anybody else.” Modesty is an important characteristic of the Samoan personality. Samoans believe that it is generally virtuous to be quiet. Even in childbirth, a woman is expected to keep silent and show as little pain as possible.
Samoans find very few situations in which they can show pride in their accomplishments or possessions without fear of criticism. This attitude was evident at the conclusion of our college speech festival, when all the student speakers disappeared immediately after the awards ceremony. The young man who won first place for his persuasive speech left to avoid criticism for pretentiousness or “acting big.” Runners-up left because they felt ashamed. In a collectivist community where such public competition is rare, the fear of ridicule or gossip seems sufficiently strong to enforce an apparent pattern of exaggerated modesty, humility, and shame.
Samoan communication style uses less verbal exchange and looks for implicit meaning in the situation. In contrast, my European American communication style is one in which talkativeness is valued and the message is conveyed explicitly. In everyday encounters I commonly misinterpreted silence as introversion, shyness, or disinterest. Over time, I better understood notions of context as I heard conversations similar to one between our department secretary and a European American professor. As the professor walked away from the exchange, the secretary grimaced. When I asked, “What’s wrong?” she answered, “He talks too much.” She explained that talkative people are less respected in society. People who are reserved or quiet are admired. This greatly influences the way in which Samoans conduct themselves in public. “Generally,” she explained, “people rarely initiate conversations, particularly if they are meeting someone new. During childhood we are told not to speak to adults, and if we did speak we were to be careful of the language to be used.” Talkativeness casts shame on oneself and one’s family. Such perceived threats contribute greatly to Samoans’ willingness to communicate with others.
Differences in nonverbal communication, or body language, are often subtle and can be the source of intercultural misunderstanding. During my first few days at the College of Samoa, the division secretary was on sick leave. When she returned I introduced myself and asked, “Are you feeling better?”
She answered “Yes” nonverbally by raising and lowering her eyebrows. I interpreted her response to mean “What did you say?” So I repeated the question a little more slowly, and again she raised her brows. I asked the question a third time, receiving the same nonverbal response. Out of frustration, I finally said, “I hope you are feeling better soon.” About a week later, when I learned that raised eyebrows mean “yes,” I realized that the secretary must have thought me dense for repeatedly asking the same question.
Samoans use the same shake of the head as Americans as a way to say “no.” A frown accompanied by a wave of the hand at chest level is an emphatic “no!” or “stop it!” Samoans throw their heads slightly back and to the side to indicate “over there.” Depending on the context of the question, the response could mean a few blocks away or the next island over. The apparent ambiguity of that particular response was sometimes confusing. Similarly, if I, as an outsider, were to summon a Samoan by repeatedly curling my index finger upward, the gesture would imply that the receiver had the status of an animal. More than a few times, I had to control my impulse to use that common American gesture.
Much more difficult was remembering that the proper nonverbal gesture for summoning someone in Samoa is to make a downward movement of the hand from the level of the head to the shoulder. The first time a Samoan beckoned me in this manner, I thought he was telling me to “go away.” I stood in utter confusion until he finally asked me to “come here.” The verbal message was need. Height
I often learned through my mistakes. I once reached out to ruffle a little boy’s hair only to have my hand quickly pulled away by a colleague who saved me from cultural transgression. From my American perspective, I was expressing affection toward the child. I was surprised to learn that I was conveying the exact opposite meaning by violating a Samoan perception of height, an important concept in Samoan cultures. Generally speaking, the higher something or someone is, the more sacred it is. The head is the highest part of the human body; to touch another person’s head is considered disrespectful, and such behavior is strictly prohibited.
Height also acts as a type of checks-and-balances system. When passing others who are sitting, Chuukese people say “Tirow” (excuse me) or “Tirow wom” (high language used to excuse oneself) to elders and others higher in rank. “Tirow wom” is usually accompanied by a bow from the waist, which demonstrates respect by lowering one’s height in relation to the people who are sitting.
In the Chuukese culture, a woman is forbidden to be physically higher than a man at any time. I heard Westerners mistakenly categorize this behavior as sexist. From the Chuukese perspective, however, the behavior is practical: A woman should never stand when a man is sitting because she runs the risk of drawing attention to her thighs. A woman’s thighs are considered sexually stimulating by Samoan men. Therefore, her behavior would appear sexually suggestive.
If a woman’s brother is sitting, she would either walk past him at a distance while bowing at the waist, walk past him on her knees, crawl, or simply sit down and wait for him to stand up. She would not, under any circumstances, directly ask him to stand up, because that would imply that he didn’t respect her. She could, however, ask another person to point out her presence to him or wait until he noticed her. As an outsider, I was generally exempt from these strict cultural rules and was excused when I inadvertently violated social expectations. Still, I tried my best to be sensitive to cultural norms.
Before I left California, I read about the Samoan perception of female thighs. I was prepared to teach while wearing long skirts and to play while wearing modest, knee length walking shorts. I found most outsiders to be equally sensitive toward this cultural norm. Peace Corps volunteers and other expatriate women adopted the Samoan style of swimming in skirts. It was easier to swim or dive out on the reef, away from the island, because we could swim in bathing suits and cover up with lava-lauas (wrapped skirts) as soon as we got within sight of the island. One afternoon, while returning to the lagoon in our boat, some friends and I were engrossed in conversation and didn’t remember to cover our legs. We snapped back to reality as we passed the docks and were jeered with whistles and wolf-calls. Interestingly, my friends and I felt very exposed and embarrassed and quickly learned to abide by cultural tradition.
As members of a “doing” culture, European Americans are very concerned with time, compartmentalizing it carefully to avoid wasting it. Samoa is a “being” culture. Samoans are more likely to listen to their natural impulses-to eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired-than to the hands of a clock. Cooking, fishing, and other tasks are determined by mood, weather, or ocean tides. In the remote villages and outer islands, much time is spent relaxing and socializing. The men meet to discuss community affairs or play games. The women weave or socialize over a card game. I had difficulty relating to people in the village who appeared to spend a great part of the day just sitting around doing nothing. I would have been bored but, interestingly, the word “bored” does not exist in Samoan tribal languages.
In city centers, where people are expected to abide by work hours and class times, Samoans find the transition to schedules unnatural and confining. It is not considered unusual or rude for Samoans to come later than their appointed time. It would, however, be unusual to meet a Samoan who was in a hurry or anxious over a deadline. Because European Americans typically view time as a commodity, the time issue causes many misunderstandings. It took most of the first semester for me to understand that student tardiness was not a sign of disrespect or apathy.
During the fall semester I was asked to present a communication workshop to local radio announcers. I had very little time to design the workshop, so I gave the support staff the course materials to duplicate and assemble. Two days before the workshop was scheduled I discovered the duplicating hadn’t been completed. I expressed my concern about having the materials on time but was assured that they would be ready. I heard indirectly that if I was in such a great hurry I should do the job myself. Surprisingly, the materials were delivered one hour before I left for the radio station.
I arrived at the station ten minutes early and found only one person there. The general manager and three announcers trickled in over the next 20 minutes. As I was about to begin, the electricity shut down, leaving us without air conditioning or lights. The general manager suggested we move the workshop to the college campus. By the time we drove to the campus and settled into a classroom, 15 minutes were left of the scheduled time. I had time only for a brief introduction and an ice-breaker activity. I was disappointed that we lost virtually an entire session and that my preparation had been in vain, yet none of the participants seemed inconvenienced.
Space/Privacy The Samoan lifestyle is communal. Traditionally, many Samoans live in shared areas where everything is used collectively. This idea is emphasized in the Chuukese proverb: “Meta aai epwe oomw, mea oomw epwe aai,” or “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This notion remains an ideal cultural value but is mostly theoretical. In reality, Samoans have personal property and regard it as such. Personal property may be loaned to others, but it is considered proper to ask the rightful owner for permission. Most of the time the owner will grant permission. In fact, about the only time the owner would withhold permission is when he or somebody else was using the object in question.
While the concept of private property does exist, Samoans tend to be less attached to their belongings than are European Americans. Acquaintances who were Peace Corps volunteers said this was a frustrating cultural difference that they found difficult to accept. They explained that if they wanted to keep personal possessions such as hair clips, books, or cassette players for themselves, they would have to put them away in a private place. Their Samoan family’s attitude toward such items was one of detachment, which is generally true for most Samoans. For instance, if something is borrowed and subsequently lost or damaged, the owner will not express anger, because people are much more important than possessions. In contrast, European Americans tend to react to losing a possession with varying degrees of anger and, depending on the object, may perceive a loss almost as a loss of part of oneself. In the collectivist Samoan societies, in contrast, the personality of each person is well known, but people express their individuality by their behaviors rather than their possessions.
The issue of privacy was a challenge for me in Samoa. As a typical European American, I highly value my privacy, but the concept of privacy is strange in Samoan cultures because togetherness is the norm. Although most Samoans have been exposed to American cultural patterns and accept them, they still do not fully comprehend the need for “quiet time” or privacy. Being alone is generally associated with strong emotions-for instance, avoiding an individual or group to keep from expressing strong anger toward others or hiding because of feelings of sadness or great shame. Samoans may also think that someone desiring solitude is mas or “physically sick and wants to be alone.”
The day I moved into my two-bedroom bungalow, the landlord sent his son over to make some repairs on the house. His three sisters followed him over, walked into my living room, tied up the curtains to let the breeze in, and sat down for a chat among themselves. They were as relaxed and natural as if they were in their own home. I, on the other hand, didn’t quite know what to do. Should I offer them something to drink? Make small talk? Try to entertain them in some way? The young women were fully engaged in their conversation in tribal dialect, so I retreated uncomfortably to my back room to work until everyone was ready to leave. On other occasions, the children in the neighborhood would pile onto my back porch to watch the video playing on my TV. They seemed as interested in what I was doing as in the plot of the film. After some time, I noticed my boundaries relaxing, but I was never fully comfortable with the territorial differences. The most disturbing violations of my privacy were when the young men in the neighborhood looked into my windows at night. The nocturnal habits of a single menwai (outsider) woman were apparently entertaining. Night-Crawling
The Chuukese term for night-crawling is teefan. This is the behavior in which a young man sneaks to a young woman’s house at night to meet her. Strictly speaking, the man could go night-crawling only when the couple had made an arrangement. It is expected that the woman will help the man in their attempts to get together. In days gone by, the process was much easier. Houses were thatched, and all the man had to do was poke his carved wooden “love stick” through the thatched wall and await an answer. The woman could either invite him in or ask him to wait outside by a simple push or pull of the stick. It was obviously necessary that the woman know the love-stick design of her intended lover.
Today the ritual is complicated by cinder-block or wooden walls that make the love-stick ineffective. Night-crawling continues but with an arrangement made between the lovers. Frequently I discovered evidence of such trysts near my bungalow. Large banana leaves had been used to pad the ground where young couples met. Crawling around without such prearrangement constitutes inkikich or peeping. The boys in my village occasionally whistled into my windows and on one occasion actually invited my visiting mother to join them in the night air. She just laughed. But night-crawling can be risky, and a man who night-crawls should expect to meet challenges. It is perfectly acceptable for the man to be beaten up by the woman’s relatives if he is caught.
Conclusion I moved back to California in 1990, when I accepted a teaching position at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. The first day on campus I met a visiting professor that had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa. He encouraged me to teach intercultural communication because, he said, “It’s an important course, great fun, and a forum for Samoan tales.”
I am glad I took his advice; because each time I share a story with students I am transported to Samoa. I remember the riches I gained by living among Samoans: I was able to move beyond my ethnocentrism and better understand and value variations of human behavior. I became aware of the culturally programmed beliefs, values, and norms that determine my behaviors. Most importantly, I developed lasting intercultural relationships.
Recently, my husband and I invited Millie, now eleven years old, to live with us. She arrived from Samoa eighteen months ago and is attending the elementary school near our home. These months together have been joyous for us all but particularly meaningful to me. Millie is Maggie’s daughter Maggie, my dear friend and former student in Samoa. I consider Samoa my second home and Maggie and her children my Samoan family.
Now that Millie is with us, I have a renewed sense of connection with my Samoan home and family. Each day with her brings discoveries about our life experiences and cultural assumptions. As I help her learn about American culture, I develop a deeper dimension of love for Samoa and a greater appreciation for cultural diversity and relativity.
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