I Have Never Felt So Foreign

August 12, 2012

When I visit a new country I tend to see all the ways in which its culture is different first. A week or so into my visit the similarities with my native culture overtake the differences and I am overwhelmed (for a time anyway) by the beauty of our world’s diversity.

Here on Samoa (pronounced Sa’ moa) I have yet to move fully into the second stage. Every time I feel like I am close, something alien is revealed to me that sets me back to seeing the differences. This (two) island nation is gorgeous. Its people are, by and large, incredibly outgoing and proud of their heritage, and they share a (second) language. I had expected this (amongst other things) to make it easy for me to fit in and feel welcome here. Not so much.

First there was the clearing in ceremony. I say ceremony because there was a full day of visitors, many of whom expected to be warmly received with snacks and drinks (one even suggested rum drinks), by people who had slept something like 6 hrs a night for the last 4 nights. We did our best but by the time the marina official came by to scold us for leaving the dock without his permission, and then lectured us about the Samoan custom of serving your guest a drink, let me just say, I wasn’t feeling all warm and fuzzy. After the scolding he started asking us questions like “what do you think life is for?” and “do you believe in god or do you believe we came from monkeys?” Then he invited us to come to his birthday party and, “do you have any rum to bring?”

By the time he left Vick and I were haggard and rattled. Subsequent interactions (especially with cab drivers) prompted us to observe that the Samoan culture must have virtually no line between professional and personal.

With a few exceptions (the markets being one) we have only interacted with men here. The two women that we have shared more than 10 words with were from New Zealand (tour guide) and Australia (missionary).

Children are not present, though they do occasionally harass us to buy qtips, pinching our legs when we refuse. Our children appear to be loved by the population but are expected to be seen and not heard. When they were out on the docks fishing one morning a marina guard brought them back to us and seemed to expect us to discipline them for playing.

And then there is the ubiquitous god talk and the rigid, institutionalized patriarchy, both of which strike my personal values straight in the face. During the check in, I actually heard myself saying “Well, that’s a very personal question. In my culture we don’t talk about that unless we know someone very well.” Here, God and male dominion are public and central to almost every conversation we have had.

So what do we do when we feel like strangers in a strange land? Well, when the boat is at a dock, it’s not much of a sanctuary, so we hike. Even though the mountain we climbed was dense with unfamiliar rainforest flora, the act of walking together in nature—picking seeds and spotting fauna— restored a sense of focus and calm to our day. By the time we reached the summit where Robert Louis Stevenson was buried, the kids were laughing freely and Vick and I were breathing deeply again.

We have a few days left in Samoa and I am hopeful that we will start to feel the sameness in earnest by the time we leave for Tonga. If not at least I rediscovered an old tool for regaining my wellbeing.


  1. Comment by Cidnie

    Cidnie August 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Sounds a lot like my trips to Indiana. I KID! It just surprises me to hear how unkidfriendly the Samoan culture seems to be from the outside looking in. I suppose that is the very best reason to travel- to have your preconceived notions challenged.

  2. Comment by Tricia (Geeky Explorers)

    Tricia (Geeky Explorers) August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I think that is the great thing about traveling – you find some places that are like a second home and can’t wait to return to. Other places, you are glad you got to experience, but are equally glad to leave.

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