Nope, not talking about 1960’s in America. Talking about Peace Corps integration. It’s a word we’ve heard constantly. We are expected to integrate into our communities. We do that by dressing in and behaving in a culturally appropriate ways and living in the same fashion as locals. It keeps us safer and makes us more effective.
Cultural integration is tough. Language is a barrier. My Samoan has improved, at a snail’s pace, but still stinks. I can casually pass the time of day, I’m a whiz at the market and I have no problems telling the kids at school what to do, in Samoan. Beyond that…not so much.
Dressing and behaving in culturally appropriate ways is also a challenge. Easier for this geezerette, I suspect, than for the younger volunteers. I haven’t worn a bikini since the 70’s, so wearing a t-shirt and shorts over my swimsuit isn’t a huge deal. Not wearing shorts, short skirts and tank tops is also not a big deal for me. Wearing the floor length polyester sausage suit called a puletasi to work in the tropical heat is definitely a sacrifice.
Behavioral norms here are significantly different than in the USA. I really miss being able to be out alone at night. I miss hopping in my convertible, cranking up the tunes and hitting the road, alone, at 3 a.m., if I choose.
I still find it irksome that in this male dominated culture, I’m expected to fetch and carry for the men. Or, when riding in a car with two men, I’m given the backseat. Been there, done that, back in the 70’s and never wanted to go back there.
Even the simple things, I miss. There’s a very nice resort a short walk (and a million light years) from my house. They make a great pizza, in a stone oven. I could afford to dine there once a week, enjoying the palagi luxury of a pizza and a couple of beers. I don’t because my neighbors can’t afford the same luxury and it sets me apart. Both the price and the fact that a woman is drinking- in public! Don’t get me wrong…I have eaten there a few times. Most times, I’ve been the guest of visitors to the village. I get a free dinner and I talk up the great places to visit and stay in Savaii. The resort gets more business. Everybody’s happy.
I do eat out, having pizza, Chinese and Indian, when I’m in Apia. I just think giving up hanging at my local resort on a regular basis is a way of saying “I’m trying to live the Samoan way, not the palagi way.”
So, why the diatribe about integration? I had an integration breakthrough last Saturday on my way to the market in Salelologa. The bus was really crowded. And every time the driver stopped to let another few passengers on there were groans. Each bus seat barely holds two adults, especially if they’re Samoan (or my) size. The rule is that young men sit in the back and they’re stacked like cordwood, literally to the ceiling and with body parts sticking out windows. Young women sit on older women’s laps. Kids perch anywhere there’s some lap space available.
As a palagi, I’m exempt from the lap sitting protocol. When we were in training in Upolu, I frequently had a lap sitter, but it was always another PCV. Here, even though I’ve offered (in Samoan) and tried to grab a random kid, people were horrified. It would be disrespectful to me, as a teacher, a palagi and a lo’omatua (old broad).
Saturday was different. Mine was one of the few laps not taken and the other empty laps belonged to elderly matais (chiefs). People were crouched in the aisles, because it is considered rude to stand when others are sitting. I was in a seat next to a young woman. She had two young children on her lap. She didn’t want to share. Instead, a woman of about 20 plopped down. Everybody looked, but after the first glance, just shrugged. The attitude seemed to be “Hey palagi, you’ve gotten a free ride for over a year. Cowboy up.” Worked for me.
The young woman got off before I did and a Year 6 boy took her place for the rest of the hour-long ride. I know he’s in Year 6 because he’s one of my students.Do you remember being a kid and seeing a teacher outside of school? Or finding out they had a first name? Can you imagine sitting on your teachers lap? When he got off the bus, I saw him race over to one of his buddies, talking a mile a minute and pointing at the bus. I just waved.