That Daily Grind

Before you read on, I want to say that this blog post addresses some of the challenges and inconveniences that I am aware of or have personally experienced in my short time in American Samoa, and particularly in Manu’a.  Some of you whom I’ve talked to over the phone or online have asked me to talk more about what daily life is like, as well as the challenges I’ve faced in my few weeks here, so I’ll try to touch upon some of that in this post.
The road that winds along the edge of the island, connecting the three villages here on our island of Ta'u.

Keep in mind, I’ve been here less than a month. I recognize that I am romanticizing many of my experiences here so far, even the inconveniences—things are just too new, interesting, beautiful. I haven’t fully settled into the daily grind of teaching and living on this island. I’m sure what I consider an inconvenience or a small bother now will either become a non-issue or a big challenge as time progresses. I want to keep this blog realistic, though, and posting only about the fun, cool things I’ve experienced would be only half the story. Just remember, I am unbelievably lucky to be here, and I wouldn’t change this experience for anything.

Christmas is coming
So, we have a TV here. Which is really cool because I feel a little bit more connected to the world. Kinda like, hey, if we get TV reception here (4 channels), we’re not that isolated from every other place on earth. But then I’ll watch a McDonalds commercial and I’ll see that juicy burger and start drooling, very aware of how far away I am from any fast food restaurant. Or I’ll see a Papa John’s commercial for their new voice delivery app. Colin and I will joke around: “Hey, you think we’re in their delivery area?” “Yea, might take 3 weeks, though.” Once again, I’m brought back to the reality of how isolated we are. Forget American fast food, there isn’t a single restaurant on this island.

There are little stores in each village, and when I say a little store, I mean some family decided to add a few shelves to one of the rooms in their houses and sell pop, chips, beer, cigarettes, and some canned food. The selection is extremely limited and more expensive. Before coming out here, I went shopping for food on the mainland, trying to stock up on as many things as I thought I’d need over the next 5 months. I spent about $500 on food and packed it into a big blue bin, to be shipped via boat out to the island. But, as with many things in American Samoa, inefficiencies abound and even though my box made it to the island, they didn’t unload if off the boat, so back it went. It’s been almost three weeks since that, and I’m still waiting for it

The boat comes about once a week, but even that is unreliable. In the two weeks I’ve been here, the boat has yet to come, and my box with it. The next week that the boat was supposed to come, it was chartered by the government and no packages were accepted for loading, and this past week the weather has been too rough for the boat to dock at our wharf. There’s supposed to be a hurricane that may or may not come near our little island this week, but even if it does not, the waves will probably continue to be too large to allow the boat to dock, so I’ll have to keep waiting for my box. (Update: there was no hurricane and the boat came yesterday and it was quite the nasty Christmas surprise in my box, but that requires its own post since it wins the award for nastiness.) For now we’re eating rice, beans, canned veggies, ramen, and whatever they serve us for breakfast and lunch at school. It’s all decent food, but I’m looking forward to eating what I picked out. It’ll be Christmas all over again once I get my box.

Double standards
One of the challenges volunteers here face are the double standards and the xenophobia. While I have not been here long enough for it to significantly affect my volunteer experience, so I will save any lengthy discussions of that for another time, others have struggled with these issues. Volunteers have struggled with issues ranging from principals who constantly criticize the palagi teachers and demand extra work from them, all the while not even bothering to reprimand Samoan teachers for literally sleeping instead of teaching in class. Another example: while it may be acceptable for Samoan teachers to dress in western attire rather than the standard puletasi for females, palagi teachers will be gossiped about if they do. (Note: this is not necessarily the case for our school. As I’ve said, our leadership and school is as great as it gets out here.)

The reality is that some of the Samoans here do not like palagis and do not want them here. This is understandable, to an extent. The people who have been here on this island for generations want to preserve their culture and way of life. They may view us teachers as a threat, even if we aren’t trying to be one. Us white people—our western ways, our western dress.   

The people in American Samoa, and especially Manu’a, are very religious. While denominations and churches abound, almost everyone identifies as Christian. I don’t know of anyone, in fact, who doesn’t go to church in my village. Every morning when school starts, my kids start off the day with a song, followed by a prayer. At breakfast and at lunch, they sing and then say a prayer. At school assemblies, they pray. The rest of the day they’re just regular high school kids—at times, probably rowdier than in the States—but prayer and song is a part of life.

As volunteers, we are expected to attend church every Sunday morning. Forget the fact that the entire service is in Samoan and literally no one bothers to translate or speak in English (unless what they’re saying is aimed directly at the palagi volunteers). If you show up, you’re golden—even if you read a book the entire time. But if you stop coming to church, people will talk and some might stop waving at you if they see you on the road. So, we all go.

Samoan kids are brought up to never question authority. They do not question their parents. They do not question their teachers. They do not question their pastors. Even at school, it can be difficult to get students to ask questions in class for this reason. Interestingly enough, most kids are unaware that Christianity is relatively new to American Samoa, that it was brought over by Christian missionaries only several hundred years ago. Their understanding of other religions is very narrow, too. Even their perception of Islam goes no farther than an image of a terrorist wrapped in explosives.

Everyone here is required to go to church or risk being shunned by the community. Questioning authority is not permitted. People are only vaguely aware of other religions. So, everyone’s a Christian. Or are they? Is it better to live a life not questioning your beliefs and convictions, unaware but comfortable? Or to live life questioning everything, to be exposed to so many beliefs that you don’t know which to pick, aware but not quite comfortable? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure this one out.

Manuia le aso!


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