* Disclaimer: When I was in Fiji, I was able to connect to WiFi and Netflix (for the first time in ONE YEAR) and was able to watch the movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” The inspiration for this post and its name comes from the movie. While this in no way is a quality teen romance, I can’t promise that it won’t get a bit mushy…
Every October, a new group of trainees arrive in country to prepare to swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers in Samoa. This year, Peace Corps Samoa welcomed Group 90! I wasn’t in country to greet G90 when they arrived, but I was able to interact with the majority of them while I was in their training village last week. It was great to meet and be inspired by this group of fresh-faced individuals. I honestly can’t wait to see where they are placed and what an impact they’ll make in their communities.
Being able to see G90 at this point in their Pre-Service Training allowed me to reflect more on how far I’ve come since beginning this journey one year ago. This would probably work best if you were to imagine me as your old tina matua (grandma) telling you this with my eyes glistening as I share my insights about life. So to set the scene, imagine me as Moana’s grandma. But without further ado:
Dear Peace Corps Samoa Groups 90 (+),
Afio mai! You are all coming to our island home from various backgrounds and experiences and let me tell you (again or for the first time, if you haven’t heard it already), you are ALL welcome here. In my eyes, we are given this opportunity to share ourselves with people who may not have the opportunity to meet people of other walks of life otherwise. We are sharing the true testament of America’s diversity. My dichotomy between Peace Corps Volunteer and World Traveler has trained my eyes to see that each person has a unique role in this world. Everybody has their own problems, yet everybody has something to offer and the world keeps spinning. No matter where we are, or where we were born – we all dream of our potential and should righteously dream big! While you are taking your initial steps into figuring out your space here, be confident in your abilities. You are all still learning and growing — as am I. But here are my big take aways after a year in Sāmoa.
When in doubt, laugh it off or say “Ka ilo”
There will be times when the indirectness of this culture will be challenging and possibly soul-crushing, but just know that if you show you can laugh along, you’ll make the situation less uncomfortable. Prime Lina examples include people calling me fat and then (sometimes simultaneously) laughing at my Samoan language abilities on a daily basis. Remember when I gave a speech in front of hundreds of people at my church? Yeah, everyone laughed (no wonder why people despise public speaking!). Throughout your service, you might find yourselves in situations in which you are uncomfortable. While I don’t want to encourage you to force yourself to stay in these situations, nor be self-depreciating to cause harm, just keep in mind that when it comes to dealing with parts of this culture that may make you want to bang your head against the wall (ahem gender and age norms and expectations), being thick skinned and knowing how to laugh at yourself come in handy. I guess you sort of learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable when bidding adieu to your privacy (#fishbowl). I’ve also come to appreciate when someone says Lē iloa or ka ilo (I don’t know). The indirectness of the culture was initially frustrating and this reply usually wasn’t what I was looking for, but I’ve realized that it takes courage (in any culture) to admit you don’t have the answer. It’s okay to be unsure.
Engage in the culture, but don’t sacrifice yourself
Peace Corps provides us with an invaluable tool in order to integrate within the communities we serve: time. We’ve all come in with the intent on serving for 27 months and that may seem like forever (especially on Saturdays when you’re at site suffering from the Saturday Slumps), in the grand scheme of life, it’s not. Time is a disingenuous measure of success and a sinister cause of stress. We are here to engage and learn from the culture but don’t let that overwhelm you. Usually, your effectiveness as a pisikoa (in most Samoan’s eyes) will not necessarily come from how strong of a teacher you are, but instead will come from how much you attempt at integrating into the culture. Again, don’t let this overwhelm you. You may need time alone to recharge for the sake of your mental health and that’s OKAY! As my sweet and mindful friend and fellow PCV Carinne once said, “say yes to things when you’re ready, not just when your guilt gets to you.” Take your time to figure out what part of the culture you legitimately want to do out of love and your community will appreciate that. (And don’t forget that naps are DEFINITELY culturally appropriate!)
Reciprocity is key
Reciprocity may be my favorite aspect of the fa’asamoa (Samoan way of life) and the concept is something I would like to tweak and take away from this experience. There’s something so inspiring about how Samoans give everything to support one another with the resounding faith/assurance that others will give back to them in their own way and in their own time. This takes the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine ” to a wholehearted level. Don’t give to a point that you become overwhelmed (see previous point), but when you give– whether it be your skill, your time, or anything– give with all of your heart.
You’re not in this alone
With all of this said, there are things you will learn through time, which is what makes each volunteer’s experience unique. I will share what I can with you, but know that you will make your service entirely your own. But don’t think you are alone. ‘Aiga (family) is one of the cornerstone components of the fa’asamoa. While the weight of the responsibility of service is yours to bear, you are not the only one doing it. Don’t overlook the camaraderie that comes along with being a part of this ‘aiga. The honor of serving in Samoa largely comes from those children you will teach and who will look up to you and the community that will welcome you with open arms and mugs of koko. But also from the volunteers who you’ll meet along the way who will understand what you mean when you talk about the oil/fat layer in the can of pisupo, or will celebrate with you the joy of seeing a student score higher on the ELA, or will know exactly where to go out and eat in Apia when that all-taro diet becomes a bit too much. Together, we celebrate the highs and empathize with the lows. We’re in this fa’atasi.
It’s been a year, but I was finally able to take a picture with BOTH my host parents. Fa’afetai i le Atua! Now to somehow wrangle my 10 brothers and sisters and their spouses and then my nieces and nephews for a FULL family picture… oh boy! I guess that will be my secondary project.