I’ve been putting off writing this post, though I’ve thought of it often, at least in part because I keep waiting for the magical moment where I ‘process’ everything. As if, at the end of my time here, the camera of my brain will suddenly zoom out to the big picture and I’ll be able to confidently and intelligently (humorously even, maybe!) articulate a worthy summation of four months spent in Samoa. With less than 24 hours left in the country, I may be forced to conclude that this is just not going to happen. Processing this experience, it seems, will happen long after I’ve left these steamy shores (literally–the rainy-sunny combo is back) and probably continue well into my return to the States. Still, I can’t leave without writing something for both you, my loyal readers (hi dad!), and me to reflect on the unpredictable journey of the last few months.
So, here it is. Samoa in bite-sized chunks.
Being able to see the sun rise and set over the ocean. When I was in high school and lucky enough to basically live on a beach, watching the sun set on the ocean was one of my favorite ways to spend the evening. When I left California for college, it was something I missed desperately–that crisp coastal air trying to worm its way under your layers, balancing the cool factor of seeing the sun dip below the horizon and the nervous factor of staring directly at the sun, the vivid quality of the sky, the advance of stars… In fact, this is the first time I’ve lived in a place that could match (and surpass!) the number of stars in the sky in Carmel, on a fogless night, of course. It’s different here for sure–for one, watching the sunset doesn’t require bundling up–but I still love it.
When I moved to the East Coast, I optimistically thought that I would be replacing those ocean sunsets with sunrises. Of course, I am far from a morning person, so in 7 years of living back east I never set my eyes on an ocean sunrise.
I finally did here, and it was exhilarating.
The sky. This is obviously related to the item above. But it’s a valid item in itself. I guess it must be the broad expanse of the South Pacific spanning on around us, because the sky here is incredible. Whether it’s spotted with clouds so fluffy and vivid you just want to reach out and grab a fistful, streaked with a technicolor light show to shame any movie’s special effects, or stuffed so full of stars your mouth falls open…I will miss it.
Never wearing shoes. Or pants. While I’ll be going back to the States in mid-summer, so I can continue dodging this bullet for awhile, you just can’t beat going to work in flip flops.
Cracking open a coconut on a hot day. There’s really nothing more refreshing. While Samoa doesn’t have the widest diversity of fruits, the ones they do grow are delicious. I will definitely miss drinking young coconuts, eating fresh coconut cream, and being up to my ears in deliciously ripe bananas and papayas.
Watching rugby all the time. Following rugby in the States takes concerted effort and steely determination–sometimes in addition to steep fees for special viewing packages. I will deeply miss being surrounded by a culture that also loves and appreciates my favorite sport, and being able to turn on the TV to watch any major games and tournaments.
Everything being 5 minutes away. If it’s ‘in town’, and you’re driving, it’s hard for it to be more than 5-10 minutes to get to. Previously, my work commute in NYC could reach 1.5 hours on the subway. I am not looking forward to this change of pace.
Persistent and overt racism following me down the street. Literally. This was easily the worst part of my time here. Look, I know the States has our own race issues, but being here was like turning back the clock to an age I was never familiar with, in our country at least. I cannot exaggerate how many times I was addressed, “Hey Chinese girl,” “Hey China,” “Ching chong chong shay,” “(insert any and all imitations of Chinese/made up Chinese words)” by boys and men of all ages, sometimes following me as I walk down the street. It’s okay, generally, if you think I’m from China or Japan–I get it, I’m Asian, both of those countries have a pretty strong presence here. But, for example, during the 50th independence celebrations, there was a Chinese cultural performance as part of the festivities. This consisted of song and dance–not comedy. The second one of the performers opened her mouth and spoke to the crowd, in Chinese, peals of laughter rang out. They continued through her performance (a song) and generally through the show whenever Chinese was spoken.
This is after a 15 minute opening prayer in which the pastor appealed to the crowd to embrace all people, regardless of looking different or being different. The truth is, Samoa has such a homogenous population, I do understand why there might be a lack of education or experience regarding diversity and ‘other’ people. But that doesn’t make it easier to be one of those ‘other’ people.
Mosquitos. Need I say more? I will not miss covering myself in poison multiple times a day, I will not miss being itchy always, I will not miss sleeping under a mosquito net, I will not miss mosquito hunting as a legitimate (for me) form of entertainment at night.
Adele dance remixes. Samoans love music and dancing. This means even if music was not meant to be danced to, they will find a way to make it so, including so many Adele songs remixed into dance music. This also involves taking existing pop songs, and rewriting them in Samoan. Example: Pretty Little Teine. This should remind you very strongly of another song by a certain Canadian 17-year-old…
Singing competition shows. By this, I am referring to American Idol, The X-Factor, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent. I never watched any of these before living here, but took them up as a necessity for conversation. It’s amazing how many conversational doors were opened by having working knowledge of these shows. I will not be missing them because I am a total convert and fully plan on continuing my viewership upon returning to the States.
I have gone 4+ months without:
- Internet access 7 days a week.
- Drinking a beer that is not Vailima.
- Eating a bagel. Among many other things.
- Being able to eavesdrop on conversations around me. And I am normally an avid eavesdropper.
- Access to a gym.
- A couch. You will never appreciate laying on the couch on the weekend as much as when you don’t have one.
- More than 2.5 channels on TV. Coupled with an inability to stream video, this is pretty crippling if you know much TV I watch.
- Being able to drive more than 7 hours without ending up in the same spot I started.
Obviously, there were a number of difficult moment for me here, whether related to getting sick, frustrations at work, or missing friends back home. However, the low point of my trip, by which I mean an unequivocally negative moment, actually occurred just a few days ago while my mother was visiting.
We were driving on Cross Island Road, which goes up and over a mountain, connecting the north side of the island with the south. Suddenly, in the middle of the road I see a small group of people, about 7 or 8 young men and women. There is a young lady on the ground. At first, I think she’s injured and there’s been some sort of accident, they are moving her out of the way.
Then I realize: she’s injured, but it’s not an accident. There is a man, dragging her off the road by her hair. Her face is bloodied and swollen. Her body is limp. I honk, stunned and unsure. A young man looks menacingly at me and waves me on. I realize there are far more of them than us, and I’m with my mom, who I absolutely do not want subjected to violence of any degree. I drive on.
I did contact the police, and the Victim Support Group (from what I can tell, the only organization working against domestic violence in-country) to tell them what I saw. I was promised an investigation, although generally the police are not responsive to ‘domestic issues.’ And while we were the only ones there at that moment, Cross Island Road is a fairly busy one, and I saw a lot of traffic passing me in the opposite direction. But, there’s no guarantee any of them stopped, or cared, or would have helped her. The attitude here is sadly typical–if a girl shames her family, or not, and they are beating her, it’s a private matter.
I don’t need to tell you how sick I felt driving away, or how helpless and sad and angry I was afterwards. I will tell you that it’s strange how shocked the mind is in the moment of witnessing extreme violence. For a few instants, it tries to rationalize away what you are seeing, until ugly reality asserts itself. And I will tell you, it was a sobering reminder that work against domestic violence still has miles and miles to go.
As violent as my low point was, my high point is passive, in the best way. After playing in a rugby tournament one Saturday, one of the coaches told me he would be driving out to the villages to drop off some of the girls that stayed behind to watch the senior men’s club game. There is one road that encircles the island–if you drive west out of Apia, you head towards the airport, if you drive east, you drive along beautiful coastline and eventually into the mountains. He was heading east, and invited me along for the drive. Unsafe as it is (sorry parents), one of the things I will definitely miss is riding in the back of a pickup truck in the cool evening air after a long, hot day.
So this is my high point: wedged into the bed of a pickup truck in a pile of Samoan girls who are all chattering away, waving occasionally to people they know as we pass them; the ocean is crashing on the rocks to one side, villages appear and mountains rise on the other; after sweating all day, I am cooling down at last, my tired legs happy to be resting; the sky, or possibly the whole world, is glowing pink and orange and beautiful, it seems a certainty that clouds are transformed into something else entirely, a magical substance that makes the sky bigger than the earth; someone is playing music and occasionally a teammate shoots me a smile or raises her eyebrows; I don’t understand a word they are saying but I get happiness when I see it.
Even now, my mind is whirring as I try to find words to draw this story closed, the story of Adria in Samoa. But I could type forever, and still, I suspect, have more to say, because this is not the end of the story. I am leaving this country, but these experiences will never leave me, and the story will continue as I search for my way forward.
So I won’t try to achieve the impossible, and just say that this was the most trying personal and professional experience of my life. I learned, I tried new things, I was bored, I was happy, I was sad, I was lonely, I was excited, I was hot, I was tired, I was itchy, I was satisfied, I was fascinated, I was curious, I was frustrated… Most of all, I am grateful. I could have gone my whole life without ever coming to Samoa–after all, it’s quite out of the way, and a Pacific island is available to the US in the form of Hawaii–and I’m so glad that I didn’t miss out. The weather is hot, the culture is strong, and the land is beautiful.
So thank you, Samoa. Thank you, SPBD. Thank you, Kiva. Most of all, thank you family and friends for all the love and support. I probably would have laid down and given myself to the mercy of mosquitos and giant cockroaches if not for you.
For anyone who is interested in coming to Samoa, I’ll give you Lusila’s instructions: “Head to Hawaii, and make a left.”
PS. If you stay tuned, I’ll see if I have it in me to throw up a post or two about transitioning back to life in the States…but first I will be passing through Hong Kong and Poland!