Source: Time Life Magazine
A while ago I came across this photograph on my Facebook feed. It looked so intriguing so I read a little about the couple in the picture. They got married on top of a pole long ago. Some said that they got divorced, some that the groom died alone in a ramshackle house and that sometimes the local kids used to go and throw rocks at the house “To Kill a Mockingbird Style”. Whatever happened to the couple in the photo, it got me thinking. We all start marriage with a sense of thrill, of excitement for the future and a belief that we can, together overcome all odds. If we didn’t, how would we justify taking that huge leap into the unknown. The symbolism of the couple married atop a pole symbolized to me the sense of joy, girlish hope and total belief in myself and my bond with another that I felt when I rushed headlong into a cross cultural marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I thought I knew what I was in for. It wasn’t my first marriage, and my children were almost all grown up, some having left home years ago. I thought I had a knowledge of what obstacles come hand in hand with marriage, and was going in with my eyes wide open. I had a belief in the future, taking on the lessons of the past, but I did truly believe in what I was doing.
One of my dearest friends told me at the time that there may be days that I questioned whether what I had done was wise, but to put on my adventure hat and hold on tight – to enjoy the ride, but knowing it might at times get a little hair-raising.
I realized I thought, that marrying someone from another culture would mean learning and understanding, not just what do, and what not to do, but WHY culturally it would be significant. I have really worked hard over the last two years to do just that. I have become involved in a lot of community projects; immersed myself fully in life here. I have ceased to be merely an observer. We have a freezer but no fridge, we have internet but no TV, I washed by hand for a year. I made a chicken house from plastic bottles. I raise pigs and chickens and we have a dog that came one day and stayed. I plant my own vegetables. I don’t have any high heels any more and wear flip flops every day, even to town. I don’t wear make up. I have met the High Chief of Bau twice and been to many villages. My son spends every holiday and most weekends in the village, and speaks Fijian. I understand Fijian but can’t say much. I know how to cook Fijian and Indo-Fijian food, and often get asked about Fijian customs. I study Fijian history and culture and maybe know it better than many Fijians. I know how to weave mats.
Have I become a hippie? No, I have just become Fijian. However, what I have realized is that no matter how long I stay here, I will never be considered Fijian, even by my husband, or my family here. I will always be different. I will never be understood fully, and some things I will never understand. I don’t mean language – I mean culture. Actually, the things that I don’t understand are referred to as culture, but I believe that is an incorrect description – they are actions and deeds that hurt and destroy, which because of skin colour and place of birth, are passed off conveniently as “culture”, but bear little resemblance to honoured traditions of the past, or accepted cultural mores of the present. Tragic human interactions and decisions are dressed up and paraded as culture by those who are uneducated about their own culture, and any other;by those desirous of living a “developed life” and who manipulate the lives of the unwitting or innocent to eek out some perceived gain. The tragedy is that the gain or advantage dubiously plotted is only a perceived one, one that will never be realized, because those who are fiendish enough to hatch such plots are those who have already led lives of despair and have not the where with all or skill to derive the advantage. Therefore their lives of despair continue to spiral, generation after generation is disadvantaged through their deception, creating a sub-culture which is then given the haughty and dignified name of “Our Culture”. This erroneous term is then bandied about with abandon any time that the truth is dared to be spoken, often, with the precursor “You don’t understand (Our Culture)”; “You’ll never understand (Our Culture); “You have no right to comment on (Our Culture)”. Eventually the offender is not even addressed, just spoken about as if deaf with the damning and sulky lament which trails off…”She’ll never understand (Our Culture), she has no rights, she is not One Of Us, she doesn’t understand The Pacific”, she doesn’t know anything about Me, she doesn’t know anything about Us”, followed by tears, tears, tears, sniff, sniff, sigh. There also seems to be amongst the people who use these terms and phrases the solid and unwavering belief that white people have no “Culture”, and it then follows naturally that therefore, as they have no culture at all, that they are incapable of understanding any type of cultural interaction at all, let alone those of people of a different colour and place of birth.
To clarify, I enjoy my life here, and am not sure if I fit in with developed life anymore. Every time I go back “home”, I feel a disconnect. Living without many things, and no longer feeling the need for them makes me feel overwhelmed when I visit there. Also, living in a developing country, I see that many of the items that are being marketed here as the trappings of “developed life” and therefore desirable are having such a negative and compounding effect that it makes me question what development should really look like, but who am I to pass judgement? Families that need assistance for free bus fares for school children (when the bus is only 35 cents) seem to feel that the children must have fizzy drinks in plastic bottles. That is just the start, and I am sure that if you are a reader of this blog, that you already know my opinions on many things and maybe don’t want to hear them again.
However, recently I took a month off the internet – really and truly, I didn’t look at it at all (I can hear some people gasp from across the oceans). The world didn’t stop rotating – phew! I can hear people thinking – WHY did you do that? The reason I told my family was that it was a month long experiment. That was a lie. Actually it was because I got back from visiting my older kids, my friends, and my elderly dad in Australia. When I got back, I missed my friends, my kids, and my dad. I felt sad, very sad.
I felt the most sad because I felt that I was back home in Fiji, but that many things are not as they should be. Many things happen here, and are disguised or dismissed as ‘culture’. Actually that is not the case. Culture is respect for your elders (parents, older relatives, chiefs), and traditions. Culture may even extend to men drinking yaqona (kava, a traditional ceremonial drink made of plant roots) after work. Culture may even at a push extend to the relegation of women to being subjugated to men as it was not that long ago that Fijians were a warlike people, with rival tribes often fighting each other, and women needed their men to be strong.
What follows is the events of the past month un-distracted by internet – a look at culture in reality – both good and bad, constructive and destructive, real and imagined. Much of it is just plain tragic – a train wreck in slow motion, with the outcome and destruction clear, but no one willing or able to stop the horrific carriage crashing into carriage, carnage, debris and chaos. Of course, this is just my view, and the fact that I may have it all wrong, is the thing that makes me wonder whether I will ever understand this “culture”, or even wish to be part of it, if what I am told is “Pacific Island Culture” is what it really is. I was hoping that the other parts of the culture that I have been part of were really the culture – you know, the good bits: respect for elders, respect for nature, a connection with the earth and the sea, love of animals, skills and knowledge willingly passed down, traditions.
Fijians participated and voted in the first democratic election for eight years, and the first where people didn’t have to line up to vote according to race. I helped a friend who is a successful young female pig farmer to demonstrate at the local Agriculture show that pigs which are fed on natural foods (vegetable waste from the local municipal markets) grow faster, stronger and healthier that those pigs raised on commercial feed. I made soursop, pawpaw and chili chutney with my daughter. I swapped two of my chickens for a small pig and have been training the pig to walk on a lead when he comes out every day. My dog was poisoned and died a painful death, but then mysteriously a new dog arrived on my porch one day and has never left. I started harvesting corn, tomato, cucumber and pumpkin from my vege patch. I bought a lot of new chicken hatchlings and they are all growing fast. The hens layed four eggs every day. I got invited to a wedding. We had parent-teacher day and the kids are doing well. I bought some small trees and found some discarded orchid plants and planted them. I invented (well kind of) a fridge that doesn’t need electricity which is made from concrete building blocks filled with wet sand and covered with wet hessian bags. I tested it, taking photographs of three test samples daily, and discovered that vegetables stay fresh in the new fridge for more than 10 days. I baked some cakes using farm fresh eggs, yoghurt and fresh limes, over at my neighbour’s house using her oven. My son turned 15 and had a friend over for dinner and cards. I took the kids to the movies. If you are interested in the details of any of the above, then let me know and I can fill you in.
Turns out that after a month not being on the internet I didn’t miss much. There were hundreds of emails, but most of them were things I had previously subscribed to and I now refer to as “Junk” (funny, because they all seemed interesting when I subscribed). There were only three Facebook messages for me, and less than ten emails from other friends or colleagues. Maybe I really am a pain in the proverbial, and that is why people have stopped communicating with me. Perhaps, as my son might say, they “tire of my shennanigans”. The only really cool thing I missed was that my son is in a drag competition, and is being hailed as a “true talent”. I watched the video over and over. All of the above is normal life, (well, normal life here in Fiji where I don’t have a demanding job like I did way back when), and none of it seems that bad. Even no-one really worrying about me wasn’t that bad. I think everyone knows that I am off and on since I got here and are used to it by now.
What really has me in a spin is the other event of the month, a tragedy of what seems to me of epic proportion, with far-reaching consequences. There is a young girl in the family who has gotten herself into trouble bit by bit, but consistently over the past few years. It started when she started truanting from school in Australia when she was about 13. Eventually by the time she was 15 she was only attending school on average one day a month. When the absentee report from school was requested, it turns out her mother had phoned nearly every day with an excuse. Actually the reason was that she rarely slept at home by that time, and was going from house to house, staying away from home for weeks at a time and only coming home to refill the contents of her bags and get more money. Her school reports indicated for most subjects “Not enough evidence to assess” or something like it. A year ago, that girl came to Fiji with her mother and brother and sister. At the time she was 16 years old. After a week, the girl left Fiji with her mother, headed for Samoa, saying that she needed to go there, to meet up with her boyfriend from home, who was also a Samoan citizen. At the time I predicted that within a year, she would come back pregnant – but that was a bad thing to say, and I was told so. The brother and sister, who had similar problems scholastically, stayed here, and are now passing at school and attending daily. The girl who left found that very soon after arriving in Samoa to meet the love of her life, he left her, and was gone. With no access to schooling, she found herself relegated to home duties for a large family, and started saying she wanted to come to Fiji and resume education. It was agreed. However, weekly, the arrival date seemed to be changed and over time got more and more remote. From April to May, to June, to possibly August or September. It all seemed so strange.
A couple of months ago (when she was just 17 years old) , we got the call, she was pregnant. After discussion, it was clear that she wanted to keep the baby. All good. What to do next would be worked out. A month ago, on my return to Fiji, I discovered that with only two weeks until the baby’s due date, that the girl had been persuaded to “give” the child when born to the “father’s” family, and was staying in the father’s family home in Samoa with his relatives. Her mother was absent, saying that she was going to buy baby things. However, the search for appropriate baby things must have taken her far and wide, as she ended up in American Samoa, and did not return until after the baby was more than a week old, leaving the poor girl alone.
A day after birth, the baby was fed a bottle, the girl being advised that it was “better” for the baby.
The girl is still convinced that it is going to be “better for the baby’s life” that the baby be sent by the end of this month to Australia to live with the baby’s paternal grandmother who apparently is planning to raise it “as if it’s her own”. The girl has still not bathed the baby, but just observes. She has been taught that if the baby cries, you have to blow in it’s face to make it quiet. I suppose there is no real investment in teaching the girl mothering skills if she is soon not to be a mother. She is still a girl of 17 (soon to be 18).
Distressingly, after being cajoled into releasing the baby to go and live in another country to which she has no access, she is going to be sent to Fiji to apparently resume her schooling. By that time she will be 18, and will not have attended school on a regular basis or passed many subjects since she was 13. The “better life” of the child away from its mother, living with a family who are also uneducated is questionable to me. What is going to make it a better life? Just because in developed countries there is health care, the dentist, education, pottery class, parent teacher day, the school fete, playgroup, swimming club, or even school for that matter, or whatever is judged to be good for children’s development, it requires the adults of the family to actually take the children to those places for the betterment or benefit to be derived. If available services are not accessed, they are of no benefit.
The girl is tragically being counseled by her own mother to release the child, who will travel to Australia under a New Zealand passport. The girl believes that she will see her baby soon. She believes like many 17 year old girls that once her previous love sees her again, he will realize the error of his ways, and repent. He will realize that he still loves her (and the baby), that she has produced a beautiful baby on his behalf and he is eternally grateful and wants to be a family. The reality is that he treated her badly even when they were “in love” at the age of 16, left her in Samoa and has not returned. She wistfully said that he told her recently that he wants to be there for the baby, and that he “doesn’t want to miss a thing, whatever that means”. Well, he missed the birth, that would have been a good start.
The girl and her mother believe that life is going to be better for the baby, and also for them, as they believe that eventually they will both be sponsored for visas to one or other attractive developed nation. Why I asked, would that be a reasonable supposition? The father treated her badly before she was pregnant, he went to Samoa to meet her, but quickly left her, and has not returned. He apparently has completed paperwork for the baby to migrate, but not for her. She is an uneducated child who will now suffer the stigma of having given up a child before she is eighteen years old. She has no way to earn a decent living, and few prospects in the world. She and her mother live on handouts and the kindness of strangers. Who is going to sponsor both of those people, and then support them.
The poor girl happily proclaimed that it is going to be fine, as her goal is to “get an education, and be able to support the baby properly, and then go and get her back!!”. My heart broke. How is this all going to happen, when even the first part is going to be such a long, long road. It may be possible, but without good guidance and decision making, it is just a train wreck in slow motion.
Apart from me, no one wants to speak the truth as it might be upsetting. However, the wish to be a child’s friend, rather than a parent is a foolhardy one in my opinion. I feel a sense of foreboding that once separated from her child, she will be looking for love, heartbroken and feel duped. Within 18 months, she may be pregnant again, and then what -give up that child too? I also feel that rather than thanking the adults in her life for being friendly right now, she will be blaming them in the years to come. “Why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you tell me the truth? Why didn’t you come and get me and the baby before it was all too late?” are the words that might come crashing out. The train wreck will continue with the broken heart of a father who out of misguided love, didn’t want to upset a daughter in the short term. What of the next generation? A child of an uneducated child, sent away before a month old to live with another uneducated family in another country. Who is going to give that child the skills to protect the embryos that are already in her tiny womb waiting for the day that they bloom into the next generation?
The footage of the train wreck, although we all know it, seems now to move slower than we even thought possible, with more dust and debris and carnage than we ever imagined. But for having these thoughts, and voicing them out loud, apparently I don’t understand “Their Culture”, and I have no rights to comment, and I will never understand. Only time will tell if I am scarily right. But will there be enough time for me to view the footage complete, or will I have to watch it via the internet, as can I be part of a “Culture” that so quickly and calculatingly dismisses babies and hoodwink teenagers to gain a perceived advantage for adults? Can I ever truly be part of a “Culture” that I really don’t understand at all? Do I love my husband – yes. Do I love the kids no matter where they come from – yes. Do I love Fiji – yes. But do I understand – at this point I have to say – no. If there is an argument about my thoughts, it will all be justified on the basis of “Culture” – all from a child who has given birth to a child, and spent the years from the age of 10 to 16 years living in a sub-culture in a developed country. A child who had every opportunity to attend school, attend the dentist, go to swimming club, dance class or whatever she pleased, but instead decided that the benefits of living in a developed country were to go to the movies and have fist fights at the train station instead of attending school, or anything else. All this talk about Pacific Island Culture from a child who has not lived in the Pacific since she was 10 years old, and as soon as she got to the Pacific tragically discovered what she calls “Culture” firsthand.
Do I have a right to comment – that is a question that will always be up for debate around here. Will my comments be taken into consideration? I am not saying I am right, just putting my concerns in the hat. Will anyone take action? Honestly, I am not even that worried that there may be a further disagreement ensuing from this musing on cultural differences, as very few of those I care about in my new culture value what I say significantly to bother with what they call “my things”.
What I do know is that if anyone in the family ever reads this, I will be told that it is not their culture to discuss things openly, and that I have no right to do so. What then are my rights, or am I not really part of the family? Are there really two train wrecks, and I have unwittingly gotten on the train many stations ago and have been sitting in the carriage all this time headed inexorably to my fate.