Dumb Samoans, Dumb Palagi

Apia bus terminal

Apia Bus Terminal. The bus will get here when it gets here . . . OK?

The cross-cultural thing here in Samoa is huge. Engaging with a third world country has been and is still a real challenge for us, and for Kiwis and Australians, just slipping up to Paradise is fraught with cultural danger. Here are a few cross-cultural exchanges with the thinking process behind each culture. It happens here every day!

Palagi man and women check in to a hotel/resort or ask for help from somebody.

What time is [whatever – dinner, breakfast, the Ferry departure, a bus tour, church service]? ”

Oh, Umm, 8 oclock [Many times it’s a guess, a misunderstanding or as some would call it, a lie!]

8 o’clock comes and goes. Nothing has changed except that Palagi blood pressure raises a level or two.

“We traveled all this way to [whatever] and now we’ve missed the last chance we had for [whatever] and all because you can’t even get simple facts right! You are hopeless. I demand to see the manager!”

Now this sort of thing can apply to hundreds of exchanges throughout Samoa daily as Palagi tourists and guests engage with various levels of “Samoan service”. The larger more established businesses do their best to train their staff and hospitality training does exist, but many of the smaller operators will hire their own family members, with varying levels of English and understanding of the Palagi expectations.

For the record, the Palagi should never need to demand to see the manager and should have never trusted a junior staff member when something is important. If you are an important person or you want something to go your way, you ALWAYS meet the manager first and introduce yourself and congratulate the owner/manager and thank them and do a nice culturally sensitive greeting BEFORE any trouble arises. That way you will get better service and real service as well as honouring the owner. Samoa is all about people, politics and relationships remember.

So, a one minute wait for a Palagi is immensely frustrating when a Palagi tourist is in a panic to see as much as they can in their short time on-island. A one hour wait for a bus to a Samoan is par for the course. “When is the bus coming?” for example is just a Dumb Palagi question. When it gets here of course . . . don’t you know that? We wait on the side of the road and it will come. Why do you need to know the time? Or asking where things are or expecting signs to show you where things are.

Why do you need a sign to the Cross Island Road?

We all know where the Tiavi starts . . . it’s just before the shop that sells $1.00 Keke Pua, you know the one that goes up by EPC? And what’s this about the Tiavi? What’s that? I read that it is the Cross Island Road on the map?

Yes but there are three cross island roads and the one that leaves from Apia and crosses to Siumu is called the Tiavi road. You should surely know that?

“Oh sorry Mr Palagi, you don’t know where EPC is, well you go down there and then over a bit and that’s the road – it goes up that way.”

“Look can you give me proper directions please? I go to the right at the clock tower, then how many metres and then turn right or left?”

“Ummm [what did this Palagi say to me?] . . . Yes”

“A kilometre?”

[What’s a kilometre?] . . . “Yes” [actually I don’t know and it’s actually only 100m but how am I to know what a metre or kilometre is?]

“Then right or left?”

“Um . . . that way!”

“Grrr. Dumb Samoans!”

“Dumb Palagi!”

Three other exchanges like this and the Dumb Palagi may have found his way. It’s easy if you read the map, or know the road. A nightmare if you want efficiency and service like ‘back home’.

Street numbers? Are you crazy? We don’t even have street names on many of our roads.

And why would we need signs if we know where the road is? Why have signs for street names? We all know where they go – this one to Moamoa, the next one to Sigamoga, Alafua, Lotopa and so on.

‘Just past the MacKenzies shop’ means so much more than ‘400m on the left up the road to Alafua’ when you know Samoa, as only Samoans do!

I doubt any country has a more chequered rap sheet on Trip Advisor as Samoa does. Interwoven into feedback sheets are page after page of glowing testimonials with NEVER AGAIN comments from poor service providers – on the same resort or establishment! How can this be?

It’s all about expectations. Those expecting good service and demanding that which they are used to in the Western world are disgusted with the fact that someone cannot speak English properly, or doesn’t know how to do something “right”. Others are more flexible, and know how to “play the game” and take everything in their stride, thus enjoying their stay in Paradise.

a cross-cultural clash is a certainty

There are real issues over here though . . . Falealupo is a lovely beach on the far Western coast of Savaii. It has a bad rap on one online forum with a girl warning other travellers to beware the peeping Tom – a staff member who enjoyed the sights of the feminine variety in their showers. It happened more than once to more than one guest.

The discussion ended with one guy saying that the events were a cultural misunderstanding. Well, a peeping Tom in Samoa is just the same as a peeping Tom in the Western world I’m afraid, but he’s right on one count. Western women walk around in Samoa as if they own the place – showing off their boobs and legs as if they want to be raped on the spot. Most of them are not even aware that they are causing offence and creating a problem for themselves. In the Samoan culture a woman hardly ever shows a bare shoulder, or a leg above the knee, let alone any breast. Exceptions are of some of the younger girls in Apia without strong Samoan culture in their upbringing, heavily influenced by offshore trends. But most women here dress very modestly.

A while back, one of our Ambassadors came back one morning fuming at the boys at the local Taxi stand who had wolf-whistled at her while she was out jogging. With mini-shorts and a matching short top, a girl jogging down the road in Samoa would be like a girl walking up Queen Street in a Bikini, or even going top-less. It just does not happen here – both the short attire and the jogging alone, so the girl was very lucky only to have a few whistles. There’s more to it than that with some issues about Samoan men and sexual matters, but this is a family show.

The point is that a cross-cultural clash is a certainty on a beautiful white sandy beach in the middle of Paradise, when a century or more ago the women went topless, and the Missionaries required that they cover-up. Funny now that the Samoans require of the Palagi that they now cover-up, but that’s culture for you – at all times a changing, challenging force, no matter which side of the divide you sit on!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This post has 1,268 words.


  1. This makes me angry because eventhough i’m white, i am embarrassed by most of the palagi i see in Samoa…who complains about men appreciating them?!

    • Malo Kiki
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I’d be happy to respond more if you could clarify your words a little. What specifically makes you angry? In regards to appreciating women, what is your angle? There is a big difference between two cultures here – the traditional Samoan one (at least since the missionaries arrived) of conservative public modesty and the modern Western world in which less clothing is “in”.

Speak Your Mind