A Palagi visiting Samoa for the first time is challenged by the different culture. In some ways the South Pacific Island Paradise experience can be quite brutal.
For those not used to the tropics, the high humidity can catch us off-guard. “Oh it’s sooooo hot here!” is a common utterance, as it takes us a little while to learn that heat and humidity are actually quite different.
Houses without walls are an eye-opener too. To the uninitiated we view this as a direct sign of poverty . . . “They can’t even afford walls!” is the typical thinking, until of course, we learn that we actually want the gentle cooling breeze wafting through our houses.
Even though we may well be used to crowds in the big city, it’s often a threat to be confronted by even a couple of Samoans yelling, “Taxi! Taxi” at us. We would expect this if we visited somewhere like Mexico, but we are surprised when we experience this in “Paradise”.
Without doubt, the biggest glaring difference for the Palagi is the church influence in Samoa. While a large church may be a source of pride to a Samoan village, the Palagi very often views the comparative difference between the “ruling” rich and the “subservient” poor negatively. Our culture respects more of a balance between church, state and individual wealth and scoffs at efforts of ostentation, particularly when it comes to religion. Perhaps strangely, we more easily accommodate wealth gained from commercial or political activities than we can that gained through religious.
For those able to engage a little deeper with the Samoan culture, we come face to face with issues that can actually be quite traumatic. Not all Palagi are the same, but poverty, religious extremes, blind obedience and male domination are some of the biggies that often hit us head-on.
Yet there are aspects to Faa Samoa that always catch our collective breath and can leave us mesmerised.
The happy, friendly smile that we are usually greeted with can make our heart melt.
The effort to please a Palagi guest from some high-performing hosts can leave us spellbound and deeply touched. Our culture is used to smiles and courtesy as a natural part of our professionalism, but it is rarely “over-the-top” and so genuine as Samoan hospitality appears to us.
The communal ways of village life are often a stark contrast to the comparatively selfish and individualistic ways of the Western world. Many Palagi wishes that they too could live in a world where sharing and caring like the Samoan family does, was the norm. Granted, there are challenges in living this lifestyle that the visiting Palagi might not realise at the outset, but the differences are huge and very noticeable.
When engaging with Samoa at a deeper level, core cultural differences accentuate. As Palagi (like me) learn how to live and interface with another culture, our challenges can easily become overbearing. Some who have intermarried distance themselves from their Samoan in-laws. Businessmen learn to partner with locals to achieve their commercial goals. Philanthropists learn to see the “other side” of giving to those who are quite adept at receiving.
Many though depart, never to return. In my short time in Samoa, I’ve seen many who cannot (or will not) adjust their thinking to accommodate an alternative world-view and lifestyle – from both sides. Many within Samoa cannot truly understand the huge difference between what is normal for them, and what is normal for the Palagi.
As the bible says though, the starting point for a positive cross-cultural interchange is to humble ourselves and acknowledge that we are all equal before the Creator. The magic happens from there.
Dennis A. Smith (www.dennis.co.nz) is a Samoa-based author, blogger and CEO of the SWAP Foundation, home of Samoa voluntourism.This post has 657 words.