‘You’re Samoan, but don’t speak Samoan?’
‘He’s pālagi (European) but knows Samoan better than you?’
When I was a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Samoa, these were questions I was constantly asked by confused people. No longer could I get away with ‘ua?’ (how’s it?) or ‘seki uce’ (algood bro). It was like my identity as a self-proclaimed 685, Samoa mo Samoa diehard was now openly exposed as a lie like a band-aid ripped off an open wound.
Three years ago, I had put work and uni on hold to serve as a missionary. As part of my missionary training in Provo, Utah, I was taught basic grammar and vocab in the Samoan language. Here I was, halfway around the world, being taught my mother tongue by others when I had my mother speak to me in Samoan my whole life.
Asked often by others I finally came to seriously ask myself, why. Why hadn’t I learnt my language? The excuses of ‘my parents didn’t teach me’, or ‘I didn’t really grow up around it’ gave way to the only real reason – I was mā (embarrassed). Too embarrassed to give it a go. Past experience taught me to only say one word and pronounce it properly. Enough for people to know I was Samoan, but also enough so they couldn’t figure out I was ‘plastic’.
But now as a missionary in Samoa I was expected to talk with everyone, teach, and give sermons – all in Samoan. Slowly, most of the time painfully awkward, I started. First, I began with words. Then, sentences.
‘Today, all you gotta do is say that one line’ my missionary trainer would tell me. We’d go from fale to fale (house to house) and I would say my one line at each. Over time, line by line, sentences were weaved together.
Six months in, I could say pretty much whatever I wanted to. Although I could express myself I could not always articulate exactly what I was thinking or feeling. Even now I struggle at times.
As with all things, people often see the finished product removed from the intense processes needed to shape it. Being immersed in language, culture, and faith for two years in Samoa meant that I came home ‘fluent’ but if only you could hear the ‘kalofaes’ (poor thing) and the “ea lou tala?” (what did you say?) I would constantly get as I attempted to expand my vocab.
Through the battles of awkwardness and embarrassment came the victories. Through my one liners I could ask people how they were and what they did that day, what they were interested in and liked doing. Slowly, the one liners progressed to full conversations. Looking back now I see how those one liners were the foundations of my conversations which in turn deepened my relationship with the people I lived amongst. As weak as my Samoan was, the one liners kept me within range to stay connected with the people and culture.
Understandably, not all of us have the time to live in the outbacks of the Pacific for two years but we can and must make the effort. Start by listening to Pasefika jams! Take a language class. Visit Māngere Town Centre, to hear the noise of Pasefika people laughing and speaking their mother tongue. Start with your own one liner, even.
These one liners strung together can help fasten us to a greater sense of connection to culture. As part of the diaspora we, and future families, will eventually grow further from the roots of our ancestral trees. Would your kids be able to go back to the islands and stay in the village? To play on the fanua (land) your ancestors worked? Or will they be segregated by the resorts and restaurants, robbed of an opportunity to experience the true Island life? For me, New Zealand may be a place of milk and honey, but my Samoan taste buds will always naturally crave fa’alifu (coconut marinade) and koko (cacao).
Start the journey to connect, regardless of the mockers and those that call you plastic. Your culture is yours and so is the language. Although on the tongue it may be second, in the blood it runs first.
U’umau lou tofi.