This is (American) Samoa

After several frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to leave Ta’u, we finally made it to Tutuila on Sunday. We had a lovely two-day WorldTeach mid-service conference and now we are free to frolic about on the paved roads. Our first order of business was to eat at Pizza Hut (check!), then to see our fellow volunteers, and finally to eat at Carl’s Jr (check!). We’ve spent a lot of time swapping stories about our experiences; some of us are living completely different lives here. Those of us who live in Manu’a (the outer islands) are secluded, have very little resources or conveniences, enjoy very small class sizes and very tight-knit communities, have learned a lot of Samoan, don’t spend very much of our stipends, and live practically on the beach. The volunteers on Tutuila have buses, stores, washers and dryers, hot water, 2-ply toilet paper, fast food, a movie theater and places to hang out; they also have huge classes, long commutes, and end up spending nearly their entire stipend every month. It was a relief to get here but I know I would not be as happy living here as I am in Faleasao.

Our field director recently held a mandatory essay contest and the winners were announced at mid-service. My essay won first place! I’ve included it below if you’re interested. :)

We are leaving Thursday for New Zealand. I’m not sure what our phone situation will be like but we will try to check our email often. I’m sure I’ll have a ton of pictures to post when we get back! We’re spending Christmas in Wellington, and then we’ll have New Year’s 1 in Apia, Western Samoa, and New Year’s 2 back here on Tutuila.

We love and miss everyone so much! Have a wonderful, joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Manuia le Karisimasi!

This is (American) Samoa
Cat Q.
WTAmSam 2011-2012

There is a saying that is oft-repeated in the last house in the village of Faleasao (you know, the one with all the palagis?): “T.I.S.” This is Samoa. It’s usually preceded by a little “eh” sound and accompanied by a shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulders. It started as a silly joke after watching Blood Diamond, in which the more popular “T.I.A.” or “This is Africa” is voiced several times, but has since evolved into our catch-all summary for every little bump on our unpaved road to understanding Samoan culture.

Sometimes we say it in response to the ridiculous and the strange:
The boat isn’t running for a few weeks? And there’s no plane? T.I.S.
What’s that? There’s gecko poop in the freezer? T.I.S.
You got a bug bite where? Wow. T.I.S.
You’re telling me that this funeral is going to last 12 hours? T.I.S., I guess.
There’s a crab in the dish rack? T.I.S.
Have to keep the trash bags in the fridge because the rat eats them? Um, T.I.S?

Other times we employ it as a way of laughing off our frustrations:
Haven’t had a full week of school in weeks because assemblies are given priority over classes? Eh, T.I.S.
Your student doesn’t have shoes but her mom smokes two packs a day? Well, T.I.S.
The neighbor kids are beating the newborn puppies with sticks? UGH. Tee. Eye. Ess.

Then, too, it serves the purpose that every cliché serves: we say it because it’s sometimes too difficult, or we are too overwhelmed, to find the right words on our own.

Four months ago, when I imagined my life in American Samoa, I saw sweet made-for-TV-moments in which I, playing the passionate first-year teacher part, whip a rag-tag group of underperforming students into shape. I saw the adventure of it all: the light-bulbs going off over my students’ heads; the moment of epiphany in which I realize that, wow, these kids are learning from me!; the sunbathing; the snorkeling; the easy island-in-the-sun life. What I know now, of course, is that those not-so-presentimental images were really the idealistic visions of a burnt-out office drone looking for some purpose in her life.
I did not see the rats in our kitchen. I did not see the tarantula-beast living in my classroom. I didn’t see the crabs in my bedroom, or the spiders hiding in the toilet seats waiting to kill me, or the super-terrifying six-inch centipedes, or the several adorable puppies that have died in our front yard. I did not see the hours spent writing lesson plans, nor the hours spent revising those lesson plans after learning that there would be no classes after 12:30 for the remainder of the month (because we have an assembly next month and the kids need to practice their dances, of course). I didn’t see the bruises or the horrific blistering infections my students carry nonchalantly on their bodies. I certainly did not see children being hit in the face by their teachers for giving wrong answers. Nope. Didn’t see any of that coming.

The disillusionment does not come with disappointment as much as it comes with a guilty tinge of laughter at my own idealism. Oh there has been adventure all right—I did beat a tarantula-spider-beast to death with rocks, after all—but not the kind of adventure I expected. This one is hard. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it breaks my heart.

But where else in the world could I see what I see every day here? Every child in two villages knows my name and shouts enthusiastic greetings every single time I walk by. I have seen innumerous whales on my two minute walk to work. Our neighbors offer us free use of their washing machine every weekend (could you imagine getting that kind of treatment in Atlanta?). More importantly, my students have gleefully thanked God for their palagi teacher in their morning prayers. They leave me notes in which they write, in their still-broken but greatly improving English, that they love me and never want me to leave them. When I see those occasional light-bulbs going off, when I hear those oka!s during science class, even when we have to have our little “please stop driving Teacher crazy” talks, or, hey, remember that one time the whole school sang me Happy Birthday?, that’s when I feeI it. The Samoan culture is overwhelmingly giving, welcoming, and the people are eager to share the joys of their island with strangers. This is (American) Samoa. Here I am, in the middle of the Pacific, in a village barely the size of my neighborhood in Georgia, where strangers give you rides and where, instead of apples on her desk, the teacher can expect a live coconut crab in a box or a bag of bananas on her doorstep. I can’t imagine being anywhere else in the world. T.I.S. And I love it.

About Cat Q.

For three years, I lived on a tiny little island in the South Pacific called Ta'u, where I taught elementary and high school English. Much of this blog is a chronicle of my time there, and of the travels we were able to do while we were on that side of the world. Now, I'm doing a different kind of travelling in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia with my husband and two children.
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8 Responses to This is (American) Samoa

  1. paul says:

    Awesome. Awesome. Awesome! Merry Christmas!

  2. Mike & Susan Betzler says:

    Loved your essay, commentary and observations – thank you for sharing! Make sure you journalize them for your book? – maybe a few pics included? (esp., some of the unique critters that you mention.)

    Merry Christmas and happy 2012 to you, Wes and your village.

  3. Evie's mom says:

    Oh gosh I love this. But I love you more. And I miss you tons. I may or may not be shedding a tear over it while I’m awake at 2am.

  4. Emily says:

    Beautifully written essay, Cat. Your former office drones miss you! : )

    Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to you and Wes!

  5. Chadwick says:

    Pizza Hut?! You didn’t mention that you won your little league championship and/or read the most books of your class.

  6. Pingback: T.I.S. – This is Samoa | TeachingAmSam

  7. Palefuiono Sai-Ilaoa says:


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