A day in the life of a stranger

It is Saturday.

I awake to a voice just outside my window.

“Cat. Cat. Miss. Store.”

Somehow in my abruptly-woken state I recognize the voice of one of my students. It’s not yet 7am. “Come back later,” I manage to croak back.

How many minutes have gone by? Three? Thirty? I hear his voice again.

“Cat. I need in the store.”

“Sami*. The store opens at 9.”

“Miss. Please. I need to buy something.”

“The. Store. Opens. At. Nine.”

Poor Sami leaves but the damage is done. I sit up. As I do I realize that I just barked at one of my sweetest freshmen and sent him away twice–back home to whomever was waiting on whatever it was he was sent to the store to buy. It’s 7:30 am. Why am I still sleeping this late? I move quickly, wrapping an i’e around my waist and twisting my knotted hair into a bun. I need to call Sami’s mother and ask her to send him back, but I can’t find her number.

I hear the steady swish-swish of my neighbor’s palm-frond broom against the sand between our houses. I fling open the door and call to him. “Hey, Joe*! Good Morning. What’s Mary*’s number?” He pauses, then calls it out to me. He does not have to look in his phone.

After calling Sami’s, I rush over to open the store (my other neighbor’s shop, which I am running for her while she’s off-island) before he can walk the half-a-minute distance between my house and his. As soon as he walks in, I apologize for sending him away earlier; we laugh about how “late” I slept. He buys a few things and leaves.

Since I’m up anyway, I cook the Beard a quick breakfast of grits and eggs. We pray. We eat. He rides his bike to the school to do some work.

I spend my morning washing dishes, sweeping the sand out of the house, picking leaves up in the yard, serving the occasional customer at Leafa’s store, and doing laundry. As I’m hanging the first load on the line along the front of our house, our landlord, To’o (or just Papa), is dropped off on the road in front of our house. He’s been working at his plantation on top of  mountain since 6am; he rests for a minute under the shade of the breadfruit tree. Papa asks how much laundry I’ll have today, probably wondering if he’ll be able to get a load in (we both use a neighbor’s machine). I tell him just to put his clothes out when he’s ready.

Papa is sound asleep in front of his television when I walk over to pick up his basket of dirty clothes. It is a nice, hot day–a perfect day for laundry and a nap. I don’t wake him.

It is nearly 11am when I walk quietly back to Papa’s with his freshly washed clothes. He is awake and keeps me company while I hang each item on the line.  The clothes we don’t have room or pins for are thrown on a woven mat and laid out in the sun. I can tell he is still tired from the morning, so I make us some salmon sandwiches and tell him to go rest. “Malolo, Papa.” He goes inside.

The sun is getting higher in the sky and I can feel the beads of sweat gathering on my skin. The sky is a clear, bright blue, and from the looks of it, I’ll have at least an hour before bingo starts. I decide to go for a swim.

Just as I’m lathering up in SPF, the Beard rolls up to the front porch on his bike. He’s not interested in swimming so he just takes his hammock down to the beach to read. I spend a good half hour in a cheap inflatable ring I brought from the States, just lying on my back on top of the water, admiring the shape of the island. Two kids and their uncle join me on their own inflatable toy–theirs is in the shape of WWII-era plane and the boys take turns riding the waves on it. I deflate my ring and put on my snorkel gear.  The waves are gentle so I go out farther than I typically do, keeping to the shallow areas near the edge of the channel so I won’t get sucked out. I see three bright blue star fish and relatively little else. After an hour I remember that I did not apply any sunscreen to my lower back; the fear of a sunburn coaxes me back to shore.Starfish

On the beach, I try to absorb everything: the feel of the sun on my skin, the smell of the ocean, the warm breeze and the movement of my hair across my back as it dances in the wind, the distant laughter of children, even the bright pink of our dog’s tongue. I do this often–try to memorize every detail, try to soak it all in.

I know my attempts are futile. There will be things I won’t even remember that I’ve forgotten, but right now I want to believe that I can somehow observe enough and that, in doing so, I can rub every detail into the messy wax paper of my memory.

The rest of the day is spent running back and forth between our house and the store. The Beard and I cook together in our tiny kitchen, eat in front of our donated TV (thanks, Garrett!), pausing when we hear the dogs barking out front–the signal that there is a customer at the store. Around 9:30 pm, we tumble sleepily onto the bed, turn the window-unit AC on for 10 mins or so, and read until our eyes refuse to cooperate any longer.

I wrote this a few weeks ago because I wanted to try to capture the sort of absolute peacefulness I feel on the weekends. Of course there is quite a bit of variation from one week to the next: Today, for example, it’s raining so I’m not washing any clothes or spending much time outside. (There will, however, be bingo. There is always bingo.) But overall the weekends are a busy mixture of work and play, and they always feel long enough to make it seem like we’ve had a good break from school.

I also wanted to try to capture something that has become typical in a more complicated sense — in the way personal spaces have disintegrated and our relationship with other people in our village has become less and less neighborly and more and more familial. Our desire–our ability even–to separate ourselves from the rest of the village, like we did so often our first year as volunteers, continues to dissipate the longer we are here. It has not only become difficult, but even absolutely absurd, to consider my home and my neighbor’s home as two distinctly separated spaces.

When I think of the years we spent ignoring and not getting to know our neighbors in Georgia, I feel an intense discomfort at the realization of the coldness of my former life and American culture. I have told my students before that I lived in a house for five years and didn’t know my neighbors and they were, understandably, confused and saddened.

Worse, though, is when I think of the years I spent oblivious to the immigrants in my neighborhood, my church, my workplaces, and my classes.  Did I even see them? Did I see how they struggled to learn a new language and a new culture, to combat the constant criticism about their accents, their behaviors, what they were and were not doing “right?” When I think of it, I am embarrassed and ashamed.

I wanted to share this with you, this recap of a mundane yet fulfilling Saturday, so you could see a glimpse of the little life we have made here. But I also wanted to share this for me, the woman who will soon repatriate and may easily forget what it was like to sit on a beach on a Saturday and know the name of every passing face, and hold each and every one of them in her heart. 

My neighbor, Leafa, our best friend on this island, always tells us that she takes care of the palagi who come here because once, years ago, she sent her own son off to Hawaii for college, and he was taken in by strangers. She just wants to do the same for us. I have heard something similar for years but I had never seen it so clearly demonstrated in someone’s life before:

Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:34)

Sure, not everyone has treated us like family: some continue to make anti-palagi comments they don’t think we understand and their disdain for us is neither disguised nor reprimanded by others. There are people like that all over the world. I thought I was not like them, but now I know firsthand that my lack of action was just as harmful. When I  leave this place and return to the “home” that is starting to feel less and less like home, I want to remember what it was like to be a sojourner and to be welcomed. I hope that by reading this you will all consider how beautiful a life shared with strangers can be. I want to encourage you to get to know your neighbors. Have them over for dinner. Cut their grass. Share your life with them, even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first. And then, when I return, hold me accountable for the same.

*I’ve changed the names for two reasons: 1, because I feel like I should and 2, because the real names, to most of you, will just look like a string of unpronounceable vowels.

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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3 Responses to A day in the life of a stranger

  1. T. J. says:

    This was a great post, Cat. Thanks for writing.

  2. amy says:

    Please write your book soon.

    I love this, and you.

  3. This is beautiful. So very moving and insightful. Thank you

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