The Saturday after Valentine’s Day, I was feeling particularly down about a lot of the day-to-day frustrations of life here. I was sweeping our yard in preparation of bingo and one thought led to another and then another until I was dragging the broom all angrily and ready to jump on a plane back to Georgia.
My thoughts were very … well I thought about the many things I left behind to come here, the things I am missing out on, the things I’ve lost. And I felt very self-righteous, naturally.
I worked and sweated and considered all the disdain directed our way in the past 2.5 years. I thought about the times I have poured myself out for my students only to be scorned or mocked or undermined by fellow teachers who insist that I should just “let the kids relax.” I thought of the way the Dept of Education has treated us and other contract teachers here–as though we are an ugly inconvenience they would rather not have to deal with. I thought about the under-the-breath comments made in PTA meetings. About the many times my students looked at me in wide-eyed wonder when they’ve seen me cleaning anything, “What? You know how to do that? I thought palagi didn’t [sweep, mop, clean].” Palagi aren’t clean; palagi are lazy; palagi don’t discipline their children, don’t treat their parents well, only care about themselves; they are selfish and inconsiderate and here to destroy the culture of Samoa. And all the other things I am just so incredibly tired of defending myself against.
So I let all that self-righteousness and self-pity flare up inside of me, and I was overcome by an incredible weariness–a realization that I am so emotionally and physically tired of living here. And it’s not just the anti-Western stuff–it’s the corruption, the complacency, the lack of accountability, the rudeness, the busting-my-butt-to-teach-these-kids and feeling unsupported by the larger community–it all just hit me really hard all at once…
and then I looked up and saw Neta, our landlord’s daughter, walking toward me with her absolutely radiant, infectious smile. She laughed at my lavalava and my palm-frond broom and said “ohhh a real Samoan girl!” in her sing-song way. She was in our village for the Saturday morning bingo but wanted to come thank us for the Valentines we sent to her and her little girl in Fiti’uta. She offered her thanks: a bag full of goodies, in the spirit of the true fa’asamoa (the Samoan way)–reciprocity, kindness returned.
A loaf of sliced bread. Three cans of tuna. Two bowls of ramen. An entire package of cookies.
It may not sound like much to those of you reading in America or New Zealand (or even Tutu’ila), but when I carried it all inside there were tears in my eyes.
Sometimes the frustrations, the discomfort, the negative aspects of living outside of my own country (no matter how much I always wanted to do it) start piling on and piling on and piling on until I can’t bear the weight of any of it anymore. Sometimes the differences between my culture and the culture in which I am living are so immense that I can hardly see anything else. From time to time I even forget what it was I loved about this place to begin with.
It is hard to be a sojourner. Harder than I ever thought it would be, and I think I was pretty prepared for some bad times.
I have so much more respect and admiration for people who leave their home countries and move to America (or wherever) in search of a better life. It pains me that I have never thought more deeply about what they have given up–either by choice or by force. Immigrants. Refugees. The lives they have left behind…I can’t imagine knowing right now that I may never return to the U.S. What it must be like for them? To feel so alienated, disconnected, alone?
My understanding of Paul (of the Bible) has also shifted so much. To be honest, I’ve always had a hard time with Paul; his tone is just… it’s just always rubbed me the wrong way. Now when I read his epistles, though, I have more compassion for his suffering. Paul went into places he wasn’t wanted to proclaim a message that a lot of people didn’t want to hear. We know that he suffered ( 2 Corinth 11:16-30), but it’s hard to sympathize when you’re reading about his struggles from the comfort of your safe, clean, suburban home.
When Neta, with her generous laughter and her warm, mama’s-here hugs, showed up in my yard on Saturday it was like God whispering to me “It’s not all bad, remember?” It was a comfort. It was a reminder that those people who treat us badly are no more representatives of Samoa than I am a representative of America. And then, when my wounded little heart healed a bit, there was something else–a follow-up whisper, if you will: “You aren’t the reason you are here. I am.”
My inability to “fix” the larger, pervasive issues in Samoa haunts me like a million personal failures. When you’re trying and trying and trying and it seems like you’re not getting anywhere… well, all that earnestness and disappointment adds up to quite a lot and sometimes I feel like I will collapse beneath the weight of it. Every little snide comment. Every rolled eye. Every shrug of the shoulders and “that’s just the way it is in Samoa.”
I tend to bottle it all up until the pressure is no longer containable, and then, naturally, explode. One day I am able to laugh it off; the next, I’m almost incapable of not saying what’s on my mind. But God is workin’ on me there. Like, the same way we work on elementary students. He keeps telling me to close my mouth. Let other people do the talking. Relax. Relax. Relax. I can’t fix everything. I may not even be able to fix anything. That’s not the point.
After Neta left and the bingo was over, I thought a lot about that rush of negativity and how all of those feelings of being picked-on and “what about all I have sacrificed to be here for your kids?” are very self-serving and self-righteous. There’s no grace in that, no mercy. Giving myself over to anger is not edifying. Complaining is not edifying.
It was a small thing, Neta’s appearance on Saturday, but it was the reminder God knew I needed. First, that we are loved and appreciated. Second, and much more importantly, that it isn’t about us anyway. It’s not about my comfort. It’s not about thank yous or praise or reversing negative stereotypes or that golden moment when I finally let everyone know just how fed-up/ right-about-this I am. I am here for one reason: to serve the Lord, and the way I can do that is, simply, to keep doing it, even when I don’t feel like it, even when it sucks. (And sometimes it really really sucks, even though most of the time it doesn’t.) And I also remembered what Peter wrote, that “it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2), which made me feel a little better, haha.
We have four short months left in Manu’a. Four months to keep running our race. I don’t want to wish these four months away. This is the most home-sick I have ever been and it has been getting harder and harder to stay focused. Then too, there are other worries now: what with trying to figure out where we will live and work and how in the world we will readjust in America.
I don’t want to forget how much I love it here. I don’t want to forget that I am here for a reason, that I have done some good here, that I have made some difference. This is truth–whether you’re an administrative assistant in Atlanta or a stay-at-home-mom in New Zealand or a teacher in Manu’a–it is so easy to lose focus in the day to day, to let “them” get to you (whoever they may be), to feel like a failure, to want to give up, to think it’s pointless, to be too tired to go on. I don’t really know any universal tricks that will keep all of us from losing focus except maybe this one: don’t.
*Fa’amalosi is my favorite Samoan word. It means stay strong, don’t lose heart, don’t give up.