Sunday, March 15, 2009

I Was Not Culturally Sensitive

Thursday morning, in the teachers' meeting, the pule mentioned there would be a morning tea at interval and that we should come if we were hungry. But if we were not hungry, we should stay away. In retrospect, I think that was a joke. I think that Samoan's are always hungry, so everyone should come. However, I got the impression it was optional.

Anyway, so there is this tea (that I think is optional). I go up to the teachers' room when the bell rings for interval and see that this tea is one of the more elaborate teas. There are pig pieces being hacked up, there are plates of tinned corned beef being distributed. And strangely enough, there is a birthday cake set at the pule's seat. Is it his birthday? I investigate. No, according to the school secretary, it is not his birthday. Instead it is the 21st birthday of his eldest daughter (21st b-days are a big deal in Samoa. People are usually gifted with mirrors shaped like keys...I don't know why). Apparently, the eldest daughter has been helping out at the school. When teachers are absent, she sits in on their classes. I have never seen her before.

Since it is her birthday, she is wearing a nice new puletasi and serving everyone else. She is being helped by a a good-ish number of students from the school, one of which is one of the pule's other daughters, who is also in my Year 12.1 computer class. She has not been in class for two days. Including that morning. I ask her why she wasn't in class. She says because she has been helping her mom with all the preparations for her sister's birthday.

I take a seat and wait for the tea to start. The pule is missing and we cannot start without him. The food is all set out and fanned to keep the flies away. We wait, and wait, and wait. While we wait a discussion takes place in Samoan. I am told the outcome of this discussion. It is agreed that each teacher will pay $20 tala to the daughter for her birthday. Luckily one of the teachers just happens to have $500 tala that he will give her now and we will pay him back tomorrow. Forty minutes later, the bell rings. Interval is over. We have not had the tea yet. However, I have a class that I want to teach. So I leave.

My class is 13.1 and most of the students are missing. Apparently, all the school prefects have been put in charge of baby-sitting the other classes while the teachers all sit in the teachers' room waiting for the tea. I tell the few kids there that I am having class anyway. They spread the word and eventually, everyone shows up. I am reaching the end of the lesson when a student is sent down to tell me that that my presences is required upstairs for the tea. I tell the student I will be up when I am done with my lesson. My students are shocked. This is when I said something I probably shouldn't have. 

"I think that class is more important than eating."

Probably not the best call.

I finish my lesson and I go upstairs. Nothing is happening. The pule is still missing. All of the teachers are just sitting in the room waiting. I wait with them and wait and wait. Fifteen minutes later, the bell rings. I have a class I am supposed to be teaching. So I leave.

Halfway through the class a teacher is sent down to fetch me. The tea is starting I am told. I tell him I have heard that one before and I will be up when I have finished my lesson. I finish my lesson and go upstairs. I missed the tea. All the teachers are now eating cake.

I am repeatedly offered food and cake that I refuse. Then the birthday girl comes over to give me $20 tala. After I express my confusion, I am told that in Samoa we share on our birthdays. Though this sharing is cool, I am still confused. Per the earlier discussion, I owe one of the teachers $20 tala for the gift he gave on all of our behalves to the birthday girl. I have just been gifted with $20 tala of that gift. $20 that I must now give back to the original teacher. I feel like we could have saved a little time and effort in passing $20 bills around if we had not done it in the first place.

Finally, the tea that started over two hours ago and interrupted two class periods ends. Unfortunately, I learn that the pule's children are returning to New Zealand next week and we will be doing this all over again on Tuesday to wish them good bye. This time, I should probably do a better job of fitting in with everyone else and not leaving to teach my classes. I think my not showing up for the tea made me stand out a lot and in a bad way.

— Sara


Anna said...

ha that's so interesting, it reminds me of LOTR where you give gifts on your birthday instead of receive. maybe this incident will get chalked up to ignorance. there's definitely a lot of subtleties to their culture and people don't express disapproval as overtly as americans. i've messed up with the whole mealofa thing although u'd think i'd know better being chinese and all..

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, this sounds like a fundraiser disguised as a b/day party. My guess is that the other teacher may have been in on the planning from the beginning or related to the pule too. Are there 25 teachers all having tea at once? Sounds like a nice break for them too. So, there may have been a birthday mentioned but it really sounds like they were creating a fundraiser for their trip to NZ. It is a sly way. :P It would've just been better if they had said, oh-faalavelave-can you give to our cause, please. I wouldn't feel insensitive if I were you.
I am Samoan and from the family that others would come to ask for a pig to be donated for the faalavelave. This faalavelave is making the payment for the trip tickets. :D

whatever said...

I'm glad you said that teaching is more important than tea. Who cares if it's the Pule's kids, that shouldn't interfere with ALL of the children of Samoa.