Sunday, October 25, 2009

49: Palagi

According to my Samoan dictionary, palagi (pah-lahng-ee) is the name given to a certain species of fish. It doesn't specify which species. The word I am actually looking for it papalagi:

n. European, white man

When referring to white people, Samoan's use the world
palagi. The first pa is almost always dropped. I am not sure why.

Anyway, back to my point.

I am a palagi. I use the word myself frequently to refer to foods I eat or the house I stay in. Samoan's do as well. They differentiate between fale Samoa (traditional, open-air living structures) and fale palagi (closed-in, four-walled brick houses).

However, I have conflicted emotions about the word.

It comes up most frequently when Cale and I ride our bikes or go for a walk. From the side of the road, often hidden by trees or even from inside homes far away, we will hear voices call out:

"Fa, palagi."

"Bye-bye, palagi"

or simply


Often times they are innocent enough, just the voices of small children. But sometimes they seem more aggressive, more menacing. Frequently these voices will continue to call out repeatedly, unsatisfied with a wave or a head nod or even a breathless "fa" as I bike past. Screaming "fa" and "palagi" after me until I am out of earshot.

The other day I was walking up the mountain to pick up an ad for the magazine and a truck passed me. "Hey white girl," a man yelled from the car as he drove past. And it finally occurred to me that is what everyone has been yelling at me for two years. I had understood that is what it meant, but I had never made the emotional connection before. Small children on the side of the road are yelling "white girl" at me as I bike past. Grown men in front of shops are yelling "white girl" at me as I walk by.

This is very strange and unsettling for me.

I am not sure I understand the compulsion to yell out my physical difference as I pass by, especially because I do not feel like my presence is all that novel. I am, obviously, a minority and rare, but rare enough that my existence must be announced for the world?

— Sara


Fiapalagi said...

Its the closest to 'cat calling' village kids, men and passerbys engage in.

I would put the kids down to a combination of innocent wonder and cheekyness. The older guys no excuse other than they never learnt manners or to backward think better.

Or you just too smoking Hot Sara Reeves, making boys to men and men to boys.

Cheri said...

Some things never change...when I was there as a PCV nearly 20 years ago (Yikes I'm getting old), I was called that wonderful word too!

One thing that I found to throw off the kids was to shout back "Fa, Samoan" and then they would stop and not know what to say. It would catch them by surprise! Maybe not the best thing to do but it was fun now and then.

I was told by a samoan that the word was also used to describe the color white, like white curtains or fabric.

It certainly does get old fast.