na foine ting

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Five part harmony. Six part harmony.

We sat on the mats on the floor and I hummed and said random vowel sounds and I had been around music and musicians all my life, but these kids could sing.

At Leififi Intermediate School we wore crisp cotton uniforms: pink shirts and gray pinafores for the girls, gray shorts for the boys. Over our hearts were stitched the school crest and a ribbon which denoted our House. Blue House, Red House, Yellow House, Green House. We were divided into our Houses for doing work around the school, for academic competition and for Game Days.

I was Blue House both years. In Samoan schools palagi kids were mostly a liability to their houses. We didn't speak the language, we came from schools where corporal punishment was all but abandoned, and worse still, we couldn't weave mats.

"Stupid girl can't even open a coconut." This, from my best friend Moana. It wasn't strictly true. I could open a coconut; I'd hurl it at a cement wall and it'd crack open. Usually. I couldn't do it with a machete in one hand and the coconut in the other, tossing the coconut into the air, whacking it with the machete--whack, whack, whack--simple economic motion with a deadly weapon thath somehow resulted in a coconut with its top cut neatly off and not a drop of the juice spilled.

"Stupid Samoan," I said, which was really the only possible response.

"Stupid palagi," she said.

We would sit around in the grass at lunch picking blades and stripping them, looking for a good stem to put in our earring holes. Jewelry of any sort was not allowed, along with unbraided hair and makeup.

Moana was Moana Tamasese. The fact that her mother was a New Zealander and her father a Samoan was entirely mitigated by the royal last name. We lived in one of the Tamasese family houses when we first came to Samoa. It was a huge, dark, forbidding place on a paved road surrounded by other houses of important Samoan families. We were all much happier in the cinder block compound up in Vailima. I was and still am fairly sure the Tamasese house was haunted.

My being Moana's friend was something of a mixed blessing to her in terms of status. That I was white tended to make her look less like a half-palagi, where she looked reasonably Samoan in contrast, spoke the language and knew how to weave mats and could claim a royal lineage. On the other hand, I was American, eccentric and useless to her in terms of economic prestige. Most white kids arrived at school in nice cars. Mercedes, Peugeots. I arrived in a bright orange Renault. Moana arrived in her mother's beat-up pickup truck.

I had long ago stopped trying to fit in. Being the only American was something I was now used to. I was "Yankee" this. "Yankee" that. "Yank." By the time we lived in Samoa I was used to being the only one with an American accent, red hair, and parents who were not embassy but UN.

In other places, this sort of "separate but equal" status worked for me. In Burma I'd been "Hla Omar," "Little Princess." In Ghana I'd been tormented and teased and could withdraw and segregate myself. Wounded and righteous, the perpetual foreign victim.

But not in Samoa. One morning after assembly pretty Leilani grabbed my arm. Hard. "You weren't even singing any words," she said.

"I don't know them," I told her, and felt it was a reasonable answer.

The grip grew bruising. "That's our national anthem," she said.

You don't hide in Samoa. And by the time I'd lost the kids a few House Challenges with my non-singing, my crappy dancing and my unconventional coconut opening methods, it was made clear--very clear--to me that a certain amount of cultural education was in order.

Moana's family got involved. Because it was Samoa, and Samoa is about family, which is one of the main reasons it's impossible to hide.

I found myself taken across the island to the villages of distant relatives. Matai's houses, where the customs and taboos are many, and strictly enforced. We would spend weekends there, where no one appeared to speak any English (including Moana, who had just been speaking English to me on the way there in the car), and I had the sense that palagi or no palagi, if I screwed up I stood a good chance of getting taken out into the banana trees and getting whipped like any other little miscreant Samoan kid.

I helped cook for fiafia. I swept floors. I helped sew dresses. I was silent when I was supposed to be and started to learn things like to say "talofa lava" and "fa'afetai" and how to act and when to sit and when to stand when the matai, the chief, walks in.

I went and sat in church many Sundays, sitting on the mats, helping fan the old ladies, listening to sermon and readings in Samoan, crosslegged on the floor for four, five, six hours at a stretch. Eventually I picked up words. Eventually I started recognizing prayers, like the Lord's Prayer.

In a while I was singing along with the hymns.

And dancing; I was learning that too, because in Samoa everyone dances, and there's nothing more embarassing than having a member of your family who can't dance.

So I learned to show a sunrise with my hands, or waves and flying fish. I learned to show cutting a coconut--the right way--and how to scrape it and squeeze the milk out, all with my hands. I learned the complicated clap patterns of sasa, until we'd be out in the garden, clap-clap-clapping faster and faster and I wasn't always the one who screwed it up first.

At school, I spent less time around the white kids. More time with my other friends.

I'm not sure how it happened, but someone talked to my mother and one day a taupo arrived at our house. Serious and stern, the honored virgin whose job it is to serve ceremonial kava and dance the most important dances.

She continued to teach me dancing, until there were things I knew about Samoan siva that some of my classmates didn't know.

I sang hymns in the shower.

At assembly I still got pinched and poked for getting words wrong in the songs, but people stopped groaning when it came time for us to divide into our House groups and I showed up for challenges and games.

I still sing the hymns, and have taught them to my son, who won't hear the five and six part harmony I hear in my head when I sing them.

There is a liability in integrating.

It is the loss that happens when you leave a place. When you no longer are surrounded by people who dance those dances, who weave those mats, who can and will at the drop of a hat, break into harmony and sing.


You must have been there at the same time as my sister & I.
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