Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Samoa Part 10: Culture Shock

I served in my first area of Salelologa, Savaii for three months. My time in Savaii was characterized by a tremendous amount of learning. In many ways, I feel sorry for my trainer, Elder Seumalii, for the enormity of his task. But he approached the challenge with vigor, with love, and with optimism.

Elder Seumalii and I quickly became friends. I found that I could trust him; he didn't needlessly or maliciously embarrass me in front of people. He gently coaxed me to come out of my shell and speak the language as much as possible. Of course, I was terrified to say much at first. Indeed, for the first year and a half of my mission I felt inadequate in Samoan conversation, but the language did come to me.

Having never lived outside my native land and culture, my immersion into Samoan culture brought with it culture shock. Culture shock is an interesting phenomenon. I didn't know I suffered from culture shock, but looking at my responses to certain situations I can tell now that I was genuinely shocked.

One thing that I didn't understand at first was the Samoan concept of hospitality. In America, hospitality is applied gently, and, unfortunately, sparingly to strangers. But in Samoa, hospitality comes unsolicited and almost with militant vigor.

For example, Elder Seumalii and I could be studying in our small living quarters and some well-intentioned Samoan would appear bearing plates or baskets of food. It didn't matter if we had already been fed multiple times that day; we still graciously accepted the offering (to refuse would be extremely rude).

Food was practically thrown at us all day long. I once read that an average Sunday afternoon meal (which, for the Samoans--not missionaries, is larger than most week-day meals) consists, on average, of 5,300 Calories! I figure that I probably ate somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Calories every day of my mission. Is it any wonder then that I gained 25 pounds? In defense to the Samoans, however, I must admit that all my weight gain was not fat. I came back from Samoa and found that I was much stronger in the weight room than I was before my mission.

But for an American who, while growing up, only et three square meals and regular snacks per day, regularly getting fed 4+ meals and multiple snacks seemed like a significant alteration in lifestyle. If I had been playing football still, I would have rejoiced at having food so readily available. But since my physical activity was limited to mostly walking, of which we did a lot, I felt that we ate in excess of what we needed.

Because I didn't understand that the Samoans weren't maliciously feeding me--cannibalism was only a very limited practice anciently and was officially stopped by one of the Malietoa line--I grew angry and decided to show the people a thing or two. I thought I'd beat them at their own game.

When we were served dinner, as missionaries we were always served first; and we were always served a lot. Customarily, one does not eat everything one is served (because there are others who need to eat), thus indicating that the hosts' hospitality was more than sufficient. However, as one eats, one is always given more, creating, thereby, the sense that there is a never-ending supply of food.

I decided that the best way to show the Samoans that I meant business was to violate custom by eating everything that they gave me, thus ruining dinner for everyone else (remember, one who is in culture shock does not think rationally or nicely). I figured that by doing so I would ensure that future meals were smaller, more sparing in their portions.

The food came and I dug in. I ate and I ate and I ate. I ate more than I probably had ever eaten before in my entire life. I ate more than I would at Thanksgiving dinner. I ate more than I would during our youth group eating contests at the hometown smorgasbord. But the food kept coming. As the host's wife filled my tray--not plate--for the umpteenth time, my spirit broke. I nearly wept; I was defeated. Never again would I consider besting the Samoan capacity for hospitality.

My culture shock eventually did pass. I learned to eat as heartily as any Samoan, save for those instances when slimy, raw, non-fish things made their way from the reef to the dinner table.

During my time in Samoa, I realized that I had a lot to learn about being kind, loving, and hospitable. I found that I benefited from supplementing my native culture's idea of hospitality with a good dose of Samoan hospitality. Samoan's are generally not only willing to feed a guest, but they will lodge guests, give gifts to guests, heck, if you needed it, a Samoan would even give you the shirt off his back.

3 comments:

Joshua said...

I imagine that save for an overly culture shocked ("rude") missionary who tends to shoot himself in the foot and poison the members against him, the same type of hospitality can be found where ever Samoans and Tongans are. Samoan and Tongan hospitality is especially emphasized towards missionaries. And, even when there is an overly culture shocked missionary, the free giving of food and money for food to missionaries is almost as set as the sunrise.

My dad and I were talking last night about how hospitable the Samoan and Tongan members of his ward (when he was bishop) were to the missionaries here in Hawaii.

The hospitality to missionaries went so far in excess that my dad (then Bishop) had to remind the missionaries that these offerings (which are at present mostly made in monetary form) tend to be a symbol of the faith of these members that God will be as generous, if not more so, to them for their generosity to his servants. He encouraged them to return the excess, thus not incurring the wrath of God in spending these faith offerings on personal luxury. In and of itself, this type of luxury can take detract a missionary from his purpose in the service of God.

As an example the missionaries would receive $100 for dinner at Mcdonald's. At most they will spend $25 and get more food then they should probably eat in one sitting, since they will be fed or offered food at nearly every home visit they make. That's at least $75 for which they have no foreseeable use, due to the fact that they will receive the same offering tomorrow and the next day and most times more than once in a day. Besides receiving support funds from the Mission and from family members, a missionary could be sorely tempted to take advantage of these offerings and spend them on something which will not help him or her to focus his or her efforts, if he were not sufficiently mature enough to prevent the excess in the first place. Even the least of the culture shocked missionaries won't have enough experience with these polynesian cultures to understand the intricacies of gifts and offerings. Thus, they will be blessed with plenty and cursed with no place to put it except into their pocket.

Firstly, I was left wondering if it is even possible to return the offerings to the giver without offending. And since I understand that it is difficult to prevent funds from being donated without seeming rude, I found myself worried about the missionaries in my area. Will they be able to overcome cultural barriers AND do the right thing?

My Dad told me about one of the missionaries who served in this supposed predicament. He gave all the excess to the Bishop to help specific families in need. Thus, he used the offering by redirecting it to bless those who blessed him without being rude or insensitive. He also promoted the faith of these members who believe they will receive more by giving more when the Bishop discreetly helps the offering family and other families with their own offerings. Though in all the time my Dad served in the ward this elder was the only missionary to do so.

I hope one day all missionaries who come across excess hospitality in any culture of the world will have enough faith to redirect the excess.

Nate said...

Though I was culture shocked, I wouldn't say that I poisoned any Church members against me. My attempt to ruin dinner--as described in Samoa: Part 10--was a secret I kept to myself; and my Herculean efforts at the dinner table that night probably only exacerbated the problem because I established a real reputation for myself as a big eater.

The type of generosity that you described in your comment, Josh, is one that confronted me time and again in Samoa. My mission companion and I would be walking down a road and someone would pull over in a car and a hand with a monetary note would pop out of a window.

"Elders," a voice from inside the car would say, "go buy yourselves something to drink. It's hot."

Of course we would refuse, but ultimately had to cave in and accept the bill regardless of its value.

Sometimes we'd be given $5 Samoan Tala (ST), but sometimes these random donations could be as high as ST$50!

I made it a practice to give a generous fast offering each month. Sometimes, I'd use the money to buy language and culture books to help me acquire fluency in both. And occasionally, I would use the money to buy soap at the end of the month when the less than $25-American we got failed to get us through.

The Western mind cannot comprehend this issue without extensive first-hand experience with the practice. And even then, when the issue is understood, a Westerner usually won't fully adopt the practice.

Joshua said...

I didn't mean to imply that you had poisoned the members against you. My comment was meant to add to your own on Polynesian culture especially the hospitality of Samoans.

Especially in Hawaii, tempers and trust are on a short fuse, because there is an over abundance of racist attitudes in almost all interracial communications here. Hawaiians (meaning those indigenous to Hawaii) have several cultural reinforcements on this enmity. This is one of the challenges of serving in Hawaii.

In general, no matter where a missionary serves, those who do not understand a culture by choice or otherwise and act on natural man tendencies to interrupting practices and attitudes in an aggressively extreme manner ("rude") tend to poison the members against them.

You clearly didn't fall into that category because though it was extreme for you as an American to eat so much, it isn't for a Samoan in the same action, and therefore you caused no interruption-according to your account in Part 10.

In Japanese Culture, the lack of conscious conformity is considered rude. If you know the rules and don't follow them, it's worse than if you never knew them at all. Though Japanese culture is so passive that you would never hear a complaint unless it was an obvious attack (aggressively extreme). And the extreme level of interruption is lower than it would be other places and cultures.

My missionaries here in Hawaii are not an exception to the poison clause. Serving in the Ward Mission, I had the undesired duty to inform them that poison had entered in amongst our members due to some negative actions during lessons. And yet, the members (especially the Samoans and Tongans) are still generous.

I agree about the western mind. Even though I was supposedly raised to be generous, I tend to fight that when it's time to give. I hold back and it has caused a similar enmity between me and those in my cultural circle.

I feel lucky though that I wasn't tempted with an over abundance of monetary contributions on my mission, because at that time in my life as a missionary, I was too immature to properly redirect the money into a better direction than that of funding my luxuries.

We were given 27000 Yen per month equivalent to about $260-270 US. With the cost of living so high, a missionary in Japan has just enough to spend on a healthy diet including toiletries and a cheap $40 haircut, $40+ for miscellaneous bike repairs and supplies, and $10-20 for letter writing and study supplies.

I imagine life in Samoa is tough. Though I couldn't begin to imagine using only $25 a month. If that wasn't enough to live on, I see nothing wrong with using the monetary offerings you received on things you needed. In that case there was no excess.

My description of my experience with Samoan Hospitality was exclusively for Hawaii's missionaries. They are spoiled rotten here. They have Western 1st World living conditions and a similar to Japan's MSF distribution ($230 a month). That AND the faith contributions is far in excess of what the missionaries need to survive. I don't want to incriminate the guilty. Suffice it to say that those excess funds could be used in a more effective way.

I imagine it was hard to see members with less than you had, giving you everything they had that your life might be that much better.

Little by little I hope that I can be more generous than I was in the past. That much I learned from our discussion.

Thanks for your blog, Nate.

Hopefully, the raising of the bar will attract generous, faithful missionaries.