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.