In America we have pretty clearly defined social boundaries. Things you do and don’t say, things you do and don’t do, and for the most part people abide by them. For some reason those social boundaries don’t exist here in Fiji. Maybe its because you can literally figure out how you are related to anybody you been within a 10 minute conversation (its like the 6 degrees of separation theory on crack). Everybody knows everybody. Another interesting thing in Fiji is the presence of a “tavale” or joking cousin relationship. Your tavale’s, or cross-cousins, would be your Mother’s brother’s children OR your Father’s sisters children.
Now, don’t just skip by that last sentence. I actually want you to sit for a second and think about that. Heck, write down your cross cousins on a piece of paper!
In my family, I have 6 cross-cousin’s or “tavales”. Now my other American cousins… (aka my mothers sisters children or my fathers brothers children) I have 5 of those. They would be considered my brothers and sisters in Fiji.
So why do I mention these relationships? Well in Fiji, I have to respect my brothers and sisters (including my mothers sisters kids and fathers brothers kids) like nuclear family. If they request something of me I have to give it because of how we are related. Now on the other hand… my “tavales” or cross-cousins… I just get to rip on them. I get to spoil them in public, make fun of them, harshly tease them, be jokingly rude about them, spill their secrets in public, etc.
Before we leave the subject of cross-cousins, let me just point out one more interesting thing…. In Fiji, marriage of tavale’s is the best choice. So I should marry my male cross-cousins. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean my first cousins… I won’t bore you with the insanity of a Fijian family tree- sufficient to say its ridiculously long and involved (hence how everyone is related to everyone else) so the tavale relationship extends beyond an immediate family. You can be tavale’s with someone you aren’t even blood related to. Now, this should explain why so many people in the village call me their tavale. It means that they want to marry me, but it also means I just get to rip on them at kava sessions about their idea of marrying the token white girl.
So my point of mentioning all this is maybe the presence of this relationship is what allows these boundaries that we accept in America, to be so easily broken down here. Let’s just talk about a few.
- Weight: If I leave the village for more than a day, when I return the first thing I hear is “Wow Ru, you have gotten so fat”. And you just stand there like, uh, I was gone for 48 hours… how could anything have changed? Other times they are oddly accurate (women… bloating? Yeah… all the women here pick up on that). And other times they are just plain mean. The worst part is that its always the most morbidly obese women that tell you this! One woman here has got to be at least 400 pounds… I was walking around the village one day and we stop to exchange pleasantries and she just grabs my arm fat HARD, pinches me and says, “wow Ru, you have gotten too fat!” we parted ways and she limped away in her large shapeless dress and I just stood there. I mean, I know I’m not slim by any stretch of the imagination… but to have morbidly obese women call you fat… or pregnant women call you fat!? Its just hurtful.
- Blemishes: Let’s be honest friends. Fiji is a very hot and humid country. Although my mother has been SO kind as to send me my favorite St. Ives face wash, I get pimples occasionally. Good sweet lord in the high heavens above! You would think I had green slime on my face! Everyone points it out. Everyone talks about it. Etc. etc.
- Homes: There is no home boundary here. My home is anyone’s who decides to walk inside. About a year ago, this guy came into my house… grabbed a handful of breakfast crackers and an orange and just walked out. Really?
- Personal Property: You know that thing people in America say to sound nice, “what’s mine is yours”? Yeah, here that is a way of life. Its slightly different for me because there are things people know I wont let them borrow. Actually its really just this little computer. I can’t tell you how many plates I have lost, pens, pencils, and clothing. Here in Fiji its called “kerekere” or basically “please can I have……..” and based on certain relationships you can’t say no. people will borrow money, cane knives, files, discs, phones, etc and just never give them back. I lost my coconut scraper for 3 months only to have my neighbor return it one day when she wanted me to scrape some coconuts for her. My guitar regularly goes missing. My grog sulu, the little pocket of fabric you mix grog in, was stolen a week after I bought it and I see it at so many different houses it just makes me laugh. When I hang my laundry on the line and the wind blows the pins off and leaves my clothes scattered on the ground… I find all the clothes… but just about half of the pins. Its just interesting to have no real personal property. I have given away a lot of things here… most of the clothes I came with and a lot that I acquired here I see being worn by various people.
- Conversations: I feel like in America there are a lot of things that just aren’t talked about in polite company. Its SOOOO not like that here. EVERYTHING is up for discussion. Usually at kava sessions I repeatedly get asked by old, already married men, if I will marry them and take them back with me to America. When my parents came out to visit my Dad really got an earful at the welcome kava session at the Chief’s house. We were sitting around, my dad up top in the spot of honor next to the Chief and the pastor, and was just asked question after question about life in America, what he does, where he lives, what he owns, etc etc. He did a fantastic job answering questions, but one still sticks out in my mind. The people in the village asked him about the “red indians” aka Native Americans…. Just the different wording is hilarious. In Fiji, its very common to know exactly how much money everyone makes. For example a worker at PAFCO makes $27 a day, a contract worker in town makes $40 a day, a Ministry worker makes around $35 a day (depends on their post) and PCV’s make $16 a day. Everyone knows this.
- Location: In America, I could tell my roommates I was, “going out”. And no further questions were asked. I could have gone to school, down to the Marine Lab in Anacortes, down to the grocery store, walking, to get coffee.. It didn’t matter. I was just out. And anyone I ran into in town, wasn’t going to report back to my roommates about where they saw me… or goodness gracious if I was seen drinking a beer at Boundary Bay Brewery! In Fiji- it’s the exact opposite. If I tell my village I’m going to Suva for a conference, SOMEONE who lives in Suva that is related to someone in the village will see me, and report back to the village where I was, who I was with, what I was doing, what I was wearing etc. I found out about 16 months ago that my neighbor in the village, their son, works at one of the Volunteer’s favorite bars in Suva. Now every time we all meet up for a happy hour drink while were together in Suva… I come back and my neighbor knows everything. There is no invisibility out here. I can never be anonymous. I can’t escape. You never know when “big brother” is watching!
These are just a few of the boundary issues I have come to face in Fiji. After 22 months it really feels normal to have someone literally ask for the shirt off my back, and actually giving it to them. Time really does change people.
Woops! Almost forgot about those physical boundaries. I’ve had women hold my hand to take me somewhere, literally get 2 inches from my face while talking, I take naps on floors with six children and twelve adults in the middle of the afternoon to avoid the heat, I have people touch my lower back to guide me someplace, I’ve sat hip to hip, knee to knee, and elbow to elbow with 30 different people in a room entirely too small for something like that at grog, I’ve sat with 65 people in the back of a carrier- well actually not sat but been held up by the collective mass that is squashed so close together in a mass of arms, legs and bulging waistlines, Ive sat with a dead cow in the back of a truck, been perched up on a bag of tavoika going to town to be sold holding onto the bars above my head in the truck to keep myself from falling over, etc.