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University has opened up discussions about aspects of Samoan culture that seemed too disrespectful or inappropriate to bring up in everyday social situations. Gender, religion, politics, social hierarchies, sexuality, colonisation and whether or not it changed fundamentals of Samoan culture (some people stand by the saying “e sui faiga ae tumau fa’avae”). Samoans often ask me the question, “what church do you go to?” rather than asking me “are you religious?” Religion is synonymous with Christianity because really, what Samoan is Buddhist, Muslim, or heaven forbid Atheist? What does it mean to be Samoan? Who gets to decide what is authentically Samoan? Matai? The general public? The educated? Only those living in Samoa? Okay then, what about the stuff that seems to be quintessentially Samoa but is problematic? Are we allowed to change it? Question it? Do we dare defy our elders? We, the young fiapoko English-speaking New Zealand citizens who have been educated by the white man? So. Many. Questions. Questions that Samoan adults are quick to dismiss because asking questions was the single most discouraged thing growing up (or was it to not laugh too loud, wear longer skirts, be a doctor… I can’t remember now…).
I want to know why we are happy to have our fa’afafine in the centre of our social lives, in comedic entertainment; but their sexuality is forbidden (even from conversation). I want to know how gender roles have changed over time and what their relevance is now. But, I don’t want to question fa’asamoa for controversy’s sake, or be contrary to tradition for the sake of being modern.
What I appreciate about my Samoan and Pacific studies papers (and even my English literature ones) is that they forced me not only to ask these questions, but to ask them from a respectful angle. What university has allowed for me, was a safe place to explore these questions with care, fervour, and a critical eye. It is especially comforting seeing that the academics too are Samoan; that they understand the constant tension of wanting to pursue a deeper and wider understanding of things that could discomfort or offend the people we love. So while you’re here, ask the hard questions—the ones you get told off for bringing up at home.