Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Westerner in Samoa

        What struck me most about Wendt’s essay was an element that I have been waiting to see, though I didn’t realize this until it was right in front of me: inclusion. In all of our previous readings centered around Oceana (not the Pacific!) I’ve felt drawn in, partially by the apparent beauty of its cultures and in part because of its foreign and exotic draw. However, it is just that which has at the same time distanced me; it is exotic and foreign, because in all my travels and experiences in my life, I have barely even given a second thought to that portion of the world. This could, of course, be a product of my own ignorance but it is also because I have never had the opportunity to make a personal connection with the culture. (Note: now that I’ve become fascinated by the art of tatau, as my teachers have exasperatedly noticed as I’ve taken to doodling its shapes and symbols on my notebooks, I’m hoping this lack of connection will change) In addition to my own personal disconnect, however, the fact that much of the Oceanic literature we’ve read has focused on (or at least included) issues of colonialism and the intrusion of outside – usually Western – forces into the Oceanic culture has put me in a similarly alienated position.
While I can empathize with the plight of those affected by such intrusions, I cannot ignore the fact that to some extent, I am the embodiment of the Western cultures which have caused these problems. I am a middle/working class college student from Rhode Island of European descent, and while I have had my own experiences with the lingering negative affects of colonialism – namely the unrest in Northern Ireland that I experienced as a child – despite my best efforts, I cannot help but feel that I should be identifying more closely with the outsiders than those that are native to Oceana’s “sea of islands.” Even when I find myself connecting emotionally or mentally with a character, there is a certain sense – guilt, perhaps? – that pervades my thoughts when I remember that I am not Samoan or Tongan or anything even remotely close. I am an outsider.
Though Wendt’s novel and story deal with similar issues, in his essay he makes a point of reaching out to foreigners. He discusses in length just what tatau and malu are, explains their significance and symbolism and even reveals his own experiences (or perhaps lack thereof) with tatau. This description alone made that uneasy feeling begin to subside, but what truly broke the barrier was his discussion of the two Westerners who were granted the honor of receiving tatau and malu. By telling his audience about Tony and Elsie, he invites anyone who may not be of Samoan descent to the conversation while reinforcing the quasi-sacred nature of the art of tatau.

His observation that any time Tony began to act up, one of his Samoan friends would remind him of his role in their culture (the representation of which is his tatau) showed that a Westerner can be part of this seemingly distant culture. It also, however, shows that such inclusion is not to be taken lightly. Having the soot of the tatau on your body does not make you Samoan any more than carrying a rosary makes you Christian. It is your embodiment of the values which that symbol represents that truly connects you to the culture. While I may not be travelling across the world anytime soon, it’s both comforting and exhilarating to know that if I do come in as an outsider, I do not have to remain one.      

No comments:

Post a Comment