Tales From A Pacific Educator


A Novelty Act (Fiji)

     In Fiji as a Peace Corps Volunteer I worked at a vocational rehabilitation center for juvenile delinquents.  The students ranged from 10 to 18 years of age and from simply mischievous to hard-core criminal types.   I was a vocational instructor and taught welding and sheetmetal-working  as well as regular academic subjects like English, geography and history.  In addition, I built and managed a poultry farm as a training unit for the boys.    In Peace Corps parlance I was a volunteer who had “gone local” meaning considerable immersion in the culture and language.  By the end of my first year I was doing a lot my teaching in the Fijian language.  I kept the teacher-student barrier, but was a little less authoritarian in my disciplinary practices than was the cultural norm for my Fijian counterparts.   I was successful as a teacher and also as a rehabilitation counselor with the boys.  From time to time the local faculty and staff were resentful of my success teaching and interacting with the students and would in various ways try to undermine my influence and authority.  It annoyed and sometimes even angered me, but I understood what was going on and tried not let it bother me too much or affect my overall working relations with them.  After all, I was just a guest.   One thing that also contributed to my success with the students was the fact that I was a novelty, as most Peace Corps Volunteers are in their host country, an American who was somewhat naďve and idealistic but energetic and committed.  I was a person who listened to them and treated them differently than my Fijian counterparts did and who told them stories about America and answered their incessant questions about everything.   Novelty status can be an interesting factor in intercultural interactions with both good and bad effects.  On the one hand, novelty status can lead to you becoming nothing more than a well-liked token American mascot whose actual achievements are largely ignored.  On the other hand, novelty status can also lead to a great deal of accomplishment and recognition.  A happy medium between the two is usually the best, being well-liked and making recognized accomplishments.


A Nod Is As Good As A Wink (Palau)

     In Palau I worked at a community college with one particularly ethnocentric American faculty member who appeared to suffer from culture shock.  He had the classic symptoms.  He was overly critical of local ways, everything “they” did was wrong and “his” American way was right.  He had low toleration of difference, ambiguity and uncertainty and was always frustrated and openly expressing it.  He suffered from anxiety and occasional depression over the loss of his former identity as a high-powered lawyer back home and his difficulty in establishing a new identity as an effective college teacher in a very challenging cross-cultural setting.  One particular thing that bothered him in his interaction with the Palauan students was a form of nonverbal communication which is common in the Pacific – moving eyebrows up and down to signify agreement, acknowledgment or understanding instead of giving a verbal affirmative “yes.”  One day in the faculty office while talking to one of his students he finally became unnerved at this and loudly scolded the student telling him to speak up and say “yes” or “no” and stop moving his eyebrows up and down.  He added a flourish of cultural insensitivity to this reprimand by mockingly moving his own eyebrows up and down with his fingers.   This person produced ethnocentric utterances on a daily basis, but none was more classic than the day he said with exasperation and resignation – “Palau will never be like America,” as if it should, and as if Palauans wanted it to be.


The Nail That Sticks Up (American Samoa)

     I was teaching world history at a high school in American Samoa.   During my first few weeks of classes there were several students who were very active and aggressive in answering questions, contributing to discussions and interacting with me as the instructor.   This pleased me.  But I also noticed some things going on in the verbal and nonverbal language of the rest of the students who were more passive and somewhat sullen participants.  They were sending negative messages to the active ones.  By the end of the second week the active students had become quiet and would no longer answer questions or contribute like they had been doing.  What had happened?  What cultural factors were at work?  What other factors were at work?  There is a saying in many group-oriented or collectivist societies to that effect that “a nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  This is what had happened -- the nails that had stood up got hammered down.  The students who were active were seen as showing off, trying to stand out over and above the rest, and pursuing individual achievement and prestige – very un-collectivist things to do.  These students were brought back into the group through pressure from their peers who made fun of them or criticized them.   Another factor at work was that I was an outsider and in-group solidarity is always more important in the face of someone from an out-group.  So the cultural norm of conformity and a standard in-group/out-group barrier were at work.  I understood and accepted these student behaviors and didn’t let them bother me too much although I would have preferred they didn’t exist.   Instead I developed strategies to allow the more aggressive high achievers to get what they wanted out of the class while trying to bring the others along as well.  I used more group activities that allowed a strong sense of group accomplishment as well as allowing for the active students to become group leaders and thereby gain some implicit individual ego satisfaction and additional academic stimulation.  There were also other individual sociological and psychological factors at work as well.  The socioeconomic status of some students was an important factor.  The more active, aggressive, competitive high achievers who were more responsive to me were invariably from the elite social class of American Samoa.   Various factors in their home environment and lifestyle had made them more proficient in English, better readers, more familiar with American styles of thought and behavior, and in general more bicultural.  They came from titled or otherwise well-to-do families, their parents had good government jobs and placed a higher value on educational achievement, they had more media technology in their homes, they traveled abroad more often to places like Hawaii and California where they had many relatives who were well socialized into Hawaiian or mainland society and culture.  These types of sociocultural factors are important considerations for all teachers whether they are teaching in their own culture or someone else’s.


  The Different Meanings of Laughter (Fiji)

     During my first few months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji I enjoyed going to the local movie theaters for Sunday matinees and most of the time I was the only non-Fijian in the theatre.  Whenever there was a scene in the film that was touching and emotional the Fijian audience would giggle, laugh and make funny remarks.  I was a little confused at this disconfirmed expectancy.  I had expected them to be as touched at these scenes as I was, but obviously they were not.  What was going on here?  Fortunately, due to my Peace Corps training in cross-cultural communications I had learned to deal with disconfirmed expectancies by suspending judgment, thinking about possible explanations, consulting a cultural informant and otherwise waiting for insight to come.  I had the benefit of a good cultural informant who later explained that Fijian culture values emotional self-control and that Fijians don’t normally display their feelings as openly as Americans.  Therefore, Fijians think such displays are not only somewhat amusing but they also laugh as a cathartic expression -- a way of dealing with the uneasiness or embarrassment that viewing such emotional displays may cause.   Some other Peace Corps Volunteers did not like this Fijian habit of laughing at the serious parts of the movies.  They let it bother them and they passed judgment and criticized Fijians for being insensitive. The Japanese also value emotional self-control and they also laugh out of embarrassment, sometimes causing misunderstandings.  For example, an American working in Japan openly expresses their anger and this anger embarrasses the Japanese counterpart, who then expresses embarrassment by laughing, thus further angering the American who feels that they are being laughed at.   While one universal or culture-general meaning of laughter is related to humor and ease, other culture-specific meanings of laughter can be related to uneasiness or embarrassment.


Living in a Fishbowl (Pacific Wide)

     Living in a small society, like a Pacific island, has sometimes been likened to living in a fishbowl.  The individual person in such a society is like the goldfish in a bowl with nowhere to hide and is thus always being observed by everyone on the outside.  Whether it is a small Pacific island or a small town in rural America, you have a situation where everybody knows everybody else’s business, and quite typically at the end of the day in the evening when people sit around and talk, they discuss the events of the day and delve into other people’s business.

       In small Pacific island societies news travels fast.  Storytelling and gossip, important methods of news dissemination in all societies, are particularly effective news networks on Pacific islands.  In the evenings people sit around and recount the days events in considerably more detail than Americans are typically accustomed to.   An American’s version of the day’s events would be more brief and general.  Not so in Pacific island and collectivist oral cultures in general.  Here people recount the finer details and nuances of what the people they encountered did and said that day.  And with each person mentioned there is additional commentary about that person and that person’s family as well.  Pacific islanders love to tell stories and gossip and I don’t mean this in a negative sense.   I have already mentioned the social bonding and control functions of gossip.  People may be less likely to engage in a deviant act or to otherwise do something that might bring shame to their family for fear of the speed in which news travels via word of mouth gossip on the island.

     For expatriates living and working in the Pacific this particular cultural dynamic is an important consideration.  Americans are used to living in a large mass society that is more impersonal than Pacific island societies and in which the average individual is somewhat anonymous.  We have a lot of privacy and anonymity in America.  And although we do our share of gossiping, we also do and equal amount of minding our own business.

     In small Pacific island societies you can be pretty sure that many of the things you said and did in the classroom will be recounted by your students as they talk with fellow students at school and as they talk with their family members at home.  And sometimes, especially if something you said was particularly provocative or controversial, there is a very good chance that it will be recounted to influential and important people in the school administration and to community leaders such as titled chiefs, government leaders and religious priests and ministers.  For example, when I teach about the natural history of the world and the evolution of life on earth and I tell students that the creation story in Genesis is only a myth, I can be certain that parents and church leaders will hear about it.  Therefore I always make sure that I put it in more palatable terms by telling them that a person can actually know the Creator best by studying science wherein lie the details of God’s handiwork. .   When I teach about the actual creation of the universe and the earth and the evolution and complexity of life on earth I tell my students that this just shows us how truly awesome the Supreme Being is.

     Excessively ethnocentric, insensitive or downright obnoxious expatriate teachers have sometimes drawn complaints by school administrators, parents or community leaders because of something they said in the classroom.  You can also be assured that school administrators will hear from the students about whether or not they think you are a good and effective instructor.

     Teachers need to be considerate of this particular sociocultural dynamic.  It doesn’t mean that they should not be provocative or that they should avoid using controversy for teaching, and it doesn’t mean that they should water down scientific truths.  But it does mean that they should be careful not to be disrespectful and insensitive and keep in mind that the matter of respect can be culturally relative.   Another thing to keep in mind is that what an American might consider a justified, fair and constructive criticism of a school or government policy or practice might be considered an insult by the local people involved.   Americans are proud of their right to free speech and enjoy the freedom of being to have vocal and public opinions on just about everything.  An American working overseas doesn’t have to stop having opinions, they just need to be more sensitive to the effect their opinions will have on certain people or groups of people.  Sometimes it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself until you are sure of the possible effect of expressing them.  

     And while this particular dynamic can place constraints on the work of a teacher, it can also assist them.  If they are an effective and culturally sensitive instructor, then everybody will know this and the teacher’s reputation will be enhanced.  This can also help to facilitate the dissemination of useful information to the students’ families and the community in general.  When I lecture I always keep this in mind.  I use controversy as a way of gaining and keeping student interest.  I regularly challenge sacred cows and unscientific thinking in an effort to promote critical and scientific thinking.  However I do these things in a respectful way designed to demonstrate that I really care about the student’s education and let them know that being better educated will contribute to a better future for their country.   I let my students know that I am only trying to help them to deal with the realities of a complex and rapidly changing world.  And by letting them know these things I am also letting their families and the community know them too.  

A Pacific Island Myth

     One common stereotype about Pacific islanders (and their societies) is that they are all completely laid back with relaxed attitudes toward everything including important matters that require much attention and effort.  This is a great Pacific island myth.

     Pacific Islanders may have more relaxed attitudes toward things that Americans take more seriously such as personal and career/job-related achievements, material possessions, time management, expression of personal opinions and emotions, and, in general, obligations to oneself.  We see the individualist/collectivist dichotomy at work here and collectivists value different things than individualists.

     Pacific Islanders are more concerned in areas that Americans have more relaxed attitudes toward such as social hierarchies and the related rules of interaction and protocol, restraint of personal opinions and emotions, the importance of extended family obligations, and a general emphasis on face saving and smooth interpersonal relationships.  Pacific islanders are serious about these things and are not relaxed when cultural rules in these domains are not followed.  After all, their culture prepares them to expect certain thought, emotion and behavior patterns from people they interact with.  Expatriates who are new to the Pacific often make mistakes with interactions or else just fail to realize the importance of some cultural way of thinking, feeling and behaving.

    For example, Americans may be just trying to be their normal informal and friendly sincere selves but they end up unwittingly violating Pacific island cultural norms of social interaction that may call for more formality and less familiarity at first.  Or it could be a case where it’s just the other way around and the American expects more formality in the way of respect and deference to their station and they encounter informality, familiarity and confusing humor on the part of a Pacific islander.  Pacific islanders do have a great sense of humor.

      It has always been my experience that Pacific islanders are very forgiving as long as one makes a sincere effort to understand their culture and gradually adjust some of their behavior accordingly.   This also brings to mind an additional cross-cultural communication concept worthy of consideration.  Pacific islanders and collectivists in general tend to judge people more on a situational basis and tend not to make broad generalizations about people’s personality based upon a person’s behavior in one situation.  Americans, on the other hand, quite often tend to judge a person’s entire personality based upon an observation of that person’s behavior or performance in one particular situation; needless to say many mistakes in judgement are made this way.  The collectivist approach is actually fairer toward the person being judged.  While working in a Pacific island context we might be grouchy or obnoxious one day in one situation, but luckily we may not be judged as a person who has a sour personality in general.

     One value that it is sometimes initially difficult for a non-Pacific islander to understand relates to funerals.  Funerals are big events throughout the Pacific islands and islanders are very serious about them.  People spend lots of money on funerals and devote a lot of time and effort to them.  Funerals are very important demonstrations of extended family solidarity and commitment and are occasions for considerable exchange of wealth among clan members.  People will take out loans to cover the costs of funeral exchange and the feeding of people who attend.  People also will take out loans to purchase airline tickets to fly from half way around the world to attend a funeral.  People will also sometimes miss several days of work or school in order to attend to funeral activities.  As an outsider you might think that Pacific island funerals are a bit excessive with regard to the amount of time and money expended upon them, but to an islander they are like the glue that binds a clan, and ultimately a society, together.  People keep meticulous track of which family brings what and how much they bring and this accounting will be used to measure the reputation of a family and kept for future reference.  A family that brings a lot and makes a good show will be rewarded in the future when they have a funeral of their own.  Nobody likes the prospect that someday their family might have a poorly attended funeral, especially their own.

     Funeral practices vary throughout the Pacific with regard to what exactly must be brought, but in general people bring food like pork, beef, fish, taro, yams, bags of rice, cases of canned goods and various cultural items like sakau (kava), woven mats and tapa cloth.  In American Samoa they also bring 50 gallon drums of kerosene.  Pacific islanders are serious about funerals and if you are a teacher or an employer you will sometimes have students and workers missing when their families have a funeral.

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