The International Writers Magazine: Life in the Pacific
Raised by Wolves
A grandfather, grandmother, grandmother’s sister, mother, father, uncle, cousin, three brothers, four sisters, the boy down the street whose family cannot take care of him, and the kid next door who always seems to be around. Meet the modern Samoan family.
While making sure every member of the group is provided for, attitudes of restriction seem to be the norm in a Samoan family when compared to my upbringing as an only child.
Living on a small island in the middle of the South Pacific has one inevitability: families in Samoa are huge and it seems like everyone is related to each other. “Oh yeah, they’re my cousin,” is such a common phrase—I don’t know why we didn’t learn it in language training. Samoan families function in the opposite way of most American families: in Samoa, kids support their parents. The generalization about many American families is that the parents look after the children, especially in dual-parent families. On this tropical island, offspring take care of their parents by giving them a lot of their earned money. For the sake of being politically correct (and not having to make the stipulation every time I want to write about it) let’s let my family represent the American archetype. So in my family of three, my parents have always taken care of me: they were the money-makers; I lived under their roof when I was young and moved away to live at college. When I turned eighteen I was considered an adult and played by my own rules. Money I make stays with me and I do what I want.
In Samoa, when children are of working age (which varies depending on the particular person and the job), a lot of the money they make goes to their families. When the children become parent-age and have a brood of their own, their parents usually move in with them; children don’t move away unless they go to school abroad or get married. I am not considered an adult in Samoa, the reason being that I have no children. Boys become men and girls women when they have kids, no matter what age. Nevertheless, there still isn’t a whole lot of playing by their own rules since parents withhold the right to hit their children at any age.
Three of my Samoan friends demonstrate the Samoan family archetypes while also showing variety based on their status in the family. Tui, who is now twenty-four, has a job working at a resort in Savaii, one of the two populated Samoan islands. Being the oldest male child in a family of nine, he gives about 80% of the money he makes to his family. This grown man finished high school and went to university on scholarship, but he still has to ask his mother for money when he wants to go out. Even though he had the prospect of a future as an artist, Tui quit university his senior year to get a job in order to support his family.
Another friend, Tele, has an almost identical job to Tui and also has eight siblings. Tele, twenty-five, has worked at a resort in Upolu for about eight years. He didn’t finish high school. However, as the youngest male child, he keeps the majority of his money. His eldest brother, as a lawyer, is the prime bread-winner for the family. Tele also has older sisters living overseas, so remittances are surely coming in. A positive outcome of his charm is that tourists often send gifts to him including plain old cash.
Growing up with only four other siblings, my thirty-two year old host-sister Rosa is a single, childless (unusual at her age for a Samoan), university educated, daughter of a pastor, who is now a professor at the National University of Samoa, and will shortly be leaving for grad school in the West Indies. As far as money is concerned, I don’t know any specific details, but I think it’s safe to say that she probably keeps most of her money; pastor’s families are usually pretty well-off. Her status as the daughter of a pastor has given her unique opportunities that most Samoans never experience, such as traveling to Japan and the United States. All of that being said, she still lives at home most of the time. Having a male friend over to the house would be unheard of unless he fits one of two roles: a boy she grew up with in the church youth group who poses no sexual or romantic threat, or the man she is serious about eventually marrying.
One can understand why most male friends are only visited when in Apia, the capitol, away from the family.
Tui, Tele, and Rosa are all fluent in English also, which tends to give Samoans a leg up, career-wise. Samoans with little or no skill speaking English usually “work” labor jobs in the village in which they get taro, breadfruit, and coconuts from the plantation. These are the brothers and sisters who are supported by the siblings who make money outside of the village. Tui, Tele, and Rosa bend certain Samoan standards in different ways and this has become acceptable to those surrounding them. I flat out break Samoan norms based on things which are out of my control.
I am about as different from a typical Samoan family as one can be. Not only am I an only-child, but I also live alone here in Samoa, meaning that I live in my own fale. (Due to a need for privacy, most volunteers live alone, usually with some sort of affiliation with a host-family.) For safety’s sake, females never really live alone in Samoa; it really is a cultural faux-pas that I reside by myself. Moe-tolu, night-crawlers, is a distinctly Samoan phrase that describes a man who sneaks next to a woman at night and rapes her. Keep in mind, this is a nation in which most people—not me—still sleep in open fales with no walls or doors to keep out predators. It still baffles people that no one comes over to keep me safe at night. “Na’o oe, Sema?” “I, na’o a’u.” “Fefe?” “Leai.” (It’s just you, Sema? Yes, just me. Are you scared? No.) A common joke among the boys of my church’s youth group, especially after a drunk Samoan guy came to my house in the middle of the night last year, is about who will come over at night to protect me. Ironically, if a male of any age did come over to my house after dusk it would create such gossip that my reputation would immediately be ruined and he, no matter what his purpose was in coming over, would be considered my boyfriend. Talk to a member of the opposite sex at your own risk.
When people, usually older Samoans, ask me about my family and hear that I am an only child, a judgmental look of disbelief and pity usually overcomes their face followed by, “Na’o oe?” “I, na’o a’u.” “Talofai.” (Just you?! Yep, just me. Oh, that’s too bad (or: what a pity). This only serves to aggravate me. Why is it too bad that I’m an only child? Because I grew up by myself? Because my parents didn’t want to or couldn’t have more kids? And if something stopped my parents from having more children, why did another family member not offer up one of their numerous offspring? (That is not a joke. Often if a Samoan couple is unable to have children for whatever reason, be it health or monetary or otherwise, another family member will let them “adopt” one of their children.) My secret, sarcastic response to their “heartfelt” talofai is that yes, it is too bad because being a single-child allowed me opportunities which my parents never could have afforded had they needed to support eight other children. I’ve asked close Samoan friends about this only-child stigma and I never get an answer.
Memorably, the principal at the school where I work said this shortly into my first year of teaching: Another teacher asked if I missed my family. I said yes. My principal jumped in, “What family? She’s an only child.”
Along these lines comes another question that I’m asked frequently. “Are your mother and father still alive?” Yes, in fact, they are. A student once asked if I even have parents. I laughed and said, “Of course I have parents.” Another student then cut in with, “They are Darren and Deborah,” enunciated very clearly. Once they knew I actually have parents, my students insisted on learning their names. This question of whether my parents are alive has always bothered me too. And I’ve tried to figure this one out, but the answer still eludes me. The closest I can get is that Samoans don’t understand why a young girl would go off on her own and live in a foreign country; her parents must be dead. Otherwise, why would she leave? She needs to take care of them. Sometimes when I reply that they are alive, and yes, in America, I get the distinct feeling that the person asking thinks I must be a horrible daughter for just leaving them behind (or maybe they think I must have been really bad if my parents just wanted to get rid of me). You abandoned your parents? And you’re an only child?! Why are you not in America taking care of your parents and having lots of babies to keep your family going?
Do Samoans think that in order to be their own person, to live their own life, that their parents must be dead?
My year two teacher asked me last fall if I would take care of my parents when I went home for Christmas. I politely smiled and nodded yes, but the thought in my head was, “Hell no. They’re taking care of me!”
© Samantha Maranell December 2012