I traveled to Fiji last summer from June 13th to July 28th. This being said, you may be wondering why I am just now writing about my experience. It is not because I have been too busy or because I am lazy and did not want to... it is because I still have not been able to figure out how to put into words what my time in Fiji was really like. Putting 6 weeks and millions of lessons learned into one blog post seems nearly impossible, but I will try my best to capture the most important points.
I arrived in Fiji in the morning and headed to a resort to meet up with the rest of the Laidlaw students on the Think Pacific Youth Development Expedition. My first experience of culture shock was not with the Fijian culture as I had expected, but with the British culture. I had a bag of Goldfish (the fish-shaped cheddar crackers that are a common childhood snack in the US) and said I was going to eat some, to which the students from the UK reacted with terrified faces and looks of disgust... little did I know, Goldfish are not a thing in the UK. This led to us having some great conversations this first day and throughout the trip of differences between UK and American culture from snacks to schooling to governance that I never would have even thought to ask if I did not go on this Think Pacific trip with students from the UK. I am forever grateful for our cultural exchanges.
Now to the Fijian culture, what I traveled to Fiji to experience. When we arrived in the village, I was introduced to my host parents who I stayed with throughout my time in the village (thank you Nene and Tou). As an English speaker, staying with host parents who spoke mostly Fijian taught me so much about communication and connection. I have worked with non-verbal youth and adults for many years, so I have experienced connecting with someone who may not be able to communicate in the same way as you do, but I had never interacted with so many people who speak a different language. It was such an incredible experience to be able to connect over food and fun activities even when few conversations had actually occurred. Below is a picture of me with my host family.
When I first signed up to go to Fiji, I told myself that I would embrace the new culture and new activities with an open mind and a smile. I would go out of my comfort zone and embrace the power of saying yes as much as possible. This started out great as I tried a ceremonial drink called kava, ate foods I had no idea what they were, and went to church for the first time in my life. However, the biggest thing I took away from my trip, and one that is by far the hardest to explain is my learning that there is a difference between appreciating and embracing a culture and truly being a part of it.
I was a visitor in the village and while I was there, I tried to leave my own culture behind to embrace the culture I was in. I would never truly know what it would have been like to grow up there and not just be a visitor for 6 weeks. I realized that I did not have to say yes to everything to get the most out of the experience. For example, kava is a root that when you drink it, it can make your lips and tongue tingly, and if you drink too much, it gives a drunken-like sensation. I am substance-free in the US and the idea of losing control is terrifying to me. By the end of the trip, I did not drink kava and instead engaged in respectful conversations about cultural differences and how we can respect and appreciate each others' cultures even when there are times we feel out of place or uncomfortable. English not being the first language of anyone in the village and having 20 visitors who are all English-speaking and who come from similar cultures could not have been easy for the Fijians when opening their homes to us. In the end, embracing ME and finding out how ME fit in with my Fijian family and the Fijian village actually opened more doors for both me and the villagers. During kava ceremonies, I would sit with the kids and have fun playing games and chatting because the kids were not old enough to drink kava. I found my place, found MY way of embracing and appreciating the Fijian culture and connecting with the village while still feeling like me. Sometimes embracing discomfort is good, but knowing your limits and the difference between going out of your comfort zone and feeling truly uncomfortable or like what you are doing is against your morals is important too.
As you may have noticed, I have not once mentioned what we were actually in the village to do— which was to build a health clinic and participate in workshops on climate change led by AFG, a youth-led Fijian organization. Aside from the end result of a usable health clinic for the village being built, the activities we did were all opportunities for connection and learning, which is what a trip abroad is really about, in my opinion. To be able to make friends, engage in cross-cultural exchange and hope that both you and the people in the place that you go part ways knowing that they have connected and learned about each other in ways that simply would not be possible without traveling and meeting in person. Reading about different cultures is so different than experiencing them, and embracing another culture takes courage and sometimes, failure to meet your own expectations. However, from failure always comes a lesson and often something better than you ever could have imagined.