Sex and the Samoan Woman

Back when I was a teacher at a high school here in Samoa, I attended a workshop for English teachers at which they gave out a list of texts recommended for studying with  senior students. I noted that a favourite author of mine was missing from the list, so I asked if Sia Figiel’s books could be included – ‘Where we Once Belonged’ and ‘Girl in the Moon Circle.’

The room went quiet and the co-ordinator gave me a look. She said, “Of course you’re welcome to use her books in the classroom, but a true tama’ita’i Samoa ( a real Samoan woman) would not want to read such things or talk about them with students.”  Everyone shook their heads vehemently in agreement, throwing me sideways glances of disdainful shock, ewww I can’t believe you even asked that question!

I was embarrassed, very young and very new to the teaching profession. So I didn’t argue or even ask why.  I assumed it must be because Figiel’s book contains sex and graphic (rich) descriptions of a woman’s body (including her vagina).  As well as mentions of incest, and the shattering effects of child abuse.

I wanted to ask why Albert Wendt’s book was on the list – when he’s also a Samoan who writes books with sex in them. Or why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was on the list – when it has racism and rape in it. Or why Macbeth is on the list  – when it has mass murder and witchcraft in it. Or why…

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point.

I didnt ask. I said nothing.

But I did go back to my classroom and introduce my students to Figiel’s work anyway. And just like I knew they would – they loved it.

That’s not the only time I’ve had people shudder and #yuckFace about Figiel’s books, specifically the sex. Another time, a woman refused to send her daughter to a workshop for young writers because Figiel was going to be the keynote speaker. “The woman writes about vaginas on the first few pages of her book and says the F word a lot. No way will I allow my daughter to go.” Another time, a university lecturer talked about her unwillingness to touch Figiel’s work in her classes, because of the ‘unnecessary sexuality’.  (Because sex is unnecessary, didn’t you know? Especially in Samoan literature. )

These are all examples from a local Samoan context. And from some years  ago. Perhaps its different now. I hope so, but I doubt it.

Figiel’s books are studied in many countries, especially whenever Pacific Literature is being critiqued.  I find it quite telling that a landmark work like Figiel’s, doesnt seem to be more widely read among those who she writes about. And when it is read, I’m intrigued by the responses to the sex (in all its forms and expressions in the books, both positive and negative) from Samoan women and men.

I know that when Albert Wendt’s first books came out, they were banned in a few places. People were shocked about some of the material – Im guessing the sex was a big part of that. Perhaps time has helped to lessen the discomfort for local teachers who might want to take on reading and discussing his books with their students? Or perhaps it’s easier to cope with sex and intimacy when its written from a male perspective?

What does it tell us when we are more accepting of a Samoan man writing a sex scene – then we are about a Samoan woman writing sex, writing about a woman’s body, naming and detailing a vagina for example? Or when a palagi writes about sex/love/romance – does that make it more acceptable literary study material?

What are some of our prevailing attitudes towards sex and the Samoan woman that might underlie this? A couple of examples that stand out for me – as summed up by social media…

1. The Teuila Blakely ‘sex tape’. The most virulent and hateful reactions to an adult, single Samoan woman engaging in a sex act with an adult, single Tongan man – were from the Pasifika community in NZ. Many  Samoans there fell over themselves in their eager haste to condemn Ms Blakely for

a. dating a much younger man

b. having oral sex in a car

c. Either allowing her date to film the act OR being too focused on the activity that she didnt notice she was being filmed

d. Not being sorry enough  or repentant enough when her date shared it on social media

The disgust and antagonism for Ms Blakely as a Samoan woman who appeared  confident and    unashamed about her sexuality and her  choices in the bedroom (or in the car), did not seem to extend to the Tongan man who had been a co-participant. Even when  it was apparent the creep man had violated her trust by sharing the tape. People slammed her for being a poor example of a tama’ita’i Samoa, for bringing shame on the Samoan community, and for being that most lethal of Samoan designations, a pa’umuku, a slut. They said she should have been at home with her son, being a ‘good mother.’  A few said quite blatantly, “She should just die.” The degree of viciousness and hate was disturbing.

Whether or not we agree with the choice some people make to film themselves doing sex-things, why is it that we are so outraged by a Samoan woman who chooses to have sex and likes it?

2. The domestic violence case involving Brian Lima and Sina Retzlaff. When Ms Retzlaff went public with the assault and a photograph of her bruised face made headlines, there was an outpouring of support and outrage on her behalf. There was also strong condemnation of her.  For speaking out and ‘airing their dirty laundry’ thus bringing shame on both families involved. Disapproval also came from those who said she deserved it because when the attack occurred, she was out on a date with another man. Ms Retzlaff and her ex-husband had been divorced for two years, but still critics blasted her on social media because, “she should be at home looking after her children” and “not going out having sex with other men”. (Never mind that the attack happened in a public place, outside a restaurant and nobody was having sex of any kind.)

The dynamics of domestic violence aside, I took particular note of those who criticized Ms Retzlaff for what they viewed as her sexually promiscuous behaviour. People cited her dating, as a divorced woman with children – as evidence that she “deserved” to get beaten up by her ex-husband. They delighted in pointing out that her date was a younger man. They implied Ms Retzlaff had been an unfaithful wife when she was married – more evidence she “deserved” to get beaten up. They said she was a pa’umuku, a slut. Someone said, “She should just die.”

Again, the degree of viciousness and hate was disturbing.

Again the double standard was evident. Nobody raised questions about Lima’s sexual conduct, either when he was married or in the years since. Nobody asked why he wasnt at home looking after his children.

Im reminded of a dear friend who, when she found out her husband was having an affair, was comforted by her mother, “Thats what men do. Dont worry about that other woman. You’re the one he’s married to, the one living in his house, the mother of his children. He only goes to her for sex. Because he has needs. You’re the wife.”

What attitudes towards sex and the Samoan woman are evident here? About what is “acceptable” for a Samoan man vs a Samoan woman? About what a wife ‘provides’ vs a lover #onTheSide?

What about for our fa’afafine sisters? Do they have the same expectations and codes of sexual conduct within our cultural context? I’ve seen a kind of envious awe from other Samoan women towards fa’afafine because ‘you can get away with so much more than we do!’ and ‘I wish I could be as flamboyant and fierce as you’ and ‘you get the best of both worlds’. But do they really?

I’m grateful to live in a country where fa’afafine are generally accepted and celebrated. (At least more so than in other countries.) Yet, while we have a more fluid view of gender than most of the palagi world, Christianity has done a good job at demonizing those who dont fit a rigid gender binary. The Bible’s take on homosexuality is quoted often. Yes, a woman can be villified for having any kind of sex outside the approved parameters (in a car with somebody much younger than you AND youre not married is a HELL NO!) But at least there’s some approved parameters for her to #getHerFreakOn. Fa’afafine dont have any. At least not according to our Christianized Samoan culture.

I’ve seen the heartache of some of my fa’afafine sisters as they are sexually objectified all while being treated as ‘less than’ or ‘incomplete’ because of who they are. I know of many Samoan men who have sex with a fa’afafine and then say – that doesnt count as cheating on their partner/wife because “she’s not a real woman…she’s just a fa’afafine.” Such dehumanizing is not only hurtful – it’s dangerous. It contributes to callous discrimination against fa’afafine and even violence. It needs to stop.

In today’s Samoan cultural context (whether here or abroad),  does a woman/fa’afafine have the right to be a sensual being who celebrates and enjoys her body and all her body is capable of feeling? How do we as Samoans, feel about a woman/fa’afafine’s right to choose who she has sex with, the kind of sex she has, and when and where she has that sex? And how do we make sure we’re getting the right messages across to our young people as they seek to navigate turbulent emotions and powerful relationships – often without any guidance from parents who cant/wont talk about #sexStuff or #loveStuff or #bodyStuff?

As a mother, these questions are important to me as I try to raise daughters and sons who can treat others with respect regardless of what/who they are in this rainbow LGBT world, and who can make informed decisions about when/where/who to have healthy, fun and fabulous sex relationships with.

As a writer, these things are important to me, particularly as I create characters that (I hope) are multi-faceted, authentic and believable. Characters who have rich, messy and messed up relationships with others. In characters like Leila, Simone, Matile, Nafanua and Pele, I have tried to portray a diverse range of Samoan women in contemporary Samoa. Women who love and are loved, women who have different attitudes towards their sexuality. Mindful that Im not fa’afafine and cant know or understand firsthand what it is to be a young fa’afafine like Simone – I was apprehensive about writing her, but it was essential to have her voice in the TELESA Series and I hope I did her character justice. My next novel is not Young Adult. Its contemp romance with lots of tangled Samoan family drama and contains mature themes. In other words, its got love, sex, lies, loss and too much laughter in it. It’s been a whole new world of challenge for me to write this latest book.

It can be a struggle to write with honesty (particularly when love and sex are involved) and I can only write a “single story.” There are many other perspectives and theres no one true definition for what is a ‘real tama’ita’i Samoa’. My characters are not representative of an entire country or culture and it would be a mistake for anyone to expect them to be. (A plug there for more Samoan women to hurry up and write novels.)

Back to stories. And sex. And what do they have to do with each other?

Its vital that we can see ourselves represented in the stories around us – whether in our media or in our literature. Stories created by us, for us and about us can be powerful, especially when theres a range of complex stories that encompass the good and the bad. And everything in between.

Yes, we can be wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, matriarchs and matai. We also can be abused and the abusers, rape victims, child abuse survivors, battered wives, mothers who encourage sons to beat their partners, friends who tell you to perpetually forgive the perpetually cheating husband, and grandmothers who berate 13yr olds who get pregnant from their uncles.

But we are also sensual beings with sexual and emotional needs and desires. Some of us enjoy sex. Some of us dont. Some of us have amazing sex – all by ourselves. Some of us want to have sex – and cant. Because age or health or religion says no. Some of us are really good at it and luxuriate in engaging in all sorts of enticing and intricate techniques. Some of us dont. Some of us never find a person we want to be in the same room with – let alone have sex with. Some of us only have sex with other women. Some of us only have sex with men – like with boyfriends, husbands and lovers. (Sometimes we have sex with other people’s boyfriends, husbands and lovers.) Sometimes we make stupid choices and have sex when we shouldnt. Or with someone that we know we’ll regret. Some of us commit to one person – and its awful. Some of us commit to only ever having sex with one person for the rest of our lives – and it’s beautiful and so worth it.

And you know what? All of these are true for our fa’afafine sisters. And for men. So can we please stop with that rubbish about ‘Men have needs…its harder for men to control their sexual urges…men want it more than women…he did that because her dress was so revealing and immodest so he couldnt control himself…its too difficult for a man to be faithful to one woman because of his NEEDS… Everybody’s got needs dammit. Learn how to control yo’self and let’s all stop making excuses for shitty behaviour.

The list of sex people possibilities and experiences is endless. And yet, we are given so few of these varied stories in our literature and our media. Especially for women and fa’afafine. When there is only a limited and limiting representation of Samoan women – we continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and attitudes – which then play out in intimate partner relationships, in often very damaging ways.

We need more Samoan women writing books, blogs and poems. Making art, plays and films. Im thrilled to know several Samoan women who are working to complete their first novels, like Caroline Hunt, Sisilia Eteuati and Sita Leota. And Im excited about the ongoing success of South Seas Pictures which is telling powerful Samoan stories, like the film NOFOTANE and many more.

We need to see the many different realities of Samoan women’s experiences, represented and challenged. The norms and underlying attitudes questioned. Because as Chimamanda Adichie so beautifully expressed, in her TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’ :

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”

To all my Samoan sister storytellers out there, wherever you may be – Im looking at you. Be brave enough to question, challenge and re-define what it means to be Samoan women or fa’afafine. Speak your truth.Take control of the narratives about us and our sexuality, our intimate partner relationships – in all their rich diversity of experience. Tell stories, lots of different stories. Stories that will help empower and humanize.

Kick-ass Words and Kick-ass Clothes

One of my 2015 goals is to be more organized with my work (ha ha).

I usually start prepping for an author event…a few days before. Then everyone in my house must endure my freaking out / panic / all-nighter writing, interspersed with a frantic need for lots of sugar (cake) and caffeine (Diet Coke) to get me through. With a bit of yelling at innocent children followed by bouts of crying as I wallow in guilt at being such a crap mother.

Sad fact is, I’m useless at public speaking without lots of notes and lots of practise – which makes no sense then that I would constantly leave my speeches to the last minute.

BUT this year is going to be different. Dammit. This year I’m going to be one of those smooth, capable and confident women who have speeches written MONTHS in advance. And can say them without looking at any notes, without getting so sweaty nervous that their glasses fog up and then they cant see anything anyway. Women who can rap and riff and pontificate with eloquence and wit and winning self-deprecation. Or, when the situation requires, they can deliver rousing, impassioned powerful words that make people cry, or shout, or do cartwheels.

Women who can back up their kickass words with kickass outfits. Women who dont have to raid their big sister’s wardrobe to borrow, beg and steal her fabulous work clothes. They have co-ordinated ensembles in their closets, always ironed, always ready to wear for any and every speaking event outside their hermit caves. And of course those outfits will always be clothes that actually fit. Not ofu’s that one buys because they look good on the store poster AND THEY MIGHT FIT ONE DAY. #everHopeful. Not that I do this…ever. Oh no. Not me.

In line with my goal to transform into this well-dressed, well-spoken author and public speaker, I resolved to stop eating cake and donuts which could help those ofu’s fit better. And to start NOW, writing my words for my March Utah trip.

Because on March 12th, I’m giving a lecture at the Salt Lake Community College, for Women’s History Month, about: “Celebrating a Woman’s Worth.”

Then Im visiting the Pacific Heritage Charter School on the 13th and Mana Academy on the 17th, where I will probably have to say some words. That cant sound dumb. That cant be about donuts or rugby player abs or why I like Eminem.

On March 14th Im doing a Talanoa Series to talk about writer stuff and also about Preventing Abuse in our Pasifika communities.

And March 18th Im giving the keynote address at the SLC Pacific Islander High School Teachers Conference.

That’s kind of a lot of words.

So I started writing my speeches. A week later and this is what I have so far.

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Zip. Nada. Nuffing.

A week later and I’m thinking that I really need some cake. And donuts. Maybe thats why the words arent making an appearance?

Or maybe, wonderful words only ever come to me when I have 48hrs left before I get up in front of an audience? Maybe wonderful words are only borne of panic, fear, desperation and desolation?

Ohmagosh Utah is gonna hate me.

Why are you so grouchy??!!

Dear children,

The whole point of having a door on my office is so you can leave me alone. Not so you can open it every 10 minutes and ask me VERY IMPORTANT questions, like:

*Do you know where the soap is? Theres nothing in our bathroom.

* Where’s Zach? He’s supposed to help me bath the puppies.

* Are you going to the store soon? Can you buy some batteries for the other XBox controller?

* She wont let me play XBox. Its not fair. Tell her to share!

* Can you tell Jade to hurry up and go back to university? Im tired of sharing my room with him.

* What are we having for dinner? …Why dont you know?…

* Why do I have to do the dishes that Zion made? I already cleaned the kitchen and she just came and made a sandwich.

* Can the puppies come inside and play?

* The puppies pooped on your rug. What should we do?

* We need tape / scissors / paper / a pen. Do you got any?

* The toilet paper’s finished.

And my favorite…

* Why are you so grouchy? You’re always in a bad mood. I thought you liked being a writer?

And people wonder why my next book is taking so damn long to finish.

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I love my office!  – When children arent in it…

Christmas in Samoa

A few days late – but better late than never!

Last night was Christmas Eve. The house was filled with the sounds of children playing as the Fab5 had their cousins over who are visiting from New Zealand.  We talked a lot, laughed real loud, drank too much Diet Coke and ate way too many brownies and Doritos. After the cousins left, we did last minute gift wrapping and I was snapping at the children to get the place cleaned up before they snuck off to bed. “I dont care if its almost midnight – go fold that laundry y’hear me!!”
Then we heard singing from the front. A choir from the church up the road, all dressed in white and carrying candles and lanterns, singing Samoan hymns as they walked in two lines under the starry sky. Hymns of worship, hymns of praise.

Just like that, all the rush and busyness and angst was gone. Replaced with a feeling of peace and immense gratitude. For the gift of the Saviour Jesus Christ and the celebration of his birth. For my family, for the blessing of being in our new home (so what if its unfinished), for the gift of living in Samoa and the opportunity to raise our children here.

I sat in the shadows and listened until the very last notes trailed away, until the choir was long out of sight – and thought about many Christmases past, growing up in Samoa….

1. Back when Christmas lights were rare and we knew where every house was that had any. Our Dad taking us for a drive ‘to see lights’, sitting in the back of the pickup truck with the wind in your face, eyes eagerly scanning for sparkly color. The prize for #BestestLights going to the family with the MASSIVE pine tree draped with lights, across the road from the old St.Josephs school.
2. My mum’s Christmas baking. Sio grating fresh popo for her coconut cookies, outside the back door with chickens scratching for stray flecks of white salty-sweetness. The house filled with the smell of caramelized sugar and vanilla. Us kids hanging around, offering to “help stir” so we could stick our fingers in the bowl and swipe a taste of chocolate chip cookie dough batter. Her swatting at our hands and yelling for us to get out of her kitchen. Us hoping she would mess up and burn a few of the peanut brownies, hoping the Louise Squares wouldn’t lift out of the pan properly – so then we could eat all the rejects.
3. Christmas gift deliveries. My big brother sent to cut branches off the pine tree because he was the tallest. Helping to carry the prickly greenery to the kitchen where my mum would use it to decorate trays of cookies, cinnamon rolls and banana pumpkin loaves. Tying on ribbons of gold and red – which she would promptly re-tie because “your bows are dreadful!” Going in the car to deliver the treats to family, friends and total strangers. The Bishop, Papa, cousins, the couple at the little corner store “because they make such good bread”, the new family at church “because the woman looks sad and I think she’s having a hard time adjusting to Samoa”. One year we took cookies to the house with the massive Christmas tree lights. Even though they had no clue who we were. “Because they make many people happy with their lights.”
4. A creaky wooden bus filled to bursting with carolers dressed in Sunday white. Stopping at our house after midnight to sing Samoan hymns.
5. The radio playing non-stop Vengaboys Christmas songs. Boney M. Feliz Navidad trumpeting from every bus.
6. The hollow BOOM of faga ofe in the night.
7. Christmas to’onai at my grandfather’s house. Uncles, aunts and cousins. Cardboard boxes of ice cream. Chocolate self-saucing cake. Pisupo and taro. Avoiding Papa’s surly unpredictable dog Hero. Playing on the steel swing set and searching for guppies in the murky dead water of the Vaipe.
8. Visiting great-aunty Ita. Her face lighting up to see us. The feel of her velvet soft wrinkled cheek against my face as she tugs me close for a hug. Thick slabs of puligi on a tin plate. Ripe misiluki bananas from the bunch hanging outside the back door.
9. Papa sitting in his armchair solemnly accepting his presents from us. Stacking wrapped packages on the table beside him but never unwrapping them. My awed puzzlement at how he could stand NOT opening his presents. Many years later, seeing still-wrapped gifts stored in his bedroom.
10. The snap and crack of toy cap pistols. The acrid windings of smoke from the rolls of red paper pellets.
11. Putting up our Christmas tree. Reciting the history of each ornament, arguing about which one belonged to us from the collection of fragile decorations, as our mum bought us each a new one every year.
12. Planning and practising for a family nativity play – which never happens because me and my little sisters inevitably have a fight and somebody quits. Laughing about it every year since then.
13. My little sister buying me lolesaiga one year and wrapping them for under the tree. Then getting mad at me and unwrapping them again so she could eat one…or two. Then rewrapping them.
14. Going to the neighborhood freshwater spring with all my cousins and uncles after the big Christmas toonai. Ice cold relief from the sticky heat of the day. Big boss women yelling at us to stop making so much noise and splashing too much. Walking home wet, rubber seevae kosokoso making loud squelching sounds on the hot tar seal road.
15. Mum making her legendary fruitcake, redolent with so much alcohol that going into the kitchen is an intoxicating experience. All us kids having a turn to stir the thick batter and make a wish.
16. The scarlet fire of the flame trees in bloom all over town.
17. Huffy-puffy donuts glazed and sticky sweet. Made by Helen Atoa and delivered hot and delicious, Merry Christmas.
18. Pineapple season. Hating having to cut and peel them, digging out the prickly scabbed skin. Resentfully. But loving the chilled sweet taste of them.
19. Walking all over town with $20, in search of enough gifts for seven people.
And,
20. A choir from the church up the road, all dressed in white and carrying candles and lanterns, singing Samoan hymns as they walk past our house, under the starry sky. Hymns of worship, hymns of praise.
Manuia le Kerisimasi from Samoa.

What are some of your fave Christmas memories?

Why We’re Totally Wrong For Each Other

In four days it will be 23 years since I went to a party I didnt want to go to – and met the Hot Man.

He wasnt the Hot Man then of course. Oh no. He was one of the insanely sexilicious and dangerous Young brothers. All very good looking, very athletic, very in demand ‘with the ladies’, and very good at  drinking lots of beer. They worked hard and partied hard. I’d known who he was when I was at high school, but from an awe-struck distance because super cool dudes like him didnt associate with geeks like me.

When I make a list of all the things we had in common – I am mystified how we  stayed together so long.

1. He didnt like to eat desserts. Didnt even bother looking at the dessert menu because a meal was complete after appetizers and main. Outrageous!! Who knew people like that even existed?? Not I. As we all know, I live and breathe for dessert. Life would have no meaning without it. The only cake he ever ate was fruitcake. At Christmas. The only cake I wont eat, because its disgusting – is fruitcake.

2. He put tomato sauce on French toast. Ewwww yuck. Whereas I (correctly) believed in the essential sweet nature of bread soaked in eggs and cream and then fried in a daub of butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. Thus I ate French toast with maple syrup. Or jam.

3. He liked to run, box, do muay thai, workout in the gym, and then run some more. Being fit and active and healthy gave him great joy. Me? I hated sports and I’d never been fit or active or particularly interested in good health.

4. He was Catholic but never went to church. I was Mormon and went to church a lot.

5. He’d never read a novel in his life. Stuff for his work and books about running? Yeah sure. But fiction? No. Whereas I consumed books like bags of Doritos. With unbridled enthusiasm and a relentless hunger that I #mustFinishThis.

6. He was and still is, an early riser and always wants to be early to everything. (So annoying.) I like to stay up late which means of course I NEED to sleep late. And I think punctuality is overrated. If I invite you to my house for dinner, Im going to think you’re quite inconsiderate if you actually show up on time.

7. He was and is, excellent with money. Making it, budgeting it and saving it. Im useless at all those things. However, I am very good at spending money. I will get off the plane from a trip to NZ and not have a single cent left in my pocket because hey, money is for SPENDING. While he will still have lots of NZ dollars in his wallet and I’ll be thinking hello! What a waste of good shopping opportunities…

8. He could take any machinery or electrical appliance to pieces and put it all back together again. Install a shower or repair a concrete mixer. Build a steel frame warehouse or make the new blender work. While I couldnt figure out the stupid intricacies of the DVD player from its instruction manual. I wrote stories from nuthin. He made buildings out of a whole lotta something.

9. He ate at Pinati’s and lunch was keke pua’a from the market. I’d never eaten at Pinati’s and the sight of keke pua’a made me feel ill.

10. His idea of a tidy room was turning the light off so you dont have to see the mess. I couldnt stand dirt or mess. And I wanted furniture to have a color scheme and sheets that MATCHED DAMMIT.

11. He didnt know what a feminist was. I was finishing a degree in Women’s Studies with buckets of Feminist Theory.

12. He loved horror movies. I’d never seen any. Because I cant handle them. Because I cant turn off my psycho-active imagination when the movie stops.

13. He had a motorbike, worked security at a strip club, and was often mistaken for being a drug dealer. (Long hair and a leather jacket will do that to you apparently.) The most dangerous thing I’d ever done was drink milk that was two days past its expiry date.

14. When I said “I had a fight with my sister” I meant – we yelled at each other for an hour, somebody got Unfriended on Facebook and then we separately called our Dad to register our unhappiness. When HE said, “I had a fight with my brother” he meant – he had a fight with his brother and somebody had a black eye. Maybe some furniture got broken.

15. He brought me a rose on our very first date. And the second, third and fourth dates. On the fifth date he proposed and gave me a diamond ring. I didnt give him any presents. (My excuse? I was a poor student and perpetually broke. See #7 for further reference.) But somewhere in between dates 2 and 3, I got nasty food poisoning from post-Xmas leftovers, so he sat by me and held the plastic bowl I was upchucking into. So I kinda did give him some thing.

I could go on. And on. But yes, perusing this list, I am flabbergasted that he and I have made it this far. (And yes, Im rather disconcerted this list has so many references to food…as evidence of what I see to be our DEEPLY PHILOSOPHICAL differences…)

But we’re not the same people who first met at that party 23 years ago.

He eats dessert now. I have brought him over to the Dark Side of the (Sweet) Force, with Sticky Date pudding and oatmeal choc chip cookies being his particular favorites.

I have tried French toast with tomato sauce. And I no longer feel the insane need to color-co ordinate my dishtowels with my plates. Or micro-manage how each cushion is placed on the sofa.

Nope we are not the same people. We’ve had five (bloody expensive) children join us – and they’ve done their best to challenge and bewilder us. We’ve been struggling students, first and second and third homeowners, business operators, author publisher, Ironman and Watergirl…thru sickness and health, richer and poorer, relationship meltdowns and more…

Which goes to show that opposites can do more than just attract. They can endure. Forge common ground. Grow together. Change. Reinvent and renew. Falter and mess up, then re-committ and find new ways to keep going.

Is it “love” that does it? That zing?

Takes a list of opposites and turns it into a marriage that can go beyond French toast and fruitcake?

Or is it friendship, commitment, forgiveness, patience, laughter, hope, hot sex (be honest, theres usually got to be SOME OF THAT in there somewhere) trust, respect and a genuine enjoyment of the other person’s company?

Whatever combination of whatever it is – Im grateful I’ve got it with the Hot Man and I hope hope hope that we keep getting it right.

Happy anniversary Darren. Thank you for another year of being best friends (with benefits).

I love you.
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Why I’m Going Back to Savaii

I went to Savaii on the ferry. It was epic.

I did NOT get seasick.
I did NOT fall overboard and drown.
I did NOT get eaten by rabid sharks.
I did NOT cry / shake / hyperventilate all the way there.

Instead, I -
*Met up with friends on the boat and had a lovely catchup chat. Thank you Logo for keeping me company there and back!

*Enjoyed the salt breeze and glorious ocean views. As well as the very clean and comfortable air conditioned interior on board. I highly recommend the boat to Savaii. They have TV for the kids to watch, snacks to buy and did you read the key words, AIR CONDITIONING? And it only costs twelve tala.

*Was awed by my drive to Vaiola College. Salelologa was rather ramshackle and sad looking but once away from there, the villages are beautiful. Lush gardens and forest and plantations. Vibrant colors everywhere of flowers and fruits. Lots of friendly people.

*Was blown away by Vaiola College itself. Nestled in green hills and touched by majestic blue sky, its an oasis of bustling community and learning and it has a special spirit. A feeling of peace and serenity. I wished my stay were longer.
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*Was impressed by the students as they spoke, sang and graduated. Their singing and their obvious love for their school and each other, as well as the palpable waves of pride from the parents and extended family aiga – well, I cried it was so beautifully emotional. An exceptional young man gave the Valedictorian address right before my speech and it had me scrambling because it was so powerful and actually covered some of the points I was going to say (except he said it much better than I could) so I had to do some quick thinking and make a few things up on the spot. Im dreadful at impromptu speeches so I was a sweaty nervous wreck by the time I got up to do my thing. Thankfully it was a very kind audience so it was much less scary than it could have been.
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*Was embraced and welcomed by teachers and administrators who showered me with flower lei, delicious food and stunning gifts. On the trip back I carried an entire tray of pineapple custard pie with me on the ferry and pretty much the entire cabin was treated to the sweet gardenia perfume of my flowers. The students presented me with an engraved glass star trophy which Little Daughter exclaimed “Its like an Academy Award!”
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Im now a believer.

In Vaiola College as a school.

In the ferry as a safe and pleasant mode of transport.

And in Savaii as a truly glorious destination that Im going to head back to. But this time with all the family.

Fa’afetai tele lava Vaiola College for the invitation. And for (gently) getting me out of my hermit comfort zone so I could experience a very little bit of what makes Savaii a unique treasure.

I will definitely be back.

Church is Boring. I Hate It.

Bella is a reluctant churchgoer. Her attempts to stay home range from :

The Selfless
“I’m sick.” Dramatic (fake) cough. “I dont want to cough germs on the other children.”

The Lazy
“I’m so tired.” Flops on my bed wearily. “My legs dont have enough energy to carry me.”

The Dutiful Daughter
“My dada will be lonely at home by himself.” Earnest and beseeching. “I have to stay here so he wont be sad. You need me to look after you, right Dada?”

The Fashionista
“I got nuffing to wear!” Wailing. “That dress is ugly and hot. People will laugh at me with that dress.”

The Omen of Doom
“I had a bad dream that you lost me at church Mama.” Fearful and wide-eyed. “I was looking for you everywhere and it was soooo scary. I wanna stay home. Pleeeease dont make me go.”

The Straight-Talker.
“Church is boring. I hate it.” Arms folded and glaring belligerently.

The Theologian
“But Mama, why cant we just stay home and talk to Jesus?” Arms outstretched and questioning. “He’s in heaven. He can hear us anywhere y’know.” Muttering under her breath. “Jesus doesnt go to church…why do we have to…”

The Negotiator
“If I go to church, can we get ice-cream after?”

And my personal favorite,

The Offensive Defence
“Mama, you look squishy and lumpy.” Studies me with a critical eye. “If we stay home, then you dont have to wear that ugly dress.”

Savaii – Sharks, Sinking and Panic

I got invited to be the keynote speaker at Vaiola College graduation. It was very nice of them to invite me and I said yes. Without really thinking because they asked me two months ago and December was still a very long way away so I put it on my shelf of things to think about ONE DAY.

And now I have a problem.

Because the graduation is next week. Because Vaiola College is in Savaii. Because I’ve only been to Savaii once – when I was eight years old. Because to get there, you have to go on the ferry.  Because boats make me awfully dreadfully sick.  Because the wide open ocean petrifies me with fear. And because I can’t swim.

I’m well aware that for some people, skipping back and forth to Savaii is ‘no big deal’. That for some people, my freaking out about a one hour boat ride to the next island over – ranks very low on the list of STUFF YOU WANT TO WASTE 20 MINUTES READING ABOUT. So if you’re one of those people rolling your eyes right now, then kindly close your browser and stick your head in the freezer. There’s nuthin to see here. Move along.

Back to my freakout.

At 4am this morning, I woke up with the most awful thought. What if the boat sinks?! I could see it play out so clearly in my mind. The ferry would hit something. Maybe a rogue iceberg? Global warming is real y’know. It would spring a leak. Panic would ensue. Of course there wouldn’t be enough life jackets.  The few they had would go to the elderly, the children (and their mothers). I would end up in the water, vainly battling to dog paddle my way to Savaii, only to weakly sink beneath the waves as I gave up my last desperate breath. But before I checked out to oblivion, a massive shark would rip me to pieces. Slowly. Savoring every bite.

I was giving myself a panic attack just thinking about my ocean demise.

But then, I gave myself a shake. Get a hold of yourself woman!!! I took deep breaths and calmly walked myself through the scenario of horror.

The boat sinks. OhmigoshImGonnaDie! No you won’t. You will grab hold of some floating pieces of wreckage. Some wooden planks. Like in Titanic. You will hang on to those while you wait for rescue.  It’s the South Pacific. The water is warm. Unlike silly Rose, you will even share your makeshift raft with other desperate survivors.

You float around on your stupid pieces of wood and nobody comes to rescue you. You end up in a current halfway to Panama, trying to catch seabirds so you can drink their blood. Or on a tiny uncharted island in the middle of nothing, where you grow a beard and talk to a basketball. And then your husband gets tired of waiting for you to be found so he marries a beautiful 20yr old called Dipsy Lala. She’s so sweet that by the time you come back, five years later – Bella doesn’t even remember who you are. Then, OhmigoshIwillWANTtoDie!!  No. You’re being silly. You have your phone. When the boat goes down, you will call your husband and ask him to please come save you. You will turn on your GPS tracker thingy. You will then sit on your makeshift raft and wait patiently for him to come get you. The man is quite devoted to you. He could probably SWIM to Savaii to get you. If necessary. He won’t want to have to marry a beautiful 20yr old Teletubbie. He will spring into action and move heaven and earth to rescue you. He will shout over the phone, over the sound of rushing water and panicked screams, “I will find you! No matter how far, no matter how long it takes – I will come for you and I will find you!” (Bonus points for whoever knows that movie line…insert *dramatic romantic wistful sigh*right here.)

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You’re on your makeshift raft with your phone (Facebooking your adventure), when suddenly, a MASSIVE SHARK rips your leg off. You bleed to death and an entire pack of sharks scrounges and scraps over your body. By the time your husband arrives, all he finds is your glasses, catching diamond sparkles in the sunlight. Stop it. Just stop it. There’s no sharks waiting to eat people from here to Savaii. People canoe and swim and fish there all the time. And nobody’s every been eaten by a shark on their way to the big Island. Besides, there will be plenty of other people in the ocean around you for sharks to choose from. Like delicious children in lifejackets actually IN the water. Much easier to eat than people on rafts.

I was rather pleased with how well I was able to calm myself. ‘You’ve come a long way Lani,’ I congratulated. Because everybody talks to themselves like this, don’t they?! ‘You’re not a prisoner to your paranoia or weakly buffeted by the winds of your (overly) vivid imagination. Oh no. You are rational. Logical. Sensible. That’s why they asked you to be the keynote speaker at the graduation, so you could help inspire the next generation.’

My peace and resolve were disrupted today though. Because I made the mistake of telling the Hot Man and Big Son, about my 4am freakout. I shared how I had successfully eliminated all my RIDICULOUS worries.  “So silly of me, wasn’t it? Ha ha.”

The Hot Man didn’t laugh. He said, “There won’t be any planks of wood for you to hang on to. The boat is made of steel.”

Oh. Well, there’s sure to be some other assorted floatation devices about on board. Like large plastic water bottles! I can hang on to those.

“Water will get in them and you’ll sink,” said Big Son.

“You need to take a life jacket with you,” said the Hot Man.

But I don’t have one!

He shrugged. “Oh well. Better hope it doesn’t sink then.” Which was not reassuring at all.

Big Son then asked, “What are you gonna do about the sharks?”

There’s no sharks out there.

“That’s what you think,” said the Hot Man. “There’s sharks in the harbour and by the wharf. We have to watch out for them when we train. Of course there’s sharks out in the ocean on the way to Savaii.”

See? This is why I don’t like to leave the cave. Dammit. It’s too dangerous out there.

So now I’m back to – Ohmigosh I’m gonna DIE!!!!

In between trying to write an inspiring (rational, logical, sensible) keynote speech.

 

Butterfly Bride

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A piece from – Butterfly Bride.

The Aunties Mareta and Amalia were too elderly to make the long trip home but they weren’t going to let that stop them from putting their stamp on the wedding. They’re our Dad’s elder sisters and true to form, they had a long standing feud with our mother who they couldn’t stand. This dress was their chance to stick it to her. “We will show that daughter of pigs what a real wedding dress is like…” Daughter of pigs being their favorite name for my faraway mother. Along with pigeon-eater, bush-dweller, and smoke-burnt eyes.

Because she labored under the illusion that everyone adored her and existed on this earth to provide for her happiness, Naomi had gratefully accepted their offer to buy her a dream wedding dress. It hadn’t occurred to her they had ulterior motives. #Clueless

The aunties had couriered hefty wedding catalogues to Samoa. Because they didn’t believe in the internet and online shopping. Oh no. My silly trusting little sister had chosen a stunning gown of epic simplicity. A strapless sheathe with chiffon overlay. No train, no bows or ruffles and only a single-layered veil. The kind of simplicity of design (with an alluring hint of sex) that only lots of money could buy. Naomi’s dream dress. The one she would wear for most of the time at the reception and have all her wedding photographs taken in, thus preserving her supermodel sylph self forever, as a bride with class, style and chic elegance. She would make sure this was the dress that ended up on the front page of the Samoa News, under the gigantic headline: Miss Samoa weds her Prince.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Dreams are free and oh-so-dangerous. Because When they got Naomi’s choice, the aunties were aghast at her selection. How could they possibly be associated with such a dress?

“What kind of dress is that?” said Mareta. Wrinkled face even more wrinkly with disgust. “It doesn’t even have a train.”

“Only poor people would wear that dress,” scoffed Amalia. “That family of pigs will spit on such a dress.”

And that was the final judgement passed on Naomi’s choice. Her dress was one that only a family with no sense, no money, no credit would buy. It was a dress that would not outshine the dress from ‘THAT WOMAN’S’ side of the family. No. Their niece would not be caught dead in such a dress.

Instead, they bought Naomi the most expensive, most abundant dress they could find in the catalogue. They were gleeful at the thought of how angry my mother would be when she saw it.  How she would be rendered speechless at its glory and more importantly, its price tag. Yes, they crowed to each other, this dress would be a slap in the face reminder to their sister-in-law that she was nowhere near good enough for their family. That she would still be cooking bananas on an outdoor fire and shitting over a mangrove swamp long-drop – if it weren’t for their brother. Ha.

Family love at it’s finest.

And now here I am, dragging this monstrosity with me on my first trip home in six years. A home I had run away from with great relief I might add. A home I’d had no plans on returning to until I:

  1. Lost thirty pounds.
  2. Got my graduate degree in something amazing.
  3. Had a gorgeous, filthy rich, disgustingly clever boyfriend I could take with me.

I was nowhere near due for that return trip. Because I was:

  1. Not dieting or doing any exercise. (Beyond walking to the bakery where I worked.)
  2. Not at university studying for a grad degree in anything amazing. (Because, see #A. I work at a bakery.)
  3. Not dating anyone rich, gorgeous or clever. (Because I was dating nobody.)

So no, a trip back to Samoa had not been in the cards for me. Until now. Until my beautiful overachieving little sister announced she was gloriously in love.

When the invitations showed up in the mail, I was happy for Naomi. If I were living in Samoa I would offer to make her wedding cake – I told myself. But since I wasn’t there, I resolved to send her some money instead. (The ideal gift for any Samoan occasion.) Of course I wasn’t going to go to the wedding myself. Hell no. I had lots of very important things to do. The aged aunties needed me.

Except they didn’t.

“Don’t be stupid. Your sister is getting married. Of course you’ll go,” snapped Aunty Amalia. “And don’t give me any excuses about that old family trouble eh! It’s been many years now.  Nobody will remember. Besides, they got plenty to talk about already, besides you. Too many other girls there doing silly things. Stop being a coward. You can’t hide here  forever.”

For a doddery old woman who forgot to brush her teeth for weeks on end, Aunty Amalia could be sharp as a steel sapelu blade.

I tried to tell them the bakery needed me.

Except it didn’t. Aunty Mareta called my boss Rowena who assured her that of course the pastries would still go on without me, and I hadn’t taken any annual leave for ages, so “tell Scar she can take a nice long trip back to Saamowah…”. Traitor.

“You’re going. We will pay your fare,” said Amalia. “We’re buying Naomi’s wedding dress and someone has to take it to Samoa.”

One didn’t argue with one’s ancient great-aunts. Especially not when one is Samoan.

Then my mother called to tell me I was Naomi’s Maid of Honor so “make sure you get here two weeks before the wedding so you can help your sister…Tamarina is pregnant, due the month after the wedding so she can’t do much.”

I didn’t want to be Naomi’s bridesmaid. Just like I was sure she didn’t want me to be her Maid of Honor either. But in true Samoan style, we didn’t have a choice in the matter. Parents and other assorted elders were the Mafia bosses of weddings and woe betide any who tried to defy them. I was stuck mentally scrambling for something to tell mum why I couldn’t be in the line.

Tell her you broke your leg. Tell her weddings make you feel sick and you might puke on Naomi at the altar. Tell her you’ve got rapidly accelerating cataracts and can’t see your way down the aisle. Tell her you’re pregnant! Ha. Maybe not.

 My mother kept barraging on. “There’s time for you to prepare. You should go on a diet now. Maybe join the gym.”

“Huh? What?”

An impatient sound of annoyance. “Scar, are you listening? There’s fifteen bridesmaids. Most of them are Naomi’s friends from work and the Miss Samoa pageant. You want to look your best. What about that watercress diet? Your cousin Patsy did it and she lost fifty pounds.”

“Really? Porkpie Patsy?”

“Don’t be cruel Scar. Fat girls should stick together,” rebuked my mother, blending kindness and meanness as only she could. “Yes Patsy ate nothing but watercress. Made it into soups and salads.”

I was envious. And intrigued. If keke pua’a Patsy could endure weeks of watercress, then why couldn’t I? Maybe I could put watercress in a cake? Perhaps there were some cabbage-based flours I could use?  Watercress was disgusting, not much better than gutter weeds really – but I didn’t want to be the only pudgy lump in the wedding party. I envisioned what I would look like after several weeks of watercress. Slim, sexy and smiling at everyone as I glided through the crowd at the reception….

“She was in hospital for two months! By the time she got out, she was a shadow of herself.”

Wait, “What was that? Who was in hospital?” I asked.

“Patsy,” said mum. Annoyed. “I told you, after two weeks of eating watercress she got sick and had to go to New Zealand. She ate some kind of worm parasite from not washing the watercress properly and it burrowed into her brain. She was in a coma. Nearly died. But when she came out, oka, no more pork pie nicknames! She’s married now, you know. Got a nice husband who owns ten taxis.” There’s triumph in her voice. “If you lost some weight you would find a good husband. Just like Patsy. Of course, she got fat again. But at least she’s married so it’s alright.”

My mother’s answer to all my problems. Eat a worm brain parasite.

I had no words to counter such logic so I agreed to everything. To going home, to hand-carrying the dress, and to being the Maid of Honor.

I had no excuses. That’s the problem when you’re single, childless and don’t own a cat. You have no lives depending on your presence.

So I packed my bag and made a mental note to buy a cat as soon as I got back to Vegas. And at all times, avoid any and all watercress.

What is a Samoan?

A guest post from photographer and aspiring film-maker, Jordan Kwan. He gave us stunning photos of ‘Daniel Tahi and ‘Leila Folger’ back in the beginning, and also produced THIS fabulous TELESA book trailer. And THIS ONE for When Water Burns. He’s working on his first full-length feature film (read about it HERE)  and to raise funds for it, he’s put together another hot Samoan calendar. Called ‘Toa Samoa’, it’s already raising temperatures and eyebrows, as well as stirring up controversy as some accuse it of not being “Samoan enough”. What does that mean? Read what Jordan has to say, check out some of the pics, share your views on the topic, and then click on his link to pre-order YOUR copy of Toa Samoa. Support Samoan artists and get a visual feast from Samoa.

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Meet Thierry and Farrell.

They cut exceptionally smooth figures in Hallenstein suits, hair polished to perfection, and their modelling game faces on!  Heck, they both look like they’ve just stepped out of a GQ magazine!

You’d never guess that both these lads are Samoan.  Yes, you heard it here first – these boys are red blooded Samoan men who both grew up in Samoa (because, apparently, a few comments suggest otherwise.  Delete.  Thanks for coming).

I get this a lot from the calendar shoots, where any white skinned guy who models is made to feel less than Samoan because of their skin colour.  And it’s horrible.  I think about my older brother, James, (who may or may not be in the calendar) who is WHITE like a ‘palagi’, yet was born and bred in Samoa, and whose command of the Samoan language and culture is intimidating.  And I’m a brown skinned oreo who can’t say the same (I’ve, like, failed all the Samoan exams I’ve ever sat in my entire academic career).  But, by the virtue of my skin colour alone, people will readily accept that I am Samoan.  James, Thierry and Farrell?  Different story.

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I find it easy to dismiss it as the ignorance of the less educated (BAM!), but I feel sorry for these great guys, and all guys who are not the stereotypical Samoan brown, who are made to feel like they are somehow less than Samoan just because of their skin colour.  It must sting a little to identify as Samoan your entire being, yet having others, especially your own people, make you feel otherwise.

It’s not just that.  I’ve had a stream of comments and messages from people who’ve said, “I thought this was a Samoan Men’s Calendar – why aren’t they in ie lavalava’s and/or alo’as?  Why are the boys white?  Why are they wearing palagi underwear?  Why are they not fully clothed?  Don’t they have any semblance of respect?  Where are the guys in the ma’umaga?” It gets my blood boiling.

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It feeds into the discussion about what really constitutes a Samoan.  There’s this Samoan saying, “E iloa le tama ma le teine Samoa I lana tu ma le savali, fa’apea lana tautala.”  Roughly translated, you know a Samoan by the way they stand, walk and speak.  I don’t know how to situate that into this discussion exactly, but… here’s what I think.

In this day and age, you don’t know WHAT a Samoan looks like, let alone how they walk, talk and speak.  We are, for better or for worse, now part of a global community.  Our culture is evolving.  Our people are evolving.  By virtue of the fact that I have Samoan blood running through my veins, whatever the heck I do MUST be Samoan!  Right?

It’s up to us individually to decide for ourselves what constitutes a Samoan when it comes to our own personal identity.  But, in the process, let’s not make others feel less than Samoan just because we don’t like how they walk, talk or speak.  For example, I’ve lived in Samoa basically my entire life but my Samoan language is absolutely atrocious.  But, I swear, if one of you said I was less than Samoan because of that alone, I will find where you live, break into your house, and eat all your food (like a Samoan).  Then murder you while you sleep on your Samoan fala.

What I DON’T like is being pigeonholed, even WORSE by our own people.  I think about the generalized images of Pacific paradise that is constantly sold to tourists, with swaying palm trees, golden sandy beaches, and lush brown island girls who dance for you in grass skirts and coconut bras.  And I feel like we are doing something similar to ourselves.

What our people believe constitutes ‘being Samoan’ is so narrowly defined, we tend to alienate our own tagata whenua (Kia ora bro!).

NO, not all Samoan men work in ma’umagas.  Welcome to the modern world!  Where our men and women fill all manner of vocations and lifestyles, yet they are NOT – and I repeat – they are NOT any less Samoan than you.  And I’m sorry, is this a competition? Is there a prize for being ‘most Samoan’?  Is this like Harry Potter?  Where purebloods have more value in the wizarding world??  Because, if you think like that, have a sit and reflect on Hermione Granger…

I called this calendar Tama Toa NOT because I wanted to sell this narrow stereotypical image of Samoan men – no, I called it Tama Toa because I want to celebrate the modern Samoan man in all their diversity braving this new big scary world we live in.  There’s a new wave of health conscious Samoan men, who like to keep fit and healthy as evidenced by their magnificent bodies, and I want to celebrate that, showcase that in nothing but briefs (or *cough*, in some cases, nothing at all).  They are inspirational.  Truly.  After shooting all twelve guys, I was so moved with inspiration that I’ve now limited my intake of Big Macs from 3 to 1 per sitting!

On that note, I want to celebrate our diversity.  I want to challenge people to expand their views on identity.  I want people to recognize that what constitutes a particular racial/ethnic group is becoming harder and harder to define, and we do no good when we alienate others from their right to choose how they define and identify themselves.  But, yes – we do happen to have guys in the calendar who fit that narrow definition of what constitutes a Samoan man.  We do.  But not all our men work in plantations.  Far from it.  We are diverse, we are different.  What binds us together is difficult to pin down, but for starters – let us embrace how we, as individuals, each define ourselves as Samoans, and accept the fact that how we define ourselves is never the same as how someone else does.  And that’s fine.  Just don’t turn around and accuse another Samoan for being less Samoan than you.  Sound good?

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Now… look at the photo of Thierry and Farrell once again… nothing in the picture suggests they’re Samoan.  And that’s precisely my point.  In this day and age, we don’t know what a Samoan looks like.

My name is Jordan.  Samoa is my home.  My house is at Motootua.  My Samoan sucks.  Yet I try and read a lot of Samoan books because I want to better my Samoan.  At Samoan funerals I’m absolutely useless.  At Samoan functions I don’t have a clue what’s going on.   I haven’t seen the inside of a church in a while.  I eat off my elder’s plates sometimes (by sometimes, I mean ALL the time).  But I am Samoan – perhaps not in the way you expect, but it’s the only group I’ve ever identified with, and I plan to continue identifying with.

You can order your copy of the calendar on Shop Samoa Online! I’ve included the link below: the calendar is available from the 1st of December, but pre-orders are available now with $5NZD off retail price.

ORDER NOW