Bringing the learning home (Australian Learning & Teaching Council)

BULA from Fiji!!!

As I look through this blog I see so much snow, cosy jackets and other signs of freezing weather. While most other exchange students have to deal with acclimatising to the cold of the northern hemisphere, I’m slowly getting accustomed to the sweaty temperature of the tropics. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to actually believe that I’m studying in Fiji.

When boarding the plane to Fiji I was surrounded by honeymoon couples and families already wearing their sarongs and sunglasses, ready for the usual one to two week holiday to this beautiful country. When asked by other passengers how long I was staying, I still remember the shocked looks I got when I said I was staying in Fiji for five months. Before I left people just could not understand that there was more to Fiji than palm trees and cocktails. The most common response I got was “is there really a university in Fiji?” Yes, the University of the South Pacific and what an amazing university it is. Each and every day that I am here I am realising that this is one of the most fascinating places to study.  The University of the South Pacific is extremely unique as it is a regional university. This means that there are not only students here from Fiji but students from the other 12 partner countries. These countries include Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa. It still gets confusing trying to figure out which countries all my friends come from (and I learnt very quickly to make sure not to mix up Samoans and Tongans).

It is so amazing to study development in a country described as ‘developing’, surrounded by students from all over the region. In the very first ‘Geography and Development in the Pacific’ class I had, the lecturer told us that for our research project we had to do our own research. He gave the example that we could go to the squatter settlement just 200 meters from the classroom. Literally I can almost see a squatter settlement (and also the ocean) from my classroom.

One day I was sitting with a close Samoan friend talking about marriage and weddings. She casually stated that she wanted to wait until her father had passed away before she got married. I was shocked at the casual way she said this and asked her why. I ended up finding out that she is the daughter of a head Samoan chief who is also the associate Minister of Health in the national parliament. Because of this her wedding would be like a national event. She explained to me just some of the complex rituals that would have to take place. Sitting on the floor of the dorm at midnight just chatting to these Samoan girls was probably the most interesting anthropology lesson I have ever had.

One of the best things about this university is the field trips. The most memorable one so far has been a three day village trip for my “Agriculture and nutrition in the developing world’ class. The first day of the trip we spent stopping along the way to visit different commercial and subsistence farms. It was so fascinating as I have never learnt much about agriculture and what a better way to learn then standing in a hot (never been so hot in my entire life) cassava field with a farmer, in the interior of Fiji. Arriving at Lutu village and meeting the family I was staying with was so wonderful. The next day I spent the morning with the elderly women of the village as they taught us how they weave mats. It included collecting the pandanus leaves, scrapping of the hard edges, drying, boiling the leaves, drying them again, smoothing them, cutting and then finally beginning to weave. They also explained to us the importance of the mats and how much they mean to women in Fiji. That afternoon one of the men in the village took a friend and I to his dalo (taro) plot, were we helped him dig up some dalo for dinner. Later that night us students held a cultural performance night. It was amazing to see dances from Tonga, Kirribati, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji and French Canada, and they were all people in my class… Amazing! Throughout the time we were there they were always trying to explain to us about their livelihood and culture. They were so proud and content about their lives. I learnt once again that communities like these are the ones with so much wisdom. They live life the way it was meant to be lived. They in many ways are developed, we are the underdeveloped.

I realise that there are three things that are important to Fijians; Kava, Rugby and Church. What surprised me at the beginning was that Islanders can be very shy especially around international students. Many presume (and sometimes they are right) that the international students are more than happy to stay together and they are shocked when you actually show interest that you want to do more than just be acquaintances. Some of the highlights of the exchange experience is the moment were you transfer from being that Australian exchange student to being part of the group. And every time that it has happened, it has been while doing one of the three things mentioned above.  Yesterday I was playing a game of touch rugby with some friends and like usually failing pretty badly. Then it was announced that due to the fact that we had been playing for so long, the sun had almost disappeared and that no one was bothering to score that whatever team scored next would be the winners.  The game went on and I was trying so hard not to completely stuff it up for my team, as the guys especially were getting extremely competitive.  As  I was concentrating on the guy who I was meant to be defending I surprised everyone (including myself) by intercepting the ball and charging towards the try line (or the invisible line between a pair of thongs and a fallen coconut :)). Unfortunately my little legs couldn’t run fast enough and I was touched before I scored. But as I turned around every player was on the ground in hysterical laughter because I took everyone by surprised. As I left to go home every single one of them, including all the guys shook my hand and high fived me saying goodbye Katie. Suddenly I was no longer the white girl, I was Katie.

Kava is also a massive, massive thing in Fiji. Approximately 10 kava ceremonies down and I still cannot understand what is the huge appeal of drinking dirty looking water that taste revolting and makes your mouth go numb. But I’m slowly learning to block out the horrible taste and enjoy the amazing discussions and moments that occur around a Kava bowl.

Sometimes I feel like exchange is a bit like a balancing act. I’m still trying to figure out how to balance study and all the other things an exchange experience has to offer. Some weekends I choose to stay back in Suva to finish an essay and not go travelling with the other international students. I feel sometimes that I will end up regretting studying when I could be snorkelling on an island. But other times I realise how much I am learning and that studying human rights in the common room with a girl from Tonga and another from Vanuatu is experiencing the true life of a university student in Fiji. Other times it also is a balancing act between working hard to build friendships with Fijian and regional students or hanging out with the other international students. Sometimes I feel guilty that I am spending too much time with the other international students and therefore I am missing out on other cultural experiences. Then I realise that spending time with the other international students, who are mostly from the USA can be at times more of a cultural experience than hanging out with friends who live in Suva. I’ve learnt so much about Americans while I am here. Some of them I love and others are so different from me in their attitudes and goals for their time in Fiji.  I’ve actually begun a list of crazy things other international students have said. At the top of my list and my current favourites are “is Wales in New Zealand?” and “Katie, why don’t you have an Australian accent?” (still don’t understanding what accent they think I have).

One of the biggest things I have had to adjust to is what is commonly referred to as “Fiji Time”. As a person who is usually pretty punctual, it has taken a while to actually force myself not to be on time to things. But still I seem to rush to the place I need to be, overtaking about 100 people to get there on time, realise that I’m in Fiji and no other Fijians are yet to arrive. Then I wait around for half an hour or more. But then occasionally something will start on time and all the Fijians are there on time. I still haven’t figured out when a set time is a vague suggestion and when it actually is going to start on time.  Luckily it never really bothers me too much and is really teaching me the true meaning of patience.

Another 3 important things to islanders are family, laughter and generosity. One of my favourite things to do is go to the cinema in Suva to watch a movie. I don’t go just to take advantage of the $3.50 prices but to hear the Fijians hysterically laugh. Even in the most serious movies they still find moments to laugh at. I also have had to stop complementing my friends on their appearances or one of their belongings. I’ve already got a collection of bracelets, necklaces, a fan and even offered a shirt all because the moment you say you like it they take it off and hand it to you and no matter how many times you offer it back they won’t except it.

I like a recent comment made by another exchange student- “Fiji softens the heart and hardens your feet!”. I’m only half way through my exchange but already know that Fiji and the lessons I have learnt here will always be a part of me


6 responses

  1. jangothard

    Katie what an amazing reflection! You are right, you are a long way from Sweden and Finland and snow and ice… but what an environment! I laughed at your stories and was amazed at your insights. Loved the comment ‘They in many ways are developed, we are the underdeveloped’, and loved your comment too on how much you are learning not just about Fijian and Pacific cultures, but about US culture – who is more ‘different’ I wonder? Sonme exchange studetns ( and their universities) worry that students hang out too much with other exchange students and not with locals but I think you have cracked it- exchange is about international engagement all round, which includes the locals but also the other ‘foreigners’

    I was interested in the three elements you picked as fundamental to Fijian culture – kava, rugby and church. Drinking and sport are very much part of Aust (male?) culture too – church not so much. Would love to hear more about that. Are you joining in? how do you feel about this aspect of Fijian culture and how does it manifest itself?

    A balancing act indeed. Congratulations – you have found your feet


    April 19, 2011 at 12:30 pm

  2. Maddi

    Hi katie! I am really glad I found your post because I am considering also a 5 month exchange in Suva. Although whenever I mention it to people their respone is something like “Isnt Suva just dirty and filled with criminals?” or ” why would you want to go to a poor place like that?” So I’ve had my doubts and it left me from being excited to confused. Its sounds like you have had an amazing time though! Do you have any other tips or suggestions? Thanx!

    May 2, 2011 at 1:40 am

    • Thanks Jan. While in Fiji I have attended many different church services. I have absolutely loved learning about their beliefs and the different ways they express it. I recently was invited to a service that my friend was dancing at. It was so amazing to see them all dress up in colourful costumes doing these amazing performances and putting all their heart and soul into it. What has really surprised me is that at my home university in Australia we always talk about the negatives of colonialism. Yet in Fiji, especially the indigenous Fijians do not have a negative view of colonialism at all. I recently visited a village and in the chiefs house is a big picture of the Queen on the wall. In many ways they have embraced colonial influences and this can most clearly be seen in the dominance of Christianity.

      Hey Maddi! I’m so excited that you are thinking of doing your exchange in Fiji. I definitely know what you are going through. Before I left I would tell people I was going to Fiji and the first thing they would say was, “thats great, just make sure you don’t go to Suva”. Suva is definitely not a number one tourist destination, there are no sandy white beaches in sight and I understand why a tourist that pops into the city for a day or two may get that impression. But over the 3 months I have been here I have grown to really love this small city. Most of the city is cleaner than the suburb I live in Sydney. Obviously it can be a little dirty around the market but this is one of my favourite places to go. Also the campus grounds are absolutely beautiful. If you ever want the typical Fiji beach you only need to take a 45 min bus trip and you are at the coral coast for the weekend. As for criminals, I have never felt unsafe all the time I have been here. I wouldn’t walk around by myself late at night and you have to be careful about theft but I have never found any problems. My biggest tip to you would be to start getting excited again because you will love it here. If you have any questions feel free to email me anytime I would love to help you out.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:56 am

  3. Jimmy

    I just found your blog post a few years later so hopefully you’ve grown and learned more. Colonialism is a horrible thing that occurred in Fiji and many other countries around the world. It is not your place to say that ‘Fijians don’t have a negative view of colonialism at all’. If you can’t change things you have to embrace them otherwise there’s no way you can survive. White Europeans colonising Fiji resulted in death and damaging of culture (example is christianity) and also held back the growth of Fiji as a country. Also, calling other people’s cultural practices revolting (kava) is disrespectful. Just because you’ve been there for a few months does not mean you have a right to talk for Fijians.

    June 18, 2014 at 8:59 am

  4. Katie

    Hi Jimmy

    Thanks for you comments. Took me a while to even remember that I wrote this.

    You’re completely right about the sentence on colonialism. That comment is a complete and huge over generalisation and yes it doesn’t take into account that there was and still are negative impacts of colonialism in Fiji. Obviously, without a shadow of a doubt colonialism had horrible impacts throughout the world. That’s why I was so surprised to hear people speak so favourably about that part of their history. But you are right that I should have written it differently to show that I can only speak on behalf of the people I spoke to and not imply that all Fijians share this view.

    Also, I’m sorry that it came across that I was disrespectful of the Fijian tradition of drinking Kava. I did not mean that at all. Some of the most beautiful moments during my whole time in Fiji was while being included in drinking Kava and I see it as being an amazing part of Fijian culture. I was just expressing my own personal opinion regarding its taste.

    June 18, 2014 at 12:47 pm

  5. Anthony Drawaluwalu Simmons

    Hi Katie,

    its close to the end of 2014 and i only stumbled on your page and am delighted and strongly identify with what i have read.

    i hope that you have gained a lot from your experience and i congratulate you for taking this bold step and thinking outside the box.

    i am sure that your experience and education is so much more than the letters that you can put behind your name to identify your educational achievement.

    Your experiences will be life changing and take these valuable lessons away and share it with those who are apart of your life.

    I left Fiji as a very young man and have never returned.

    i have a large Australian family whom i love very much.i now am getting close to my retiring age and have done most things many immigrants hope to achieve in their life.

    I attest this largely to the values that i carried to this country from my old people.

    I hope you may, like myself plan to return some day to share the wealth and knowledge with those less fortunate.

    Merry Xmas.

    Anthony Drawaluwalu.

    December 23, 2014 at 9:56 pm

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