Last summer I sailed to the South Pacific and island-hopped throughout French Polynesia. Since I had taken French throughout high school and my freshman year of college, I was actually able to talk to the locals whereas the rest of my crew was relegated to finding English speakers and just converse with them. This attempt of mine to meet locals and experience the culture actually led me into several different adventures with a newly acquired friend, Heimanu. While I am not going to share all of those adventures for brevity’s sake, as well as class appropriateness- there are a few encounters that stand out in my mind, especially while I read Patricia Grace’s novel, Potiki.
Potiki, as we all know, is a story about Pacific Islander culture. More specifically it is a story about the Tamihana family lands, and that family’s attempts to stick to their traditions and stories in the midst of development, foreign investment, tourism, and modern business. To the outsider their customs and traditions appear antiquated and quaint, but to the Tamihanas, nothing could be further from the truth. They are not worried about quickly evolving to keep pace with the outside world. Their culture is a conservative one, in which the stories of the ancestors and tradition have acted as an anchor to help them weather the roughest of storms. They approach each new problem with the same stoic, immovable mindset that allows them to survive. Their culture is set apart from Western culture in that they see a more cyclical pattern to history. The current adversity has a new face and may seem like it is far and away the largest problem yet to face the Tamihanas, but each epoch has its own struggles and they each seem to be insurmountable. However, if one approaches the problem in this cyclical manner, then each problem is just that- an additional problem that needs to be sorted out and then life will go on- just stay anchored to the traditions and everything will eventually work itself out.
It is hard for a modern reader, or a reader that has not been steeped in that culture, to understand. Westerners have such a linear view to history and life, that it is hard for us to even empathize with others like the Tamihanas. A quote that sprung out to me that really encapsulates this idea can be found on page 108. “Poverty is destructive too. But we did not have real poverty. We had homes and enough good food, or nearly always enough. We had people and land and a good spirit, and work that was important to us.” This quote brings me back to the sailing trip that I took to the French Polynesias and my experience with their culture.
Because I managed to speak some French and find a few local friends, I got to see a completely different side to their culture. I got a glimpse of the non-Western side. For four days I was the guest of my friend Heimanu and a family that had adopted him in his teens. In looking at their house, many would instantly think of slums and poverty. They lacked air-conditioning or heating, they lacked glass windows, tiled floors, etc. This family only had one small “icebox” to keep leftovers from the meal the night before. But after living with them for some time, I realized that there could not be a happier family in the world.
This family did not buy into the Western consumer culture. South Pacific island life, from what I saw, could be considered one of subsistence, but not in a derogatory way. Only one person out of the entire extended family (roughly 25 people) had a “job” in the Western sense. The others helped out around the house and the family lands, went fishing in the lagoon or just beyond the reef, trained fighting cocks or pit bulls for local amusement, or helped out with the crops that were being grown- not for sale but for the family to eat. The quote from Potiki really sums up the experience that I had while staying with the family. The people are not constantly worried about trivial things. Instead they have put things in perspective, seen what the world has to offer, and decided to live a simpler life. This simple life, from everything I could tell, has made these people some of the happiest and nicest I have ever met. They did not hesitate to give anything that they had to offer, provide lodgings for sleeping, and even incorporated me into the family life for the few days that I was there. Basically every trait that is brought up in Potiki to describe the Tamihana family was echoed in the family that I stayed with. And upon returning to the United States, I was in a bit of culture shock. Our fast-paced way of life is so much different from island-culture, that it is no wonder there are vast misunderstandings and even an inability connect the two sides.
A final quote from Potiki illustrates this point well. “I saw what he saw. What he saw was brokenness, a broken race. He saw in my Granny, my Mary and me, a whole people, decrepit, deranged, deformed. That was what I knew. That was when I understood, not only the thoughts of the man, but also I understood the years of hurt, sorrow, and enslavement that fisted within my Granny Tamihana’s heart. I understood, all at once, all the pain that she held inside her small and gentle self.” (p. 102)