Saturday, 23 June 2012

Is cyber-bullying the new Samoan way?

The recent cacophony of criticism surrounding a young lady who wrote a letter to the editor regarding the article ‘My Culture, My Malu’, titled “Pride and Pain in my malu’, caused me to stop and consider.  Not about how and when the malu should be shown (which is what the debate was supposed to be about), but rather about who we are as a society.

This woman wrote to the paper under a pseudonym, which is not at all unusual for writers to the Samoa Observer.  The vitriolic and vicious comments that ensued were explanation enough for why one may not wish to identify themselves. After all, who wants to engage in “tit-for-tat” slanging matches on the world wide web.

Leading the lynching was Sita Leota’s note “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”.  Rather than discussing the issue at hand, Sita launched into a scathing and personal attack about the writer’s identity and their “Samoan-ness”.  The crowd cheered, and gleefully re-posted. Over half a thousand people pushed the like button to show their support. The comments were all pride and back-patting about how they LOVED how Sita had put that girl in her place.  It reminded me of nothing more than shameful school scenes of a bully beating up on some smaller kid, surrounded by a circle of children baying for blood.  It was all “High-five! Did you see that hit! It was hilaaaaariooous!”

Now when I say “it reminded me of”, I should be clear.  This is not something I ever saw growing up, or going to school in Samoa, where this type of behaviour was not in any way tolerated.  It’s something I’ve only ever seen on television.  So I have always believed that bullying was an anathema to Samoan society, something that was shunned, something that even children knew they should not stoop to. 

Apparently the advent of the internet and social media has changed that.  It’s so easy to rip apart and ridicule others online.  It’s a whole new world where hypocrisy, internal contradictions and lapses in logic are overlooked. Where it’s not about the strength of your argument, but about how scornful and sarcastic you can be when you make it.

Debates and differences of opinion are to be expected and encouraged, they make life interesting. Personally I love them enough to make my living out of them.  What we should not expect, what we should be completely intolerant of, is uncalled for cruelty in that commentary.  Whether or not you agreed with Sita, every single one of the points in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” could have been made without being malicious.  While I do not know who the writer of that letter is, I know that whoever they are, they have feelings, and they have a family.  Ask yourself if this is the way you would like someone you loved to be treated, even if they publicly expressed an opinion that you disagreed with.

I have no doubt that writing this will re-focus ire and indignation on me.  I don’t generally engage in this sort of discussion, preferring to be positive, but I believe in the courage of my convictions, and probably more importantly, I believe that I was raised in a culture where we don’t sit idly by and ignore, or worse applaud, an ignominious attack.  So I am saying something and, since from what I have seen we are acting like we are in our own personal version of the movie ‘Mean Girls’, let me use that type of language, anyone who wants to say anything to me or about me can-“Bring it!” Paradoxically, you will only be proving my point.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

My Culture, My Malu- a reply

I have a malu. An 'au has bitten my skin and indelible black marks remain to tell the tale.  I don't hide this.  In fact, on any given day in Sydney, you can see a Samoan woman heading into work in a conservative grey suit, and you may not look twice or notice the vae'ali , which crawl down below the back of her knees, signifying her service, both past and future, her tautua, and symbolising that it is on this service of the untitled- the aualuma and the aumaga, that the matai rest.

So while I was not in Samoa for the recent 50th Independence celebrations, when I recently read a well written article by Sita Leota, in the Samoa Observer, 17 June 2012, which shared her opinion about when, and how, one should display the malu, I felt compelled to reply.

Albert Wendt writes beautifully and I love his line "There are no 'true interpreters' or 'sacred guardians' of any culture. We are all entitled to our truths, insights, intuitions into and interpretations of our cultures."  I don't deny Sita, nor any of the other Samoans who are/were in furious agreement, the right to interpret our culture.  I do however, take serious issue with the imposition of that interpretation on others.

The article sets out "when you are tattooed as a female, the first rule has always been that you don't display your malu in public unless you are in full traditional Samoan wear about to dance the siva Samoa or in a ta'alolo." Is that really what the first rule has always been?

The truth is that the art of tatau was almost lost to colonisation and to Christianity.  The missionaries were not overly fond of tatau. Whether it was because they literally interpreted Leviticus,  because they saw this cultural practice as possible pagan competition, or simply because they saw it as "the mark of the savage", tattooing was so successfully discouraged throughout the Pacific, that of all our Polynesian brothers and sisters, only Samoa managed to maintain this "mea sina".  Even today there are calls for the churches to be more accepting of tatau.

Not so coincidentally, colonisation and Christianity also had a major impact on our clothing or lack thereof.  Now I like the mu'umu'u as much as the next woman, who has experienced the sauna that Samoa can be, they're lovely and cool, and they cover a multitude of sins and possibility for sinning, which, of course, was the idea. That said, they are a reflection of just how the church viewed women and their bodies (or more accurately, how they didn't want people to view women's bodies).

Sita quotes Albert Wendt when entreating and exhorting those of us who have malu to "protect it, shade it, cover it".  Somewhat ironically, it is the eminent Professor Wendt who sets out in the same article that "Being clothed (lavalava) had little to do with clothes or laei. In pre-Papalagi times, to wear nothing above the navel was not considered 'nakedness.' To 'clothe' one's arse and genitals was enough."

Isn't it likely that the church's traditional position on tattooing, on women, and on covering up, has something to do with the compulsion to (or more accurately in the case of this article), to tell others to cover the malu? It may be that traditionally women covered to below the knee before they went under the 'au, and indeed, many contend that was the reason for the malu - to clothe. The fact that women show malu when they are "in full traditional Samoan wear about to dance the siva Samoa or in a ta'alolo", i.e. in our most traditional of activities, reflects that women traditionally showed their malu, that "the malu for women ...[was]  considered  'clothing,' the most desired and highest-status clothing anyone could wear." (Tatauing the post-colonial body; Albert Wendt)

I'm proud of the fact that our culture is a living, breathing culture. I accept it adapts and adopts. Obviously Christianity is an important part of our culture - Fa'avae i le Atua Samoa. So I can accept an argument that our culture changed with Christianity to incorporate covering the malu. In a living and breathing culture, things change.  But if it did change then, can't it change now? Can't Samoan women display their malu now, as their ancestors did, without being subject to an opinion piece?

Sita takes umbridge with what she considers is using the malu as a "fashion accessory". Again Wendt insightfully says, "much of what has been considered 'decoration' or 'adornment' by outsiders is to do with identity (individual/aiga/group), status, age, religious beliefs, relationships to other art forms and the community, and not to do with prettying yourself." It may be that one does not agree with displaying the malu, it is another thing altogether to say that just because one displays the malu, they don't do it out of "any sense of belonging, of culture, of being Samoan" as Sita asserts.

Sita writes that the definition of malu is ‘to be protected'.  But it can also mean "to protect".  As Zita Sefo-Martel puts it "The woman is therefore seen in Samoan culture as the protector of the children, the family, and the village. She is the giver of bloodlines." I am a strong Samoan woman. I have a malu and I can protect what is mine - my malu, and my culture. I do not need an article in the Samoa Observer to guide me, to tell me when and how, I can display my malu, and I very much doubt, any other Samoan woman does either.

O le malu o le laei o tamaitai Samoa. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Ua leva leva aso

Hello Samoan Sydney siders, fellow faikakalas and fans (one likes to be optimistic about these things)

Ua leva leva aso

It's been a long long long time .... you may or may not recall that the last time that I posted it was all about my New Year's resolution to blog more... and it is now June. This definitively proves the correlation between my New Year's resolution and inaction.  Once I have resolved to do something at New Year, the stars pretty much align to make sure it's never ever ever going to happen.  Which explains why I have never been able to exercise... obviously it's not laziness.... it's a cosmic conspiracy! That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

But what have I been up to, you ask, dear reader.... well now that would be telling... which after all is what a blog is all about so here's the highlights

1) I have been planning parties.  I should leave it there for you all to wonder at my glamour and mystique without confessing that one of those parties was to celebrate my munchkin turning one (with all the glamour, smeared chocolate cake and crazy ball pit action that implies), and it remains the highlight of my social life (though it was 4 months ago)...

2) I have been hard at work, and it is now official, that being official saps away my will to live creativity. Though I make fun of it, tell you all that I console myself with cream dougnuts pep talks about being productive and pay slips the truth is that I am secretly (or not so secretly) one of those geeky people who actually loves their jobs at least this week . Even though it takes me away from my darling bub a bit too often.  Since my last blog from Langkawi, the job has taken me back to Kuala Lumpur, to Jakarta and to Suva.

3) I took a holiday (or as much of a holiday one can have with a very much loved and very used to being the centre of attention 1 year old) and went to New Zealand to reunite and reignite with the love of my life.  I was ready to dance and be romanced. Ae faimai foi si a'u toalua ua uma ga aso..... ummmm helllloooo.... we're not even married yet! Ouuuutttrrraaeegeeeouusss!!!!

4) I celebrated Independence in style, even though I wasn't in Samoa, with  a few drinks with some fellow FOBs.  It was fabulous to meet up with old friends and old school mates.  We braved the cold and crowds at the Opera Bar,  and sipped champagne, and hummed UB40 (or maybe that last part was just me!)

5) I've luxuriated in my own little luxuries... other women might like manicures or own indulgence is books.  Reading remains my refuge- a place I can escape to, and there's nothing I love better than curling up with my darling bub sleeping sweetly next to me and a great book.   Here's some which rate a special mention
The Snow Child by Eowyn  Ivey- a magical story about a couple  homesteading in Alaska in the 1920s
The Light between Oceans by  M.L Stedman- a story about longing and morality based in Perth
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo- a narrative nonfiction that relates the realities of a Mumbai slum

And speaking of books... I was prompted/ inspired to get back on this blog by seeing that the amazing Lani Wendt Young had released her second book.  I don't know how she manages it all, with 5 kids (because I am barely getting by with my one little one), but I am in awe. I have only read tantalising tidbits ... but I can't wait to read the second book in the Telesa series. The print version of  ;"When Water Burns" is now available for worldwide purchase from Amazon.