Recently I’ve slowly but surely been getting more proficient at joking in Fijian. How this differs from joking in America is two-fold;
- Most of my joking is with middle-aged women here, compared to same-age mixed gender in America.
- Most, if not all of the joking here is quite simple and implicitly sexual, as compared to whatever cleverer-than-thou satire and witticisms that liberal arts colleges are full of.
So yeah, basically it’s a lot of implicitly sexual joking with middle-aged women, which when you put it that way sounds kind of weird, but it’s actually totally normal here. Also it would probably sound weirder in English, which is exactly why I don’t joke in English. Mostly I’ve gotten better at joking in order to reply to the women, who say things like “I’m coming over later” or “have you tried the breadfruit?” or “where’s your horse?” when I pass by. Horses are the yacavuti, totem, of Nadroga region, meaning she was asking where my girlfriend from Nadroga is (hint: nonexistent). Breadfruit, kulu, are of course yacavuti for Sabeto, and will get you one big bowl of grog if you joke about it in the wrong place.
Two examples from today;
I was biking back from upper Sabeto when I passed Ima, one of the women who consistently jokes with me. She tells me to come back, so I do, and she asks if we can ride together, if she can ride on my handlebars. The other lady with her was laughing, so I took a second to formulate my response then told her “vagonocia e lia leqwa na tawane me lem baisakeli” – find another boy to be your bicycle. They both laughed, success.
Walking back, one of the women sitting around chatting calls out at me that she will be coming over later, so I responded “kau me na lem tutuvi, e rui driwadriwa” – bring your own blanket, it’s too cold. Laughs.
My main man Don is from Nawake, so their yacavuti is the moli – citrus fruit, which can more explicitly imply (???) testicles. And when I am around in the village with him, people will always rib him about moli, and they’ll ask me how the moli is doing, so I’ve come up with a related set of jokes about lime/lemons relative bitterness and sweetness.
This being said, I’ve thought about whether any of this is sexist, but I think it largely avoids that trap, especially considering it is the women who initiate the joking. Sometimes others make jokes about qauris – gay men – at which point I tend to disengage, or make a point of not laughing. Sometimes someone will notice and try explaining it to me, at which point I just ask them why it’s funny, and they give up quickly and probably chalk it up to a cultural difference.
Generally speaking, I find it to be pretty hard to go from jokes to serious discussions on gay rights, especially in group situations and when qauris themselves are seemingly in on the joke. Sometimes groups of older men will be talking about something and maybe calling someone girly. Then the whole age-veneration thing makes it difficult to talk about it, not to mention my own still-quite-limited vocabulary. I do engage in actual discussions on sexism and homophobia though, so ethically speaking my avoidance of these situations is a toss-up.
Mostly, though, people clearly like hearing me joke in TatavaSabeto, because they tell me so. They give me breathing space when I am trying to put together a cohesive joke, and laugh heartily when I pull off something that makes sense. And my day is improved.