on Foreignness and Language

There is a term that applies perfectly fine to Peace Corps volunteers that we never hear, likely because it has gained such divisive and political connotations. But it is a literal term that describes our position here, as Americans in Fiji, in a simple light, and which we can use to take our experience and make it a tool for empathy with the less fortunate.

We are immigrants.

Temporary immigrants, yes. Privileged immigrants, absolutely. But we are Americans living in Fiji, in this country that is foreign to us, and we are foreigners here. We are kaivalagi, we are gringos, we are wazungu.

As immigrants here, building lives here, we follow the balancing beam of survival and assimilation. As in America, possibly the most powerful way we can join in daily life is to understand and ultimately speak the language. Yes, English is spoken by most Fijians, but English is a colonial language, though Fijian English is a real thing. English is a tool for survival and adaptation, adaptation to dependency on tourism, adaptation to the reality of a bicultural or multicultural nation.

But Fijian languages, including Fiji Hindi, Standard Fijian/Bauan and the hundreds of local dialects, are how the majority of Fijians live their lives. Fijians can best explain themselves and their culture in their own language, like anyone. How do you translate a word like loloma? I say it’s community love, but that description misses much of it. Languages can only be understood by listening to them day-in day-out for months, years even, because they explain and describe very specific cultural environments. They explain the environments we seek to call home here.

This language-learning is a difficult task, to be certain. Most of us are raised in monolingual environments, and the Spanish or French classes we take in high school are mostly rote memorization and partner dialogues about donde esta la biblioteca when all you’re trying to do is get your older sibling to buy you liquor and talk to that cutie in your math class. Here, however, everything you learn about the language is reflected in your day to day living.

Growing up in Tanzania, my biggest regret far and away is not learning better Swahili. I could greet and ask prices, but little beyond that. Living here in Fiji has taught me that it would be more accurate to say that I grew up at an international school in Tanzania, because that was my daily life. As a result, I cannot say I really have much of an understanding of Tanzanian culture beyond the surface – though Tanzania is also one of the most ethnically/tribally and linguistically diverse countries on earth (over 130 languages are spoken, with the largest ethnic group making up a mere 17% of the population).

To learn Fijian languages also shows Fijians you consider their language, culture and way of life important, worthy of preserving. As they recently finished the third McDonalds and are building the second Burger King in the West here but have yet to build a Bulaccino in America, this is a significant task.

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