Dismantling the F-Word, but not the one you're thinking of

The following post was written as the first in an ongoing series of reflections through my journey towards the Masters of Creative Technologies (MCT) with the Auckland University of Technology in response to the question, 'Why are you doing it?'. The tone of these articles will be less formal and more conversational since these are often self-constructed catalysts for where I could look next in my research.

If you disagree with something I've said or would like to share resources you think are relevant to this discussion, please do! Although I am the one writing it and these views are my own, the pursuit is knowledge for our whole community. The more who join each conversation, the richer our knowledge will be.

Fia Poko
Fia Poko

Too often, I hear young Samoan people demonstrating curiousity or intelligence and called ‘fia poko’ for their effort: someone who is trying to be smart. Sometimes the remark is an endearment, a mockery, or a blend of both. My observation is that in a culture where pride and shame are powerful forces steering behaviour, language like this has far-reaching effects. You can’t control the way someone will receive your words, but you can certainly choose the words that leave your mouth.

When we accuse someone of trying to be smart, we imply they’ll always be trying and coming up short. We ridicule them for the failure they’ll inevitably become. Our young people become embarrassed; they try to save face – some of them stop trying altogether.

We’re smothering the natural instinct of curiousity among many of our children. We expect them to do well in school and sometimes forget that depositing them on the front step of school isn’t enough. It’s very difficult to rebuild this confidence later in life. It’s difficult for them to speak up and contribute to discussions, to flex their critical thinking and share their analyses if it risks revealing they actually have a brain and know how to use it. There are few things so horrifying as standing out when you're a teenager.

So, why is being smart and enjoying learning so mocked among many in our Samoan culture?

In early conversations, many responses I’ve received have included two common remarks: “it’s just the way we do things” and “fia palagi”. Yes, the art of mocking is now normalised in many Pacific Island cultures and, if Facebook™ testimonies and memes are to be believed, mocking has become an identifying feature of our character. Was it always this way? Is mocking ‘indigenous’ to our culture? There may be research to comment on that, and I firmly believe that every culture around the world has their own version of humour, but as soon as I hear ‘fia palagi’, I know we have a big problem.

Europeans and Caucasians do not have a monopoly on ‘smarts’. From the first moment each culture discovered fire, created tools, built shelters, organised communities and social structures, we were evolving and refining our own ‘smarts’. The indigenous knowledge respective to each culture is a direct reflection of their needs, circumstances, way of being and systems of understanding: not all cultures lived within a belief system compelling them to conquer the known world. We have since grown to acknowledge and incorporate global knowledge with our own.

When the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived in Samoa around 1830, we had no concept of the number ‘zero’, watches (uati) or elephants (elefane). And yet, these last two have persisted in the alphabet we still teach our children in pre-school. Now that we’re a global community, it makes sense to introduce children to creatures beyond their boundaries. But ‘watch’? Kids have no initial concept of time or object permanence; this is why they will applaud you like a magician when you play hide-and-seek with the same shiny toy over and over. But why haven’t we rolled out alphabets that have uniquely Samoan words or concepts in them? How about some 'esi (papaya) or umu (stone oven)?

I hope someone is already working on this and, if so, I would love to see it – because our language and culture existed before the LMS arrived. Our language and culture are not inferior to that of our colonisers. Samoa has since gained independence. Every day, we progress our reconciliation and integration with our former colonisers through the mutual celebration of cultures. It is not so everywhere, and sometimes we stall or even take steps back. But if you mock your friends for being smart about demonstrating their natural-born talent; if you mock them for wanting to grow up and be a doctor, designer or engineer with a Western education, why do we think they’re leaving their culture behind? Why do we suggest that those ambitions are the exclusive territory of others, and not us?

Why do you suggest we aren’t entitled to it?

If you call out someone as ‘fia poko’, you might not realise how much you’re revealing about yourself and your attitude towards your own community.

Mocking may currently be an entrenched part of Pacific Island culture, but I haven’t met a person who didn’t glow under recognition of their accomplishments. For those who espouse humility – of course this can be humbly done. What’s your next argument?