I come from a place where there’s a strong preference for ‘office jobs’, and where ‘manual jobs’ are looked down on. The former is considered by parents to indicate success in their offspring. There is intense competition for education, but culturally the purpose is for getting these ‘good jobs’ rather than for the education itself.

It’s a hierarchical society as well, with education as one of the hierarchy markers. Especially if it comes with a title you can put in front of your name, even if you don’t contribute professionally any further in your field of study after getting that title. So once you achieve a certain level in the hierarchy, certain things become ‘beneath you’. And God forbid you start from zero in a completely different field of study; becoming a ‘noob’ is also now beneath you.

I open with this context because in the Tuamotus, I glimpsed what it would look like if we weren’t so hung up on hierarchy and ‘saving face’.


A different attitude towards education and livelihood in the Tuamotus

The point is best illustrated through the host who spent the most time with me. Saudari, who was put in charge of looking after me throughout my stay, was a woman of the Tuamotus, but from a different part of the archipelago than Rangiroa. The Tuamotus are a landscape of tiny atolls around coral lagoons. Rangiroa is the biggest one, yet its main village Tiputa only had one primary school and one clinic without a full-time doctor. I’d assume that other villages in the Tuamotus would have less infrastructure.

Despite that, Saudari had gone to university. She had lived in the city (i.e. Pape’ete on Tahiti), and had worked as a secretary there among the European French. But before that, she had also worked in the pearl farms of the Tuamotus before the industry declined. She can fish, but she can also dance and has even taught it. And now she works with the pension, keeping things in order, driving boats, and looking after guests.

She told me these stories without a trace of class consciousness at all. There wasn’t any indication that she saw any of these jobs as better or worse than any other, nor that Pape’ete or Tahiti in general was any better or worse than anywhere else she had lived. (Except when it came to fishing; Tahiti compares unfavourably.)

I was impressed. Schooling here is about learning knowledge and civics, not about getting jobs and rank. With the education you might go back and simply become a more beneficial person to your region, not necessarily compete for jobs. And so the nation gradually becomes populated by the educated, irrespective of what they do for a living. 


Getting education in the Tuamotus is a sacrifice

But it was only when Saudari told me about her son that my concept for what resilience is was really challenged. Her son was not with her, because he was in school far away.

French Polynesia is a modern nation, and that included a standardised education system for everyone. However, the population of French Polynesia is dispersed across numerous islands across numerous archipelagoes. Not every island has a school.

Tiputa, for example, has a primary school but not a secondary school. Children from around Rangiroa would attend school there. But when they turn 11, they are sent away to a secondary school that could be much further away. Typically a boarding school, this means it’s normal for children as young as 11 to know how to fend for themselves for at least 5 months until the school breaks for vacation. And then, if you go to university, you would be away again at 18 in the capital city Pape’ete.

And when she told me about her daughter, my wonder deepened. A bit older than her son, Saudari’s daughter was not with her either. She was with relatives in her home village while she works in Tiputa. She wasn’t just separated from her children. Her children were also separated from each other.

Emotional resilience in the Tuamotus

My wonder was not so much over the reality of life in far-flung island archipelagoes like the Tuamotus. It’s in the fact that Saudari spoke of it easily, like it was nothing to cry over. There was no drama, no discontent, no self-pity, no blaming others, and no incessant need to check up on each other.

Now, it’s not like they don’t want to be together. Later in the week, Saudari told me about news that they’d open a secondary school in Tiputa soon, and her face was bright with pleasure because her son could finally be close to her again.

But until then, it seems people in the Tuamotus don’t torture themselves needlessly about things that must be accepted. Neither do they despair that the winds might change in their favour someday. But in the meantime, they just do other stuff.

And in my mind, a lightbulb switched on. Of course. An exploring, ocean race. You can’t have a clinging mindset to thrive in a world where the fickle sea could suddenly separate you, and you can’t be sure how long it would take you to get back.

So, except for maybe Tahitians who didn’t have to go anywhere else for education, people here are emotionally resilient and can cope with this arrangement. Certainly a lot better than I’m used to, given my Malay background.

Wave pattern on hard reef shoreline

Tolerance for fresh starts

This landscape of uncertainty favoured resilience in their culture in another way. The people in French Polynesia are largely Christians, a great proportion of them Catholic. But they seemed to have retained a pre-Christian lack of uptightness about divorce. And I wondered if this is also a maritime vs agrarian culture difference.

Saudari hosted me together with her husband (for the sake of matching I’ll call him Saudara). But Saudara was not her husband when she had her kids. They met in Tiputa after her divorce and that’s also where they got married. Her first husband is all the way across the Tuamotus, and looks after their daughter.

Their boss, Opah, was also there with her second husband, having re-married in her 30s after her divorce.

As far as I could tell, socially there was no stigma about this whatsoever. It seems common here to have multiple marriages, raising children across them. And again, it’s not the family realities that I marvelled at, but the lack of drama in their attitude about it. I’m sure there would have been normal human emotions over these big disappointments, but they’re just not hung up on them.

And you know what? A thought sneaked up on me. Maybe, just maybe, a lot of the suffering us landlubbers experience over these setbacks in life is self-inflicted, because of our mindset that can’t accept the volatility of life.

Carrying wealth lightly

There was another thing about Opah that made me feel as though I had finally found a culture where my opinions were not weird. From various clues, I gathered that Opah was actually a wealthy woman.

It’s not important what the clues were. The important thing is that you can’t tell when you meet her. And the fact that other people in the village also don’t care, told me about the low power distance in their culture.

You could tell that Opah was different. While others relied on the rain as they traditionally always have, Opah digs for fresh water wherever goes around the atolls. She was the only one who grew vegetables on the atoll. She regularly offers to teach others how to do it.

In other words, she has wealth in both the material sense as well as knowledge. And it seemed to me, in this culture, that doesn’t mean ‘lordship’. It means to be the safety net of those around them who have less.

I suppose on itty bitty islands, there’s so little redundancy that if you don’t make sure everybody makes it, you’re not gonna make it either. So if you have more, it’s in your interest to share. And isn’t that a mindset we can all use to adapt to the reality of our world today? Isn’t our planet Earth basically a resource-scarce island in space?

I think it was that moment that I realised that my brain was adapted to a maritime environment, because I was like, of course. But at home, in a mainland, hierarchical culture, I’ve always felt like the outsider for these very same opinions.


The French arrival to the Tuamotus

But not every story I heard in Rangiroa was positive and affirming.

It was a bright, hot day. Bright enough that the fishing net baffling the sunlight like an island lace curtain was especially welcome. Opah was in a loquacious mood, keen to tell me about her Polynesian heritage. An elderly woman, she had many stories to tell, for she had seen French Polynesia over many decades.

And I remember the moment when the shadow dropped. It was when she talked about the arrival of the French to Polynesia*. It dimmed the spirit of the people, she said. From a happy, always-laughing people, to a covered up and repressed one.

I remembered this because a fellow tourist in the post office had drawn my attention to a photo from a long time ago. The local people of the Tuamotus were dressed from neck to ankle in the then-European style. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that, since dress varies so much across cultures and I personally have few sartorial opinions. People have willingly changed their dress code upon a new cultural influence, after all.

“Look at their eyes,” she said wonderingly, not noticing my inner panic over being unable to read the social context and desired response. “They look deeply unhappy.” Of course! The eyes! And indeed, when I focused on body language, they were far different from the smiling, swaying, freely-moving people in brochures today. In the photo, they weren’t happy.

The nuclear scar of Moruroa

But it was the story that came after Opah’s sombre comment that gave me chills, for it was in living memory. She told me about the French nuclear bomb testing in the Tuamotus. Opah spoke about the time when the then-President of France, Charles de Gaulle, came to press the button that detonated the bombs beneath Moruroa atoll.

They didn’t evacuate the island for the tests, she said. “They only told the Polynesian to stay indoors during the test. Gave them good food and wine, movies for the kids, so that they would.”

My blood ran cold. Was that it? I thought to myself. Geez, it wouldn’t even have cost much at all to simply evacuate the island. As a contaminated land professional, my mind inferred the exposure scenario almost in parallel with the old woman’s words. The nuclear fallout came indoors. Thereafter the people of Moruroa were stricken with cancer and were always sick.

“Even the engineer,” she said, her voice wondering at the disregard for people. She had seen a French documentary. She told me that the engineer was even French, and they didn’t protect him. The President was supposed to witness the testing, but when the time came he flew out right after the opening ceremony.

“The French believe they are superior to the Polynesian. That’s why they didn’t move the people.” Her eyes shone as she whispered the words that she believed.

Through it all, I stayed completely silent. Somehow, I think she knew I understood that pain.


Colonisation and loss of culture

Drawing a breath, she went on. “When I was a girl you could not speak Tahitian in school. If you did, you were punished. You had to write ‘I don’t speak Tahitian. I only speak French’ one hundred times.”

Opah went on to acknowledge that in the present day, this was no longer the case. Polynesian culture is more emphasised. The Tahitian language is official again, and indigenous dance is taught in schools. She didn’t look completely forgiving, and I understood that as well.

And there I saw another aspect of Polynesian resilience. It’s not that they have not suffered negative experiences. It’s more that they don’t dwell on negative feelings for longer than necessary.

Yet, for me, it was odd to hear her speak so completely as a Polynesian with her face bearing Gallic traces – on her nose and eyes and bone structure. Her heart and blood is Polynesian for sure. She stood up passionately for Polynesian culture and way of life. Resentful, of the French coming and bringing their manners.

But I think back to my host in Faa’a, of mixed blood, tall and lanky in his figure yet eats like a Polynesian and housed in a hybrid sort of home. Who went to university in France and whose French wife came to Tahiti with him. And in Tahiti, there were also the Chinese migrants who own businesses and marry into locals, usually French but sometimes Polynesian.

And I couldn’t help but compare it with Malaysia’s own diversity. The ‘Tatler’ elite of mixed race urbanites vs the mainstream heartland majority vs newer migrant minorities. The urban-rural worldview divide. Just like us, there is not one Polynesia.


Ma’ohi Nui and decolonisation

It was only after the trip that I looked up Moruroa. Or tried to, since there’s surprisingly not that much about it on the internet. But it was enough for me to tell that it was true. Nearly 200 nuclear tests took place there, spanning three decades.

Maybe a kind of shadow censorship exists, and was the reason why this website was tampered with when I started writing about French Polynesia, even though at that time I only had 3-4 very innocuous travel articles on Tahiti. For though they were nothing more than standard travel blog posts, I did write it from an Asian perspective. In other words, it was specifically a non-Western perspective.

Ironically, that caused me to look up French Polynesia even more, beyond its paradise vacation image. And that’s when I learned – among other things – that French Polynesia actually has an independence movement, and has had it since the time my own country had it. It’s just that we got ours in the last century, whereas French Polynesia’s case is still with the UN.

Half of this article wouldn’t even be written, had my website not been tampered with. For it never occurred to me that French Polynesia’s colonisation was still a current issue.


Decolonisation in a 21st century world

European colonisation is an experience we share. It’s different from other cultural influence in that the influence was not consensual. It’s the same, in that the contact changes culture and identity.

In the case of European colonisation specifically, it came with cultural gaslighting to instil an inferiority complex in the native. It’s a particularly insidious form of domination, that lodges in your psyche like a splinter even after you successfully got them to leave. Even two or three generations following independence, vestiges of that inferiority complex are still with us. For instance, there are still Malaysians who equate ‘able to speak English’ as ‘intelligent’, while looking down even on trilingual people – if all three languages aren’t Western.

On the other hand, the 21st century world is not the same as the 20th century world. With the Pacific being a diplomatic battleground (and also a hypothetical naval battleground), I wonder if it is wise for French Polynesia to sue for independence today. On top of that, today we face the threats of the climate crisis. Sea level rise would like see the Tuamotus submerged. People connections with a continental state could prove necessary.

I don’t know the answer. But I can empathise with the dilemma. I know now that Malaysia voted to grant French Polynesia’s appeal to be back on the list for decolonisation. We can hardly do otherwise, given our own history. But I also know we are a non-aligned country, and do not seek to tell other countries’ political movements what they should do.

The blond indigenous

There is one final story, and it was from Saudari. One day, she told me about her son, the teenager from her first marriage. He was but 13 yet already very tall. “He is yellow”, she says.

“Er… yellow?” Whatever could that mean?

Yellow hair and yellow skin, Saudari elaborated. “And a French face”, she added, marvelling at her own child. “But it’s my baby!”

“What about his father?” I asked automatically, wondering if Saudari had married a Frenchman who somehow lived in the rural Tuamotus. “Also Polynesian!” she exclaimed. Her village was astounded, she told me. It is very rare. Saudara also had two children from a previous marriage, yet both were Polynesian in looks, she continued, as if to emphasise the miracle.

When they were in Pape’ete, she said, the French people always asked in disbelief, “Yours?” They always assumed she was his governess. That was the one and only time I ever heard Saudari speak with a tint of defensiveness, when she recalled having to assert her motherhood over her blond son. The boy runs to her, calling her mama, she told me with remembered satisfaction.

Huh. Must be recessive genes on both sides, I hypothesised. I was deeply curious, wondering if the boy was albino, or merely had light colouration in an otherwise Polynesian appearance. Or did he really look European? Unfortunately, Saudari didn’t have a photo of him on her phone.


In the Tuamotus, it all comes back to fishing

But rural people anywhere are a practical sort. And in Polynesia everything goes back to fishing. After the initial surprise, the boy’s grandfather quickly found a benefit from having a flaxen-haired grandson. Apparently, pale hair makes a great lure to fish at night.

“Does it work?” I was curious.

“Yes!” exclaimed Saudari. Saudari confided that Barbie dolls’ hair, for example, are used as lures. So the poor boy often had to surrender a lock of his hair for his family’s night fishing. Want to eat fish? Grandpa would say. Then cut some hair! Fortunately, he enjoyed fishing himself! 

And as a post-colonial Malay I thought, what a wonderful world it would be, when blond hair is admired not because you’re told it means a ‘superior race’, but for prosaic reasons like being able to help everyone catch more fish.

Carbon offsetting information to Rangiroa, French Polynesia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Rangiroa via Auckland and Fa’a’a produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,713 lbs CO2e. It costs about $54 to offset this.


* From my observation, indigenous French Polynesians tend to refer to ‘French Polynesia’ as simply ‘Polynesia’. As far as I can tell, they don’t usually mean the entirety of Polynesian territory across the whole Pacific.

2 Responses

  1. I’m thoroughly impressed by the depth of your analysis in this post. Your perspective is both unique and enlightening.

    • Teja says:

      Thanks. This particular trip turned out to be unexpectedly deep – and got unexpectedly even more worldview changing when I began to write about it.

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