Unexpected Insights from Life Stories in the Tuamotus
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 seen to be for getting these ‘good jobs’ rather than for the education itself.
It’s a hierarchical society as well, and one of the hierarchy markers is education. Especially if it comes with a title you can put in front of your name, even if you don’t contribute 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 the notion of starting from zero in a completely different field of study. (Becoming a noob is also beneath you.)
I open with this context because when I was in Tiputa, I glimpsed what it would look like if we weren’t so hung up on hierarchy and ‘saving face’.
- Discovering a different attitude towards education and work in the Tuamotus
- Getting education in the Tuamotus
- The arrival of the French
- The blond indigenous
- Carbon offsetting information to Rangiroa, French Polynesia
Discovering a different attitude towards education and work in the Tuamotus
The point is best illustrated through the host who spent the most time with me. Saudari, who was charged to look 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), worked as a secretary there among 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 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 knowledge and civics, not 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, whatever they do for a living.
Getting education in the Tuamotus
But it was only when Saudari told me about her son that my concept for what resilience is was really challenged. French Polynesia is a modern nation, and that included a standardised education system for everyone. But 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. If you go to university, you would be away again at 18 in the capital city Pape’ete.
And then when she told me about her daughter, my wonder deepened. A bit older than her son, Saudari’s daughter is 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 islands 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 incessant need to check up on each other. Now, it’s not like they don’t want to be together. Later in the week, when Saudari told me about news that they’d open a secondary school in Tiputa soon, her face was bright with pleasure because her son could be close to her.
But until then, they don’t torture themselves needlessly about things that must be accepted. Nor do they despair that the winds might change in their favour. They just do other stuff in the meantime.
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.
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 Catholic. But they seemed to have retained a pre-Christian lack of uptightness about divorce. And I wonder if this is more of a maritime vs agrarian culture difference.
For 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 they got married there. 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 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 at these big disappointments, but they’re just not that hung up on them.
And you know what? 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 always have, wherever she goes around the atolls she digs for fresh water. 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 an obligation for the welfare of those around them who have less.
A voyaging mindset
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. 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 now 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 opinions.
The arrival of the French
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 scar of Moruroa
But it was the story that came after Opah’s comment that gave me chills, for it was in living memory. It was the nuclear 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 nuclear bombs beneath Moruroa.
But they didn’t evacuate the island. 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 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, and told me the engineer was even French, and they didn’t protect him. She said 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. Through it all, I stayed completely silent. Somehow, I think she knew I understood that pain.
Thoughts on identity & belonging in the Tuamotus
Drawing a breath, she went on. “When I was a girl you could not speak Tahitian in school. If you did, you were punished to write ‘I don’t speak Tahitian. I only speak French’ one hundred times.” And there I saw another aspect of Polynesian resilience. It’s not that they don’t have negative experiences. They just don’t dwell on negative feelings for longer than necessary.
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.
The line between colonisation and immigration is blurry.
Yet, for me, how odd to hear her speak so completely as a Polynesian with her face bearing European 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 uni in France and whose French wife came to Tahiti with him. 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 majority vs newer migrant minorities, and then the urban-rural worldview divide. Just like us, there is not ‘one’ Polynesia.
Identity & independence
It was after this trip that I looked up Moruroa. Or tried to, since there’s surprisingly not that much on 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.
And maybe this 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 articles on Tahiti. For though they were nothing more than standard travel blog articles, I did include Asian perspectives. In other words, not a Western perspective.
Ironically, that caused me to look up French Polynesia even more. And that’s when I learned that French Polynesia actually has an independence movement, and has had it since the time my country had it. It’s just that we got ours in the last century. Whereas French Polynesia’s case is still in 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.
Why nationalism exists.
I understood Opah’s story because for a long time, the Malays were likewise not too fussy about British colonisation. The harsh truth was only exposed in World War II, when the British didn’t even bother to defend the peninsula against Japanese invasion. And when they abandoned Penang, a territory directly part of the British empire, they only evacuated white British women and children.
At the end of the day, if it turned out we had to defend ourselves, and if it turned out the governing culture thought our culture were not equal to theirs, the Malay did rouse ourselves sufficiently to negotiate independence.
Independence in a 21st century world
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 half about a hypothetical naval battleground), I wonder if it is wise for French Polynesia to sue for independence today. Besides, today we face sea level rise and climate change. The Tuamotus would likely be submerged. I can imagine that these are things that need to be considered.
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 de-colonisation. We can hardly do otherwise, given our own history. But I also know we are non-aligned and don’t interfere in other countries’ movements.
Colonial imperialism vs federation
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 it changes culture and identity. In the case of European colonisation, it came with cultural gaslighting to instil an inferiority complex. 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’.
But it need not always be so. The conquering power can choose to genuinely consider the conquered people as their real and equal citizens. The cultural influence need not be one-way. Ordinary people generally didn’t care who the boss was, so long as they weren’t oppressed, told they were wrong and how to be ‘the right way’.
There’s no need for independence, when you really are free to be yourself, equal in the brotherhood. It’s when these promises aren’t true, that make people seek a divorce. And maybe by the end of the 21st century, the very idea of political separateness itself might be obsolete. Because humanity simply wouldn’t need it anymore.
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.
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 somehow married a Frenchman who lived in rural Tuamotus. Also Polynesian! she exclaimed. Her village was astounded. It is very rare. Saudara also had two children from a previous marriage, yet both were Polynesian in looks.
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 were albino, or merely had light coloration in an otherwise Polynesian appearance. Or did he really look European? But unfortunately, Saudari didn’t have a photo of him on her phone.
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 grandfather quickly found a benefit from having a flaxen-haired grandson. Apparently, pale hair is great as a lure to fish at night.
Does it work?
“Yes!” exclaimed Saudari. Saudari confided that Barbie dolls’ hair is often 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.
* Indigenous French Polynesians tend to refer to ‘French Polynesia’ as simply ‘Polynesia’ from my observation. As far as I can tell, they don’t usually mean the entirety of Polynesian territory across the whole Pacific.