Picture your world, the one where you live out each day, where you go to work or school or coffee, where you interact with family and friends—and those people who, unfortunately, fall into an often unpleasant third category—and where, at the end of the day, you return home to peace and quiet. Now, eliminate every wall from this world. Start by taking down the physical walls, then go to the interpersonal ones, and demolish those, too.
If you do this right, you have a pretty good image of what a Samoan village homestay is like. While many people have switched to palagi (foreigner) homes, the fale (open house) mentality has stuck, and everyone’s life is out in the open to the rest of the village. We have lived in this wall-less world for ten days, and it is a definite cultural adjustment. We visitors have had to get used to a new style of living, in which the hardest part has definitely been derived from the lack of walls. And what are the implications?
Physically, no privacy. And I mean None. Windows are open, doors are few, and getting dressed in the morning is an adventure that often results in accidental flashing. Showers have no curtains, and are done in lavalavas (sarongs usually worn as skirts, but converted to tube dresses for the purpose). A shower is the biggest adventure in this wall-less world, and, as I found, a number of obstacles ensue once one is showering. What would you do if your host father decided to strike up conversation? Or if your shower happened to be next to a popular pig hangout? Or if your six siblings decided it would be good fun to turn on music and watch you?
My universal solution has been to dance. I am not an adept dancer by any means, but anyone who decides to be a part of the audience when this palagi showers is in for a good show…
With no privacy comes no alone time. You can approach this however you like: many students chose to be frustrated by it. “Why does my homestay family want to spend time with me?” they would mope. We discovered as we progressed that when we found times of alone-ness, “alone time” took on a new image. Instead of soaking in the peace, you sit puzzled, wondering where everyone is. And, in contrast to the US, this place with no alone time also has no room for loneliness.
A lack of being alone manifests itself in a variety of ways. Socially, everyone is always watching, gossiping, and peeping in on neighbors. If voices are raised in a house, everyone on the street will crowd the windows to see what is going on. If a group of palagi girls goes to the beach, at least ten village boys will be there within the hour.
This isn’t as oppressive as it seems, since the flipside of communal life offers benefits for all members. The most surprising example I found was when I was playing with my siblings. In the US, I rarely have found children who, come snack time, don’t snatch and devour their food. Here, however, a few children got snacks, and within seconds I and the others had piles of food in our hands. Three- and five-year-olds had evenly divided up their food for the rest of us, with no qualms whatsoever.
There are no walls around personal property, nor are there walls around individuals as they age or weaken. Samoa does not have Social Security, and care is taken on by the family and the village. Money is pooled for weddings, funerals, and hospital visits, so that everyone is taken care of by those around them.
Most uniquely, perhaps, is that there is also no wall around death. Those who die are buried next to their front door, so that they can continue to take part in the goings on. Unlike in the US, where elders are shooed away to nursing homes and those who die are compartmentalized in far-away cemeteries, Samoans keep their family close by long after they die. Brightly-painted graves often match the houses they guard, and memories stay alive as children play on the stones and families have sunset conversations while sitting among deceased relatives. Maybe it sounds bizarre, but I think this is a good deal for the dead—why go to a cemetery when you can continue to be part of the family?
Taking down walls has made me more open, and enabled me to grow closer with those around me. It is certainly exhausting at times, but it has made me wonder about why we build all of these walls in the first place, and why we feel the need to keep building more.