“Wait… what?”

Christine San Antonio’15

One of the greatest draws to becoming an IGERT fellow is the emphasis the program places on learning to communicate with people outside of your own discipline and especially outside of your own culture. An integral part of our development as transdisciplinary scientists is developing the skills necessary to tackle environmental issues in different geographic regions around the world. This is the basis for our expedition/s to the Horn of Africa – learning as a means to effectively communicate and, in turn, understand technical concepts and complex ideas within another culture. As a scientist, it is a vital skill that allows me to adequately convey the essence of my research, its importance, and especially its significance to my audience.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done. So, I wanted to share a personal experience I had while serving in Fiji as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer that emphasizes this point. I call it a “wait… what??” moment. If you have ever spent a significant amount of time living, working, or volunteering completely immersed in another culture, then you’ve undoubtedly had a similar experience. No matter how open-minded, adaptable, and engaged you might be with your community, miscommunication is unavoidable. What truly matters most in such cases is the approach you take in dealing with such situations and whether you are able to use them as opportunities to learn.

One fine Sunday, I was peacefully zoning out in the back section of our village church during the morning service. It was Youth Day apparently, which induced more people than I even knew we had living in the village, to appear in their Sunday best. Because it was a slightly more special event, service extended on for a good two hours but I was able to follow along enough to know when the preacher had finally reached the last stage and fresh air was just another minute or two away.

Out of nowhere, the young woman sitting next to me leaned in and began to urgently whisper to me in rapid fire Fijian. Snapping out of my reverie, I stared blankly at her, not having taken in a word she said, arched an eyebrow and replied, “a cava??” (“What?”) All the while wondering what the hell could have happened during the two hours we had sat next to each other in silence to make her absolutely need to speak to me two minutes before we would be outside and free to speak anyway.

She began whispering at me again with such vehemence that it sounded like there was a small tank of helium being slowly reprieved of its gas nearby. Meanwhile, everyone in the three rows in front of us and the three rows behind had stopped what they were doing to listen in and to nod their heads in agreement (we were sitting in more or less an all-women’s section). This time I picked up what she was saying:

“Tina, as soon as he finishes speaking you have to get up and run outside to Mita!”

“Wait…what? Why? Where’s Mita?”

“She’s standing outside waiting for you!”

“Why do I have to run to her?”

“Because they’re going to be running after you.”

She said this and gestured toward the section on the other side of the aisle where all the men were sitting. When I looked over I noticed with some concern that they were all shuffling and twisting around and looking antsy. I could tell that some of them were overhearing our conversation and didn’t look happy about it. What the heck??

I tried once more to say “Wait…what??” but just as I got the words out the preacher finished speaking.

“Go Tina! Quick! Quick!” They all started yelling, no longer trying to be discreet. They shoved me into the aisle and as I started to speed walk along, I turned around looking at them for confirmation that I was doing what they wanted and caught a glimpse of the group of men charging at my heels. Whoa! What is going on?!

I got out the door and picked up my pace when I saw Mita standing some twenty feet away with a dish in her hand, perched on a hill like Vana White. I made a beeline towards her and managed to reach her first. She then handed me the dish, which was mounded up with all sorts of holiday type food. As she did so, I noticed all the men that were seemingly seconds away from a tackle, cut their momentum and slinked away looking dejected. The women, who had only just made it out the door, all cheered. Then everyone went back to being normal and I was left standing there with a mountain of food completely lost and on the verge of having a heart attack.

I was called over to my friend’s house for lunch, so I brought the giant dish of food to share hoping to ask her about it. When I broached the topic trying to convey my confusion, she explained it to me in a ‘duh why don’t you know this’ sort of manner:

“Tina, don’t you know Merelita?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“It’s her newborn’s first church service.”

“Ok…”

“Us Fijians are like that, Tina.”

She was done talking, having explained it fully.

“Wait… what?”

But I didn’t get anything more coherent than that out of her. It took me a while to figure it out on my own but I think I got it. My assumption is that in Fiji, there’s a tradition that if it is your newborn’s first mass, then you have to prepare a dish of nice food and give it to the first person to exit the church, probably for good luck. I’m also assuming that the women just wanted me to get out of the door and over to Mita first so that I would get the food even though everyone else was eligible had they arrived first. That’s my best guess anyway. I was probably the most baffled I had ever been in Fiji, though it wasn’t the first time, nor was it the last.

Moments like this one are common when working across language and cultural barriers. As IGERT fellows, we will travel to the Horn of Africa where these kinds of situations will undoubtedly occur, but by using tools learned in the program, we will be well suited to turn a confusing “wait, what?” moment into an opportunity for cultural exchange and a chance to innovate some more effective means of communication. And just maybe, the process will add a layer of depth to our never-ending quest of becoming transdisciplinary researchers.

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