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Everywhere is Home: Rhythms of Native Life in Fiji

Customs in Fiji

Thank You for Eating My Food

Enjoying hospitality in foreign countries gives us an insider’s look at an often completely different way of life. But the moment we accept an invitation to a home or village, we are bound by the local culture’s customs and etiquette—it marks the beginning of a complex interaction, a challenge to our own cultural identity as well as an opportunity for friendship.

On an afternoon walk on one of Fiji’s remote outer islands my girlfriend and I saw a group of children and women gathered beneath a tall mango tree. One of the women approached us, and after a short conversation she surprised us with the gift of a basket of ripe mangoes and an invitation to dinner at her home the next day.

At the end of a delicious meal of baked fish and cassava with taro leaves cooked in coconut milk, we had our first lesson in Fijian etiquette: “After dinner, when you thank me for the meal,” our host Mrs. Visai explained, “I answer you back by saying vinaka na vaka yanga taka, which means ”thank you for eating my food."

That same night the Visai family’s neighbor Seru invited us to stay in his house for a few days. We gladly accepted. He became our mentor and guide, leading us through the labyrinth of dos and don’ts of Fijian culture. Seru’s nonchalance about our obvious cultural ignorance made us feel at ease. He showed us what kind of kava roots to present to the village chief to ask permission to stay in the village. He also told us what he thought was fair as a gift to him and his family, since Fijians’ hospitality is based on reciprocity.

Once accepted into the village, we were expected to participate in night-long ceremonies of consuming the slightly intoxicating kava, or yangona, a drink made from water and the pounded roots of a pepper plant. From that time on we accompanied our hosts in daily activities such as swimming, fishing, and working in the fields.

After several days, we began to feel exhausted from being the main attraction in the village and from the complete lack of privacy. Either our host family or the village children surrounded us at all times. Accommodations also turned out to be somewhat problematic. The thatched-roof hut or mbure we were staying in housed a family of eight, and we were generously awarded the only bed. But how could I tell Seru that sleeping in the bed of honor gave me a backache and that I couldn’t stand the acrid smell of mold that pervaded the sheets and pillows? Even the food, which we had loved at first for its exotic flavors, began to taste rather dull. It mainly consisted of the same staples of taro, cassava, and breadfruit.

Despite the minor discomforts, our stay with Seru was casual and relaxed. A stay at another village on Fiji’s main island turned out to be quite different. Thanks to the presence of the region’s high chief, the Christmas and New Year’s celebration assumed a formal quality that the previous experience had not. My new host Waisiki asked me to dress formally during the entire week of holidays and gave me a dress shirt and a dark sarong of suit material, which all men in the village wore for the occasion.

For the entire day the male members of the tribe sat cross-legged in the large festival hall, listening to official speeches, drinking kava, and engaging in occasional dances to slow and melancholy music. Sevusevu, the welcome gifts of visitors from other tribes, were accepted in lengthy ceremonies; and the presentation of a whale’s tooth, called tambua, an important ceremonial object, took the better part of an evening in an endless exchange of courtesies. Everyone around me seemed to have a great time. But even though I knew enough of the language to have simple conversations, I felt increasingly isolated and tense.

I now realized that accepting such an invitation was a serious cultural responsibility. While I accepted food and lodging, I was not only expected to present a welcome gift but to participate in ceremonies and share traditional ways of life that completely overwhelmed me with their unfamiliarity and unexpected formality. It also became clear to me that we foreigners are always seen as representative of our own country and culture. The impression the locals get of us not only influences how they think of the U.S., but also how they will treat Americans and other foreigners they meet after us.

My concerns were relieved on the day of my departure, when everyone in my host family was sad to see me go. And I felt sad, too, as if I were saying good-bye to my family. What I had not realized, until then, was that my participation in this week-long celebration, despite its difficult moments, had forged a bond between me, Waisiki, and his family, a friendship that still prevails.

Volker Poelzl is an Austrian-born freelance writer who has lived in 35 different countries. He is author of Culture Shock! Brazil, and Cultural Shock! Portugal.