Four Months Abroad

In ContactZone

By Liz Stanis


Four months. It is a chance to have a change of scenery, to experience a new place and culture, to do almost anything—from living with a nomadic family in Mongolia to attending a prestigious university in London. Four months. It is enough time to get to know your new temporary home, not enough time to keep you from getting lost. Just enough time to move beyond standard tourist activities, not enough to pack in all the experiences you learn about from your local hosts and friends. Studying abroad puts students in a unique position. Are you temporary residents or long-term visitors? Are your experiences authentic and local, or prepackaged and touristy? That depends on you as a student and on the study abroad program you choose.  

The fall of my Junior year of college, I studied abroad in Polynesia, in Sāmoa. I picked Sāmoa on a whim. All I knew is that I wanted to do something incredibly unique. During this time, I lived at local universities, host families, and intermittently on my own at local beach fales and cabins in Sāmoa. This variety of living experiences and traveling allowed me to explore the local culture and get to know people in a unique way. Now that I’ve returned to the United States, I frequently look back on my time abroad and contemplate these experiences. I try to group my experiences into what seemed “authentic,” or more like everyday events and common things amongst locals, and what was “extraordinary,” something I was privileged to get to do for one reason or another. I found this easiest to do through an analysis of the photos I took over that four-month span. Going through my photos, the images range from the stereotypically tourist to examples of privileged experiences and wonderful everyday events. 

I was a tourist:

I walked along the beautiful shores and tried to climb a coconut tree. This felt like the best way to share on social media that you’ve been on an island is with pictures like this.

I often tell people it is hard to take a bad picture of a beautiful island. This means I came home with my fair share of sunset photos. 

All tourists in Sāmoa have pictures of traditional culture. Many are taken at Fia Fia Nights, where resorts host traditional dances, such as fire dancing. I also visited the cultural center and watched Doris, a woman who had helped me get my phone and some local clothes, get her Malu, a traditional female tattoo. 

I experienced the extraordinary:

I have a picture of myself, my fellow students, and the United States Charge d’Affaires, a diplomat, in the private half of his home as well as pictures from attending a formal event. We met the Charge d’Affaires by chance when a professional event at his home needed more servers and it was easier to get security clearance for Americans so they contacted us about working. We were then invited back to spend time with the Charge d’Affaires and his wife.  

Not every tourist or local gets to spend time on a music video set hanging out with local idol Sam Chookoon, aka Mr.Cowboy. It was by chance that the director for the music video was the brother of my academic director. We were able to bring him to the village we had stayed in to meet our families and he ended up filming a music video on a beach in the village. 

Ending up on stage at the circus was also not a normal event. I wish I had more to say about this but in all honesty,  I was mortified and really do not remember any of it.

I participated in everyday life: 

I had the amazing opportunity to live with a family in the rural village of Amile. Here I am with my host sister, Aplonia,  and sister-in-law, Kusa, and my host mother, Sophia, host father, Tupuola, and Kusa’s children Loretta and Toa. At first, they treated me like a special guest, but eventually they integrated me into their lives. I still keep in contact with them and message them several times a month. I became a family member.  

I became a member of a local outrigger canoe team, Tautai. Several times a week I could head down to the team’s base and meet up with other paddlers. We would train both sprints and long distances, around 15 kilometers. I then had the opportunity to participate in races. I not only learned how to competitively paddle, but more importantly about the power of the ocean and how it connects the countries in the Pacific together. 

The power and importance of the Pacific Ocean was taught to me also by the crew of the Gaualofa, a traditional catamaran. The Gaualofa sails around the Sāmoan islands to teach local youth the importance of traditional knowledge and ocean conservation. I found myself on the Gaualofa one night after my friend and I mentioned to our bartender that we would love to go aboard. He went out to the water’s edge and began whistling loudly and flashing a flashlight. Not long after a crew member paddled to shore and introduced himself. Kalolo took us out to the Gaualofa and showed us around. We were able to go back several times and get to know the local crew and learn about wayfinding.  

I also had the chance to get to know my fellow students, director, assistant director, and language professor. We each reached Sāmoa at this point in time for different reasons. Yet, something about it felt meant to be. We became a family.  

My time in Sāmoa taught me about a culture I knew very little about. Before reaching the Faleolo International Airport all I knew about Sāmoa had come from the Disney movie Moana—and even then, I did not realize how much of “Moana” incorporated true Sāmoan culture. I knew nothing about local people or culture. I left the island enriched. I also left changed personally: I tackled personal fears, performed a traditional dance in front of two hundred church goers, and tried new foods. This included eating local fresh seafood, drinking coconut water and milk, and trying foods Sāmoans assumed were American, like turkey tails. My time in Sāmoa was privileged. I was lucky to be able to travel to a faraway island. I was also fortunate for the experiences I had while I was there. The privileged experiences I had were made possible by countless locals. It is because of their hospitality that I had the chance to be a tourist, a student, and a temporary resident. Fa’afetai le fa’aaloalo.      

We call it study abroad. This implies two things: that we are studying—that this is an academic trip—and that we are going abroad. The word reminds us that we have left somewhere, that we have left behind our true home. But are we long-term tourists or temporary residents? Our experiences are unique. They lie somewhere between the world of a local and that of a tourist. Study abroad students have access to things some locals may not, but students also can work their way into local customs and events. What it comes down to is making the most of four months, because what seems like a long time goes by in an instant. 

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