By WorldTeach American Samoa volunteer Anna Bauder, 2016-2017
I am not a tourist.
Such a simple truth, but until recently, I found it hard to believe.
In full disclosure, I can be quick to judge, and this was manifested when I would look at several of the previous volunteers’ pictures and statements. You see a smiling face, holding a coconut, wearing traditional garb, and some cute caption with intermittent Samoan words – seemed pretty touristy to me. I knew they were teaching. I knew they had struggles, but it had the Instagram effect of being perfectly chosen snapshots.
When I applied, I didn’t think I was going to be a tourist. When I accepted I knew there were going to be struggles. Still, somewhere in my little brain, it wasn’t quite real yet.
My own judgement of being a tourist carried onto Tutuila, the main island. I stepped out of the airport building and was greeted by strong humidity, a smiling face looking for me, and a ride waiting for me. Seemed pretty touristy. Then we went to orientation. Due to extenuating circumstances, three weeks’ worth of information was crammed into two weeks which resulted in spending our time learning about very important things, but in a very structured, and limited moments of free excursion type of schedule. We spent 2 weeks building very important relationships with very important people, but not experiencing too much of the island. Kind of like a tourist.
Fast-forward to my arrival on Ta’u. We live in a beautiful place. We live right on the beach. I literally sat in my house at one point figuring out how much I could make if I put the place on Airbnb. It helped that due to limited transportation our school week was delayed, so we were able to spend the first few days exploring the island, and lesson planning only on our own volition. Everyone smiles and waves, and you meet people, and spend time with people, and everything is new. And the pictures. I took a TON of pictures, of EVERYTHING! Just like a tourist.
But recently, within the past few days, I realized that I was shortchanging myself. I thought that teaching internationally should be this wild safari of sacrifice and danger. I was looking at my own Instagram snapshots and for whatever reason forgetting to give myself credit for all of my own wild safari of sacrifice. So let’s start from the beginning again.
First: Experiencing a new place at leisure, or a little at a time is completely normal and healthy. Last year I taught and lived in Memphis for the first time. I slowly acclimated, just like here. I sought out the real experience, but in limited windows, just like during orientation. I drove around Memphis trying to get my bearings, just like how I explored Ta’u. When you move somewhere, being a tourist in the first few weeks is totally okay!
Second: My stay has been comfortable, but not 5 stars. During orientation I slept on a high school classroom floor. I’m not complaining! I’m just saying…please note that earlier I said “not experiencing too much of the island.” Too much of anything is bad! It would’ve been foolish to leap in headfirst; that’s how you get a concussion! Also, I have become super comfortable around cockroaches, ants, and crabs. Which leads me to my next point.
Third: I’ve done stuff! In the tropics, in American Samoa – no shade – bugs are a part of life. You can’t get rid of them. I had a cockroach scurry out of my luggage, and I just laughed. One night my housemate rushed out of her room and loudly proclaimed, “There is a HUGE spider in my room…or a crab!” (she does NOT do spiders). Sure enough there was a large crab chilling in her room. We have no idea how it got there, and when we told the story to someone else their response was, “Oh yeah, that happens.” I’ve ridden to work huddled under a tarp in the back of a pick-up truck, with at least five other people, while squatting on my ankles so my butt wouldn’t get wet, with my belongings crammed into my lap, and my hands gripping the sides of the truck and tarp because it was POURING rain. And when we got to school, we walked away to our classrooms and taught like nothing happened because #AmSamlife.
Fourth: This is my life. I’m here. I want to be here. I will be here. I am a teacher. The school year has just started, but I love these kids. This is my job. I might be technically working for WorldTeach, but I work for Manu’a High School, and I work to serve my kids. I think this is just now setting in because I’m not constantly meeting new people, nor am I constantly doing new things. I’m becoming not new, and that’s okay, because being new is exhausting.
Once upon a time I judged people, because they took pictures while smiling, holding coconuts, wearing traditional garb, and wrote cute subtitles by throwing in Samoan words. They did this because that’s life. If I live in Boston, I’m going to wear my Red Sox hoodie; if I live in American Samoa, I’m going to wear a i’e lavalava because it’s comfortable and normal. If I live in the south, I might say “y’all;” if I live in American Samoa, I’m going to say “yes” by raising my eyebrows because that’s how people communicate, and it’s easier. If I live in Memphis, I’m going to eat BBQ; if I live in American Samoa I’m going to eat coconut and LOTS of taro, because that’s what there is.
I’m not a tourist. I’m teacher in an incredible location, and I’m going to stop making excuses for how awesome my life is.