Torn Between Two Worlds
Growing up on a Pacific island paradise could be everyone’s dream of an ideal life with all the luxuries of fresh air, tropical sunshine, breathtaking landscapes, luscious forests, chirping birds and friendly people. Ironically, for my siblings and I, enduring the pains of being torn between two worlds left emotional scars that shaped our destiny.
With only a suitcase of clothes and a few yuan in his pocket, Pa, twenty then, escaped the Japanese invasion of his southern province of Guang Dong, China, in the early 1930’s. A sudden state of panic set in with the enemies approaching as he hurriedly bade his family goodbye, not knowing if they would ever meet again. It was a quick farewell but a heart breaking one for his mum and dad who were deeply grieved for their son’s departure to an unknown land. They knew he had joined up with the rest of the young men in his town to sail the high seas to wherever the cargo ship was destined. The very thought of their son escaping from the enemy was consolation enough for his parents but by the same token - they were anxious for his safety.
The cargo ship berthed at many ports and these young men who had been employed as ship’s crew, laboured hard by offloading and reloading cargo on the way. As it berthed in Sydney, Australia, many of Pa’s friends disembarked. The alluring sight of the magnificent Sydney Harbour proved too tempting for these young men. They had decided to try out a new life in this vast continent. At that time, you did not need a visa to live in Australia.
Pa stayed put on the ship and decided to work his way through to a little known island, Fiji. What stopped him from not getting off in Sydney is still a mystery to us today. Many of his friends became successful businessmen in the ‘land down under’ and contributed significantly to the country’s economy.
A few months on and finally the ship arrived in Suva. The town was very small with just a few people milling around the few shops. A Chinese businessman who had established himself well in Suva met up with Pa. He told him about his many grocery stores around Fiji, and coaxed him into working for him by managing one of his shops in the north eastern portion of Vanua Levu, in a village called Visoqo. The idea of managing a shop seemed exciting for him and so he agreed.
After a few weeks in Suva, a small inter-island boat set sail for Vanua Levu. With his suitcase, a few pounds and no words of English or Fijian, he headed for Labasa, the northern town. It took some weeks for the boat to reach its destination, and a further two weeks to wait for a boat that would transport him to Visoqo. This was a seaside village blessed with abundant seafood. It was often said that the women of the village would put a pot of yam on the fire, and go down to the sea shore to catch crabs in time to return when the yams were done, and the crabs cooked in coconut milk for a mouth watering lunch. Such was the abundance of seafood that you could plan your exotic menu well before you made your catch, and you could eat sea food whenever you wished.
After a few days in Visoqo, he felt like a prisoner, as homesickness and loneliness got the better of Pa. Perhaps for any young person from a foreign land without the knowledge of the local dialect, and with no one to speak with, life can be trying. So he closed the store and returned to Suva. He had had enough of this remote village.
His employer was not surprised to see him back, because he had felt the same way when he first arrived in Fiji. He missed his family, as well as the hustle and bustle of his home town. But he told Pa that life is not always a bed of roses, and sacrifices need to be made on the journey of life. Pa visualized his father advising him on what to do, and where to go from there. In the meantime, he spent time contemplating his next move. Many thoughts crossed his mind. Should he go back home to China? Should he just work in Suva, or should he give Visoqo another try? A month had now passed and he stayed idle. He felt useless, for he was not used to wasting his time.
The odd newspapers brought in by cargo ships reported of war raging on in China and that many were killed. The only long distance communication at that time was by mail sent on ships. A letter to China would take several months. Pa had not communicated with his people back home, he knew they were anxious to know of his whereabouts. But he often thought that he needed to settle in first, before he could write home. What was there to write about anyway? He had nothing to be proud of at this time.
With no job and no money, he was not making headway. His dreams of sending money back home to his parents seemed far from reality. The thought of living off someone did not make him feel any better. And just like a Chinese junk tossed at sea, steering his boat in the right direction was what he needed to do without delay.
Finally he decided to give Visoqo another try. Off he went with some cargo supplied by the owner of the store. He reminded himself to stay positive and face the challenges on the way. The villagers were glad to see him back, for the shop eased their burden of sailing to Labasa. The shop sold everything they needed; from groceries, clothes, fuel and dress materials for the ‘kala vata’ on Xmas.
The ‘kala vata’ concept in the Fijian context visibly confirms their solidarity or ‘yalo vata’ of sharing the same spirit of community. This is a popular practice during festivals and celebrations. It somehow added magic to the occasion. And the concept is still alive today.
Not very far from this store, was the house of the talatala qase or the reverend in charge of the greater Rauriko area. The talatala and his wife had a daughter, Mereani, who was about to travel to Suva to join the Nursing School. Pa had made friends with the people and was cared for by the talatala and his family. He had begun to learn the local dialect and a few young men would take him out fishing in a little boat. Life became more adventurous for this young foreign man. He had many interesting experiences of fishing, hiking in the mountains, trekking the bushes and watching turtles come ashore to lay eggs. These were magical sights and sounds never experienced in his life before.
A few years passed, and during one of his long boat trips to Labasa town to buy goods for the store, he was shockingly told by a Chinese store keeper that his photograph was in the missing people column of a Chinese newspaper. His parents had put in an advertisement asking for his whereabouts. This prompted him to write back instantly, telling them he was alive and well and that he was sorry for not writing earlier, as his life was now stable and things were working out well for him. It took him a few days to recover from the shock. The thought of how much anxiety he had caused on his parents worried him, and he hoped that they would receive the letter sooner rather than later.
Before young Mereani could go off to the Nursing School, Pa had grown quite close to her. Being far away from his homeland, he had found a faithful friend and a caring family. This relationship was not entertained by her parents, as well as the people of the greater Rauriko area. There were many conflicts that made this relationship complicated. It seemed as if a time bomb was about to explode, and it needed to be diffused urgently for the sake of the church, its culture, traditions and protocol.
Serious questions by many concerned began to be asked. How can a talatala’s daughter marry an atheist who does not even know about God? How is it possible for a daughter of a talatala to defy the laws of the church and continue to meet with this foreigner? And worse still, how can a young Fijian maiden even think about marrying a Chinese man who belongs to a different culture that no one knew about? The hatred in the village intensified. But Mereani’s parents prayed for peace amidst the storm. After all, she was their only daughter.
Mereani’s strong-headedness was something they knew well, and they had to tread wisely with patience and love. And like every caring parent, they wanted the best for their daughter. She on the other hand, would not budge. Come what may, she was ready to face the consequences. Unlike many young Fijian girls at the time, when male dominance prevailed, Mereani stood her ground and spoke out strongly against anyone who opposed her decision. She was one of those that belonged to the category of ‘dau vosa’ or ‘a talker’ - which is a negative connotation given to females in the Fijian context - because women are expected to remain silent at any price. Women’s rights were never heard of then. The women of Sautiki in Naduri are well known in Macuata for speaking their minds, and often dominated their male counterparts. It was obvious that our mother inherited most of their genes.
She highlighted the irony of their belief, hammered out from the pulpit, of loving everyone without condition and yet failing in their actions to really love and accept the differences in people. The situation was tense in the area and the common feeling at the time was likened to Ruth and Boaz’s relationship in the bible with this famous quote: “His ways are not our ways and his God not our God.”
However bad the scenario became, Mereani knew what she wanted and nothing would change that. She put up a sterling fight and decided to marry Pa in the Labasa Registry Office. She informed her parents of her decision and although they disagreed strongly, nothing or nobody could stop them. The pressure from the church, the people and close relatives was too much for my grandparents to handle. Their faith in the Almighty sustained them throughout their time of heartache. My grandfather felt obliged to bless their marriage in the church to seal their union.
Not long after, to the delight of our grand parents, Lavinia was born. She was a brain box, and in no time picked up the Visoqo dialect - and miraculously today, we all still speak the dialect of this northern coastal village, or as they say in Vanua Levu, ‘na vosa va’a ca’e’, the dialect of the upper coast people.
Some time later, Pa, our mother Mereani and Lavinia moved down the coast to Wailevu, home of our grandmother or Radi ni Talatala, Masilina Ragodrogodro. Vasemaca and Tomasi were born here. Pa had his own shop now and money was plentiful, with rising copra prices and the abundance of sea and land resources.
It was not long before a request came from one of Pa’s uncles in Naduri that he needed help to run his very thriving business. Like most stores in Fiji, it had everything a shop could sell. The copra industry was at its peak and money was coming in rapidly.
Pa’s uncle had brought his wife down from China and she too could not speak a word of English. But for some unknown reason, she disliked ‘black’ people and that was the reason our Nana had to make herself scarce each time she was around.
Perhaps China was a closed country then, with only one race of people, and seeing Fijians for the first time was a scary encounter. But the unusual relationship baffled me. Even now, I have often wondered how Nana accepted their discriminatory attitudes, and bowed down to their demands even though they were visitors from a far away land.
The latter echoes my Fijian upbringing, which reflects the mentality that visitors are honoured, and showered with love and hospitality, and the feeling is expected to be mutual between the host and the guest. Thus to any Fijian, the hostility displayed was disrespectful and downright rude.
“Perhaps she did not deserve our Fijian hospitality”, I have often thought. Her dislike for my seven siblings was obvious, because they were children of a mixed marriage, and were not pure ‘breeds’ so to speak. She was against the idea of their presence anywhere near the store premises. Somehow she felt she could neither trust them nor our mother. Her perception of black people could have been that of them being too poor to respect, without the luxuries that most rich Chinese value.
After all, this was a clash of two cultures, one that values money and material richness and the other that values God and family.
Perhaps our Nana tried to show respect to her because that was Pa’s uncle’s wife. And with her strong blood ties to the chiefly family of Naduri, she could have easily rocked the boat, but her decision to love and honour the older couple saw her through the stormy in-law relationship.
Nana’s clan from her Dad’s mother’s side lived in Naduri in a place called Sautiki. Relatives came to visit frequently bringing root crops, fish, mats and oil. Nana was always happy to see them. And in the true Fijian spirit, she never ever wanted to see them return empty handed. She would ask Pa for groceries for their ‘ti’, metres of dress materials, kerosene fuel for their lamps and whatever gifts she could get hold of from the store which were a luxury to our people. The situation at home was often unpleasant, because Pa would often argue that we could not run a business if we kept giving away goods. Nana, strong headed as she was, would be in a rage, telling Pa what a miser he was.
“You Chinese are all mamaqi!” she would often say.
We were caught in the ‘cross fire’ as the long argument dragged on, even after the relatives had gone. But somehow, Nana often got her way, and reminded Pa in her own words - “This is not China, this is Fiji…..we do it the Fijian way!”
But Pa often shouted back - “You’re a whole lot of empty heads, you think money falls from trees? I have to sweat to feed you lot and you’re just giving away everything free!”
On these occasions, the household was tense and everyone was silent because we sympathized with our Pa; working hard to give us the best education, but by the same token, we felt for Nana and our maternal relatives. My older siblings often wished they had enough money to give both parties, and keep the peace at any cost. It was an embarrassing time for all of us, because our visiting relatives were humble people and they loved us dearly. The often loud and ugly confrontations stabbed our spirits because it was in stark contrast with the quiet disposition of our people. It was in these moments that we realized how poles apart our two worlds were. One party worried about budgeting and economizing while the other didn’t bother much about money matters, nor was ever anxious about tomorrow. There was a constant psychological dilemma each time our maternal connections visited our home. Most times, at the end of the day, we were emotionally drained to the core.
After some years in Naduri, my parents decided to move to my mother’s village in Korotubu about 8 kilometers away. Pa established a shop there, and like Naduri, it had easy access to the inter-island cargo ships that brought goods from Suva. There were two additions to the family, with the birth of our youngest sister and I. In fact we were all delivered safely at home. For the two of us born in Korotubu, my mother relied solely on the expert hands of our late and dear grand aunt who was the province’s senior midwife; Taufa Dimo Tuidravu. She was everyone’s Florence Nightingale when it came to baby deliveries and because of her, many children of the province were safely given home deliveries. And until the day she passed on, she could remember all those she had helped bring safely into the world. May God bless her soul!
Pa worked hard on his new property and we also began cattle rearing and poultry farming that included turkeys, ducks and chickens. The copra price was also at its peak and mother of pearls with trocus shells fetched good prices. Nana brought home many of her cousins to weave mats, baskets and harvest voivoi leaves. The women earned money to send their children to school. On good days, life was easy going for us.
Pa also rented a house in town for our schooling and our older sisters, Lavinia and Vasemaca, who had found employment in the Post and Telecommunication department. We attended the Anglican mission school in Labasa as it was seen to be the best educational institute then.
Funerals and weddings incur huge expenses on any household, and our maternal relatives often came to Pa to help them out with their burdens like buying a cow or taking groceries. Sometimes the goods were taken on credit, and never paid for afterwards. Pa could not understand why people hesitated in paying up for what they owed. After all, copra prices were high, food was plentiful and the land was fertile and never in short supply.
The conflict between the ‘kerekere’ system or borrowing and running a business continued to cause disharmony in our family. Most times Pa says that our relatives were too lazy to work for their living and resorted to borrowing everything. He often had to draw the line and say, “No”.
Some time later, one of our brothers began to indulge in kava drinking and smoking, but he did not earn enough to afford this indulgence. And during one of those dark moments when he was caught by Pa trying to ‘choke’ someone for a roll, he was thrown a barrage of insults.
“If you can’t afford it, go without! People like you are like leeches, living off others for their own selfish life style.” It was obvious that our brother didn’t think like a Chinese, although his physical stature is totally Asian. He was the butt of our family jokes, because we compared him to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The lessons of life we had learnt from Pa were to work for our living and not ask others for our needs. Our brother’s action was not the norm of our household. He seemed to be out of line and we often felt ashamed for him. Fortunately, our growing up helped us cope with the conflicts that we faced and turning our depressed emotions into humour made our life more livable.
Being torn between two worlds is draining because your love and loyalty is divided between the two. The Chinese mentality is based on independent living, and having full responsibility of your immediate family, whereas the Fijian mentality is more about communal living, based on the concept of ‘what’s mine is yours.’ Each concept has its advantages and disadvantages. We have tried to adopt the best of both worlds and live by their principles. Our contributions for the church, or for the deaths, weddings or birthdays of relatives are our obligations. However, deep down in our hearts, our will to be self sufficient and independent will never fade, for that is how we watched Pa work tirelessly on his business, manage his farm and toil the land to send us to school and provide for our livelihood, as well as support our maternal grandparents who had become blind from cataract which was untreatable then.
Our parents have passed on, but they have left us a legacy to uphold and this we have passed down to our children. We can only hope they will appreciate the differences of the two worlds and embrace the best of both.
Taina Hazelman is from Fiji and this is her first published piece.