From Samoa to Dunedin

By Vainiu Te'o | Posted: Monday November 4, 2019

Recently Year 13 English students were able to present speeches about their lives over the past few years and how their experiences have shaped them. This is Vainiu Te'os speech.

From the moment you take your first breath, to the moment you breathe your last you are on a journey that every soul on this planet takes. I was once told that the story of one’s life is like a colourful tapestry filled with complicated and intricate designs reflecting different moments and memories one has experienced along the way. Moreover, the tapestry of my life and of yours will never share that same design, even if some of the memories or moments of our lives intersect at some given point. Every life therefore is a journey unique to every single person, but each of our lives has stories which give us the opportunity to teach another human being certain lessons about our societies. And that is what I would like to speak about today. I want to take you on a trip through my life as a young Samoan who left home almost two years ago to pursue further education here in this place I have grown to love and appreciate.

I grew up in Samoa where all my neighbours were close family members. I saw my grandparents, my uncles and aunties and my cousins every single day. We shared meals regularly, played together, went swimming together. My cousins and I got into trouble together and for the most part attended the same school together. And if having your immediate family around you was not enough, every single week, (and I mean every single week) we would have relatives from outer villages come to stay with us because we lived near the Apia township. We did not differentiate between family members – everyone was your “rellie” and what you had you shared with them, even your best shirt, your favourite toy or new glasses. That was just the way it was.They have a saying that a child is raised by a village and that is exactly what my life was like! And the village had rules! From a young age, we were taught the Samoan way – how to act in public, to respect our elders, to stay low and say “tulou” (excuse me) when you walked in front of someone and to never take anything or anyone for granted. And of course, we had to attend church every Sunday, a day when all the shops at home (apart from small supermarkets or bakeries) are closed. This was and continues to be the norm in Samoa.

When my parents told me that they had decided to send me here to New Zealand to get a better education, I was both excited and scared. Having visited New Zealand for a vacation I knew that life here would not be exactly what I was used to. I mean, Samoa is a small place – no motorways, no tall buildings (unless you count the 7-story government building as a sky-scraper), and no “malls”! Don’t get me wrong. Coming to New Zealand for a holiday was always exciting but the thought of coming here to live – well, that was another story. To tell you the truth, I contemplated protesting my parents’ decision but, if you know island parents, you know there is no way you actually get a vote on serious matters like this and so I ended up abandoning that idea.

My anxiety was primarily based on the fact that I would be moving here without my parents and would be living in a hostel. What would school be like? What would the people be like? Most importantly, what would the food be like? These were the questions that plagued my mind. When I arrived here in January 2018, I felt like the country cousin that we hear about in stories, the boy who goes to the big city and is amazed at the lights and the paved streets.

Upon seeing the high school for the first time, I found myself comparing the small wooden classrooms I had sat in in Samoa to the castle-like features of Otago Boys’ High and I thought to myself, “Man, if my friends could see me now! They would not believe the facilities at this school!” Apart from the buildings, I found that I now had to wear what we would recognise in Samoa as a suit. Replacing my iefaitaga (Samoan – kilt) was a pair of long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. On top of that, I also had to wear closed shoes as part of the uniform. For someone who is accustomed to wearing jandals, that was a hard ask. One of the more prevalent differences was that I no longer had the opportunity to speak Samoan to the teachers when asking a question in Math class, for example. Where I had once only heard English in English class, I was now in an environment where English was THE language.

However, the differences in school paled in comparison to the societal differences I witnessed in general society. I had to adjust to the way people were. Everyone had an opinion that was the right one. People didn’t give priority to the elderly in some places, and no one said ‘tulou’ when passing someone who was seated along the road. Like the country cousin in that story, I began to long for home. I wanted the familiar. I wanted to be in my community where what I knew to be the norm was normal. Many times I was tempted to ring my parents and beg them to let me return to Samoa, to what I was accustomed to. But even as I struggled to adjust to these differences, I also recognised the positive aspects of my new life. Making friends with people from backgrounds not similar to my own, studying under a programme which was not available in Samoa, seeing places I had never seen before and most importantly, living in Dunedin made me appreciate all the more how I was raised. Living here made me realise the importance of family and culture and knowing my roots – all the things my parents had emphasised throughout my life.

C.S Lewis reminds us that “there are far far better things ahead than what we leave behind.'' I don’t mean leaving Samoa meant I was going to forget about home and family and friends, but I knew coming to Dunedin would allow me the opportunity to see things in a new light and be involved in stuff that I could never have had the chance to experience back home. It has been an eye opening experience so far, and I look forward to growing emotionally, mentally and psychologically through my current journey.