I’ve told the story before about Justin and I walking around a neighborhood outside of Labasa looking for a place to live for our remaining months in Fiji. The family we found barely skipped a beat when they invited us to stay with them. And I can’t imagine how odd we appeared – two white foreigners in a town without tourism, one in a wheelchair, casually perusing the outskirts of town. Their direct response to our inquiry for living space was “Sure, you can be our family.” What struck me the most about this family was they didn’t ask why I was in a wheelchair. Even as time has passed, they still don’t ask why I use it at times. That, to me, is respect at its finest.
I braced myself for the change of living with a family of 6 in tight quarters, sharing a bathroom and small kitchen area. As someone who craves alone time to recharge, I wondered if the experience would throttle me. But the transition was surprisingly seamless. Mutual respect, openness, and big love goes a long way. At first, I imagined there would also be cultural barriers, but as I have learned over again, the only barriers are those we throw up ourselves. A family with a dramatically different background and upbringing from Justin and I is all the same at the core. We share the same sarcastic humor, and their love for food and cooking offers ongoing conversation about a similar passion we hold. We pass leisure time together, with uplifting conversation and games with the kids. And there is a shared understanding that everyone needs space, you just have to be inventive with how you create that for yourself.
Angelina, the mother, has bent over backward to make us feel welcome. She does nonstop housework, always grabbing our dirty laundry before it makes it to the basket. Every morning she packs our lunch, and at the end of the work day we walk in the door to aromatic herbal tea and finger snacks. She caught on quickly to our way of eating. At first we were cooking separately to not burden them with our vegetarianism, but that lasted all of two days. Angelina began exchanging work and goods for vegetables around the neighborhood. Every day we eat greens, which I am forever grateful. Rakesh, the father, said they decided as a family to eat vegetarian while we are staying with them so that we can eat our meals together. I had an overwhelming amount of guilt and pleaded them not to change their way just for us, but he insisted. Justin and Rakesh make weekly grocery runs together to gather food for the week. It has been fun to watch them come back with new foods from the market and teach other our own ways of cooking.
I have contemplated our scenario if Justin and I were to be on the other end. I imagine it in my head - Justin and I are in our apartment in Arizona, and a foreign couple is walking around the premises asking for a place to live. What would I do? There are barriers when the apartment is being rented, because I know straight off the bat our complex doesn’t allow visitors for longer than two weeks. There is also a homeless population that wanders the neighborhood and sometimes uses the pool for bathing, which usually results in a call to the police and removal of the individual. But why should a homeless individual be any different from others? I get upset at myself for feeling this way. The societal norms have made me feel scared because of what is shown on the news and how things are exaggerated. We are taught to be scared of a world that holds less danger in reality.
But what if Justin and I were in a home we owned in the suburbs of Flagstaff, and a Fijian family was walking around town asking for a place to live temporarily. My immediate instinct is YES. But why does the city scenario, especially in a closed apartment complex, feel different? Why does it feel safer in small town? I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet, but I know societal norms are influencing me. I also know this scenario is still against the norm in Flagstaff or anywhere in the states for that matter. It’s almost as if I care less if fewer judgmental eyes are around me. To me, it all comes down to compassion and community, which is an important topic to contemplate. The United States has lost its sense of community over generations. Vulnerability is the key to connecting with others, and we miss an opportunity if we only open ourselves to relationships that appear to be normal like our own. Another component that makes our scenario possible is that Fiji is a gun-free nation. I know this might cause ruckus, but I strongly feel that this makes for a safe haven in many ways. Fiji's crime rate is nearly null. With the continual headlines in the United States of gun-related crimes, it is an amazing feeling to leave our home without any worry of gun-related crime.
It is hard for me to imagine leaving our Fijian family, because life with them has become routine. There is no way to predict when we will see them again, but I know it lies somewhere in our future.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.