I stepped off the plane yesterday and the smell of the air was different. It was freezing, and when I went home I had the first hot shower in a month and opened my drawers to dozens of different options. After a month of being told we weren’t allowed to touch or hug the opposite gender, we probably shocked the Australians with our vigour in embracing our loved ones and each other. I slipped on a pair of skinny jeans after a month of long skirts, and got my hair cut. I had hot chocolate and sushi.
Travelling to another country means we were told to expect differences not only in the obvious things, but in the small things. Yes food, culture and sights and smells. Having five different types of friend breakfast [bumbakau, roti, pancakes, toast with butter and sweet and sour bumbakau- I wasn’t joking. Plus, not much fresh fruit due to the recent cyclone.] But church, family and manners also took a major twist.
Yesterday, when I went to order that sushi, I tried to ask the man about his day and he nodded at me before turning away to continue what he was doing. The lady with the hot chocolate was tart, and didn’t add anything unnecessary, like a “thank you” for handing over my money, or for ordering. It was confronting after a month of being greeted with huge smiles by construction workers, welcomed into stranger’s houses as family and being clung to by kids at kids club.
So, the biggest difference was how huge Fiji is on hospitality.
Four times we went on visitation- the first time in a slum, the second in the birthplace of Hinduism for Fiji, and the last two times in our “Local Church Mission” village, Naimalavau. We were told to spread out and meet people, encourage them to or in faith in Christ.
The first time, we hadn’t even reached as far as we were planning to go before a man came out and asked us what was going on and would we like to join him. We followed him onto the veranda of a house made of tin which he had painted a bright purple, where he offered us cordial and stood while his son sat on a hard wooden chair and offered us the couch. The resounding thought in my head was they had nothing, but they were offering us everything. And, despite being Hindu, they listened to me for an hour on Jesus, offering questions and nodding. I have no idea what was going on in their hearts, but as a little girl arrived from school, clinging to her dad, and we were greeted by an elderly grandmother, it became more and more important to me to convince them this life is not all there is. Surrounded by poverty, disease and the overwhelming love they had showed us, all I wanted was for them to know God loved them and was watching over them, as they worshipped their careless, distant statues. By the time we left, I was spent, praying silently in my head that God would use that conversation somehow.
The second place was relatively well off, however my friend M and I were somehow drawn to what I initially thought was just an abandoned shack at the bottom of a concrete driveway, so old grass was growing through the cracks. When we knocked on the door, a small Indo-Fijian lady [of Indian descent, from when Britain brought over Indian slaves to work on the sugar plantations] peered around the door and asked “what side are you on?” Foolishly thinking geographically, I told her we were staying in Suva. She repeated the question, adding “Hindu or Christian?” We emphatically replied Christian and she let us in, revealing a family gathered in the living room. The next twenty minutes were filled with discussions of Christ and how they had ended up using the “house” while there were struggles over the lease. They gave us cake straight from shopping bags, and burning hot tea in chipped mugs. I gave the daughter a leather bound diary and she was almost in tears. Once again, I left with an overwhelming compassion and sense of helplessness, figuring I may not see them again until heaven. Praying we had made a difference.
The third place, though, possibly impacted me the most.
Every day in Naimalavau, our breakfast, lunch and dinners were prepared for us by the village split into their Bible studies or “cell groups”. Every family falls into a cell group because every family is “Christian”. While it was often discussed how heartfelt that faith was, it was definitely acted out in the generosity and love afforded every meal, and our reception around the village. Somehow, by the end, they all knew our names. My very own home stay mother Marica [pronounced Maritha], had an empty fridge and still managed to fill a crate with snacks for my homestay buddy and I. We shared a paper thin mattress on the floor of a room they had given up to us, and every day we returned to it swept, our clothes folded and any washing done.
The thing about visitation, though, is that it’s often with people you have literally never met before. There isn’t a rule about it, but when a friend I had made named Oscar leaned out of his window and greeted M and I, I almost kept walking. Thankfully, he had the wisdom to linger long enough to ask whether Oscar had been visited, and, when it turned out he hadn’t, we ventured over the wooden planks squished into the mud to enter his home. Inside we found all of Oscar’s brothers, sisters and their children. We sat and shared our favourite Bible verses, praying for them and Oscar’s mother who he told us was rather ill. However, we had only been there about fifteen minutes before she walked out. It turned out she had been listening the entire time, and she was in tears. Oscar gently explained they were due to her pain- the illness affected her breathing. Yet, once she’d introduced herself, she told us in pained whispers, completely out of the blue that we wanted to sing for us. We listened to her and Oscar then perfectly harmonise not one, but two hymns. And, as we sat there fighting tears, she openly wept, reading us encouragement from Jeremiah. Nancy told us how she knew God had sent us to her, at a point when not even her own family had visited her upon hearing she was sick. By the end, we were holding hands and praying, not just that she would recover, but thanking God for bringing us together.
The last lady we met on one side of the village and she led us to the other side just to have us in her house. She told us the story of how her husband was away for months at a time, and she was praying for him as he had a new found faith but had recently been demoted. As we sit and listened, she completely opened up about the different spheres of her life and how she needed prayer for different things like her son at school, and that her kids wouldn’t miss their father too much. In Australia, I have no idea what the odds are of even being let into a house while doorknocking. A two hour conversation can skim but the shallowest of subjects, and to cry in front of a stranger is shameful. Yet, here we were in front of a lady being completely vulnerable with two people simply on the basis that we were Christians and we wanted to share time with her.
So, the good differences are clear- so many things moved my heart and made me wish home was a little more different. The hospitality wasn’t just in feeding us and going hungry, but in pouring love and kindness on strangers.
Not all of the differences were so good though.
Going to an all-girls school where feminism was breathed, having to wear a long skirt every day spoke volumes to me. We had to sit a certain way during cultural ceremonies and, although I was allowed to take part in them as part of Year 13, the women of the villages weren’t invited to join. Once a woman is married, she needs to give up her job and join her husband. I resisted the temptation to ask how that felt, not wanting to negatively stir the pot, but it was foreign. However, that modesty came into play quite quickly for me. During our visit to Nasikawa Vision College, a high school built on the vision of a Korean Mother’s Group of all things, we had the opportunity to spend two nights with a family. Constantly being on our toes not to offend or come across as the Western ideal we knew from training had been beamed to them had begun to seem tiresome. However, when we found out the youngest daughter refused to watch anything but MTV, I knew we were in for a tart reminder. I don’t have MTV at home, and I hadn’t watched any television for two weeks- suddenly exposed to the grinding, scantily clad women I so blindly glanced over in my everyday life, I felt almost protective of the little girl trying to imitate them, transfixed. Several outfit changes, random brand placement on flashy cars and women in their own videos almost completely exposed shocked me, as I curled my feet under my floor length skirt and looked around at my family in their long sleeves. I wonder how they felt. The stark contrast made me ashamed of my own world, and all the judgement towards the traditional modesty of Fiji evaporated for a while. Although it was uncomfortable, I was forced to challenge the notion that my life is the “normal” standard.
Something one of my leaders said is that, yes, there are differences. But you shouldn’t judge them and you may not be able to change a lot of them. Just take from them what you can. I’ll think twice before getting changed, before politely refusing to be visited by someone of a different religion, before spending all my money on food and leaving spare change for church. That missionary said we were “like dogs in a museum”, but I disagree. I saw everything, but I observed. I didn’t understand everything, but I struggled to understand some things. And I just may have.
The night of Bible study in the village, I was disappointed because I didn’t get to go to my homestay Mum’s. However, when I returned she was sitting with my buddy and sharing what they had been thinking about. She’d been meditating on Jesus’ call to be the light of the world and I laughed because I had preached my youth talk on that exact passage. Completely out of the blue, she began to cry. [Side note: a definite difference in the prevalence of bursting into tears. However, you’re not allowed to make a sound during funerals, or you’ll get whacked by a warrior with a wooden stick. True story.] She told me that she now knew I was meant to be there, in her house. That the Holy Spirit was in both of us and had put the same things on our heart- we were connected. All the time and love she had given, she had given just to try and demonstrate God’s love, and I understood that. I’m still struggling with whether this love is different from Australian society, but all I can do is do my part to make sure it isn’t.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”