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The halfway point: What have I learned?

by on May 18, 2014

I realize I haven’t been posting as much as I did my first year, and I guess a lot of that is that I don’t have as many observations as I did when I first got here. Interesting things still happen, but I’m not as overwhelmed by life in a foreign country as I was in months 1 through 6.


view from sand dunes

I have a 3 year contract*, which ends in either July 2015 (when my work visa expires) or September 2015 (the technical end of the 3 years).  Either way, I’ve now been in Suva for 20 months, so I’m well past the point where a reflective post is de rigueur. So here it is:

What I have learned:

You will get used to the heat, and the rain, and maybe even the litter, but not the fact that there are really only 10 restaurants worth eating at more than once. I routinely gain 6 pounds on vacations to Western countries making up for lost time/cuisines I’ve missed (and then sweat them off when I get back to Suva).

The local pizza and the local/Australian cheese does not get better the longer you are away from American/European cheese. My first meal on last year’s visit home to the US was pizza.

Because of the ubiquity of American TV shows,  your co-workers will understand words like “ya’ll” or “okey-doke” that no one else uses here, but they will still laugh at you when you say them.

Learning the minimal amount of Fijian language I learned in a one semester class was very beneficial, and I wish I’d been able to do it sooner. Knowing phrases not in the Lonely Planet vocabulary section usually makes people light up when you attempt to converse (though they still won’t correct your middling grammar/pronunciation unless they know you well, because they’re too polite to do so). My two most useful phrases  thus far are “I live in Suva” (to assert that I am not a tourist to the hawkers in front of shops) and “I am not from the boat” (When a cruise ship is in town, releasing other pasty Caucasians into downtown Suva. See comment for “I live in Suva” for the reason this is useful).

You never truly appreciate all the diversions you had available at home until you’re away. In the US, I went bowling maybe once or twice a year, and to the symphony or the theatre even less than that, but that stuff was always available should I want it. In a place with two movie theatres and plays maybe twice a year, I now regret not taking better advantage of the cultural activities back home. And things where Seattle excels that I did take advantage of  (the excellent public libraries, the NPR station, KEXP, actual bookstores and music stores) I have missed terribly.

I can now identify 99% of the regional fruits and vegetables (wi, ivi, duruka, bele, etc) and have tried all of them, but I still haven’t embraced dalo (taro) enough to have ever bought any to cook at home. I’m okay with that.

I have learned that “boredom” is what you make it. While there’s way less to do here and more down time, I’ve managed to keep myself busy with reading, movies, writing, making friends, etc. And when something exciting and new (a performance, a festival, the opening of an upscale supermarket) does happen, it makes the week that much better.

Despite gorging on pizza whilst on holiday, you learn to do without and not mind. The first year, when other expats were travelling to the US or Australia, we had wish lists (decent coffee,  certain spices, current books) to bring back, but now, with an impending trip to the US over the (American) summer, I can’t think of anything I’m desperate to bring back for my final year. And I constantly whisper “First World Problems” to myself when I see someone on the Suva facebook group asking about where to get SodaStream or Keurig  refills.

As I was writing this post over the course of the week, a very similar post from a blog I subscribe to appeared in my inbox. She says “You can get pretty much everything you need in Suva” , and this is totally true. Not everything you WANT, but everything you NEED. Living here has taught me the difference between what I need versus what I want. 

But don’t get me wrong, I still get mildly excited when a local store (momentarily) stocks a luxury foodstuff  like Grape Nuts or Diet Dr. Pepper. If I ever see Grape Nuts again at the Cost U Less, I’m gonna buy two boxes.

Working here has been both amazing and frustrating, often during the same day. The Fijian easy-goingness and disinclination to speak up (about problems or to propose innovations) has only adapted so much to the Western model of Getting Things Done, and I continually struggle with my American expectations of work behavior(s). I know the problem is -my- expectations within this culture, and I’ve (mostly) come to terms with that. This will be very helpful when I return to the US, as far as being able to relate when a co-worker from another country has difficulty adapting to American work styles because they find OUR way of doing things unusual.

I have learned what a great partner I have in Hermes. Not that I didn’t think so before, but you really appreciate what you have when you go through crises or extreme stress together. He’s made many sacrifices for us to be able to come here for my job, and soon it will be my turn to return the favor (foreshadowing alert!).

I’ve learned more about what it means for a country to be “developing”, both for the people that live there and on the international stage.  In the US we never get news about tiny Pacific Island nations unless something bad (cyclone, flood, coup, etc.) happens there. Seeing what makes the newspapers in the region has been eye-opening.

While I will never truly fit into the culture here and will always be an outsider looking in, I have gotten to experience great things that most visitors don’t get to see (as well as a few not so great things). While it’s often not gone according to plan, overall, I have no regrets. Living far from home isn’ t for everyone, but I’m glad we did this, even if I will also be glad when it’s time to go home.

*Spoiler alert: I won’t be renewing it- I’ll be ready to come home at the expected time.


From → Fiji

  1. Great post, very illuminating perspectives.

    Made me reminiscent of what it was like to live in small city America in the 60s. We had two breads, White and Brown. Coffee came in big cans, pre-ground, and made in a percolator. But we don’t know about anything better, so what the hey? Athough in Today’s Suva, you often see movies before we do here. In Tucson in the 70s we had to wait 3 months for Star Wars to finally open locally.

    Can’t wait to see you again.

  2. Rita W-W permalink

    I live in Ghana and we are also just beyond the half way point. Amazing how two countries so far apart can be so similar and make you feel the same way. Your whole article could be posted on a Ghanaian expat blog, just a few names have to be changed. I feel so far yet very close to your experiances.
    Good luck for the last leg of your journey!
    A fellow expat

  3. Rose permalink

    Hi Hypatia,

    Sorry for bothering you and it’s kind not appropriate to post here, I’m just wondering do you know any GOOD dentists in Suva? I need to do the fillings for my teeth. But I couldn’t find the really good ones here in Nadi which worries me a bit..

    Thanks a lot!

    • Hypatia permalink

      My husband went to Dr. Vikash Singh (330 8882) on Stewart street for some major work and had a good experience. also join and search (or ask) the Suva expats facebook group- this question comes up every month and everyone seems to have a favorite. good luck!

  4. Rose permalink

    Thank you so much Hypatia!! I joined Suva Expats group yesterday and found out several good comments about Dr. Vikash Singh as well. I decided to to make an appointment with him soon.

    Thanks again! Have a nice day 🙂

  5. It’s so funny that we wrote blog posts with such similar themes within days of each other when we arrived in Suva within days of each other. The 20 month itch perhaps?

  6. Zonux permalink

    I really enjoy reading through the articles in your blog. I were a first timer moving to Suva for the first time, I could certainly benefit from your experiences. I like your half way point reflection. I have always believed that if everyone had the opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes for a while, they may better appreciate their own life and also appreciate what the other person has gone through or is going through.

    The “heat!” After ten years of visiting this lovely country, you would think I have gotten use to the heat. I live in California where it can get really hot in the summer but Fiji’s heat is on a different level for me. Finding decent restaurants have never really been an issue for us in Nadi, there are a lot of really good restaurants and variety in the type of food, so we are fortunate in that regard. We even found the one vendor food we like at Bula Festival and every year during Bula Festival, we only buy food from that one vendor.

    Learning the language, agreed 100%. I mentioned that in another of your article. Its make a difference if you can communicate in the Fijian or Hindu language, even if you only understand small sentences such as “how are you,” “where are you from,” “how much is this,” and how to count from 1-10. it makes your experience dealing with Fijians more personal.

    The Easy-Going (“Fiji Time”). Wow, that is the one thing I struggled with the most when I first got here. If I was on vacation, I can do Fiji time all day, all night, no problem. But when I am trying to get work done, Fiji time does not work for me. I would make an appointment to meet up with contractors working for us and they would show up late all the time, that would drive me nuts. Nothing I said or did changed that behavior, I had no choice but to adjust to it.

    Lunch time was the worst, I was not used to everyone in the office going to lunch at the same time and business shutting down during lunchtime. What if I was not ready to go to lunch and wanted to finish up some work first. Well, as long as I don’t need anyone else assistance, no problem. If I need someone else to do something for me, that work will have to wait until after lunch. Even visiting the hospital was an all day affair, unless you were on your dying bed, there was no rush to treat you. Like I said, I adjusted to Fiji Time but will not say I got used to it.

    Your Fiji experience is truly what you want of it. There will be time when things don’t seem to make sense to you but you know what, it is what it is. I have met expats who loved their experience and would love an opportunity to come back and I am also met others who can’t wait to go home and will probably not choose to come back for work unless maybe for a vacation. My family and I are of the former, we love our experience and look forward to coming back every time. Ten years old, this was just an opportunity to go work in a foreign country but now it is literally our second home.

    We are back in San Francisco as I type this comment but I am scheduled to head back to Fiji sometime in the summer of 2016 to begin another project. This project will require me to spend considerable time in Suva, Ba and maybe Rakiraki as well. I am looking forward to comparing my experience in those areas compared to what I am used to in Nadi. Should be tons of fun.

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