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A field guide to the expats of Suva

by on December 11, 2014

So, who are all these itinerant folks lurking about Suva for 1-3 years? While not an exhaustive list, here’s the major archetypes:

1) Peace Corps Volunteers: Usually these folks are fresh out of university, but there are occasionally middle aged to retirement-aged Americans who get accepted as well. They make crap wages (around Fj$16/day) and most of them live in villages far from Suva and only come to Suva for training, R&R leave, or medical treatment. They tend to prefer to hang out with each other or the people in their village communities rather than with other expats, but their lives are so different from most expats that I can’t really fault them for that. You can often spot them because they are dressed sorta like backpackers in clothes that look like they’ve been through hell, except that their clothes are super-modest. If you see a woman who hasn’t had a decent haircut in 6 months wearing a stretched out baggy t-shirt and an ankle length jersey-knit skirt with hiking sandals, 99% likely she’s Peace Corps. They have the second worst job in Fiji (even though most of them seem to love it), so buy them a beer or two if you run into one somehow.

2) AYADs/AVID volunteers – this is an Australian program that (unlike Peace Corps) lets you apply in a specific location for a specific job that uses your skills. Most assignments are a year long and range from health and education projects to doing public relations for local NGOs. While you see a lot of 20-something early career people in Fiji through AVID, there are plenty of people from other age ranges, too. They get a decent living allowance (especially compared to Peace Corps) so while these folks are volunteers, they generally aren’t counting their pennies. You will meet A LOT of these people and most of them are very friendly.

3)USP/ FNU staff – the two universities in Suva hire a lot of expat staff, especially for roles that require academic qualifications not offered in Fiji (thus resulting in a shortage of local candidates who have trained abroad and then returned). These people are often lecturers (aka what Americans would call a college professor/instructor) but there’s loads of expat support staff, curriculum developers, HR people, etc. You would think they would mostly be from Australia/NZ or other Commonwealth countries, but really anyone from anywhere (Africa, Eastern Europe, etc.) who is fluent in English can be hired. Word on the street is that salaries at USP are significantly higher than those of FNU. Beware: if you get too many of them together at a party, the conversation will turn to whose Dean/Head of School/Deputy Vice Chancellor is the worst and other gossip that is not interesting to non- academics.

4) The NGOs – Everyone from the Red Cross and several UN programs (UN women, UNDP, etc) to World Wildlife Fund and Habitat for Humanity has offices here with employees. Confusingly, there are both volunteers and employees at some of these places, and Australian Red Cross works in Fiji even though there’s also a Fiji Red Cross. All I can say about these folks is they generally are smart and know what’s up, many of them have had other expat jobs before this one and they tend to have a lot of work-related travel to exciting places like Kiribati and Nauru.

5) The Business Community – turns out that even a tiny nation like Fiji gets executives transferred from offices abroad. You see transfers mostly in banks, insurance, cellular phone companies, etc. but there are a lot of other Fiji-based industries (the airline now called Fiji Airways that was called Air Pathetic Air Pacific before) with a foreign CEO. These people are almost always male and around 50. If you ever go to any of the numerous charity functions or product launches that happen at the Grand Pacific Hotel, you’ll see these dudes. They make decent money but seem too busy working to actually relax and run away for weekends at the beach.

6) The regional intergovernmental organizations : Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Pacific Islands ForumSPREP, etc. – I’m not entirely sure what these organizations actually do. They seem to hire a lot of consultants and generate a lot of working papers and reports on various issues (energy, health, etc), but I have no idea who reads these reports and what actionable stuff happens afterwards. A few of these orgs seem to have really deep pockets and their employees make high salaries. When I meet these people at parties they seem nice and interesting enough, but  I have learned not to ask them about their jobs, because the explanation of what it is that they do is usually really complex, or really boring, or occasionally both. I’m sure it’s important work even if I can’t understand it. If you have the same experience at a party, don’t say you weren’t warned.

7) The Diplomatic staff – Embassies and High Commissions employ a bunch of people, some of whom make crazy high salaries. Career diplomats get living allowances that include importing all their furniture and a car, even if it’s a left-hand (American) drive vehicle. Tend to have really posh rental homes and probably throw good parties. You’ll meet them at Embassy/ High Comm events (if you can snag an invite). Ask them to tell you stories of where they were posted before, because you’ll probably never meet anyone else who’s lived in Malawi (unless you go there to visit, duh).

8) The Trailing Spouse -yes, everyone hates this term, but everyone understands it, so until “Lifestyle Scientist” catches on, we’re stuck with it. This is the person who uproots themselves to follow their partner to his/her new job/assignment abroad. This is the worst job in Fiji (okay, maybe Peace Corps is slightly worse with the boils and the giardia and all that) because the TS usually can’t find a job here (I know of only 3 that have) and will find Suva even more boring than their working spouse/partner does. While there’s more male TSs now ( I have even met TWO gay male Trailing Spouses here, which is very unusual) than there were even a few decades ago, it’s still largely women who are TSs. If you have kids with you the days are less boring, but there’s only so many opportunities for keeping oneself occupied; ironically, despite all the volunteers in Fiji, it is very difficult to find a volunteer opportunity after you arrive, and then you have to pay full-price for a work permit yourself just to volunteer a few hours a week!  Many  TSs gave up a “real job” back home to follow their partner to Suva, so be really careful before you assume a TS has always been a housewife/househusband. There are a bunch of women’s clubs with mostly TS members, so they tend to meet one another pretty soon after arriving.

Note that this is not a complete list: there are other somewhat plentiful expat types I’m leaving out (missionaries, retirees, investors) because I haven’t met enough of them to draw any conclusions, or because you are unlikely to meet them during your 1-3 years in Suva (I see Mormon missionaries in the grocery store fairly often, but shockingly they never seem to turn up at the coffee shop or GPH’s Happy Hour, so I guess we’ll never strike up a conversation). A large percentage of expats join the Rucksack Club upon arriving, which is a good way to meet other people you might have more in common with than your Fijian co-workers.

An aside: a thing about living in an expat community that makes sense when you think about it, but that I did not anticipate before moving here:  the chief big social get-together is the farewell party. Someone is always leaving, and it rarely seems to happen to two people at the same time (unless they’re a couple). Depending how strapped for time the person leaving is, farewells may be happy hour drinks, a proper house party, or even a weekend away at a resort with a group of friends…or all three. I’m pretty sure I’ve been to more farewell parties here than I have birthday parties. And even though it’s sad when people you’ve gotten to know go back home (or to their next expat assignment), there’s always a new batch of folks coming in a few weeks…..

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From → Fiji

8 Comments
  1. Vijay Kapadia permalink

    Sir I have been reading your posts for some time. I enjoy doing so. It is good to see the perspective of someone from outside looking at Suva and Fiji. It is even more interesting for me when I read the title Seattle to Suva as these are both cities that have a special significance for me. I am a Fiji Indian, born in India but grew up in Suva. My wife is from India and her brother migrated to the US in the early 70s, the rest of her family in 1984. he lives in the Bremerton/Silverdale area and the family in Seattle. My wife returned from her last visit to Seattle just a few days ago. The Puget Sounds, the Pacific Northwest, towns like Poulsbro (?spelling correct), Mt Rainier, the ferries, these are all magical. Suva for me has the charm of home. Home is like one’s mother, special, unique and the best for that individual. Home does not always allow objective analysis. Thus I wish I could take you through the haunts, the images, the memories and people I grew up with and show you how Suva could grow that much more for you too if it has not already done so. I appreciate your comments and thank you for them. I live in Australia but keep coming to Suva regularly. Vijay Kapadia Gold Coast, Australia Date: Wed, 10 Dec 2014 18:33:54 +0000 To: vijaykapadia@hotmail.com

  2. narayan permalink

    HI,

    NIce reading your posts. Hoz it to work in USP? how is the recruitment process? do they conduct interview for expats? how?

    • Hypatia permalink

      As far as I understand, USP interviews are by Skype and hiring takes 2-8 months, depending on the department and how desperate they are to fill a position. I have never heard of an in person interview for any Fiji jobs, even for Aussies who are somewhat nearby.

  3. Kenji permalink

    Hi,

    Just started reading your post, and really enjoy it (good lessons for expats). I am wondering if USP offered you relocation assistance. Thanks.

    • Hypatia permalink

      I never said I worked at USP. But according to their webpage, they do: http://www.usp.ac.fj/index.php?id=info_interntl_candid :
      Q – Will the University offer relocation assistance?
      A – Yes, the University will offer relocation assistance for those people in senior positions that are coming from overseas or coming from outside Suva. It will cover airfare and the shipment of personal items up to 10 cubic metres. Upon completion of a contract, the University will also cover the cost to return home. Also, an appointments allowance will be given upon arrival – $2,500 for a single person, $3,000 for a couple and $3,500 for a family for those coming from overseas. For Fiji citizens coming from outside of Suva, they will also receive an appointments allowance of $500 less than those listed above.

      • Kenji permalink

        Thank you so much. I am not sure if we could communicate offline here. I am seeking some comments for job related things. If this is alright, could you send me an email?

  4. As always a great read! Thanks

  5. Kaimerika permalink

    We are Americans living in Fiji and have been here 5 years. Have another expat who works at a university. The employer said they would, but did not, ship any of their belongings. They have lived out if 2 suitcases for the past 7 months. What they tell you – any employer – and what actually happens is usually too different things…and as I write this “Honesty” by Billy Joel is playing in the background…honestly!

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