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  • B.M. Allsopp

Tripping over Fiji body talk - 2

It's 28th February - just in time to keep my vow to write a new post every month in 2018. Whew!

Vinaka (thanks) to readers who told me they liked my last post, where I described my initial confusion about the Fijian gesture of eyebrow-raising. Today I'll explain another key feature of Fijian body-talk which can perplex visitors.

Mind your head!

In Fiji, as in a great many other cultures, bowing the head expresses respect. But in Fiji, this goes beyond a formal greeting. When a chief is present, everyone else must make sure their heads are lower than the chief's at all times. By extension, Fijians consider it rude if visitors wear hats anywhere in a village when the chief is there.

Ratu Cakobau, Fiji Chief 1858 engraving

This 1858 engraving shows Ratu Cakobau, acknowledged by the British as Fiji's pre-eminent chief. The British admired his intelligence and success in war strategy.

Let's go back to my first weeks at the University of the South Pacific (USP). When students knocked on my door, I would invite them to sit. Some, especially young Fijian men, would slide down in the chair, dropping their shoulders, rolling their heads. At first I thought they were just a bit shy, awkward. But too many behaved that way. Once or twice a gangly young man squatted on the floor rather than sit on the chair I offered.

Again, I turned to my Fijian colleague who came to inspect my room. Her advice? "You need a low armchair in here for the students. That way their heads will be lower than yours. Even though you're not a chief, Fijian students need to demonstrate their respect for you as a teacher. If they can't literally look up to you, they feel intensely uncomfortable."

I scrounged a low armchair. The problem vanished and it soon became second nature to be aware of the relative position of my head. I must say, I had no problem getting used to all that respect for teachers!

I do welcome your comments and questions, in the box below, or by email if you prefer:

pink frangipanni flower

all the best,

Bernadette (B.M. Allsopp)

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