In Samoa we call it ‘fia poto’. Our Tongan cousins spell and pronounce it ‘fie poto’. Regardless, the words have the same meaning and are used in the same context – it’s often used in conjunction with a person who says and conducts himself in a manner that is not befitting his station or educational level. It is a criticism. It is derogatory. It means, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about so be careful what you say.’ Adults will say it when chastising a younger person. Other times, adults will say it to adults. Often it results in hurt feelings; most of the time it says, ‘revisit your place in the pecking order.’

I can’t remember when I first heard the phrase but it’s been a common part of Polynesian vernacular since I was a kid and it still confuses me even though I’m also guilty of using it more than a few times. In fact, I used it just yesterday which is what led me to writing this post.

What confuses me is the possible heteronymous use in our society. I.e. ‘I want you to be smart but I don’t want you to act smart.’ Huh? If you are Polynesian and you grew up in a traditional Polynesian home you may know exactly what I’m alluding to. On the one hand your parents are desirous that you receive as much education as possible. On the other hand you’re being told, when you receive your diplomas, degrees and certifications you’re told not to speak up or out, use flowery prose or correct anyone or anything because it may give others the appearance that you’re trying to outshine them.

I understand that there is a fine line between being academic and displaying your arrogance, but to some people it doesn’t matter how you cook a fish, its still fish. To some people, adding acronyms to the end of your name and being arrogant are not mutually exclusive. We pre-judge the conversation because we’ve already made our minds up about the person.

It is an annoying predicament that has baffled me for many years. I’m taught that I must always respect my elders and in the same breath I’m told that I should never contradict them, at least not publicly, or I will suffer their wrath or be the subject of ridicule and exclusion.

I’m not sure where this societal affliction originated. Is the key to the fia/fie poto phenomenon in the mistreatment and oppression of our ancestors by European and western colonization of our islands prior to the Mau Movement where opinions against the former dictators and their administrations were suppressed? Did the incarceration and in some cases banishment of Samoan leaders during the landmark Mau Movement for equality strike so much fear in the hearts of Samoans that we still do our best to avoid getting into heated debates, or challenging or opposing mainstream, popular views? Is it a form of reverse racism? Do we as Polynesians in some way still harbor the archaic sentiment that we are inferior to our European counterparts? Is that an irreversible and an ineradicable part of our collective psyche?

Many generations after the Mau Movement in Samoa I still see at times a lingering self-doubt amongst some Samoans, particularly older generations, about our ability to outpace and supersede the popular expectations of the world outside of our own.

The controversial script of Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu is a great, refreshing reminder to us that given the opportunity, we Pacific Islanders can rally around a cause with passion and eloquently and academically form a persuasive argument for our cause. Is that being fia/fie poto?

My friends Jacob Fitisemanu, ‘Anapesi Kaili, Fina and Oliver Schwenke and Richard Wolfgramm are examples of how our passion for our people, our cultural inheritance, our music and dance and our land can benefit from speaking out on issues that are both controversial and thought provoking while bringing the desired effect of visibility and optimism to the causes that matter to our Pacific Island people. Does that mean that they are fia/fie poto?

I work in a high-pressure, demanding industry where I’m counted on to provide critical input, find gaps in the system and advise our clients on how to maximize the return on their investment. If I adhere to my natural tendencies of timidity and self-preservation than my value as a contributor in the workplace is diminished and I become a liability to my company. In other words, I must in essence use the elements of ‘fia/fie poto’ in order to have the confidence and trust in my abilities to not only survive but thrive in the corporate world. But why can’t that same knowledge and ability transfer over to my speech and interactions in my community? is it possible? How can we respectfully speak on the matters that are pressing for our people, particularly our young people without the appearance of superiority and unintended disrespect?

On Sunday I attended the very first Talanoa Series organized by Jacob Fitisemanu and held at the Hawaiian Cultural Center. I went because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Namulau’ulu Dr. Gaugau Tavana, a former school administrator of the Church Schools in Samoa and a former Director of Education at National Tropical Botanical Garden in Maui, Hawaii. I also went because it was an open forum to discuss Pacific Islander issues among other Pacific Islanders. There is no hostility towards opposing views but rather there was a welcome format to all expressed views.

In his presentation Dr. Tavana eluded to a subject that has also been the topic of lectures given by his highness TuiAtua Tupua Tamasese Efi in regards to ‘va’ or ‘space’, referring to our relationships with all living things. We have a responsibility to cultivate and nurture our relationships in every aspect of our life. So is it healthy to stifle our opinion because we have been taught that there is a traditional line of authority and overstepping our boundaries constitutes insubordination and disobedience when in actuality we are trying to address the issue from multiple angles to anticipate any deficiencies? Where do we draw the line between wanting to be smart and just acting smart?

I’d like to hear your opinion on the matter. What do you think is the best way to address concerns and issues in the community without thumbing our noses at our cultural practices? Maybe I’m fia/fie poto for even thinking these things?