You are fia/fie poto

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?

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24 Responses to You are fia/fie poto

  1. Awesome topic of convo Seti Matua! I think that once you seek the path of becoming educated, it is a very difficult thing to stifle one’s opinions on subject matters that are of importance. I’ve been fortunate to meet some highly educated people and consider myself blessed to have come to know them over the years. I respect them because they have that Yoda-ish aura & quality about them. You know they have the “wisdom of ages”, they have put in the years of study and application; yet they are unpretentious, humble, direct & honest in who they are, how they talk and where they walk. When they do choose to speak out on something – their message resonates within one’s soul, because of it’s source. Yes they may be confronted by opposers to their opinions, but that in itself does not make it a bad thing. Communication is a two way street right? You give and you take, you speak and you listen. These are not people I consider fiapotz!

    Then there are others, that I’ve observed, who take their acquired education & wear it proudly like the Emperor’s clothing, strutting around & acting all hoighty toighty paloighty (um, I know that isn’t correct English, but it sounds good to me, sorry bowdit!) and for the most part engaging condescendingly with the rest of us! These are they who instead of using that education to broaden their minds to the many different perspectives present in our universe, use it instead to tunnel vision in & focus on their opinion being the only one that matters! Hey fiapotz, such a waste of an education I say! This is my definition of a fiapotz – peepz who take their learning to mean they are above everyone else!

    Having grown up in an environment where my ardent passion for reading & studious behavior was often mocked, (yes I too was frequently told by my Mum to “koaga i le aoga” ~ work hard at school, but then she & my siblings would tell me to shuddup & stop being fiapotz when I suggested other ways of doing things that were against our families norms) I learnt quickly that being the first to speak up or answering all the questions be it in class, at church or at home – es no bueno! It’s easy for me to pick out the fia-potz in the various settings I find myself in now. I tend to steer clear of these peepz because for the most part, they usually contribute nothing to my life, but disdain! I have a very short fuse & tolerance for pretentious wanna-be’s who are quick to put down another’s opinions without giving it a chance to perculate in their own mind.

    Our universe is filled to the brim with opportunities for learning & growth… we are all here & raised in families, and communities for a reason. No man is an island! So judge me as you will, but if you think that you’re more important than I because of your titles, or abbreviations that follow your name, or your advanced vocabulary… think again buddy! I choose to live in a fiapotz free zone! I will continue to seek out those with true depth behind their knowledge base. The quieter ones who sit back & observe… they’re the peepz that pique my interest & garner my respect!

    • Seti Matua says:

      Hey Wanda – Your explanation of the ‘fiapotz’ makes a lot of sense and yes, I have encounter many people who have misused or abused their intellect or talk down in their conversations and associations with others. I wonder though if there are people who don’t intend to be that way but just can’t help it because it is the way they were raised? I too tend to steer away from people and conversations where people just want to show their smarts. I would much rather prefer to be i the company of people who are humble and teach with a humble attitude.

      Thanks for all of your comments and for your continued support of the blog. Faafetai ma ia manuia!

  2. Excellent discussion Seti. Provoked so many thoughts so here’s my attempt to contain them somewhat!
    1. My middle name is Poto. Given to me by my great-aunt, i was raised to be “poto”. BUT even today, at (ahem) a much advanced age – i continue to get the gentle and not so gentle reminders about the importance of not being ‘fia-poto’. Is it about humility? Sometimes. Nobody likes a smartass knowitall and an ‘over’-intellectual person is not a teachable one. But, sometimes I find, particularly in our Samoan/Pacific cultures, its about putting others down. As you note, making sure they know their place. Most often you hear this term from the older generation directed at the younger. I think another similar ‘put-down’ designed to try and shame you into shutting up – is the term “fia palagi”. I hear that one used a lot too, when people dont like being criticized or having their ‘cultural’ take on things scrutinized.
    2. The most dangerous place i see ;fia poto thing being used to harm – is in the classroom. While teaching in Samoa, one of the greatest challenges for me as a teacher, was how to encourage discussion, critiques and debate. Students were too used to respect equalling agree-with-everything-your-teacher-and-elders-tell-you. As an english lit teacher it was a frustrating task to get students to disagree with me, debate with each other, question a text and more. Sometimes i think that this is why people can jump to violence to express their dissent with each other – because they havent been taught how to disagree with words. How to talk out a problem, share diff views and then come to some conclusions together.
    3. On a completely random note – I just started a Pacific Writers WEdnesday blogpost series and a upcoming newsletter…and its called: TUSITALA FIAPOTO. (so imagine my smile when i logged on and found your post on…fiapoto! lol)

    Thanks Seti

    • Seti Matua says:

      Hi Lani – I really appreciate your thoughts, especially from an educator/teacher perspective. I recall times when teachers asked questions in our predominantly Samoan classes and usually the ones who had questions or suggestions were the palagi students or those of us who grew up abroad. It often resulted in students plodding their way through assignments because they didn’t understand but didn’t want to ask questions because they didn’t want to offend the teacher OR they didn’t want to seem dumb or fiapoto. Very valid points and a great lead-in to future topics.
      I can’t wait to read and provide input on TUSITALA FIAPOTO. We seem to be on the same wavelength. By the way, congrats on all of the great success with TELESA. I’m still waiting to launch into the “great romantic debate”.

    • Lani, I was also thought about this when I read your blog about the Tusitala Fiapoto newsletter. I was wondering if it meant something like Wannabe Writer or Smartass Writer, something like that, lol. Although in actual translation it could also be taken as Writer Searching for Wisdom 🙂

      • Seti Matua says:

        LOL Manaia manatu a teine mai SamCo!

      • LOL I asked my husband about the name ‘Tusitala Fiapoto’ and he was horrified. “Its not a good phrase, it means youre a bunch of smartass writers…wannabes who know nothing but think they know everything” And I said, exactly – isnt it great!? Its making fun of our own attempts to be better and to know more…BUT it also means, exactly as you expressed it Elizabeth, a literal translation…’Writers searching for Wisdom.’
        Gotta say again Seti – this was a great post. Im always so envious when i read your blog. It takes me forever to write thought provoking stuff so I hardly do, then i visit your blog and get caught up in the pondering and the thinking and the discussion and I think ‘dammnit, i need to write more stuff like that!’ There you go – Im a writer searching for wisdom when i visit your blog. Very a fia-poto.

      • Seti Matua says:

        Thanks so much Lani. I think a fia poto writer is a good writer because she/he will ask questions about the validity of how we were raised as PI’s. A Tusitala Fia Poto will raise the uncomfortable issues and try to sort through the emotions, the dilemma’s through a different lens. I really like the concept and I hope to be a part of it. I think its the search for wisdom that makes us better at our craft and in our personal lives. I’m also very a fia-poto. Faafetai tele lea alofa!

  3. Hema says:

    Several years ago I was concerned about this issue while preparing to address a portion of our Pacific Islander community. I sought the counsel of several “elders”, on separate occasions, who I consider mentors and teachers, and expressed my anxiety regarding being perceived as “fie poto”. Each of their answers gave me comfort and taught me some valuable personal lessons. Their responses basically boiled down to this – you are not fie poto, if you are poto (lets make that a Hema-ism, hehe). Together with the other helpful advice they provided me I understood this to mean that if I have a knowledge base and competence on a certain topic or issue then I am “poto” in that area. When I speak on that particular issue I can speak with confidence. If I speak on things I am not educated on or have no experience then I stand a chance of being called “fie poto”. So my opinion is that if we wish to address concerns or issues in our community then become as knowledgable as possible about that particular issue, including cultural conflicts and opposing views, and bring it to the table respectfully at the appropriate time and place (learned this the hard way). Be open to constructive feedback and have some thick skin because not everyone will agree with you.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Good thoughts Hema – There’s a similar saying in Samoa. “E lelei le fia poto, ‘ae leaga le faa fia poto.” In essence it means exactly what you said. When you have studied all you can about a given subject, humbly use that knowledge for good. But don’t delve into subjects where you are just spouting off your opinions with the expectation that people take it as fact just because you said it. This is a big issue with our youths as I’m sure you’ve seen in your profession. Our youths have a problem expressing themselves in the presence of ‘elders’ because they’ve never been allowed to openly express themselves to their elders. I’m generalizing that statement but its seems rather prevalent in my experience. Thanks for your thoughts toko!

  4. Lita Sagato says:

    Ha! A fiapoto to me is one that falsely claims to be an expert on a certain subject or subjects. If you don’t know what you are talking about but you give out advice than you are fiapoto. What you should do is study and observe so you become Poto…haha! That brings us to to the problem of those who are Poto but abuse their titles, social status, and credentials to degrade others. I believe this is when you cross the line of fiapoto and are now fiatagata. Share your wisdom in the appropriate settings and amongst those who can benefit from it. It’s all about respect for others and yourself. This is cliche but you most respect others to gain respect.
    In all seriousness my hope is that we all question everything. We come from a culture where it is rude to question an adult. It is looked upon as you questioning their status or rituals. We are taught in the western world to apply the who,what, when, whereand how. If we can’t question our elders than we can never gain the knowledge they wish for us to gain. So, it’s a balancing game. All things must be asked in humility but with meaning. We have the best of both worlds and must integrate them with great care.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Hi Lita,
      I hope we can finally get to a point (and I think we are) where our youths and children feel safe speaking to us openly and freely about the things that they are passionate about. I think we can still teach them respect without them equating that with fear. And I agree that the knowledge transfer between young and old may have some disagreements at times but it is for the mutual benefit of both parties to understand and respect the process.
      We all need to be better informed before speaking out on issues that concern us. Otherwise we are just asking people to take what we say at face value and that usually results in a large group of people spreading gossip instead of factual information. Thanks again for always sharing your insight.

  5. I recall when my Samoan teacher discussed the same thing at Samoa College. The teacher did not want to hear any of us use the term “fia poto” in its modern context because it is incorrect. As you pointed out in one of the discussion replies, the proper term is “faa fia poto” but has been shortened to “fia poto” or “fiapotz” as a slang.
    In it’s original context, faa fia poto means: wanting to appear smart, when (I assume) they are not being smart at all. Fia poto means: to appear smart, or to be smart – which, as the teacher explained, is exactly what we should all want to achieve.
    I believe this is just one of the cases of wordplay gone wrong. I still use the proper term faa fia poto, but to avoid being annoyed at the incorrect use of the shortened version, I simply identify a “fia poto” as what an English speaker would call a “smart ass” or a “smart alec” or “wise guy” or “know-it-all” – terms that are meant as insults when delivered with sarcasm.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Great clarification on the difference between the two Elizabeth. There seem to be more and more faa fia poto these days. They are definitely entertaining and I confess, sometimes listening to their philosophies on different subjects helps to expand my own understanding or gives me the drive to research a topic even more. Thanks for visiting and for your great comments.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, thank you Elizabeth. I didn’t know that “fa’a fia poto” was the correct term for it. Of course, I grew up learning the lingo in our home setting, and not formally in school – thus my ofttimes horrendous Samoan speech patterns! It wasn’t until I was 19 that a member of our Samoan congregation told me after I’d stood up & spoken in Church that when I said “Ou te tu atu ma fai sa’u mulimau…” What I’d just said was that I wanted to stand up & clench my buttocks! ;-D So yeah, I greatly appreciate all the corrections & clarifications on our lingo.

      • Seti Matua says:

        LOL at mulimau. I made those same slip-up’s while learning the language and truthfully, still make some horrid mistakes now. I really wish I had taken the time to teach my sons the language but I think in time if they have a desire, its never too late.

      • Not sure why my post where I thanked Elizabeth for her correction identified me as “Anonymous” lydat, must be cos’ I was on my cell phone at the time. I wish google translation had Samoa up in there, as well as our other Pacific Island nations lingos too!

  6. lupeuluiva S. says:

    I suppose when one attempts to define fiapoto from an ‘individualistic’ sense then it’s somewhat lost in translation (per se). In an esoteric sense, the semantics of fiapoto has to be defined and understood in the Samoan way. I am often called a tautalititi fiapoko (cheeky smart-arse) whenever a discussion of a family faalavelave arises. My traditional mother always dismisses my thoughts since I’m always vocal against the pom-and-circumstance of the faaSamoa.In addition the fiapalagi term also tops mom’s list. Hehe.

    In regard to Eliota’s situation, there were many Samoans who understood his heart and the essence of his message; however, many felt that there were better ways to achieve the same purpose and result. His comments about the refree were unrepresentative of what many have deemed as disrespectful and (un) Samoan; hence a Samoan of his caliber(professional rugby player and an attorney) is expected to know better when in public. He was considered an ambassdor of his country.There’s a Samoan saying..”o le tagata poto ei iloa taofiofi. Ia maua le tofa mamao ma le faautautaga. Ia saunoa fa’atamalii. Ava fatafata ma le va feiloai.”

    Clearly such sentiments/perception are culturally influenced rather than hate or jealousy, imho. It’s apparent that Samoans are proud people; they revel and glorify the successes of their fanau(in a collective sense), which was evident in the massive support for our Manu Samoa. On the personal level they are inward are not ones to boast and bask openly about their children’s successes and achievements. They are simply Samoan?

    Just my fiapoto two cents.

    • Seti Matua says:

      “o le tagata poto ei iloa taofiofi. Ia maua le tofa mamao ma le faautautaga. Ia saunoa fa’atamalii. Ava fatafata ma le va feiloai.”
      Your use of this very deep Samoan saying is a gentle reminder that we should govern our thoughts, words and actions, particularly when we are placed in a position that allows for greater visibility in the public eye. I applaud Eliota for his bravery and outspoken stance against the IRB but I do agree that there may have been other ways to broach the subject. I think we were all cheeky at some point in time and I thank you for sharing that tidbit with us because this is yet another topic we need to explore further because some of our older Samoan parents still think we can be cheeky even late in life ; )
      Faamalo le saunoa. Enjoy the rest of your week and thanks for visiting.

  7. michelle maiava says:

    even with my limited years of living i have to say i was agreeing with everything you were writing. i often think about this but never voice it of course lol so this is comforting knowing im not the only one who thinks so. i agree that our people need to be educated in a way where they can form their own opinions especially being taught in australia&newzealand schools where this was encouraged from a young age. of course the respect aspect of teaching should still be enforced but its more the need of teaching our elders to listen open-mindedly, which i dont think is a good idea lol so start with our present generations, the ones who will be, or are already, parents to our next generations. anyway thats my two sene maybe im just being fiapoto right now haha. after all i was brought up ‘outside’ and maybe im too westernised and dont realise. anyway, another solid piece keep em coming 🙂

    • Seti Matua says:

      Your two sene is valid. Respect should always be a part of the equation but our kids should never be discouraged from speaking up or asking questions. I went through a great portion of my life that way and it was something that really hurt me academically. Thanks Michelle!

  8. I love your blog Seti. Malo lava le taumafai! I, too, have had similar struggles with being told to get an education and then being scolded for speaking my mind. I was taught to seek for knowledge but never try to correct my elders and teachers as well. I still remember once occasion in elementary where my teacher had marked me wrong for a word I had spelled correctly. I knew I had spelled it right but she had already marked it as an error. I struggled with what to do next. I didn’t want to be punished by the teacher for daring to correct her but I also wanted to get 100% on my spelling and not 95%. I laugh at this memory now. I decided to ask my mom for help. I was happy that she supported me by telling me to go back the next day and ask the teacher to recheck my test. I did so and my teacher did make the correction and even apologized for her error. I expected the worst and thought for sure I would be punished for being “faa fiapoto.” But I wasn’t punished. To this day, whenever my mom meets up with this former teacher of mine, she still tells my mom, that I was the only student of all of her students over the years, that has ever questioned her on a test.

    I was born and raised in the islands and I definitely saw the difference in education once I graduated from high school and went off to college in Hawaii. It was intimidating to go from being in a classroom of Polynesian students to a classroom of diverse students. I had to learn to step out of my comfort zone and speak up/participate. I also learned to appreciate and value other people’s opinions/perspectives. It definitely widened my perspective of the world and those around me. So I changed in my ways of thinking and adapting to my environment but when I returned home to the islands, I had to stifle some of that when I was told I was being “fiapoto.”

    It continues to be a dilemma but I think the more open we are to discussing it the more we can make a change. Change is constant and should not always be seen as a negative.
    Stephen R. Covey’s explanation and definition of a paradigm shift is what I think is occurring as the world gets smaller and we are able to interact with people from different cultures and perspectives. From Covey’s book on 7 habits of highly effective people, he explains that a paradigm is how we see the world through our understanding, perceptions, and interpretations. However, a paradigm shift occurs when a change moves us from seeing it one way to another way. That is what I think has to happen–a paradigm shift. As we are open to seeing things in a different way, it allows for more growth and opportunities for growth.
    Thanks again for allowing me to share my thoughts on this.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Thank you so much for the great comments. Awesome examples from your own experiences in education and in life. I know that many have had the same experiences while growing up in the islands. I hope that it is not repeated with the up and coming generations. Faafetai ma malo le saunoa!

  9. Luis says:

    Je vais dire que ce n’est pas faux !!

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