“Bonjour”, “La Orana”, and “Hello” surrounded us as we disembarked the airplane and into the overwhelming humidity. Since I only speak English, I was immediately culture shocked with the French and Tahitian languages. The LePendu’s were our host family who warmly welcomed our UW group of 22 students with flower lei’s, shell necklaces, and friendly kisses. This marked the beginning of my University of Washington - Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity summer 2013 study abroad journey in Tahiti for one month, exploring the towns of Punaauia, Fa’a, Papeete, and Moorea.
The program was focused on the art of storytelling, intersecting oral traditions and creative digital expression.
A small island with an even smaller population, Tahiti is home to natural wonders of sandy beaches, exotic flora and fauna, and clear blue ocean waters. To the outside world, it is known as paradise. Weeks leading up to the trip, some of my peers would sarcastically remark, "you're going to study abroad in Tahiti? That must be really, really hard". However, many people never truly experience the aspects of Tahiti that make the island so alluring and captivating.
Our journey focused on making connections within the Polynesian community and learning about the Tahitian culture beyond the stereotypes and pre-perceptions. We spent weeks studying the traditional Tahitian canoes Polynesians used to voyage across miles of ocean during migration through guest speakers, readings, and discussions. Afterwards our group canoed in open water, swam with stingrays, and learned to how to paddle board with the LePendu kids. This type of active learning and community building was essential to the Tahitian culture.
During our second week, we attended the Heiva Dance Festival in downtown Papeete to watch an entertaining Polynesian show full of chanting, dancing, and singing. Afterwards, we got to partake and create our own Heiva festival, learning four dance routines, two songs, and a traditional chant within 48 hours to perform for the Punaauia community.
Volunteering at a kid’s camp and elementary school were the most rewarding experience of the study abroad. We spent all day with the children learning about their culture by weaving handmade baskets, making coconut milk, and preparing the dish E’ia Ota (Tahitian lime-marinated tuna). I also loved sharing parts of the American culture by playing basketball, soccer, and football with them. We also attended an American Football game between two local high schools to support the students the UW Athletic Football Department helped coach in June 2013. The football team performed the traditional Hakka dance for UW showing their appreciation of our support.
This was my first time out of the country and first time studying abroad. Only staying for one month, every day was a new adventure and memory that would pass by too quickly. Tahiti was an eye-opening study abroad trip that has no doubt changed my life.
It is a destination that offers the greatest of simple pleasures rooted in a culture that values community, nature, and diversity.
"Maeva i te Ora" means "Welcome to the Life", the theme of our study abroad and my blog. The meaning is rooted in the LePendu family teaching me a lot about living with a positive outlook, big heart, and open mind. I realized the importance of slowing down and enjoying special moments with special people, truly living and being present in my life. I am extremely grateful and humbled to have experienced the trip of a lifetime. More pictures coming soon!