The longer I live in Vanuatu, the deeper I can dig into the culture and cultural differences of this place. That also opens up chances to reflect on my own cultural perspective and biases. It is a fun bit of navel-gazing and fascinating as an anthropology of my own culture as well as the culture of my host country.
Most recently, I’ve noticed a difference in the way people approach relationships. At home, a personal relationship starts through a mutual interest whether it is at work or meeting on a sports team or through a mutual friend. The relationship grows, or doesn’t, based on the personalities of the people involved. If I meet someone at work who I hit it off with, I may seek them out for other activities that appeal to our mutual interest. If I meet someone at work who I don’t hit it off with, I will leave that as a purely professional relationship and not pursue anything further. All of that happens based on my personality and the other person’s personality.
Here, it seems that relationships are based on the roles a person plays. Each relationship is a role which includes a set of responsibilities and rights. That role is referred to as the relationship. If I sing out ‘sister’ to someone, then I fill the ‘sister’ role for them. That role includes things like companion in the garden, assistance with marriages of children, sharing of food and cooking duties, sharing of child rearing duties, evening conversation, and basket weaving company. It isn’t important in that relationship if the person is older than me or younger than me, if we have mutual interests outside the work being done right now or even if we speak the same language. We fill the roles assigned to us by the relationship.
Most interestingly to me is that the personalities take a backseat to the role a person is supposed to fill. I am supposed to fill the role of daughter-in-law to Jason’s papa. It doesn’t matter that my name is Gaea because he only calls me Bali (language for daughter-in-law). It doesn’t matter that I don’t eat meat, he will give us meat when he has it because if you have meat, you share it with your children and their partners. Who I am plays a role in our relationship but it does not define the relationship. The relationship is pre-defined by the relationship, as circular as that is.
This is contrasted against my relationships at home. Jonah is my brother which gives him that role. I can’t see another person filling the role of brother. If I had another brother, the relationship would be different because it would be a different person. Jonah’s interests and passions color our relationship. If Jonah was interested in cars and not acting or he was a teetotolar instead of a bar tender, we would have a different relationship. He would still be my brother, the name of the relationship would be the same and the general shape of the relationship would be the same, but the details would be drastically different.
I’m not sure which is better. I started this post thinking that a relationship based on knowing the person was a better kind of relationship. It means that you pursue a relationship with the people you really care about and can leave the other relationships at a lower level of intimacy. On the other hand, if you put the role above the person, you know how to interact with any person you meet. You have a preset relationship and expectations within that to meet. You can’t exile a person from your relationships based on something that may change in a year or two years. You are forced to treat everyone with a certain level of respect, because every defined relationship has respect built in to it.
Navel-gazing is fun!