The word has its origin dating back to the English missionaries who first landed in the 1830’s. These missionaries were the first people to make significant contact with the native people of Samoa. The word of God was spread across the islands and these strange foreigners were seen as saviors. The literal meaning of palagi translates closely to: “those from above”. Seems flattering right?
Unfortunately, this word doesn’t hold the same revere as it once did. Today, you will often here palagi followed by a snicker or laugh. You may also hear it being used with a disdain in a person’s voice. The term palagi is synonymous with words such as farangi (Arabic) or gaijin (Japanese).
On a lighter tone, Samoans don’t always use it in a negative form. If they don’t know your name you may here people say, “hi palagi!” as you walk down the road. This is almost certain to happen as you passed little children, who may or may not have clothes on. It is also commonly used as the Samoan word for the English language.
When I first arrived in my village I heard the word often. As a newcomer I understood that I was seen as an outsider, but yet the word still left a small bit of discomfort in my stomach. I knew they didn’t mean it in a harmful way, but I didn’t like being seen as that “stupid foreigner.” I had already spent 3 months in my training village and the people had welcomed me in and were no longer calling me palagi. The first time around I didn’t know better, but my second go at integration made me feel twice the outsider.
At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about being referred to by a somewhat slanderous term. I wasn’t accustomed to it. The worst stereotypical term that had been used to describe me was “Southerner.” As the first several months passed less and less people called me by the name, but there were those persistent few who didn’t stop. To those people I did one of three things: 1. Ignore the term completely. 2. Nicely reminded them of my name. 3. Owned the term completely by repeating it in a joke about myself. They always loved it when I chose the third choice.
This tactic seemed to work. I have now been in my village for 8 months and I rarely hear palagi. If I do, it’s not being used towards me. I am no longer seen as a foreigner or outsider. I am viewed as a member of the community, which feels absolutely great. Integrating into a different culture from one’s home is no easy task. I am proud to have fulfilled this once daunting assignment. In the early days of living in my village I dreaded going for walks knowing there would be much unwanted attention. Now, I am treated just like everyone else, and I enjoy going for runs or walks around the village. The experience has boosted my confidence in my ability to conquer various situations and come out successful. If I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps this would have never happened.