It's all in the eyes - a guide to saying Yes and No in Fiji
Australians have a lot of unique qualities that would define us as "Aussies" to non-Aussies. One of these is our ability to shorten any word and any sentence.
"I'm deadset devo, the coppers grabbed me doin' a u-ie on the way back from the servo, I was headin' to Bluey's barbie after buying a slab from the bottl-o" or in proper English "I am so upset because the police booked me as I was doing an illegal turn. I was leaving the petrol station, on the way to my friends barbeque, after buying some beer from the alcohol store"
Despite being a full English-speaking country, it is common for Australians to make up our own language, whether it is via words or the 'flip of the bird' gestures. It's no different abroad, and we've discovered a couple of funny, little nuances that Fijians have adopted.
Fijians are notorious for their relaxed way of life, operating on 'Fiji time' and taking things as they come. If you plan on asking any questions to your new friends, you will need to have an understanding of "YES" and "NO" - Fiji-style.
It's all in the eyes
I can vividly recall the first time I realised this was a 'thing' in Fiji. We were living in a village-type situation in 2010. Every afternoon all the Village kids would come to our house to watch television and eat afternoon tea. I asked one of the little girls, Meme, if she would like to stay for dinner.
Her beautiful big brown eyes stared up at me.
So I asked again, this time a little louder (in case she couldn't hear me).
She stared at me some more.
So I asked again, this time a little louder again and a little slower (in case she couldn't hear me and I spoke too fast).
She stared at me again.
So I asked my Fijian friend to ask her in Fijian.
She looked up at me again, staring some more.
And then I saw it.
Her eyebrows raised slightly up and down very quickly.
It was then I learnt that Fijians will often say YES with their eyebrows. A quick raise and lowering means YES. At the time, my 2 year old daughter adopted the habit and it became a great source of laughter when holidaying back in Australia with my family. When Fijian kids do it, sometimes it means they are feeling nervous of you - too nervous to talk out loud. When Fijian adults do it to you, it is a sign of friendship - like they don't need to put on 'airs and graces'.
In previous blogs, I've written a quick run-down of handy phrases and words to know if you are travelling to Fiji for the first time, or moving to Fiji as an expat. One of these is the Fijian word for "thank you" which is "Vinaka Vakalevu".
When you say "Vinaka" to someone, they will take it as you saying "thank you". There are no dramas there. However, rules change slightly when you offer a Fijian something, for example a cup of tea. Their answer will likely be "Vinaka". Most Aussies would translate that to mean, "thank you - yes please".
However, it doesn't always mean this. Confused? I still am. On some occasions, it actually means "no thank you", especially if it coupled with a slight head move to one side. To get around this without pushing a cup of tea on someone who doesn't want one - I often then ask, "is that vinaka yes? or vinaka no?". The standard response to this is a big Fijian laugh, to which I still remain confused, and ask "is that Vinaka yes? or Vinaka no?".
Saying Yes and Asking Questions
I've said before that Fijians are extremely polite and respectful. Sometimes, they will say YES to you in an attempt to avoid 'hurting your feelings', even when it is a situation that our feelings wouldn't be hurt. Or they may smile, in an attempt to show that they understand what you mean, when in fact they don't. I would suggest checking twice, especially if it is a matter of importance, like a food allergy or street directions. This brings me to your style of asking questions.
In all the years we've worked and lived in Fiji, this is one thing I have learnt to understand and adopt. If you don't specifically ask, you won't get a specific answer (or an answer at all!). I believe this relates to the sincerity and quiet respect that Fijians have, that I've mentioned before. Especially in emails, unless the recipient has a direct answer for you - you won't hear back. And unless you specifically ask a question in the email - it won't be answered. My advice here is to be very specific with your questions (in conversation and in correspondence), ie. "what will happen if I don't pay my electricity bill on the due date?" instead of "will my power be cut?" to which your response will not be a YES or NO, and then you can be sure the person understood your question and will give you an actual answer.
"Where You Going?"
When you meet a Fijian acquaintance in the street, or on the bus, they will often ask you "Where you going?". It's more of a fast greeting, not actually asking for a long-winded response. Or without you asking where they are going, they will motion towards the distance with their head or hand. This means that they are heading somewhere, and kind of busy, and don't really want to stop and talk for hours. It is kind of the Australian equivalent of nodding 'hello' to someone in a shopping centre, as you keep walking fast avoiding a conversation. Fijians are far too polite to do that, so motion with their head that they are on their way (a bit like the 'eyes' - no words needed!).
I love the little differences that are found between cultures. Coming up with this list today, I began thinking about the friends I made whilst living as an expat in Fiji. When living in a different country for the first time, you don't know if your thoughts about the new way of life you are experiencing are just mad reflections of a home sick brain. More often than not, when you meet other expats and start chatting, you come to realise that you've all been thinking the same thing. And it's in those moments when friendships are made - I have found expat friendships are fast and fun because you are bonding over 'new' common experiences, and both have no 'home' friends to share about it with.
I love being an expat - if you get the opportunity grab it. If you want the opportunity, make it! And if you find yourself in Fiji, let's meet for a coffee. When I am in Australia, I stay on the Gold Coast, and always happy for a coffee date. Message me!
Moce friends xo