What it Means to be Beautiful

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Three of us sat on the steps just outside the gate, feet in the sand, facing the setting sun as it dipped into the pacific dressed in bright oranges and pinks. It had been a long day of class, swimming, diving, and walking along the reef. Mama was just putting out dinner inside the house behind us, and we could smell the taro and rice through the open windows. It’s been over a week since we arrived in Tahiti, and as the three of us talked, we wondered together how our perceptions of “Tahiti” had changed in the short time since we arrived. “It’s different than I thought it would be,” one of my fellow students commented, “it’s not what I expected… It’s better.”

Spoiler alert: Tahiti is not the perfect paradise that we see romanticized in post cards or in the movies back home. It has poverty, homelessness, and pollution. The Tahitian language might very well be lost in a few generations, just like Hawaiian was, as the French language takes its place. Oral traditions that have carried centuries of accumulated knowledge and wisdom are in danger of fading into history. It’s a real place with real issues that are complicated and concerning.

But don’t get me wrong: Tahiti is breathtakingly beautiful. The blue water and vivid sunsets, the lush tropical forests and striking mountains are the stuff of Hollywood. But what they leave out of the movies is the people, the culture, the emphasis on family and community… to me, that is what makes this place truly breathtaking.

Despite my light skin, foreign language, and cultural naiveté, I have never felt like an outsider here. The hospitality and generosity of our host family has a lot to do with that. (Thank you mama and papa!) But no matter where we go, people wave and smile and greet us with sincerity. This sense of community stands in stark contrast to the sometimes cold indifference of Seattle that we’re so used to.

Tomorrow is a new day, a blank page on which to write a new story. Perhaps we will visit some new local sites, probably cool off in the ocean, have our first Tahitian language class, and learn from our teachers and friends a little bit of what it means to live into Tahitian culture. We have so much to learn, but each day we see more and more of what makes this place truly beautiful.

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