Culture and Etiquette in Fiji

AS A COUPLE
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Any discussion of Fijian culture must take account of the split between ethnic Fijians and their Fiji-Indian adopted neighbours. Fiji-born Indians are forbidden by law to call themselves Fijians, with an almost apartheid-styled constitution being the country’s greatest barrier to building a unified nation. On the street level, the two races get on well enough, but with vastly different cultures and aspirations they tend not to mix socially. Considering them as a whole is thus difficult, although you’ll find Fiji’s peoples are generally extremely hospitable, generous and forgiving. They tend also to be deeply religious with church, temple and mosque well attended.

In rural areas, both amongst Fijians and Fiji-Indians, men and women have distinct roles and seldom mix in social settings. Macho behaviour is common and women travellers may find they experience unwanted attention. Amongst indigenous Fijians a strong heritage of tribal customs influences day-to-day life. For more information on these traditional customs see Visiting a Fijian village.

Smoking is socially acceptable in public places, although it has been officially banned on public transport. Some restaurants and a few bars have self-imposed smoke-free zones. Public toilets are few and far between.

As for dress codes, local women dress modestly. Shorts, sleeveless tops and short skirts are quite acceptable in town centres although they may draw undesired attention. Bikinis are fine at the pool or the beach, but not out and about. Bathing topless in public is strictly forbidden. Most restaurants and resorts are pretty casual but upscale eateries generally expect you to dress for dinner by donning trousers and a collared shirt for men; trousers, skirts or dresses for women. The most conservative environment for dress is in the villages where it’s expected for women to cover shoulders and for both men and women to wear sulus or at least shorts covering the knees – sunglasses and hats should also be removed.

Fijians tend to go to bed early and wake up early so don’t expect much to be going on after 9pm. When meeting, locals are eager to shake hands and ask you where you’re from, and usually exchange pleasantries when passing – a hearty “bula” being almost mandatory in rural areas, although in town centres this greeting is usually a ruse for selling you something. Fijians do not, as a rule, shout at each other or demand service. Visitors often become frustrated at the often glacial speed at which things move and the detached attitude when a problem arises – sega na leqa rules, a mix of mañana of Latin America and the “no worries mate” of Australia. There is little you can do about it and the more anxious or frustrated you get the less sympathy or assistance you’ll be shown. Slow down, relax and take it Fiji time.

Visiting a Fijian village

Visiting a traditional village is one of the highlights of a trip to Fiji. As soon as you arrive at a village, excitable kids call out “bula!”, elders take the time to shake your hand and you’ll invariably receive offers to stay for a meal or longer. To do so will provide a unique insight into Fijian culture.

Tours and homestays

Most resorts offer village tours, often including a trip to a craft market and a simple yaqona ceremony. While these can be a good option for those short on time, you may end up with a rather sanitized experience, as resorts tend to visit nearby villages which have become over commercialized. The best tours visit the more remote, traditional villages and are often combined with adventure activities such as rafting or kayaking. Look out for tours running from Nadi or try a trip to Kadavu.

There’s nothing to stop you visiting a village unaccompanied, providing you follow the tips given below. For a fuller immersion into Fijian life consider staying overnight at a village homestay, which involves staying with a family, usually in a traditional bure. Homestay accommodation is listed throughout the guide.

Village etiquette

When visiting a village there is a certain amount of etiquette to be aware of. As an outsider, locals won’t expect you to follow all the rules but the more you pick up the more you’ll be respected. The following are a few useful pointers:

  • Dress conservatively – men and particularly women should cover shoulders and knees, and preferably wear a sulu (Fijian sarong) around the waist.
  • Avoid visiting a village on a Sunday, which is a special day for religion, family and rest.
  • Before entering a village, remove your hat and sunglasses and carry any backpacks in front of you – don’t hide them as this arouses suspicion.
  • On arrival, ask to see the turanga ni koro (village headman) to whom you should present a sevusevu or introductory gift. Yaqona is the most appropriate form of sevusevu and can be bought at all town markets, either in root form or ready prepared as waqa (powder) – about half a kilo or F$30 worth of roots is appropriate.
  • Other appreciated gifts include books and magazines; food (if staying overnight); school stationery for children or toys such as balloons or balls.
  • On entering a home, remove your shoes, crouch when passing through the door and sit cross-legged with your head a little stooped as a sign of respect. It is polite to shake hands with anyone already present and introduce yourself simply by name, town and country.
  • As part of the ceremony to welcome you to the village, you will be invited to drink yaqona, Fiji’s national drink, with the chief. For more details on this ceremony.
  • Taking photos is acceptable in almost all instances except the initial yaqona ceremony. Fijians take pride in being photographed and will often ask you to take their picture and to see it afterwards. Sending printed photographs is a nice follow-up gesture.
  • If invited to eat, sit cross-legged and wait until everybody has sat down. The head of the house will say grace (masu) after which you can start eating, normally using your hands. You may find yourself the only person eating, with someone fanning the food for you – don’t be put off, this is a common gesture reserved for guests.
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