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The West in the Pacific

‘I am an ignorant outsider and will never be able to understand,’ was an ongoing epiphany I had during my trip to Papua New Guinea with ANU Global Programs. I have a way of approaching things that don’t lend to writing short pieces; my tally for being told that I need to ‘stop attempting to unlock the solution to solving world poverty’ stands at four and counting (and I’m only a second-year undergrad).

My western-educated way of categorising things couldn’t handle picking a single box to frame this trip around. The rate of realisations for the week was probably about three an hour, and you could categorise every one into boxes (like culture, women, politics, economics or the environment). This was a case of the classic learning phenomena that often occurs when you travel: the more you see, the more you realise you do not know.

As a group, we struggled with coming to terms with huge moral questions to tackle in just a week. What is the best way to approach aid and development? The morality of education? (does western education breed out culture? Is western education just a colonial attempt of homogenising the world’s cultures?), and trying to digest the reality of domestic violence. At
first sight, each of these questions can be divided and placed into boxes. Issues of approaching aid and development are placed into the ‘international politics’ box, the morality of education is placed into the ‘domestic politics’ box, and understanding domestic violence is put into a ‘social’ box.

We went as a team of international observers, sent to collect data and to strictly only observe the process. In our work, this same sort of categorization took place through the surveys we were given to base our data around when interviewing citizens around polling places. We based our questions on categories such as women in politics, health, transport and mobile phone access. However, each question asked became little anecdotes. A question answering whether education has improved turned into a story about how the youth have nowhere to go after graduation. A question about clean water availability turned into a grievance about local political members’ unfulfilled promises. With each question asked, the interviewees covered another three. Undercurrents of religion and politics ran through all – unable to be restrained within the confines of categorical boxes.

We have the option of not being political in the Western World, and in Australia specifically. It’s not uncommon for people of voting age to decide that they ‘don’t care enough’ to vote, or conclude that they ‘can’t be bothered’. This choice is not optional in Papua New Guinea. This is a country where being politically active is the only legitimate avenue for achieving community change. Being engaged in politics is the only way to improve medicine availability and get clean water. It is not just a choice; it is ingrained into all parts of life.

There was a dress code to adhere to while on this trip. Our course conveners recommended wearing clothes that covered our arms and to wear long pants or skirts. When leaving the complex, my roommate and I discussed how out of place she would have felt if these codes had not been ascribed, as the dress code made her feel more comfortable.

Westernised views tell us that we should be able to wear whatever we desire, and that a true freedom of expression requires women to challenge the restrictive cultural norms set in place by men. The above is just one example of an exception to how we tend to approach the region from the outside. I think being in PNG made me realise that, although there is nothing wrong with this, there is a time and a place for asserting these misshaped notions. In the wrong time and place, it only ends up alienating and prevents further understanding. We must acknowledge that Western notions of progressive change are often out of place.

I was an outsider, and I always will be. I had a responsibility to attempt to understand in as many ways as I possibly could. It was my responsibility not to prematurely alienate myself as Western
supremacist, comfortable in my upper-class bubble.

It’s my responsibility to listen to stories and to understand the importance of politics in their lives. Awareness of my positionality and the impact of my lens placed on my experiences allowed me to approach with common humanity: this was the only way I found I could reconcile the privilege of my position. It would be a disservice to reduce entire countries down to a single culture, and an equal disservice to not attempt to understand.