Island Life in Niue: An Expat's Perspective
Shanny Matterson, the freelance travel writer and creative copywriting guru from Rebel and Roam – a primary school teacher – has had adventure tattooed on her heart since as long as she can remember.
Meet Shannon and hear her perspective on life as an expat in Niue.
Tell me about island life. How does living in Niue fair to home in Queensland?
Life in Niue is – pardon my language – pretty f***ing rad.
Niue is a tiny island in the Polynesian Pacific region, with only about 1,200 people living on the island fulltime. From May-October we have the tourist season, so the population increases a little (and believe me, we can spot a tourist from a mile away!), but most of the time, everyone knows everyone on the island.
When Dan and I aren’t working, you’ll most likely find us snorkeling and diving out in the ocean (we get up to 100m visibility here); exploring caves and sea tracks; or drinking beers, speaking broken Niuean and laughing with our local mates.
Niue is one of the friendliest and most laid-back countries in the world. We wear flowers in our hair and Havaianas on our feet. Everyone waves at each other when driving, seatbelts are optional, and riding in the flatbed of a truck is the norm. There is only one television channel (which we don’t watch in our house), and there are no billboards, shopping centres, nightclubs, fast food outlets or movie theatres. Traffic doesn’t exist, even though I can count the number of main roads on my hand. Most food comes either via plane (once a week) or cargo ship (monthly); everything else comes from the sea or from family-tended bush farms. For a big chunk of the year, we only have one flight in/out per week, so you can imagine how exciting ‘Plane Day’ is for us!
Basically, it’s about as far from life on the Gold Coast as you could possibly imagine. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.
How long have you been living in Niue and what took you there? Give me the backstory
From the moment we met, Dan and I always said we wanted to live our life together overseas; we both love travelling and crave a life unbound by tradition and expectations. We put it out to the Universe and set the intention to move overseas at the end of 2015; but as often happens in life, an opportunity came along 12 months ahead of schedule.
I came home from work one day to the news that Dan had been head-hunted by a dive shop in Niue to take on a head instructor/management position (not to brag or anything, but he’s one of the best scuba instructors going around) and he’d decided to move to Niue for the tourist season. My first thought was 'I don’t do long distance relationships'. My second thought? Stuff that. I’m going too.
Apart from being a freelance travel writer, I’m also a primary school teacher. Because a girl’s gotta’ pay the bills, am I right? So with next to no information about the place, I sent out an email with my resume and within a week, was offered a teaching contract at the local school, commencing immediately. Suddenly, our five-month visit had morphed into a two-year commitment.
So in February 2015 we found ourselves quitting our full-time jobs, selling or giving away everything we owned, moving out of our rented apartment in Burleigh Heads, throwing together a hasty farewell party and flying off to a tropical island in the middle of nowhere – all within four weeks!
That was a year ago and we haven’t looked back.
I know you’re a teacher and that you are teaching locally in Niue. What has this experience been like for you?
In a nutshell? Challenging, but rewarding. When I graduated from university with my teaching degree in 2013, my plan was to spend the majority of my career teaching overseas, travelling from country to country. I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the world – even if it was only a small contribution.
I came to Niue with no knowledge of what I was really getting into, and I’ve had to learn a lot on my feet along the way. It’s been a year of learning a new curriculum, a new language, and a new way of doing things. What worked for me back in Australia doesn’t always work here. There have been times when I just want to sit down and cry out of frustration or confusion, but those are few and far between. Most days I’m stoked to be teaching here and I’m definitely a better teacher for the experience.
What have been the challenges of living and teaching remotely in another country, let alone a tropical island? What have you learnt?
Teaching overseas – in any country – is filled with challenges. But teaching in a remote location like Niue comes with added hurdles: the lack of resources (both in staff and materials); the isolation from the rest of the world; the challenges of trying to solve problems with the limited means you have; the significantly decreased salary; and working with children that only start learning in English from Year 4. Needless to say, you learn to get very good at improvising, listening, thinking laterally and being comfortable with the unfamiliar.
I remember walking into my empty, dusty, leaky, wasp-infested, concrete classroom on the first day – after landing in the country less than 48 hours earlier – and feeling completely out of my depth. We came to Niue with just a suitcase each, so I had (very) limited means to turn that space into a bright classroom in just a few days, which was a really sobering moment for me as a teacher. I remember sitting on the filthy concrete floor in the tropic humidity, staring at a dead crab rotting in the middle of the room, and (silently) crying my eyes out. I’d never felt so alone and so filled with self-doubt, professionally speaking.
There’s also the language barrier. It’s difficult when you’re teaching a student who doesn’t speak or understand English very well, and I often feel like I’m letting my students down by not being able to speak fluent Niuean to help them to understand concepts. The best thing I can do as a teacher is to show up every day, try my hardest to make learning interesting and exciting for my students, and inspire them to be the best little humans they can be.
Talking education, what can the Australian system learn from Niue and vice versa? And is there a ‘right’ way?
There’s definitely no right or wrong way; both systems have positives and negatives.
In Niue, we teach the New Zealand Curriculum so there are some similarities to the Australian Curriculum, but there are also huge differences. The one that sticks out the most for me is how the New Zealand Curriculum truly values, promotes and differentiates for Maori and Pacific Islanders, whereas I find the Australian Curriculum’s attempts at inclusion for Indigenous and Torres Strait students to be minimal, inauthentic and tokenistic. But that’s just my (humble) opinion.
In saying that, I do struggle with the concept that the students here are marked and evaluated based on New Zealand standards and levels, even though they don’t start learning in English until Year 4 (the early years of education are all delivered in Vagahau Niue). I find this supremely unfair and it breaks my heart to think that no matter how hard they may try, most of these kids are always going to be seen as not achieving the standards set for others who start learning in English from the very beginning (Oh, and did I mention that the Niuean alphabet has only 16 letters? So yeah, there’s that too). It’s really disheartening when government leaders say they expect greater results from us when they don’t take the context of those results into consideration and refuse to make allowances for them.
On the plus side, with such a small community over here, everyone knows everyone which means I’ve become friends with most of my students’ parents. It’s not unusual for a parent to call me at 6am or 9pm to tell me something; I see parents out and about every day; I’m friends with a few of them on social media (which is frowned upon in Australia); and I’ve had students come to my house unexpectedly to drop off gifts or ask questions about school. I love the fact that – nine times out of 10 – when one of my students comes to school feeing down or sick or something, I already know what’s going on because I know the family. I give my kids hugs when they ask for them, share my lunch if they need it, administer First Aid without worrying about filling out forms or writing up reports, and I discipline them when necessary with the full support of the parents. It’s a great feeling to know that we are educating the students holistically and in conjunction with their families.
I also love the way culture is celebrated and valued here in Niue. The students have weekly traditional craft classes; the girls learn how to weave baskets and fans, make tufis (a broom used widely here), and create other traditional items. Boys learn how to make tika (a traditional spear pronounced ‘sick-ah’), traditional cricket bats, and model vakas, among other things. Wednesday is Local Food Day and we encourage kids to eat a lunch made from items grown in their bush gardens or caught in the sea. Every Friday we get together as a cohort for cultural singing and students are always encouraged to express themselves through dance and traditional movement – and holy moly, can they move! And it’s not just the girls – the boys here are exceptional dancers and watching them perform is truly breath taking! There’s not enough value placed on artistic or cultural expression back home, and I think Australia could definitely learn a thing or two about education from Niue.
Culturally, have you come across some rather interesting nuances?
The difference in culture, values and religious beliefs has definitely been a big learning curve – and I say that as an Aussie who is waaay too casual about a lot of things, swears like a trooper, has lived a pretty wild life and avoids organized religion like the plague. But I have loved learning the traditions and customs of the Niuean people and although I don’t always understand them from my cultural viewpoint, I certainly respect them.
There’s little things that amuse me: like how everyone calls Dan my ‘husband’, even though we aren’t married. How the locals are always shocked to hear that we’ve chosen not to have kids; it’s incomprehensible to most of them. The term ‘palagi’ (the Niuean word for ‘white person’) is used widely and always makes me laugh. And the Niuean custom of eating your body weight in food at any gathering always has me clutching my stomach in pain!
Religion is also major factor in life here, with locals going to church every Sunday. Both my partner and I don’t believe in organised religion, but we keep that to ourselves for the most part and so far we’ve avoided any drama about it. Death and funerals are handled very differently here, some of which make me feel a little uncomfortable (like the lack of traditional coffins and visiting the home of the family, even if you don’t know them).
But the biggest thing that causes cultural overwhelm in me is the language barrier. Although Niueans can speak English, they don’t speak it all the time. This can make it hard when you’re the only palagi in a group, which I often am. I’ve been learning and speaking the language as best as I can, and I can often understand the context of a conversation more than I can contribute to it.
But sometimes, when you’re sitting at a table and everyone is speaking in rapid-fire Niuean, you can’t help but feel isolated and left out since you can’t quite follow along (and it really sucks having to ask ‘What was that?’ all the time). Sometimes in these situations, I feel such extreme cultural overwhelm that I actually start to tear up a bit because I miss talking freely with friends and family back home. It’s that feeling of knowing that no matter how hard you try to assimilate, learn the language, adopt the customs and culture and become a part of the community, you’ll always be an outsider. For me, it’s the most frustrating part of living here.
Spill on the highlight reel. What makes it all worth it? (Both from the teaching and lifestyle perspective)
The biggest draw card for living out here is definitely the work/life balance.
I live in a cottage on top of a hill that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. I have coconuts, limes, chilies and papaya growing in my yard. We have some very generous local friends who are skilled fishermen and they often give us fresh fish that they catch on their vakas [traditional outrigger canoes].
Snorkeling on one of the many reefs that surround our island is part of my weekly routine; I’ve gone swimming with humpback whales, patted sea kraits, and played with dolphins. Going out dancing on a Saturday night means wearing cutoff shorts, Havaianas, a messy ponytail and no makeup – not a high heel or fake eyelash in sight! Sundays are a mandatory day of rest where pretty much everything shuts down and I get to spend the day exploring the island with Dan.
How long do you plan to be in Niue? What’s plans/visions going forward?
To be honest? I have no idea. What started off as a two-year stint could very easily turn into a longer stay – we absolutely LOVE it out here! But there are so many other places I want to live and work in the world, so I just have to trust that the right opportunities will present themselves at the right time. Either way, I’m enjoying the experience and as long as I can still venture out into the world every year for some hardcore travelling, I’ll be happy.