It was five years since my last trip to the dentist. I was adamant the receptionist had been eyeing up my teeth from the moment I walked into the clinic. Jaw clenched, and arms folded, I felt like a kid about to be scolded.
When she called my name and shyly asked something completely unrelated to dental hygiene, I was caught off-guard.
"Sorry to have to ask this, but is there any chance you are Samoan?"
"Yes, I am," I replied.
She explained one of their dentists was having trouble communicating with a Samoan patient. The elderly man was having partial dentures refitted. While the new set seemed to fit well, his dentist was unsure whether he was satisfied with them. She was also unsure about questions he was asking.
Back in the waiting room, I assumed the progressively loud, muffled sounds was someone having their teeth pulled. It turned out to be two people attempting to traverse a significant language barrier involving dental devices. I remember trying to pick which was the least dire of the situations. Both were as painful as each other, I decided.
When the receptionist asked whether I could help, the angst I felt over my half-decade dental check ratcheted up a few notches.
My Samoan, on its best days, is fairly elementary. I can get by in basic conversations, and it improves when it is spoken regularly around me. However, that day, sitting at the dental clinic, I was certain a discussion about dentures was beyond me.
Being Samoan, it is never easy admitting that. Losing your mother tongue, particularly in a city where many people switch between it and English seamlessly, feels like a significant failure.
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Questions around identity, family, culture and the things you miss out are all part of the conversation. One which is repeatedly asked is: 'Because I am not fluent, does that make me less Samoan?'
Certainly, there are many who believe being able to speak Samoan is a fundamental part of being Samoan. That makes perfect sense to me. After all, language frames the world we live in.
Stan Grant, Indigenous Affairs editor for the Guardian Australia , wrote of his own experience as someone who did not speak the language of his forefathers.
"My father has language that speaks to his sense of place," Grant wrote. "The birds, the rocks, the trees, the hills and the waters have names that echo through millennia. To hear these words fall from his tongue is to know who he is and where he is."
Grant explained that his own identity, while not rooted in the same certainty as his father's, honours Wiradjuri and his ancestors in its own way.
"I am the sum of many parts," he wrote. "Inspired by my father and to honour his legacy and the traditions of our people I have learned more of the Wiradjuri language. I am proud when I see my children – raised in China and the Middle East as much as Australia – finding pride in being Wiradjuri.
"Yet English is my first language. In English, I find the words to describe myself. I am a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man, an Australian of this country's first peoples, connected to deep traditions, seeking to live in a fascinating world."
The complex and sensitive relationship between language and cultural identity for those who have lost their mother tongue is beautifully illustrated by Grant. It is an area fraught with doubts which can make it more difficult to articulate the knowledge and vocabulary you do possess. I have heard my Māori friends discuss similar sentiments and refer to it as "whakamā".
At the beginning of this year, I begun Gagana Sāmoa lessons. I was convinced it was the path to reclaiming my confidence to interact in Samoan. I would no longer need to think twice and check sentence structure when asked questions I did not hesitate to answer in English.
The two-hour, weekly evening classes have become a ritual for our class of about 30. Nearly all of us are Samoan and have grown up in New Zealand. Our abilities in the Samoan language vary.
For myself, it has been an interesting journey that has encompassed far more than picking up extra vocabulary phrases. I discovered my Samoan is a lot more comprehensive than I thought.
Importantly, and in accordance with Grant's conclusions, I have come to understand that the desire to relearn my mother tongue is part of what makes me Samoan. The Monday classes confirm that, and have assisted in the confidence I have.
I felt brave enough that on that grim day at the dentist, I smiled broadly and pushed my misgivings away. The old man who was confused about his dentures actually wanted information about the moulds of his mouth. It turned out his new dentures fitted perfectly, and both he and the dentist were grateful for my assistance.
I also found out that after five years, my teeth and gums are in perfect health. So, here's to flossing and Gagana Sāmoa classes.