Manti Te'o's origins make girlfriend story plausible

Tuesday , January 29, 2013 - 3:52 PM

Rheka Basu

It’s not hard to see why so many Americans assume former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was lying about grieving over a dead girlfriend who never actually existed. But viewed through the prism of another culture, it’s harder not to believe him.

Knowing little about football but something about Te’o’s origins, I have empathy for the young man who, assuming his story is true, naively believed in blind true love with someone of his own morals and background, as many young people raised on old-fashioned Asian values do.

Te’o grew up in Hawaii in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints family of Samoan roots -- the sort of large, traditional, religious family I met in American Samoa while my older son was living and teaching there a few years ago. For young Samoan men, being a football star is a coveted route to the mainland and to making a name for the family. Marriages are pacts between families. Parental approval is paramount, and discipline can be harsh, even corporal. Te’o even told Katie Couric that his parents’ approval mattered more than anything, and that the worst part of the experience was seeing them hurt because of him.

Every family is different, of course, and the point is not to stereotype but to help explain behavior that to many Americans seems implausible. While Mormon Samoan culture is a far cry from the Indian culture in which I was raised, old Asian traditions include similarly conservative attitudes about relationships. Having sex before marriage, or even dating, can still be taboo. I know of marriages conducted across continents over the telephone between people who hadn’t met, though their parents made sure their stars, caste backgrounds and social standings were in alignment.

Young people raised amid such expectations may grow up naive, with no dating experience and no access to sex education or birth control. So they nurture romantic fantasies of someday meeting and marrying their Prince or Princess Charming. Strict cultural expectations can also breed secrecy and hypocrisy, especially against the backdrop of the highly sexualized mass popular culture we live in.

Te’o said the worst lie he told was to his father, in claiming he had met the woman, because he so wanted her to be real for his parents’ sake. “As a child, your biggest thing is to get approval of your parents,” he explained. Not every American 21-year-old thinks so.

So imagine a sheltered, trusting 21-year-old guy being contacted by a beautiful young woman who fits all the right criteria, whom all the friends he asks say is real. She is someone his family can embrace. They talk daily by phone. She talks to his parents. He falls for her. They plan a few times to meet, but that falls through.

Te’o told Couric that when the prankster who concocted his fictitious love object apologized, he claimed he just “wanted to help people to connect on a personal level.” The perpetrator obviously understood why such a hoax would strike all the right notes. In explaining why he fell for that one young woman when he could probably have a chance with many on campus, Te’o talked of the similar backgrounds they shared and that she knew his “standards, my culture and what’s expected of me.”

Then she “dies” and the pain he suffers is as real as any, even if the woman never was. And imagine his embarrassment when it turns out he was played for a fool.

Condemnation of Te’o has been harsh. “Is this storyteller getting paid for all these interviews? What a scam,” said one post on The Daily Beast website after the Couric interview. “Why doesn’t he just admit he made up an imaginary girlfriend so the other guys on the team wouldn’t ask him why he didn’t have a girlfriend?” And this: “Manti used his religion-inspired character and the tragedy of his innocent girlfriend’s death to advance his career to make more money.”

Who would go to such lengths to advance a career? How could it be advanced anyway, when such a lie would eventually be exposed? Believe Te’o or don’t believe him. But first try to reach beyond your assumptions and experiences to understand how a story could read very differently through a different set of cultural values and lenses.

Contact Rekha Basu, a Des Moines Register columnist, at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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