Stefany Anne Golberg on Zoning Out
Golberg reflects on the history and fragility of organizing time @ The Smart Set
The evening of December 29, 2011 was a Thursday evening. Most of the citizens of Samoa — a mere 190,000 in total — came home from work, had their nightly meal, and went to sleep. But when they awoke, it was Saturday morning. Friday, December 30, 2011 had disappeared. More precisely, December 30 was erased from the routine progression of time. Those with December 30th anniversaries, lovers of Fridays, and people not quite ready for the next year were out of luck. The clocks had been turned forward, a full day forward. December 30, 2011 was a day no Samoan would know.
The government of Samoa had decided the previous June to move westward across the international date line, so everyone knew the lost Friday was coming. The Samoan government made this change because they wanted to better align Samoa with trading partners in the East: Australia, New Zealand, China, the rest of Asia in general.
Samoans had actually been on the Asian side of the date line before, back in the 19th century. Then, in 1892, an American business house trading in the region convinced the king of Samoa that slipping over the date line to the other side, facilitating trade with California rather than Asia and Australia, was in everyone’s best interest. At the time, it made sense to the king. San Francisco was proving to be a much more influential trading partner than Sydney, and American ships lined Samoan shores. So Samoa left its time zone, and was suddenly just three hours behind California. In a twist of diplomatic self-congratulation, Americans had Samoa perform the shift backward in time on July 4, giving Samoans the opportunity to celebrate American Independence Day twice. In herLetters from Samoa, Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson — the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson, who had emigrated to Samoa with her son in 1890 — described the double Fourth of July thus:
It seems that all this time we have been counting wrong, because in former days communication was entirely with Australia, and it was simpler and in every way more natural to follow the Australian calendar; but now that so many vessels come from San Francisco, the powers that be have decided to set this right, and to adopt the date that belongs to our actual geographical position. To this end, therefore, we are ordered to keep two Mondays in this week, which will get us straight.
For 120 years, America’s trading authority has been encapsulated in the Pacific island nation of Samoa. Now, Samoa is three hours ahead of eastern Australia rather than 21 hours behind it, and 22 hours ahead of California. You could say the ever-shifting time zones in Samoa are symbolic of the ever-shifting tides of geopolitical influence: then from East to West; now from West to East.International journalists, delighted by the story of Samoa’s latest dance with time, saw the symbolism, too. And yet, the headlines were not “American Drones Go the Way of British Naval Ships” or “Australia Leaves the West for Asia”, as one might expect. Rather, the headlines indicated an altogether different fascination: