Thursday, 12 July 2012

An unshakeable sense of self

"Life in plastic, it's fantastic"

Is there anything more powerful than a parent's love? I remember reading Lemalu Tate Simi's seminal poem "Identity"* when I was in school. Even then, well before I had imagined what it would be like to have a child, to have someone hold my whole heart in his chubby little hands, to lie in the dark, listening to his breath heavy with sleep, and hope for everything for him, even then, one of the things that touched me most about Lemalu's poem, was that it was written for his eldest son. That poem captures a parent's love and the prayers and plans we make for our children. 

Perhaps I recognised in those poignant words, a reflection of my own parents love, and what they strove to give me.

My parent's chose to bring me and my brothers up in the bosom of my family and fa'asamoa. Yes the full fa'asamoa. The 'leave-you-very-lucky-to-eat-elegi-because-we-have-to-give-every-sene-for-your-father's-great-uncle's-cousin's-step-son's-saofai-and-smile'fa'asamoa. The 'you-better-be-paying-attention-because-we-all-automatically-assume-you-were-born-knowing-how-to-ta'i-sua-and-fai-folafolaga' fa'asamoa. The fa’asamoa that emphasises the fegaiga between brothers and their sisters, and brings families together. The faasamoa that we all know and love to whinge about because it's a way of life, a way to look at life, and an integral part of who we are.

I say "chose" because by the time I was born, my dad had almost finished his PhD, and my mum was one paper away from finishing her Masters, so they both had options and opportunities overseas. Instead they went back to the struggle that living in Samoa can be. I have always been unbelievably grateful for that decision. Particularly to my palagi mother, who left her friends, family and her country, to raise me in mine.
So I don't say 'even with', but rather because I had a palagi mum, who loved me and wanted me to have a strong sense of identity, and who sacrificed so we could grow up in Samoa (and because I had a Samoan father stubborn about serving his country, and a close and loving aiga who never treated us differently), I grew up never thinking of myself as anything but Samoan.  I have read many touching stories about Samoans searching for identity.  I was not one of them. I have never struggled with who I was or where I came from. I know how fortunate that makes me.

But I also know it doesn't make me any better than people whose parents chose another path, who moved overseas, so often motivated by that very same love. Samoans whose parents or grandparents often worked in factories and freezing works, hard and heavy work, but welcome because it was a way of securing good schooling, of seeking opportunities, and of forging a future for their children.  The legacy of those parents' love, those parents' choices, those parents' sacrifices should never be undermined by pejorative remarks that their progeny is "plastic" or "too palagi".

That kind of prejudice within our own society perplexes me.  I remember when I first went back to work in Samoa I was somewhat surprised when a lawyer I knew said she wanted to be the first Samoan woman to be Attorney-General. Now obviously that ambition, in and of itself, wasn't surprising.  Rather what shocked me was that she somehow didn't think that that  particular milestone had already been achieved. Particularly because, at the time, we had a Samoan woman as Attorney-General.  I voiced my puzzlement.
No, I mean a real Samoan, you know, from Samoa

I didn't know. Was the AG at the time, a "fake" Samoan? Was her "palagi-ness" going to pop out at any second and surprise us? Or was it rather, that having nothing of substance to use to undermine her with, she turned to bigotry and bias to try to belittle this brilliant colleague.

I still don't know why we differentiate and discriminate amongst ourselves the way we do.  It saddens me, and it is not just against Samoans who live or grow up overseas.  Oh no, there are so many more levels.

 I remember being honestly confused when I was in school and someone said “We better get to Apia Park early… you know how those Samoans are”.

I questioned, “What are you talking about? We’re all Samoan

There was a rolling of eyes. “Oh you know what I mean! Samoan Samoans! Like from the village!

Hmmm… I find that offensive. I’m Samoan, my father’s Samoan, my family is Samoan and I’m from a village, several actually

More rolling of eyes “Se don't be a drama queen; I didn’t mean it like that”. There seemed to be general agreement that I was ruining a perfectly pleasant day by pointing out the prejudice.

I didn't escape this type of silliness on leaving school, or on leaving Samoa. Years later when I went to University in Auckland, a friend who was also on scholarship from Samoa, cajoled and convinced me into going to an Asosi meeting with her. "It will be sooooo  fuuuuun." Her  wheedling won but we weren’t exactly welcomed.  While it was a Samoan Asosi, it seemed like we were just a little too…. wait for it…Samoan. Our fabulous fresh-off-the-boatness was just obviously not for everybody. “Don’t worry” said one of my Samoan law school buddies sympathetically, “Didn’t you know you’re not allowed in that Asosi if you’re less than a size 18”.  Though he was perpetuating the stereotypes I'm now railing against for my amusement, I have to admit at the time... I laughed.

I could tell many more such stories- more recent and each more ridiculous than the next- and I'm sure every other Samoan could too- but I only recount enough to reflect the cross-section of prejudices that we subject ourselves to within our own society. Whether it's because you're "too white" as Leilani Tamu recounts in her opinion piece "White, but not quite" or "too Samoan", or for whatever reason, it's really just such a waste of time. We should be better than that. Isn't that what we should really want for our children? A strong enough sense of identity they don't feel the need to stereotype and stigmatise.

Now that I am a parent myself, I plan and pray about what is best for my child.  My son is Samoan, lo'u toto, ma lo'u ivi (oh, and that's right, and his dad is Samoan too, that may have something to do with it...). While I know that I don't need a salu lima, or to raise my son in Salailua to show he is Samoan, a large part of me still longs to give him the childhood I had. Surrounded by warmth and beauty, family and faikakalas.  I, like all parents, worry about whether we are making the right choices.  I suppose at the end of the day, whether we are in Sydney or in Samoa, I just want to give him what my parents gave me- an unshakeable sense of self.

by Lemalu Tate Simi

Educate yourself enough
So you may understand
The ways of other people
But not too much
That you may lose
Your understanding
Of your own

Try things palagi
Not so you may become palagi
But so may see the value
Of things Samoan
Learn to speak Samoan
not so you may sound Samoan
but so you may
feel the essence
of being Samoan

Above all
Be aware and proud
Of what you are
So you may spare yourself
The agony of those who are asking
“What am I ? “


Anonymous said...

What a great article. Xoxo

Anonymous said...

So very true and brought tears to my eyes.....malo le tauivi xox

its just moi said...

Thankyou for putting it so well...awesome read!!

Teine Samoa said...

Thanks for the feedback- it's nice knowing people read and can relate!

Teine Sa said...

I was starting 7th grade when my mum came back from Samoa with a copy of that poem that Tate had given her, for my Born-and-raised-off-island siblings and I.
I carry a rumpled copy of it in my purse - for those moments when I get whiny and mad because we only have falai elegi for dinner or when my parents decide we are sending a rather large sum of money ending in a minimum of 3 zeroes for the funeral of someone we've never met. *sigh*
Thank you for writing such a great piece. I was nodding along in agreement with all the points you made. Keep on keeping on (-:

jo_an said...

Great read Teine Samoa. Enjoyed reading your distinct and rather eye opening point of view. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Teine Samoa said...

Thanks Teine-Sa, I'm glad you enjoyed it... I won't expect you to print it out and keep a rumpled copy to hand..a :-)

Thanks Jo_an, I hope my point of view is not too "distinct" ie. different, rather I hope that we call all examine our own prejudices particularly when they happen within our own society, and try and overcome them. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece and I always appreciate the feedback.

Lily Dove said...
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