As Samoans around the world celebrated 50 years of our beloved nation’s independence, I was heartened to see so many wonderful images of our people in every corner of the world paying homage to the sacrifice our forefathers made to regain a freedom that we so often take for granted. Samoa’s road to independence was not an easy one. Neither was it a peaceful one. The sounds of gunfire may have long ago gone from the streets of Apia, but the scars of the 1929 Black Saturday shootings are still discernible (albeit faint and distant). I personally will never allow the memories of these incidents to fade. It gives me great pride knowing our people survived such hardship and emerged victorious.
About 6 weeks ago, I met with a couple of my Samoan friends here in Seoul and suggested to them that we do something a bit more meaningful to mark Samoa’s golden jubilee of independence. And I also suggested that we make the event a charity event, whereby we raised funds and sent it back to Samoa to charities to help with the resourcing of Samoa’s schools. However big or small, at least it was something that we could say was our contribution to our nation. An added bonus that I am super proud of the organising team for pushing for. The support we received was just overwhelming from other peoples of pasefika here in Korea. Just incredible.
And so we, the self appointed komiti fa’afoe began work on creating a suitable event charged with celebrating Samoa’s independence, even here, on the neon plastered, overpopulated humid streets of the divided Korean peninsula.
I always found it rather somewhat ironic (even poignant to a certain degree) that I live here, among a divided nation, when Samoa too is a divided nation. Koreans like to harp on about their uniqueness, so much so that a lot of them don’t realise the commonness they actually share with a lot of the peoples of the world.
Oppressed you say you were? Join the club.
DIvided by the world’s big powers in a sick game of International Hegemony creation you claim? Been, there, done that, got the t-shirt.
However, I digress, (yes I do that a lot).
So as the curtain came down on our celebrations on Saturday night, and I was finally able to relax after a night of MCing the show and running around like a headless chicken. I started to think about what being Samoan has really meant to me, what it has taught me, and funnily enough, what my experience really was or is of being Samoan.
The last part of that previous paragraph might be a bit confusing for some. But I did mean for you to read a little bit more into what I’m insinuating.
As a gregarious communal culture, Samoans believe in the extremely strong bonds of family, kinship, respect, brotherhood and alofa. Not just unique to Samoa I know, but the cultural expectations are massive. I do not mean that this is a bad thing at all. In fact I love this aspect of our culture. Being Samoan means that my family is everything, and my family always has my back. no matter what happens.
Our individual families are then bound to other families from your village and a lot are also bound through the church. These families are so close that they kind of blend into one family, where everyone’s your Auntie, Uncle or second Mum or Dad. It’s great because there isn’t any shortage of babysitters, or family members to visit during the holidays. And everyone makes sure that you are well fed and looked after!
Samoan culture is such a proud culture that our way of doing things we believe to be the right way and the only way. (sounds suspiciously like Korea) But the difference with Samoan culture is that we embrace foreigners but don’t expect them to assimilate unless they want to marry in, then that’s a completely different story altogether.
There are also the natural physical abilities that Samoans have, the way in which we behave, the way in which we speak to people who are older than us. There is this old Samoan saying that goes ‘You can always recognise a Samoan by the way they stand, the way they walk and the way they talk’ But what if you don’t tick any of these boxes?
There are some things that are meant to come naturally to Samoan boys but was never natural for me. For example, the ability to play Rugby, (apparently we have superhuman powers that allow us to do this). I was meant to speak in a particular accent, (‘fobbish’ in NZ, a slight hint of ‘American’ in Samoa) which I never did. I was meant to have the taste for taking hard knocks to the body, fighting in scraps. None of which come natural to me either.
I don’t know, I’ve always had these Samoan physical features, And as a Kid, I knew that I was Samoan, but never felt that any of my peers on either side of the international dateline really accepted me as one.
In Samoa, I was too palagi. My cousins in Samoa would always make fun of me, the one who spoke Samoan funny. And the Samoan kids at school in New Zealand didn’t even think I could speak Samoan because apparently I spoke English like a palagi. And there was this weird assumption that I came from a rich privileged family. Yeah right.
Unbeknownst to my ‘chingus’ at school, Samoan was my first language, I spoke it all the time at home, And my Mum was a solo mum, barely able to make ends meet. I didn’t enjoy all the things that Samoan boys were meant to because I was different.
This is where I think being Samoan has its pitfalls. Although supportive and caring we are of our family and each other, we are slow to accept people who are different. This is an affliction that is not limited to just our culture I know. But I level criticism at it, because of the mere fact that it’s my culture, and I have the right to offer a reflective criticism of it.
Recently, I’ve seen and read a lot of discussion about the defiling of some Samoan traditions, and from what I’ve read, I can see why a lot of people are angry at the way in which the fa’a Samoa is not being maintained by some Samoans. Especially around the idea of the tatau or the traditional Samoan tattoo.
But I offer a different line of discussion to the mix.
I want to ask: When will Samoans learn to give up their tall poppy ways and their constant disregard of the ‘other’ Samoan?
Why is it that as gregarious as we are, if we meet another Samoan our natural emotion is one of defence until we can suss out where they come from and if they are from where they say they come from?
And then there’s the prejudices we hold against Samoans who come from a different part of the Diaspora/transnational community. There is the much vaunted and talked about ‘locals’ vs the ‘New Zealand borns’. Both of them cite their own reasons for their disdainful attitude toward each other.
There is also the emerging divide between Samoans in New Zealand, the ones in Australia and the ever growing community in the U.S. all three are distinctly different, obviously due to the amalgamation and sharing of the local host country’s practices. But, is the angst really that necessary? Each group tries to outdo the other with their ‘authenticity’ claiming the others to be ‘plastic’ meanwhile, the ‘locals’ call all of us ‘plastic’.
But aren’t we all essentially the same? We all originated from the same group of islands, all our families are interlinked, we can all trace our lineage to any of the aristocratic lines. We all came from a small group of homogenous people in the middle of the south seas.
And what about me? The one Samoan who didn’t even fit within his own diaspora community. For most of my childhood I floated among all of New Zealand’s minority communities trying to find my place.
I joined many different groups at school, played all the different sports, did all the different extra curricular activities, but made sure I never joined the Samoan group. People may have thought that I was trying to avoid being Samoan, but this could not be further from the truth. I was simply trying to avoid the empty feeling of not being accepted even by my own ethnicity.
The real pride I had in being Samoan stayed private to me going through school. I would only ever exclaim my enthusiasm for our legends and stories to the closest of my friends. To be honest I loved speaking Samoan. I embraced my identity wholeheartedly at home. I helped my Mum when she would tutor girls in Samoan dance for an upcoming performance or for the Miss Samoa New Zealand Pageant. I would stay up and listen to my Aunts and Uncles regale me of stories about living in Samoa during the days of economic hardship after our grandfather passed away. About how the whole village would come to play volleyball on our family’s lands in the evenings; meanwhile my grandmother would get my Mother and Aunt to siva for the village after the game.
The stories my elders told me of Samoa was some of the happiest moments I had as a kid. They were grandiose, heartfelt and told with a strong sense of longing, and it was in those moments, the true extent of my Mothers sacrifice became evident. The giving up of their security, their home, so I could be afforded a better opportunity. It is a burden, I carry respectfully everyday.
But it was also how I felt connected to my homeland. Because New Zealand although home it is, was never a comfortable place for me. I never felt connected to New Zealand the way I did with Samoa. But no one in Samoa ever felt like I belonged there except for me. And from my point of view New Zealand has never really shown any real desire to have me or my people a part of her unless we agreed to sit at the bottom of the heap cleaning their fancy buildings or playing Rugby for the All Blacks, and most importantly, not committing any crime. (which we are supposedly pre-disposed to doing).
But the point is this. Being Samoan has so many different meanings and interpretations for all of us, whether you grew up in Apia, Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane, Los Angeles or Alaska! Your idea of being Samoan may differ in practice but we all share one common bond. I know this to be true because, no matter where I go, and who I meet, and what kind of Samoan I meet, we all believe in alofa and aiga. Love and family.
My love for Samoa will never diminish. I have wept for Samoa, laughed for Samoa, I’ve even fought for Samoa. But I’ll never abandon Samoa or my heritage. It is part of who I am.
So as Samoa begins another year of her independence, I can sit back and reflect on a beautiful country and people that I am so proud and honoured to be a part of. Knowing that despite all my differences, I am still bound to the same place as a million others. Makes being different, not so bad after all.
Samoa mo Samoa
Singing the Samoan National Anthem at Samoan Independence Day Celebrations in Seoul (June 9th 2012)