Pasifika - Identity or illusion?

By Alan Perrott

You are New Zealand-born, perhaps your parents are, too, but your ancestral home is a dot in the Pacific. How do you describe yourself?

It doesn't feel right to see renaissance and decline within the same beatific smiles, but there they are staring out from a string of toothy photographs. We're inside a new entrants' class at Ponsonby's Richmond Road School and these particular knee-high year-ones are midway through their first year at the Samoan bilingual unit.

Most of these 24 faces belong to second- or third-generation New Zealand-born Samoans, only four are what their teacher calls "full-blooded". The remainder reflect this country's increasingly muddled gene pool; there's Lilly's pale features (her parents are Samoan and Danish) and closer to the window is Kalden, his face a fascinating blend of Samoan, European and Vietnamese. All have been enrolled in this class because their parents believe early exposure to Samoan language, values and spirituality will help the children unravel who they are, where they come from, and how they fit in.

For some among their influential, inner-city parents, it's also about local bragging rights and giving something back to their culture, even if, for some, that culture has become rather distant.

But the kids ... If there is such a thing as a developing Pasifika culture, these will be its faces.

Pasifika is an odd term, and one gaining increasing currency outside the annual festival at Western Springs. Essentially, its the samoanisation of a Portuguese nod to the Latin phrase Mare Pacificum, or peaceful sea, so named by navigator Ferdinand Magellan. In this country it has become an umbrella term for everyone living here with traceable Pacific island heritage. You'll find it touted enthusiastically by governmental social ministries and schools. Once were islanders, Polynesians, PIs, Pacific peoples and so on, now are Pasifika.

But it is also the label given to what some believe is a new indigenous culture emerging among New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders. As evidence, they point to our rapidly browning popular culture - think shows like bro'Town, groups such as Nesian Mystik, most of the All Black backline, tapa cloths on the lounge wall, established artists like John Pule, and the Otara flea markets tourist-destination status.

It's all vaguely interesting stuff to many palagi/pakeha New Zealanders such as me, but look beyond the surface trappings and you'll find the notion of Pasifika has sparked a vigorous, if softly spoken, debate within the communities it is reputedly uniting.

When I was growing up in Mangere I saw the old divisions whenever the pathetically self-aggrandising Samoan-dominated Coconut Chicanos and Tongan Mafia staged an all-in bash. It's no secret South Auckland was an unstable, often violent, place to be from the early 70s to mid-80s. Mushrooming housing developments were filled by the constant flow of young families eager to swap fales for factories, who seemed completely unprepared for the culture shock lying in wait most fundamentally the shift from the tight community-based welfare state to western DIY individualism. Toss in dawn raids, crime, language barriers and vast lifestyle differences, and it's hard not to think it was some monstrous social experiment.

Now, for all those excitedly anticipating the arrival of something fresh and free of Polynesian conservatism, just as many mourn the passing of what made those eager immigrants who they were, and warn of yet another round of colonialisation. Except this time, the colonisers will most likely be their neighbours.

So, with these ideas in mind, the 5-year-olds of Richmond Road Schools Mua i Malae unit can be seen as both the potential continuance and conclusion of old ways. Their teacher, Ramona Tuai, hopes for the former, but fears the latter is inevitable. She was a student at the unit herself through to intermediate level and was coaxed back to teach instead of heading off to try her luck in the United States.

Her immediate worry is that most of her pupils are being raised by first-generation New Zealand Samoans whose parents arrived here with high hopes and a desire for their children to fit in and succeed. This was achieved by setting aside their own language and encouraging English at all times.

"I know that most, if not all, the parents in my class are trying to find themselves and root themselves in the Samoan culture," says Tuai. "Because they've lost touch with the culture from when they were younger ... the majority of the parents in my class cannot speak or hold an everyday conversation in Samoan, and if this is the case, how hard is it for the child to maintain the language and culture if it's not fluent at home?"

Despite her own bilingual education, Tuai abandoned her language during her teens. "At high school I never spoke a single word in Samoan to my parents and was ashamed to do fa'aSamoa [traditional] chores when it came to family gatherings. I lost interest in the culture and tried to fit into another culture, the American culture as seen on TV and through the radio. It wasn't until seventh form where my attitude changed and I was proud to be Samoan. I became fluent again because it was never lost. It was still in me but I was ashamed to use it."

Tuai says Census results showing that a steady 67 per cent of Samoans in this country can hold a casual conversation in the language is "wishful thinking". "I have friends who think if they can understand and answer in broken Samoan then they can hold an everyday conversation in Samoan, which is not the case."

Then there is the issue of numbers. Census figures show this country's population of New Zealand Pacific people is about 260,000, of whom about half are Samoan, a total predicted to reach 520,000 by 2021, a faster rate of increase than that anticipated for Maori. Critics like to direct attention to the Samoans recruited into the All Blacks, but few mention that at the last world cup more than half of the Samoan national team were born in New Zealand.

However, as Tuai's class shows, the old ethnic lines have been seriously breached within only two or three generations. Among the general population they remain an easily identifiable minority, so even though they and their parents are likely to have been born in this country, they still face the old question: Where are you from? Identity becomes a highly personal issue when it's pushed in your face this way, especially when you've lost the language connection, and it is raising unexpected dilemmas for multi-ethnic families.

One of Tuai's relatives is married to a Tongan and they have two children. They both want their children to retain some connection to their heritage so one is with a Samoan bilingual class, the other with a Tongan class. Making the best of both worlds? Maybe, but encouraging such fractured identities risks problems. Perhaps a new Pasifika blend may emerge as an all-embracing convenience.
These inter-connections are raising big questions for Nesian Mystik rapper Feleti Strickson-Pua, who has Samoan, Chinese and English heritage. "It's already becoming a big question for my son [Cheden] as well, and he's only 4. We were at preschool and he came up to me: 'This person is American, that person is a Chinaman ... what am I?' I said, 'Actually, you were born here and so was I. This is home. But where our people come from, that's different.'

"I get asked the question myself and say I'm Samoan-Chinese and English. Then I get the 'Well, where were you born?' question. I say here and they say, then, you're a Kiwi. I didn't think people would be offended by that. But I think it's quite funny because wherever I go in the world, where my passport says I was born and who I am will always be different things."

Yet, even Strickson-Puas self-determined criteria can raise more questions than answers. The 23-year-old has been to Samoa twice and spent time at his grandparents' village, but felt there was a connection missing which went beyond language. "It was really weird, as much as it felt like home, it felt really distant as well." And he was still being asked what he was, how he fitted in: "So I told them I was afakasi, a half-caste."

How many identities does he need? Feleti has also visited England to see his mother's family but found the vibe there even more alien despite an equal genetic connection. It's so far away and the notion of family seemed far more diffuse.

Reactions to his music also differ. Although Nesian Mystik got major community kudos for their first album because it featured strong Pacific flavours, Feleti says they had a lot of criticism for not "representing" again on their second. Too bad, he says, all they wanted to do was "represent" themselves. Figuring out that one is clearly a work in progress. Feleti's father the Rev. Mua Strickson-Pua says it's a small-scale example of what is occurring at a generational level: "I think New Zealand is starting to have its true growing pains."

Ruth Talo, 25, is another with multiple cultural personalities. She was raised by her Maori mother after her Samoan father left and moved to Australia. She is a Pacific Liaison Officer at Auckland University where she is completing a Masters in Geography, roles that are making her increasingly conscious of her internal blending. She refers to herself as "Samaori": "Otherwise, I don't know what I am really. I acknowledge both sides, but just from being at university I've started to learn how to embrace my cultures a lot better."

Even so, she says she still finds herself adopting different personae depending on to whom she is talking. "It's almost like acting", she says. "I like to think I've got the best of both worlds, but sometimes I find myself torn between what to do and what to say. I don't speak either [Samoan or Maori] and the music I listen to isn't what PIs are supposed to listen to; I love stuff like [dour English group] Portishead. So I find sometimes I have to basically become someone else to fit in. But I'm in catch-up mode, I want to learn more about who I am. My best friend is Tongan, and she helps me out with the cultural side. So sometimes it's like I feel like I'm Tongan because I really enjoy hanging out with her. All those lines are being crossed now."

Personal evolution is one thing, but Dr Melani Anae, a senior lecturer at Auckland University's Centre for Pacific Studies and member of 70s activists the Tama Toa Brown Panthers, is one who believes Pasifika has become a label of convenience, a new administrative stereotype that enables different Pacific cultures to be lumped within one easily tickable box. She is also unsurprised the recent New Zealand-born generations are flapping for an identity as they have no relevant leaders or role models to look up to apart from musicians, artists and sports figures.

Their lifestyle cues now come from American hip-hop videos and a naive notion of gangster glamour, so if there is something new rising, she worries it will lack the traditional concepts of spirituality, and the paired principles of tautua (to serve) and fa'aaloalo (respect) that are considered the foundations of the ideal Samoan character. "Maintaining those traditions are still what it takes to succeed in a New Zealand context, but other factors and issues have come up for the new generations which are not the same, and they account for the appalling position of our youth today," says Anae.

A Ministry of Justice conference last month heard that although Pacific people make up 7 per cent of the New Zealand population, they provide 11 per cent of our prison population and 13 per cent of convicted violent offenders. Anae directs much of the blame at the Pacific Island leadership in this country: "Too many of our so-called leaders are just in it for a job, I'm talking about politicians from the highest level down."

She says no one is listening to the New Zealand-born generations: advisory committees drawn from the old establishment and new arrivals from the islands write piles of reports while the growing middle-class of non-fluent professionals remain sidelined, she says. "It's somehow assumed we New Zealand-born have become part of the mainstream." Even in the church, she says, the 20 or so ministers who have come through the system here have ended up with non-Samoan congregations because Pacific churches get ministers from the islands trained in dated "hellfire and brimstone" theology.

How does Pasifika look from other parts of the Pacific? Dr Okusitino Mahina is Tongan-born, lectures in social anthropology at the University of Auckland, and is "feasting" on the rapid cultural shifts happening on his doorstep. But although it's providing plenty of academic fodder, he considers Pasifika as something of a Trojan horse, as well as a defensive reaction to this country's official biculturalism.

Standing separately, the various Pacific communities are easily lost in the bicultural debating, but together they can shout: "Oi, don't forget us, were here, too."

Mahina's concern, however, is that increasing reference to Pasifika is homogenising the Pacific. "It's becoming a reality that whenever something is considered Pasifika, in reality it is Samoan, and by being seen as Pasifika, we are being seen as Samoan. So there is some antagonism, because we all hold different views, we all have different histories, we have different cultures, and we speak different languages."

As noted, Pasifika is a Samoan version of Pacific. Tongans would say it as Pasifiki. "So, who created the label?" asks Mahina. "The Samoans. And why? Because they have the most numbers in New Zealand and they have the most power ... the irony of the matter, and we may not even be conscious of it, is that we are doing to ourselves exactly what we don't like other people doing to us. It's like we have a set a trap and caught ourselves ... we are becoming sucked into becoming Samoan."

Herald columnist Tapu Misa, who came from Samoa as an 8-year-old, prefers a more optimistic and inclusive view. "[Pasifika] is pan-Pacific ... and the reason I say that, is that the idea of being a Pacific Islander - rather than a Samoan - is one that's evolved here as well. Despite the ructions between different Pacific groups in the early days, most second- or third-generation PIs have more in common with each other than they do with their own ethnic group in the islands. What connects us as PIs are the common experiences of being PI in New Zealand."

"In the same way, you will find that Pacific identity forging, or reforging, connections with Maori. For example, some urban Maori who don't have a strong Maori cultural base, more readily identify with their urban Pacific brothers and sisters than with the members of their own tribe. It's about common experiences plus the fact that Pacific culture is more accessible to them. The interesting thing is that it is also more accessible to Pakeha/Palagi.

"I think Pacific culture is the glue, the unifying, connective tissue between Maori and Pakeha culture. You don't have to be Pasifika/PI to claim it as your own; it offers a New Zealand/Pacific identity that it is inclusive of everyone, including Pakeha New Zealanders and potentially Asian New Zealanders, too, but not so much for new arrivals because they still have a strong connection to their home cultures."

But if Pasifika is destined to pull everyone together here, it may push them apart back in the islands. Reports from those who attended the premiere of Sione's Wedding in Apia last year suggest members of the Samoan elite are keen to follow the lead of their New Zealand counterparts. Albert Refiti, head of spatial design at Auckland University of Technology, noted one incident. "There was an old guy there, a classic guy in his lavalava. In the middle of the movie he loudly said: 'How come these people go to New Zealand and come back and they still look ugly?' About 40 per cent of the audience laughed, but the other 60 were very uneasy - they were the people who want to embrace this flash new Pasifika culture; it embodies who they aspire to be. They can identify with all the exciting things the culture here has to give, which remain frowned upon over there.

"You have to remember that [the people behind Sione's Wedding] are young guys. Over in Samoa they wouldn't be running around like they do in the movie. First and foremost they would have to serve the village and the family, but here they were doing all this stuff that denigrated all those traditional protocols."

Back at Richmond Road School, Ramona Tuai is aware of the difficulty fitting traditional values into modern life. Those raised with unfettered internet access and cell-phones, feel the old ways stultifying and demanding. Most women in her family have tertiary qualifications and are making their own way in life, yet they are still expected to obediently submit to the decisions of elders and chiefs. Her pupils' parents belong to her generation, and where traditionalists see tried and true protocols, they see only "headaches".

"There's the money-giving for funerals and to the church, bringing families across and ensuring that the family is catered for back in Samoa, all that stuff," Tuai says. "It's an imposition ... You're working long hours and you've made a success of yourself in your own right, then you're still being told what to do by your father or an elder. So we've almost gone 360, from our parents dropping the language for us to be successful, to now being expected to retain all those 'sharing and giving' values of being Samoan and still be successful. That's so hard these days; they are not notions these kids relate to now."

But these kids at the Samoan bilingual unit don't seem remotely worried about keeping any cultural torches burning. The only future on their minds is the imminent lunchtime bell.


Brotha D, Danny Leaosavaii
Co-founder of Dawn Raid Entertainment

The old traditionalists and the New Zealand-born both argue that they are Pasifika and that's all there is to it. I'm staunch in the old ways as well, but at the same time you have to recognise where we are now and where this country is heading. Every new generation brings its own twist to everything - you have to move forward. Now I'm about to have a baby and I'm looking back at my own experience of watching everything change. But my baby's experience will be different again and probably even faster. That's great, but I believe strongly that we should not abandon our old ways. We know the experience of Maori, almost losing their language - that's one thing I never want to see happen. I know some people think it's a waste of time, but I want to start teaching my child Samoan from day one. Children must understand that culture is alive and vital so that they can instill it in their kids. I was born in Samoa and came here when I was 1, but it wasn't until 1999, when I went back, that I understood who I am. To hear those old stories: "This is the house you were born in". It was this little shack and I was like, 'wow'. "And that's the plantation your mum and dad worked." I thought, "How the hell did they get us to New Zealand? How did they just up and leave this?" And I remember how hard they were living when they arrived here. From that day on I understood who I am as a Samoan living in New Zealand.


Luamanuvao Winnie Laban
New Zealands first female Pacific Island MP

Pasifika has come to represent anything of Pacific origin - whether it be music, fashion, art, design, style - in New Zealand. I am of Pasifika origin, but labels like that don't have much meaning for me. It's a modern label, a short-cut way of identifying people or things from the Pacific, but in reality there are as many differences, as there are similarities, between all the different Pacific peoples and things. Such fashions and labels come and go. Once "Coconut" was a term of abuse, now some Pacific people are happy to say they are "proud Coconuts". New Zealand's Pacific population is growing, most of those living here were born here, are under 20, and English is their first language. So New Zealand's future is as a Pacific nation. I was made in Samoa, born in New Zealand, and have Samoan, European, and Jewish ancestors. This is a Pacific nation, it is my place of belonging. I am a proud New Zealander and a Woman of the Pacific.

Teuila Blakely
Actor

It's a living thing, it's something here in the present. A lot of [Pacific island] kids may not go to the islands in their lifetime and they can't say they've had the experience of living and growing up there. We're Pacific kids in New Zealand and that's a great thing. The environment here is completely different, so our culture is going to have to evolve ... my mum's from Samoa and my dad's from Central Otago. My mum is very traditional, I was bought up with a lot of Samoan culture, so going to Samoa was amazing. I actually did have a connection with the place and I know it sounds really cliched, but it was a spiritual connection. I thought, "Yeah, wow, this is the land where my ancestors lived." I loved that, and I felt like I understood my mum a lot more. Growing up with a Samoan mum here can be very confusing, so to see the place where she came from and the homes she lived in, I thought, "Oh my God, I so get it now." So, yeah, it was a beautiful place, but it's not my home, it's the home of my ancestors and so is New Zealand. I love it that people hold on to their cultures here and still live together. New Zealand is an island in the Pacific, so when you talk about Pasifika, we are all part of it.

David Fane
Actor and comedian

It exists, but it's just the changing of the guard. Because the islanders you see today were born and bred here and they don't share that affinity with the homelands, they've become a subculture. In New Zealand when people ask me where I'm from, I say Samoa, that's where my gene pools from. But if I go to Samoa, I'm always from New Zealand, and that's fine, too. With Pasifika, I think it's the young ones getting all het up - "where's my place to stand? My turangawaewae?" You just stand where you feel happy, you know? If its causing you that much grief, do yourself a service and stop breathing. There has to be cultural change, there are things that will be stripped down and you always need to lose the chaff in anything - the stuff that isn't important or causes harm. That stuff will go, but the essence will remain. My wife's European, we've got two kids, and they are asking "what's my culture?" To me they'll always be Samoan and to my wife they're European, so I say just take the best from everything. If you try to get all finicky about it, people will just get hurt and [cultures] will suffer; they only survive because of what they give to people and fa'aSamoa has given to thousands people for 3000 years. Let's wait and see where its at in this country in another thousand.

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