TIM WATKIN looks at old and new Samoans in New Zealand, and at the price they must pay to become bicultural.

It was Thanksgiving Day, and Shane Ta'ala was walking with his older brother, Benko, in the Rocky Mountains. Benko, part-owner of an aeronautical design-engineering company that has contracts with Nasa and Toyota, owns 20ha of mountainous terrain far removed, in distance and topography, from the sandy beaches of their Samoan homeland.

"He took me out to this point overlooking the valley and I stood there and got rocked spiritually," says Shane. "We said, 'Far out, Dad needs to come here. He needs to know that a decision he and Mum made back in the village in Samoa, back in the 50s, led to the achievement of their vision'."

Like so many Samoan families, the vision of Ta'ala's parents was to come to New Zealand for the promise of work and prosperity and their children's education.


Shane, aged 32, has a business degree and works as project manager for Pasifika Development at the Auckland College of Education.

He and his Pacific peers are members of a well-documented demographic that will change the face of this country. Within 50 years Maori and Pacific people will together make up half the population. By their sheer numbers they, their younger brothers and sisters and children will change the tenor of this country as they come through the education systems and into influential roles in the workplace and community.

What is less often considered is how they are changing their own cultures, in this case fa'asamoa (Samoan way of life) and the pressures on them to commute between modern Western culture and their traditional roots.

Rapid change is occurring within Samoan culture in New Zealand as second and third generations are born and raised here. Young Samoans face demands from family and church on one hand, and mainstream society on the other, that can often be completely at odds. For some, the growing generation gap is a source of conflict. For others, the fusion of cultures offers fresh opportunity.

Dr Melani Anae, director of the Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, has researched the "identity confusion" of New Zealand-born Samoans like herself and summed it up in verse:

I am a Samoan - but not a Samoan

To my aiga [family] in Samoa, I am a Palagi

I am a New Zealander - but not a New Zealander


To New Zealanders, I am a bloody coconut, at worst,

A Pacific Islander, at best,

To my Samoan parents, I am their child.

In Tangata O Te Moana Nui: The Evolving Identities of Pacific Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand, published last year, she expounds:

"The challenges consist of being made aware that one is 'not Samoan enough, or is fia palagi (wanting to be like a European) in Samoan spaces, and that one is 'not a New Zealander' or a 'coconut' or 'FOB' (fresh off the boat) in racist taunts and actions of Papalagi people in the wider community."

Patisepa Tuafuti works with Ta'ala at ACE, running workshops for parents and teachers on culture, language and accepting change.

She says many Samoan parents impose a strict, traditional island way of life on children growing up in New Zealand, resulting in damaging tensions.

"When they arrive it's a culture shock, so the children scatter. The mentality of the parents doesn't change. They just stick to how it is in Samoa - do this and do as you're told. That's a big part of why some of our youth end up as street kids and why so many commit suicide."

Ta'ala agrees: "The price that we've had to pay to be bicultural is a high one".

But as New Zealand-born Samoans settle in, through a mixture of rebellion and evolution, Samoan culture here is changing. There is resistance from some elders and church ministers, but Walter Fraser, Registrar of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, says they have to realise that "Samoan culture doesn't mean a capsule of Samoa 50 years ago. They're different from their grandparents in 1900. Their children will be different from them."

Still, he says growing up in New Zealand there's a constant pressure. "That's not how they do it in Samoa".

Fraser is organising a summer school running at the university called Malaga [The Journey] designed to encourage Samoan teenagers into tertiary study and teach them about their culture. Around 300 students are involved over six weeks.

He's found that young Samoans are developing "a fused notion" of culture, adding elements of tangata whenua and African-American traits to their language and values.

"They're coming up with their own mix. What we are trying to tell them is that it's a valid interpretation. They don't have to be like a Samoan in Samoa to be Samoan, which is the pressure being put on them by their parents' generation."

Ta'ala says his parents' generation had their own pressures - finding a foothold in a new country, getting work and a home, dealing with outright racism.

"And the way [my father] handled that was inspiring ... our battles are different. Our battles are ones that we have to fight with this and this," he says, pointing to his heart and head.

Calling himself "a great example of institutionalisation", Ta'ala says he has benefited hugely from his palagi education, but now has to figure out how to merge that with his heritage.

"The new battle for me is how I take the new learning of these new systems, of management and marketing, all those concepts, and give it a Pacifika meaning."

He says it can be hard reconciling Western notions of success and individual excellence with his upbringing, which upholds the collective good and the family above all else.

"I find it difficult to come from an individual point of view. For me, if we do [succeed], it's a question of - for what purpose? We get to a stage and then we turn around and start thinking, 'What can I give in return?"'

Some young Samoans are chafing at the cultural bit for just this reason. They feel their cultural ties compromise their chance at success and wealth.

Anae gives the example of the fa'alavelave (ceremonial events involving the exchange of gifts; day-to-day practice of fa'asamoa). Samoans are expected to give of their time and money whenever called on, building up what Anae calls invisible credit for the family. The emphasis on this at home is in stark contrast to every other social pressure to spend or save money, not give it away.

"Many young people resent having to give up the money and time, but if they reject that way of operating, they reject their culture," she says.

In talking with young Samoans for her PhD thesis, Anae found many discussed having a "time-out" period where they walked away from such traditions. A time-out often involved rebelling against both Samoan and Palagi authority structures through drugs and alcohol, gangs and marginal lifestyles.

But increasingly, instead of an all-or-nothing approach, Anae says new strategies are arising. For example, as a way of dealing with fa'alavelave, families gathering for mafutaga (for example, family meetings) put money in a kitty so a budgeted fund is set aside that the family can draw on.

Nevertheless, the financial demands of family and church remain a common inter-generational bone of contention.

Alfred Schuster, who works for AUT developing partnerships with the Pacific community, says many young Samoans are under pressure to start earning money, and so quickly lose interest in school.

"Those who come to AUT, a lot of them are just wanting to do a certificate or diploma so they can get out there and earn money for their family obligations. There isn't a focus on a degree or post-grad to really make a career."

Ta'ala went back to university in his mid-20s, sponsored by the company he worked for at the time. "People said, 'Why go back to university now, you're already working'. But what I looked at was how far I could go if I had my degree."

His parents are part of the increasing number of Samoan parents who are coming to appreciate the value of tertiary study - after all, many migrated to offer their children the chance of an education. But Anae's research has found that as sympathetic as many are, study often still comes behind family and church in the list of priorities, and many students don't have the time or quiet space to work.

Those who do go on to tertiary study are then exposed to new ideas, often at odds with their traditions.

Anae: "At university they're encouraged to be critical, speak their minds, whereas in the Samoan cultural mores they're told to stay quiet until they're a matai or old enough."

Anae says they have to learn to adapt their behaviour in different forums. Tuafuti agrees, but says parents too must make adjustments. They have to unlearn the belief that children should never question.

"They have to change their whole mentality to be able to work in this New Zealand society, for their children to be able to survive in both worlds.

"We say to them here in New Zealand, your children need to be aware and have the critical skills to analyse and learn."

That new level of criticism, Tuafuti says, is extending even into the church, where the unquestioning acceptance of the minister is coming under pressure of change. Along with new music and worship styles, "the young ones bring their own understanding and ability to question. Before, they were too scared to open their mouths because they would go home and their dad would say, 'Don't you dare do that'. Not now. There's starting to be more acceptance."

More acceptance, too, from the young Pacific people. In 21st-century fashion, they are embracing aspects of their cultures.

New Zealand has seen the evolution of a hybrid Pacifika culture which draws strength from island traditions, while allowing for Western pop culture and lifestyles. It's most notable in the music, soft hip hop from South Auckland, and art, where a range of island motifs get lumped together under the Pacifika banner. But more fundamentally it's a reflection of how young Samoans are reconciling the demands of the two cultures they must live within.

Schuster points to the revival of Samoan tattooing - tatau - as an example. Traditionally, much like Maori moko, tatau requires and confers status. But now, also like moko, it's being embraced by young people as an expression of identity.

"It doesn't come with the same status, but it's become a strong cultural statement saying this sets me apart as Samoan," he says.

Ta'ala says Pacific companies, such as the record company Dawn Raid, use coconuts in their ad campaigns, reclaiming what was seen as a derogatory image.

"Before it was a thing of shame, but the way we look at today is, yeah, but in the islands the coconut has always been a symbol of life. It wasn't the Pacifika people who bastardised that."

Anae warns not to over-emphasise the melded Pacifika culture, however. It's worth remembering that New Zealand is the only place the term "Pacific Islander" is used. Despite a palagi tendency to oversimplify, Samoans, Tongans, Niueans, any islanders, have distinct traditions.

The Pacifika identity, useful as it is, she says, is a convenience, not an ethnicity, and is largely a youth phenomenon.

"My research shows that as they grow older and have their own children, they start becoming more specifically Samoan or Tongan or whatever."

That's what happened for Ta'ala, now a father of three. It took some maturity to value his heritage.

"I had to learn about myself first, because only then I had this real ability to grasp my culture and pull it in."

He's now seeing more 18 to 23-year-olds being specific about, and proud of, their island roots.

Look at the use of language, he says. His parents wouldn't speak Samoan in the shops because they were shy. Now it's being spoken widely and is an important statement of identity.

Those who don't know the language and protocols are more eager to learn, and he hopes the elders will make themselves more available, not to regulate the youth, but to share their knowledge with them.

That goes both ways, says Anae.

"The emphasis has so far been on the elders and churches adapting. But there needs to be movement from both generations, a meeting point."

The search for that meeting point is perhaps the most important aspect of Samoan culture in New Zealand today. It's sure to involve some wrestling and more change.

Ta'ala says the pride young Samoans are showing in themselves does not mean a rejection of the new and a return to the old. It's a merger. He says it's about respecting the culture and knowing about it, not necessarily adhering to it without question.

"It's about being grounded internally, to know who you are. Then you have the ability to say what you will and what you won't participate in."

Ta'ala is excited about the prospect of living in both worlds, of raising his children in both worlds. He's confident that somewhere in the cultural melee, where liberation, respect and pride all meet, there's a place of opportunity.

If New Zealand is to remain healthy and whole over the next century, it's a place we will all have to find.