I’m not an anthropologist. Neither am I a sociologist. But I’m fascinated by human emotions, inter-personal relationships and the psychology of human nature. I have many friends and family members in these fields; people whom I admire and enjoy chatting with because they reveal in me and those around me, the insanity of our ways and when I say ‘our ways’ in this context I’m talking about my people and my culture.
I am an American-born Pacific Islander. That is my new politically correct distinction. I suppose the pundits and sociologists find it a little less incongruous than Polynesian or Asian-Pacific Islander. Everyone (at least on the West coast its pretty common knowledge) knows that we are a collection of ‘brother and sister isles’ in the middle of the Pacific Ocean sharing many similarities in language, culture, beliefs and physical attributes. We are a seafaring people who traversed the vast Pacific with little more than outriggers, rudimentary sails and paddles. We are considered by many on the outside looking in to be a warrior society. To some who do not know us we may seem uncouth, brash, menacing, severely protective and unapproachable. Sadly, in communities in the Bay Area, Southern California, Arizona, Utah and abroad, we have earned that notoriety through the thoughtless, violent actions of a few misguided individuals.
Have you heard the statistic that it is more likely for a Samoan or a Tongan youth to make it into the NFL or play professional rugby than any other race? We quote that often. We are proud of that statistic because as males we are bred to be physically imposing. We are taught to ‘be a man’ and don’t back down. We have a rough exterior. We are conditioned to believe that the world is not going to hand you success and that it’s up to you to take the world by the horns and force it to submit to your will.
For those who are able to penetrate the hard exterior of our often closed-off societies you may come to understand a different side of our people and our cultures. The side that is easy-going, laid-back and unassuming. It is the side of us that lives on ‘Island Time’ and believes that your property is community property. We enjoy a good gathering where there’s good food, a ton of laughs and good conversation. We are extremely family-oriented and loyal to a fault.
Philadelphia sports analyst and former BYU and NFL star Vai Sikahema has written extensively about the Polynesian experience in his Deseret News blog Vai’s View. Vai has received praise and criticism for a recent post, Polynesian culture offers barriers-blessings. I highly recommend it no matter what side of the fence you sit on.
I confess. Like Vai, who is a professed “Cafeteria Tongan” I’m a “Cafeteria Samoan”. I pick and choose what parts of my “Samoan-ness” I want to impart to my sons. In the Samoan community this is not a secret. I love my people and my culture. I can hardly scrape the brown hue from my skin. But there are some things about my culture and people that I’d rather not expose my sons to. However, there are things about me, my people and my culture that I can’t deny that have made me the man I am today; things that can be largely attributed to what was taught in my home: gospel principles. Having said that, no one knows better than I that I’ve lived an imperfect life and I’m flawed and damaged. I’m a spiritually and socially blemished man trying my best to be a better husband to my wife and a respectable role-model and father to my sons.
Which leads me to the title of this post (and I apologize for the lengthy banter but I thought it was important given the weight of the subject). As an American-born Pacific Islander who has lived both here in the United States and in Samoa I knew even as a kid that there are parts of my culture I agree with and some that I would rather not touch. There are many things about Samoan culture that I still don’t completely understand and therefore cannot pass judgment on.
The parts of my culture on which I was raised by my parents are beautiful. They are family and communal principles based on Christ-like attributes. There is no hip-hop bravado, no depravity or corruption. There is no angst that drives young souls to repulsive, artificial substitutes for affection and acceptance. The parts of Samoan culture I’m familiar with give us humility, spiritual strength, determination, courage, compassion and a willingness to sacrifice my own time and substance for the good of others.
It’s dicey putting myself out there at the risk of sounding self-righteous but these are the things about my Samoan and gospel culture that I’m teaching my sons that I feel will keep them safe from the social and spiritual ills that are a plague among our youths today. I may have sacrificed their popularity in school to make sure that they are upstanding, honorable members of society but I feel it’s important that they understand that it is much more commendable to be a person of good moral character in public as well as in private than it is to have wild hair, crazy clothes and a hit-single on the Billboard charts.
No. 3 leaves for an overnight school camp today. He’ll be without me and his mother for 24-hours. At 10-years-old any parent would worry for their child’s safety and that he is behaving. But No. 3 has our trust. He is resourceful and he has proven time and again that he has been watching and listening. I’m proud of him because so far he has given us no reason to worry about whether or not he will do what is right. I’ll miss him. And that makes me a wimp in the eyes of my peers. But as a wimpy, American-born Pacific Islander, Cafeteria-Samoan dad, I think my sons love that about me.