A Samoan Heart Buried in America
Culture blinded, despite of efforts to hold on to heritage
I am a far cry from home, this is as clear as the brown skin I wear. When my mother decided to remarry, a white man at that from America, I was baffled. Her and I both knew little to no English, and if it wasn't for the mere luck that she was working at Evalani's (a bar and grill resort on the lovely Island of American Samoa) where travelers frequented, she would have never met my step dad, a nightmare to be, and gotten tangled up in some romantic Island love story that ended in divorce years later right in the center of America. Land of the free, home of the brave.
I'm stuck here. That was my first thought when I was whisked away to the US by my new step dad and his naive, and overly optimistic bride, my mother. Neither had truly known the other, claiming it was love at first sight, meant to be, thinking they were each other's solution. Years later they would find out just how very wrong they had been about the other. Despite of their misfortunes, and falling out, us kids (one during their marriage, and three of us girls that were brought into the marriage from our mother's previous relations) were thrust into a mix of culture. At some points it was confusing as to which we were to be true to, the American way or the Samoan way. Our parents continuously fought too much to ever decide.
My mother married without understanding the very thing that would've made a big difference in her view of our step dad, before they were hitched. Racism. She knew of the monster, but not of its name. With a bit of education on my part, and my siblings as we grew, we learned early on to identify some of our so called new dad's racial references when poking fun at our oblivious mother, or when he would use such tongue to insult her in their arguments. Not that our mother helped much by feeding into his bullying with saying things like "I am just a stupid Samoan woman" or the fact that when angry or stirred her accent would render her to sound incompetent and hard to decipher. Even with knowing these racial pokes, from our step dad, were in fact humiliating and cruel against our mother the Samoan way was to respect. Us children learned our place at an early age, we do not interfere with grown up business. We listen, obey, and do as we are told. Period.
But things were not that simple. At first it seemed that such Samoan values and rules were practiced in our new home in America, if you could call living above your new grandma's house in a small makeshift three bedroom apartment (me, my three siblings and parents) a home. However, it didn't take long for the cultural differences to start putting a strain on their marriage. To begin, our step dad was paranoid about our native tongue being spoken around him. He began to dislike it if we spoke Samoan because he feared we were whispering rumors and secrets about him, so he put an end to that by making comments like "I pay good money for your school so you can learn English, use it" or "You are in America now, we speak English here" or if my sister and I (two of us spoke Samoan) were caught giggling about something in Samoan (most often boy talk) he forbid us from laughing and speaking for the remainder of the time we were together doing a chore or whatever activity we were doing. Our new grandmother aided her son's wishes by urging for me to read more and asking her about any new words I needed to pronounce or understand, so that I could learn English better and help my second eldest sister transition as well since she was brought over later than me.
The next thing to be rid of was certain Samoan foods. One in particular I noticed was the fish, or seafood in general. Since our stepdad could not stand the smell of fish, he forbid my mother from cooking fish within the apartment because it "smelled up the whole place, and gives me a headache" he often would say. When my mother cried and made a fuss over how he was trying to erase her homeland from her he came up with the solution of buying her a small counter top gas stove she could use outside on the back porch to cook her fish. Then his mother helped him in the "clothing" or "way of dress" department by encouraging us kids to wear this or that (which years later I cringed viewing through photographs at her thrift store taste in clothing, I did not mind thrift store shopping, in fact I love it...but the clothes this woman bought us were just down right ridiculously ugly) I later wondered if in fact her goal had been to humiliate us from the start. I don't even remember ever getting a new pair of sneakers until I was in 8th grade and it wasn't even from my parents, there was a shoe program at our church for the kids in need, and boy was I thankful for those new kicks. I had to endure 3 years of torture in outdated old lady shoes (thanks to my new grandma's bad cheap tastes) just to have a breath of relief for something that could finally label me...normal, or at least "not poor and pathetic" just the thought of blending in better with the other kids was enough, because all that time I stood out like a black sheep in all that beautiful whiteness.
The whispers were constantly around us, at first they were hard to ignore, but as I grew up I realized it would be a constant endurance and soon it just became a buzz in the background. I knew it was there, but I at least knew how to adjust the volume to the point it wouldn't have to bother me so much. But those whispers later became the motivation that pushed me forward to become whatever was "better" and "knowledgeable" so that I wouldn't just come off as just another "stupid Samoan woman" as my mother often used. My mother, though imperfect, is anything but weak. This woman is fearless, fierce, and very much headstrong, these are the qualities I often realize she worked hard to instill in me as she raised me. She often told me she wasn't raising a cry baby, she was not raising a fool, or someone that will only follow others. She was raising me to be strong, brave and better. She tried to raise a leader. Instead she ended up breeding a fighter. No I do not lead, but I do fight. I fight for what is just and what is deserved, I fight for the things that should be and freedom, I fight for the suppressed rights of those that need to be heard, and most importantly I fight for the Samoan heart buried in me.
My childhood, if you couldn't tell, has had a lot of shadows and dark times in it that I am barely scratching the surface on, but this is a short depiction of some of the struggles a child or children brought up in a mixed culture home, with a side of racism in it, grows through. Like I eluded to before, it was like living with a beast that everyone at the dinner table knew of but our mother. The beast that worked hand in hand with our step dad to smother out the embers of our Samoan heritage, only allowing certain parts he enjoyed (music, family land he was to be given if he was good to our mother, cultural dress on special occasions that would make him, the man with an exotic family, stand out etc.) which if you think about it only made this man all the more comical, given that he was quite racist for a man that went out to the midst of the South Pacific ocean to wed him a Polynesian wife with many brown children, the same "brown wife" that would also bore him a mixed child. Ironic given he did not like people of color, but don't worry he has a "brown card" pass because he was the man, after two white American wives and a few white kids, married a brown Polynesian woman with brown kids that gave him a mixed child, so he gets a pass right? Even if he barely embraced or respected their culture, except for when he would benefit in pretending to do so.
Nothing bothers me most in the matters of cultural differences than a person that chooses what parts of a culture to respect and endure instead of choosing between leaving something that is sacred to one group of people alone (if you do not wish to do anything with it) or embracing it by looking at it as broadening your horizons and building on the blocks of diversity and enjoying a new enlightening conversation between your culture and another, a lot could be gained by both if one were to merely embrace in the act of "sharing" which was something that unfortunately my now newly ex step dad failed to fully understand.
In the act of sharing we come to gain not just a new friend, but new understanding of things new to us, and a better way to self conduct in certain areas of the world, groups, and settings. There is a lot to be gained by sharing and understanding a new culture, but there is also nothing wrong with choosing not to either, I do wish that if this was your choice that you would also just leave its sacred nature to its people and not disrespect it or talk ill of something you have so freely chosen to not understand, or embrace fully. I have often looked back at the little nine, barely ten, year old that first set foot on this American land, sleepy eyed and a ball of excitement and nerves, and wondered if I had known all that I do now, about how things were to have gone after leaving the airport, with the last traces of home on that airplane, would I have chosen to go back to my country or stay here? I am sure I would've worried, but I remember I had made a promise not to cry back then, and I knew that any life ahead would be better than the one I had left behind. I'd still stay. But this heart to this day still wonders what it would have been like if I had gone back home.
Since I have moved here, I have not set foot in my country for almost 16 years. I have often been told time cannot measure distance, but in my theory it isn't a matter of travel that time really measures, but rather the change in ones heart. Time ages a heart, and time can also pull a heart this way and that. With time a heart grows fond, or not. Time has aged my heart away from that young little girl I was, full of hopes and dreams of new possibilities for herself and her family. Time has pulled my heart to love a lot of things in this new land that I call home now, its culture, and its people. Time has also helped me grow fond of this home, but not as fond of the weakening of the colors of my other culture in me. Time has done a lot to my buried Samoan heart. In all this time I have been given here, I have embraced English and have become quite good and versed in speaking and writing it for the most part. I have also learned to dress appropriately for occasions, I have educated myself on the different types of people or groups that exist in this culture, I have identified many norms and what is not so hot from time to time. I have paid attention, taken notes, studied, and I have learned to live and exist here. But my heart beats beneath me and echos the things I had to push aside, behind, and away in order to get to this point. In the midst of embracing a new culture, I became culture blinded despite of my efforts to also hold on to my roots.
Sometimes it is a struggle to have the best of both worlds, you will more than likely have to lose one or the other, or at least let one slack more than one side. I have learned from a great plant guru friend, that pruning is necessary to encourage better growth in plants. I now understand that this was the growth I had practiced. I often viewed pruning as a terrible crime to a poor plant that seems to be dying, but after getting educated on it and practicing it myself, I finally saw the miracle of it. Though I trimmed away the dead parts, in its place is still the same plant, healing and living on healthily. I pruned my Samoan heritage slightly so that I could grow better in this American soil, so that I, this foreign plant could blend in and survive.
My Samoan heart was meant for greatness, and I am devoted to its survival more than ever, so everyday I have been fighting to dig it out and let it beat strong and loud once more, so it can be felt and known not just in my life but hopefully in the life of my family, especially my children. This Samoan heart buried in America, is still Samoan.