Jacinta, American Samoa

I was in first grade when I came to the United States. I don’t remember a whole lot of the home where I was born, but when I turned four my father entered the seminary to become a minister in what is now Independent Samoa, and that’s where my memories begin. There’s six of us in my family and when my parents moved there they only took the three younger children, I’m the youngest.  The other two had already been sent to Seattle to live with my grandma.  My other sister was raised by my father’s uncle in American Samoa.

One by one we were all sent to Seattle, first my other brother, then my next brother, then finally me.  We were all sent to live with my grandma in Seattle because my parents were in school. I think my mom wanted us to be near her mother and my dad was ok with it because we would be in a better education setting. It’s an interesting story of how my grandmother came to be in Seattle.  Two of her sons were in the military and they had gotten out of the military after the Vietnam War so it was time to move their mother to the States so they brought her over.  Slowly everybody came over.

American Samoa is a US territory like Guam, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  What that means is we have what they call for us an agreement, the deed of session where the high chiefs of American Samoa sat down with the US Navy and agreed that they would start this relationship.  From then on we became US nationals, not US citizens but US nationals, and I believe we are the only ones with that status. What that means is that we can travel freely to the US, we can join the military, we carry US passports, but it doesn’t say US citizen.  We can come to the US, go to school, apply for jobs.  We don’t have to go through a lot of hassle in that respect.  The only thing we can’t do right now is when you are living in American Samoa you can’t vote for the US president.

What’s interesting about us as a US territory is that we have a pathway to citizenship.  All you have to do is move here, get residency, which in each state is different, could be a year, could be months.  Once you get residency you put in your application and you say that you are a US national, you pay the fee, I think it is five or six hundred dollars, then you wait for your appointment to take the test and be interviewed.  It is usually less than a year and if you study you are going to get guaranteed US citizenship.  There is a legal pathway for US nationals to be come US citizens.  Most US nationals who move here don’t apply to US citizenship because there is no reason for them to.  They have everything that US citizens have except for the right to vote.  And they aren’t interested in voting for some strange reason. I’m not really sure what the US policy is specifically for independent Samoa.  I don’t know if there is a quota, the way that Australia and New Zealand have for them. They do make their way here but I’m not really sure the way that happens.  I don’t know that process.

My parents stayed there for three more years until my father finished, not my mom, and then moved to California and were able to finish their last years of school.  After four years it was time to collect all the kids and move back to the islands.  I was in third grade.  I clearly remember that.  It was a culture shock to go back and adjust.

I had to relearn the language.  My language skills were rusty because we were speaking mostly English in Seattle.  We would speak Samoan with my grandma and aunts and uncles.  My grandma did not speak English.  She was the only one with whom you had to speak Samoan.  Everybody else was speaking English. When I moved back to the islands I had to relearn the language.  My skills were pretty good, but to become fluent and sound like the rest of the kids it took a while.

Imagine living in urban Seattle and then moving back to live in a village.  The island is really small, only seventy-six square miles.  I don’t know what to compare that to.  There’s only one road.  The speed limit is twenty-five miles per hour.   You had to go through a process to adjust to that again.

You have to remember that by now my father is a Protestant minister, which is the largest denomination in American Samoa.  The Samoan culture became Christianized through missionaries from Britain in the 1830s, I would say. Christianity has been completely embraced by the Samoan culture.  Samoans are very strong Christians; it’s part of their culture.  And my point is that now I’m a minister’s daughter and religion plays a huge role in Samoan culture I was now pushed into a situation where my siblings and I were the minister’s kids.  That meant you had to be role models for the village kids.  Everything you did, what you wore, how you acted, how you spoke — everything was now scrutinized.  It was completely new to us.  We didn’t know that we had to learn that new role to be a minister’s kid.  To be a Samoan minister’s kid.  It was a lot of pressure.

The hardest part was trying to be perfect when you knew you’re not. Part of that was dressing a certain way.  If you wore shorts they had to be a certain length.  Those were all new things for a third grader.  You can’t wear that, it’s too short. You can’t act like that because your father is the minister.  You have to do well in school because your father is the minister because everyone will be looking at you.  Those were all new things for my siblings and I, in addition to adjusting to the culture and the language.

I was lucky in third grade because we lived in what you would call the urban area, if there is one on the island.  There was a particular school that I was sent to.  It was a public school and it was one of the better schools on the island.  What I found when I went to that school and I didn’t realize it until I was older was that all the kids spoke English and to me that was normal and I didn’t realize that all the kids in the urban setting tended to be more well-off and exposed to English more. They had better language skills but if you went to a school that was more rural, that was not the case.  You wouldn’t find them speaking English in the class even though the language of instruction is English. I think for that particular school, I was only there for two years, the adjustment wasn’t too bad.

The only other things we had to learn was that we had to wear a school uniform. All public schools in American Samoa wear school uniforms, even today.  This was in the late 1970s.  We could do the school uniform thing, that wasn’t a problem.  Simple things like going to lunch, standing in line and seeing what the menu is.  It is more Samoan food, like you would see banana as your staple rather than pasta.  Those things were interesting to see.  This was ok because that’s the food I ate at home, but to see it in a school setting was different. Those are the things I remember as a third grader.

I stayed there through fifth grade and then I moved back to Seattle again.  That was another adjustment to make.  This time I didn’t live with my grandma, I lived with my aunt, who is my mom’s sister.   All of the sudden everyone around me was not Samoan, everyone was different.

It was interesting when I moved back to Seattle, that would have been the early 1980s, Seattle had instituted a busing policy to try to integrate the school system more.  None of these things I was aware of until later. I lived in an area of Seattle called South Seattle, which at that time was predominantly African American on one side and on the other side was Jewish and then Asian, specifically Chinese.  We were bused to the north end, which is a predominantly white middle-class area.  The bus ride was maybe forty-five minutes.  When you’re in sixth grade you just jump on the bus and go.  You have no idea what’s going on.  We were bused to that neighborhood to go to school. I remember after learning what was going on at that time looking at the other children’s faces as the buses were passing each other.  Our bus would be filled with colored students.  I clearly remember that.  And you look at the other bus and there are all white students and we are passing each other.  They were going to our school in South Seattle and we were going to their school in Northgate. That was interesting.

Academically, because I was a good student, the adjustment wasn’t too hard in school but I think what was hard was that I now wasn’t with my parents again. I had gone through the process again. It was always one at a time.  When I got to Seattle one of my brothers was already there, and a sister, so there were three of us there and the other three were back in the islands.  We were going to a place that we know.  Seattle was becoming a second home to us.  All of my mother’s siblings and my grandma lived there.  My mother was the only one who lived on the islands. There was a safety net in that respect.

Interestingly my family had been there since the 1950s because of the military, so we were one of the first Samoan families in Seattle.  And we all knew each other. They were all there because of the military.  What happened is what happens anywhere Pacific Islanders move, you set up a church. A church was established and that became the village, the community center for all the Samoans.  My uncle was the minister.  So there I go again.  I moved from one minister’s house to another minister’s house.  I had to keep playing this role.  Now I was not the minister’s daughter, but the minister’s niece.

There were some interesting things that I do recall.  I talk about them in my book.  I did not go to birthday parties.  I was invited often to go to birthday parties or just to outings with my friends and I never said yes. I don’t know why. Maybe I subconsciously as a twelve-year-old I did know why. That is not something that we did as Samoans.  When you go to functions it is only with your family.  Outside of that, you don’t do that. Whether they are your friends or not, you just don’t do that. I don’t remember ever asking my aunt if I could go.  I would imagine that she probably would have let me go but I think this was something I learned, I don’t know how.  I was learning these certain behaviors or perceptions as a twelve-year-old.  I am not going to come to your birthday party because you are not my family and you are not Samoan. I think that is a strange way of thinking.  Where did I learn that?  I learned that somewhere. I never invited my friends to my house. I must have known there was a boundary.  There were a couple times I went over to other’s houses.  I explore that a little bit in this book as well.

The other thing I remember, this was seventh grade.  Junior high school just sucks for anybody, but I remember being told you now have to take PE.  What does that mean?  When you take PE you have to change and take a shower with everybody.  I explore that in here.  I was like, really?!  I have to take off all my clothes in front of all these strangers.  That was a real shocker to me.  I always showered in the private showers.  I did not feel comfortable taking my clothes off in front of strangers.  This a very Western thing to expect kids to be comfortable to do that.  Everybody get naked and take a shower!  I know that even white kids feel awkward in that respect but for me it was more than that.  These were not cultural norms.  We do not do this in Samoa.  We don’t get in showers together naked with each other.  We don’t do that.

I also remember that in the seventh grade is when I started to feel that I was different.  In the sixth grade it was more structured.  You are in a class with the same people all day long. You get to middle school and you are on your own.  You have your own schedule and that’s when I really started to notice, wow, I’m different.  I remember during lunch at the beginning of the school year you don’t know anybody and you have to figure out where you are going to go eat lunch.  That’s when I realized that you are one of the few brown people here.  In sixth grade there were more colored students there, but when I got to junior high what happened was that they gave the parents the option whether they wanted to continue to bus their kids or not.  I don’t think the notice ever made it to my home.  Or maybe my aunt didn’t understand it.  She just figured this is where you are going to go to school, there you go.  When I got to junior high I noticed that most of the kids from South Seattle were no longer there.  That is when I realized about skin color.  There were just a handful of brown students in the school. I think it was me, that I didn’t feel comfortable, because I realized that I was different from everybody else.  I don’t remember the kids being mean to me.  I was just more aware that I was different.

The curriculum didn’t cover American Samoa. In my dissertation I explore that.  Up to that point I had learned nothing about American Samoa, what American Samoa’s history was with the United States. I had no clue.  I didn’t know I was supposed to know.  I was learning the history of the US, very traditional curriculum.  I had no awareness that I could be or that I should be learning a little bit about my own history and culture and how it is situated here in the US.  My family didn’t know how to provide that context, and they didn’t know they were supposed to do that.  No awareness at all.  None. They just said, go to school and do your homework.  Whatever they teach you, that’s what you are supposed to learn.  I think for my parents the long-term goal was to get a good education.  What you do with it later, we’ll talk about that when we get to that point. Just go and do well in school.

Not all of us decided to stay in the US.  Five of us are here and one is back in the islands. My parents stayed because of my father’s job. Our family was shaped by his profession. After two years in Seattle I went back to the islands.  I went back for eighth grade and by then I was a teenager. Back to living as a minister’s daughter, as a teenager, being rebellious. Before then my father had been a chaplain at the hospital, not so much at a parish in a village.  Even though being a chaplain at a hospital still meant that you are a minister’s daughter and you had to follow all these rules, but there was no parish.  Now he was at a parish in a village when I was a teenager.  The pressure to play the role of a minister’s daughter became even more intense from then on.  I had always been strong-minded and so we were beginning that battle between how my parents wanted us to behave and carry ourselves and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to act. That battle was on.

For example, after school the expectation was that you come home.  As a minister there is a set schedule.  Every Protestant minister’s family followed the schedule. Monday was sort of free, Tuesday was choir, Wednesday was bible study, Thursday was choir practice again, Saturday if the church has events you were expected to be there, and then the whole day Sunday there was a set schedule.  After school you come home because we have all of these church things going on and we need you here, but well there were other things going on at school that I wanted to be a part of.  There was cheerleading, there was the pep club, there was student council.  Because my father valued education he was a little more flexible.  My mother was not.  She was the one who said I need you come at this hour, I need you to set things up for the women’s meeting or I need you to make the sandwiches.  On Saturdays if there were school events I had to find out first if there was a church event, can I go?  It wasn’t always a yes. I had to go to a church function.  That defined my high school years. I stayed there until I graduated from high school.  It was quite intense because the church had so many events. I was expected to be there because we played a big role helping out whether you wanted to or not.  There was always a competition between your life as a teenager and the church.

American Samoa, because it is a US territory, followed a lot of the standards set by the US department of education.  The law in American Samoa is that the language of instruction from K through twelve shall be English, but Samoan can be used to explain concepts to students.  Instruction in formal schooling is in English and it’s very traditional and rigidly Western. There is nothing about American Samoa in there.  No literature or history.  Art maybe. Samoans pushed on their own for art.  Had they not done that it wouldn’t have made its way into the curriculum.  To graduate from high school back then you had to have a half a credit of something Samoan.  They offered Samoan language and the history of Samoa, and that was it.   Those were your choices for your half credit.   I never took Samoan language, as I look back now I should have.  I think they were talking about literature in those classes. It wasn’t cool to take Samoan language. And then you take just one semester of the history of the American Samoan government.  No literature, not even the myths and legends even though the culture is filled with rich myths and legends.  I didn’t learn about the literature of the Pacific until I was entered graduate school and I was introduced to it by a white woman. I was embarrassed.  We were all embarrassed, but it wasn’t our fault that we didn’t know.  Still in the high school today there is no course called Pacific literature.  That’s how colonized their minds are.  They fought it, their explanation was, what are they going to do with it when they go off island? Who is going to accept it? I’m not going to have this conversation with them because they are obviously not ready for this, about why it is important.  To decolonize the mind of generations of educators, these are administrators, trying to explain it to them.  I’m not ready for that yet, don’t have the energy for that.

When I graduated from high school I came to the US.  I spent my freshman year at the University of Oregon and I didn’t like it there.  This was in 1986.  I was probably just homesick.  It wasn’t very diverse at that time so I moved back to Seattle to be closer to my family.  I ended up at the University of Washington and that’s where I finished. And then for graduate school I did all of it at the University of Hawaii because I wanted to focus on the Pacific and I realized that was the place to do that.  I go back to Samoa every two or three years.  My parents live here now so there is less reason for me to be traveling back to the islands right now.

It has been really challenging to move to Portland for me because it is not as diverse as I would like it to be. For me as an American Samoan it is still a struggle.  At PCC I’m like the Lone Ranger.  I’m pretty sure I am the only faculty, maybe the only staff member, and I don’t really know how many Pacific Islander students there are.  Every once in a while I’ll see emails from a group that say they are Asian Pacific, but who are these people?  What are they about?  What do they do?  The notion of Pacific Islanders is interesting because the Pacific is so big and we are so fragmented that we don’t have a lot of opportunities to interact with one another.  Hawaii gives you an opportunity because there are a lot of Pacific Islanders there. When we come to the States and they lump us into the category of Pacific Islanders, but do they realize that we are all new to each other when they put us together? We’re not this one massive group.  We don’t know each other.  I have been to events here that were sponsored by Pacific Islanders, from Marshall Islands, from Guam, but we are strangers to each other.  We are supposed to be one big happy family but we are strangers to each other. And to make it even more complicated they lump us in with Asians, too.  We just kind of laugh about it.  I don’t like going to those organizations because the Asians dominate because they are larger in number and they’ve been here longer and are much more settled.  We’re invisible.