Tag Archives: culture

THROUGH MY EYES: ‘HAWAIIAN ON THE INSIDE’ BY LEHUA PARKER

I was walking through Dick’s Sporting Goods in Salt Lake City, Utah when I saw it hanging on the back wall: a ski jacket with the same bird of paradise print my tutu had on her couch cushions in the ‘70s. Like a teri beef plate lunch special it called to me. My daughter was appalled. ‘You are NOT wearing that, Mom. No way!’

‘It’s reversible, right?’ my son asked.

My husband shrugged. ‘At least we’ll be able to find you in a crowd.’

I bought it.

And I wore it. For about a week it clashed with everything and everyone, as out of place as an aloha shirt at – well, a ski slope. When you’re an ex-pat Hawaiian living near world-class winter sporting grounds it can be hard to find the aloha spirit in the middle of January.

I tried not to care. I ignored the stares and snickers and carried my childhood wrapped around me like a blanket. But one day I caved and reversed it.

‘What’s up with your coat?’ my son asked.

‘It’s like me. I’m wearing my Hawaiian on my inside.’

He tilted his head. ‘Yeah, but unlike your coat you’re not even brown on the outside.’

Ouch.

Through a genetic quirk my youngest sister and I inherited our mother’s super fair northern European coloring while my other sister and brother have our father’s mixed Hawaiian heritage of medium brown hair, eyes, and skin.

I’m not going to lie to you. As the only blond, blue-eyed kid in the entire school district in Kahului, Maui it was rough. Unlike every other Hawaiian family I’ve known, my dad was an only child from a family of only children – and from Oahu. I didn’t have a huge ohana of cousins calabash or otherwise on Maui to vouch for me. It was easy to be the target from the teachers and principal on down.

No lie. People go to jail now for what they did to me in elementary school. But Maui was a different time and place back then. At least I like to think so.

There’s a disconnect that happens in your head when you’re beaten for being an outsider by kids who are descendants of sugarcane and pineapple workers from Asia when your ancestors farmed taro in those same fields for hundreds of years. But on the playground nobody cares about those kinds of distinctions. It’s all about freckles and the need for sunscreen.

For a year or two after school while waiting for my mom to get off work, I went to a house where the father carved traditional ki‘i – tiki statues – and the grandmother spoke beautiful Hawaiian with her friends under the shade of mango trees. They were patient with me – the gangly haole girl who watched with big eyes and listened to the melodious voices rolling like water over her head. Sometimes they would tell me stories about Hawaiian history, culture, legends, and traditions. I soaked them up like a sponge.

After my family moved back to Oahu, I was accepted into The Kamehameha Schools and that changed my life. I didn’t have to fight so hard to belong because everyone knew I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t. At Kamehameha I learned more about what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and like my classmates, promised to perpetuate our culture in positive ways. Our princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop had given us the precious gift of an education; we therefore have an obligation to be her hands and pass aloha along.

I write the Niuhi Shark Saga and other stories for island kids who never see themselves or their families in popular literature. So much about Hawaii has been rewritten by Hollywood and that’s tragic. There is a need for authentic Pasifika voices to tell our stories, and I hope to add to the conversation in my small way.

When people read the words, they hear a Hawaiian voice. But when I show up at a book signing or appearance that disconnect happens again. ‘You’re Lehua? From The Kamehameha Schools? No way!’ I don’t think anyone ever gets used to being called a liar within the first few minutes of meeting a stranger, but I smile and roll with it. I’ve thought about putting my dark-haired sister’s photo on the back of my books and sending her to out into the world as Lehua, but I know that wouldn’t be pono. And for a Hawaiian, living a life that’s pono – a life in harmony with what is good, noble, and true in thought, action, and deed – is our deepest aspiration.

Like many of my classmates, I went to the mainland for college and stayed to raise a family – a family of towheads like me with looooong Hawaiian middle names. And I worry about that.

Every year I grind my teeth when the local grocery store hosts its Hawaiian days with samba music from Brazil, masks from Papua New Guinea, paper flowers from India, and calls anything with pineapple Hawaiian. In the summer neighbors are keen to throw luaus where they wear cellophane grass skirts, fake coconut bras, and serve Hawaiian haystacks – a truly vile concoction of shredded chicken, raw veggies, coconut chips, long-grained rice, and Campbell’s cream of chicken soup. About the time they bring out the limbo stick and form a conga line is when I sneak home. I know I should be more gracious, but it’s hard.

I insist my kids call flip-flops slippahs, snow cones shave ice, and understand that true aloha is colorblind. I wonder if I’m going to be the last generation in my family that remembers how Maui captured the sun, when the makahiki season starts, and why haloa is the staff of life. But then I hear about how my son called out his AP World Geography teacher about comments he found derogatory and inappropriate about Polynesians – and insisted on an apology. When the teacher balked and called him a poser, my son told his teacher to look at his middle name and offered to have his mother come in and explain real Hawaiian history to the class.

Pono.

Maybe I won’t be the last after all.

THROUGH MY EYES: ‘I AM DIVERGENT’ BY TANYA TAIMANGLO

Okay, let me explain how a 40 year old Asian Pacific Islander who now lives in the Pacific Northwest can be anything like the heroine, Tris from the bestselling trilogy by Veronica Roth.

I was born into a faction of sorts. Two if you want to be exact. If you were to peg me into the two Roth defined factions, it would be Erudite (The Intelligent) and Abnegation (The Selfless). Being raised by a Korean mother and a Chamorro father on Guam had its limitations, and blessings of course. I love my heritages, don’t get me wrong and have spoken of and written about it many times. However, I was bound by rules and regulations of the cultures which affected the adult I became. It is only in the last five years or so, perhaps factored by my father’s passing in 2007 that I have become freer. I have changed factions so to speak.

Focusing on being a Chamorro female, I was told many times that school came first. I was restricted from dating (my first kiss was at the age of 21 – but, don’t weep for me). I was pushed into a college degree that wasn’t my first choice. Vanity, like in Tris’s world, was frowned upon. I wasn’t allowed to feel pretty, or to focus on my looks. My father, the practical one, knew that these things fade. Any time I strayed too far from my set boundaries, I was yanked back by an invisible leash of obligation. In many ways, these restrictions saved me from risky behavior, but I have always wondered what kind of super woman I would be today, had these restraints not been placed on me. I probably wouldn’t cringe when someone pays me a compliment, especially regarding how I look.

I was scolded when at 18, I wanted a tattoo (it was all the rage with my girlfriends). Side note, it took another 18 years to get my first one. A tiger on my back with many hidden symbols (again, much like the Divergent characters).

I married a childhood friend, who is also Chamorro, when we were 30. When we were set to leave the island, I was struck by fear and excitement. I was scared to leave the tiny sanctuary of home and all that I knew for California. But, I was excited at the ripe age of 30 to start my life. I wanted to jump into and off that moving train. And in these last ten years of living in California, and now Washington State, the result of being a Navy wife; I have never felt more liberated. Now, is this a slap to the Chamorro childhood and upbringing I sprouted from? I would hope not. My Chamorro and Korean culture seeps into my everyday being. In my interactions with my new community, I am a culmination of all my experiences. I haven’t immersed myself so deep into the traditional American life that I have lost all that I was originally. But once in a while, I’m reminded that I don’t do things like we do ‘on the island’.

We celebrated my birthday and my daughter’s this past weekend. A friend from Guam was here. She overheard me tell my son to grab his ‘flip flops’ to go outside. I was scolded on the spot and then flushed red in the face. I got it. I didn’t use the term for slippers we use on Guam, ‘zoris’. I then had to explain to the two Navy wife buddies of mine why I was being chastised. In one sentence, I explained Guam terminology and the word origin being Japanese. This small oversight on my part made me question whether I was bringing my children up properly, my very Divergent children. But I dismissed my doubt quickly and enjoyed the rest of the party.

In many ways, we are all Divergent and it’s when people judge you for liking something outside of your cultural norms that my feathers get ruffled. I know who I am, where I’m from and where I’m going. Just because I’ve switched from a life of coconut trees and balmy weather to a life of chill winds and evergreens, it doesn’t make me less. It makes me Divergent. It makes me greater. And, I continued to evolve.

JUST HOW FRIENDLY ARE THE FRIENDLY ISLANDS?

It was James Cook who first named Tonga ‘the Friendly Islands’. It happened in 1773, during his second Pacific voyage. The British explorer was so impressed by the warm welcome he had received in the village of Lifuka that he immediately coined an appropriate nickname for the country. What he didn’t know then was that the native Tongans had actually planned to kill him and his crew. They didn’t succeed as they were busy arguing on how to do it best.  But that’s just a tiny, little detail not even worth mentioning…

Today, if you want to visit the islands, you don’t have to worry – no one is going to kill you. Actually, the moment you’ll find yourself amongst Tongans, you’ll feel like a member of a big family.

Yes, those people radiate warmth and friendliness, but they need to be given a slight encouragement. Initially, they may appear shy, reserved or even harsh. But throw them a smile, and they will immediately open up. In the blink of an eye you will be welcomed into the local community. They will treat you like someone who belongs to that place. And you will never feel lonely again. It is anga faka-Tonga, the Tongan way of life.

Islanders give and share. Whatever they possess or own – be it food, personal items or even valuables – is regarded as common good. They will gladly ‘lend’ you anything you want. Just because you asked; or said you liked it. It’s always nice to do the same, although Tongans don’t expect any gifts. Selfless givers; that’s who they are. What really matters to them is a relationship with another human being. Material things always come second. Nevertheless, they may mention, from time to time, that your cap or that piece of jewellery you wear is very nice… Well, it is anga faka-Tonga, the Tongan way of life.

Speaking of sharing… Tongans are extremely hospitable, even towards strangers. Visitors are welcomed at all times. Upon entering the house, they are honoured with the best seats. During the meals, they are served first while the hosts usually sit, watch and wait, asking occasionally if anything else is needed. When leaving, guests are given a small present. Such generosity is a sign of respect. And respect, as well as kindness to other people, are key values in the culture of this South Pacific kingdom. Putting it simply, it is anga faka-Tonga, the Tongan way of life.

Do you think I’ve painted a rosy picture here? Hold on, there’s even more. Tongans laugh. Constantly. At almost everything. And that laughter is infectious. It takes away all the sorrows and brings happiness and bliss instead. In times of crisis, in times of disasters, in times of pain – those people are joyful. For they know they can count on their brothers and sisters. Always. This is the rule: you never desert your family and friends; you support them, you help them, you back them up. And you never look down on anybody. No matter who that person is. As you can see, humility, modesty and genuine love can still be found somewhere in this world.

No, this is not some utopian community that I’ve just described. It’s quite real. It is… anga faka-Tonga, the Tongan way of life.

Such are the Friendly Islanders. It then comes as no surprise that the true winner of the Winter Olympics in Sochi was Fuahea Semi, or Bruno Banani, as he is now known. Not only did this Tongan luger impress people all over the globe with his fantastic performance, but he also won their hearts with his strong character, great attitude and a truly amazing personality. I don’t think you can ever find a nicer, more humble and more likable athlete; or a person, for that matter. Well… It is anga faka-Tonga, the Tongan way of life. And he is the pure quintessence of it.

WHO ARE THOSE WOMEN?

They are beautiful. Or at least this is what people say. And they can be quite frightening. They’re neither humans nor ghosts. They are the spirit women. And they wander the villages of Samoa. Yes, it’s time to take another journey into the world of Pasifika myths. So, shall we begin?

The women in question are known as Teine Sa. It is believed that every village in the Samoan Archipelago has its own lady, who guards and protects the area. Most of them are known only by local inhabitants, but you may have heard about Telesa – the Teine Sa from the village of Lepea, Saumaeafe from Saleimoa or Sinaleavele – the spirit of Alaoa and Tanugamanono.

They are all described as being stunningly attractive, with long hair and red hibiscuses tucked behind their ears, and… eager to seduce young men. Word on the street is, they can charm anyone they want. Such extraordinary beauty can be alluring. But guys, watch out! Falling in love with the Teine Sa may lead to your… death. Especially, if you pay attention to other girls.

The spirit women of Samoa are extremely jealous. They detest good-looking females. The ones that flaunt their physical appearance run a risk of… getting seriously harmed. So all you ladies, beware! Don’t brush your hair at night, don’t wear it down, don’t misbehave. Otherwise the Teine Sa will come after you.

Yes, it is obvious that those strong-willed women don’t like it when young people don’t respect the community, when they behave in an inappropriate way or fail to conform to social norms. It’s quite simple: try one of these, and you will be punished. Or: follow the rules, be demure and modest, set a good example, and you will never have any troubles. The choice is yours. But remember, it may not be just a myth…

Now, you may assume that the Teine Sa spirits are embodiments of evil. Well, such statement would definitely be an exaggeration. Those beautiful women, who apparently can hurt human beings so easily, are the protectors of not only Samoan land, but also indigenous traditions and beliefs.

In Pasifika, nature was always considered sacred. Forests, rivers, lagoons and even single plants were often declared tapu, just so people would respect them. The islands and the ocean were the sources of life: the homes of the ancestors, the ‘givers’ of food, the shelter and hope for future generations. Every single person was inseparably linked with Mother Earth.

This is how it looked in the past. Nowadays, things have changed. The trees and waters are no longer tapu. People care less and less about their surroundings. Well, modernity has arrived and everything has evolved: culture, customs, traditions and beliefs. It only seems like a natural cycle of life but… If you forget about your heritage, you start to lose your true identity. And the Teine Sa? They try to awaken those memories of the ancient times, when people actually listened to the great world of nature and took proper care of the place they called ‘home’. The spirits demand respect: for themselves, but most of all for Samoa.

The big question is: are the stories based on facts? It’s hard to say. Some elders claim they encountered the ghosts. They swear to God the Teine Sa are real. Others disagree. According to them, the legends were made up in order to frighten and discipline children and teenagers, so they would obey adults. Whatever the case is, the lore is deeply rooted in the Polynesian culture. It may not be as prevalent as it was in the old days, but it’s still there. Young Samoans insist they do not believe in the Teine Sa. But somehow they try very hard not to anger them. Who knows, maybe those beautiful women with red hibiscuses over their ears do exist… Roaming the sacred lands of the islands and connecting people to their past.

It is often said that legends are a mixture of fantasy and reality. This indeed may be true.

THE WORLD OF MYTHS

How did our world come into existence? Who created it? How did it gain its current form? Aren’t those the questions we all want to know the right answers to? But do the right answers exist? I’m not sure. Nowadays everyone speaks of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Or they insist our presence on Earth is an act of God. In the past, the answers weren’t that simple and they differed widely from country to country. Why? Well, every nation has its own culture. And every culture has its own set of beliefs.

Before the arrival of the first missionaries, indigenous people in the South Seas lived within their own, unique world. They believed in gods and spirits – their guardians and protectors, imbued with the immense power of mana.

All the gods had to be respected and, of course, worshipped. In some regions, mostly in Polynesia, the mythical beings were served in special temples – maraes. If you, however, imagine a marae as a Greek temple, you are very much mistaken. First of all, maraes were open-air enclosures with stone walls. Some were small, some were big; some were built in the forest, others – on a tract of land overlooking the sea. Second of all, maraes were used not only for honoring local gods, but also as public meeting places and ceremonial grounds (in Melanesia). Putting it simply, they were the centres of religious, social, political and cultural life on the islands.

The natives prayed a lot. They pleased their gods before every major event and every major activity. They asked them for health and happiness; for rich harvests at the beginning of the season; for a good catch before the fishing excursion; for the victory over enemies. To say the gods were an extremely important part of people’s daily existence wouldn’t be an understatement.

Speaking of the gods… Who were they? What were their names? It would be quite difficult to make a complete list here. Actually, you could compile several lists and that still wouldn’t be enough. Yes, the mythology of the Pacific is as diverse as the islands themselves. Some gods are recognized throughout the Blue Continent, nonetheless their names may vary from country to country. Others remain peculiar to only one region or, as if that wasn’t enough, to a single island. This sounds complicated, I know. And to be honest with you, it really is. But if you bury yourself in this mythical world, you will find it so interesting and absorbing that you will not want to get back here on Earth. What’s the best way to do it? Legends… Start with legends.

Traditional tales from Pasifika are a truly fascinating mixture. Giant lizards and decapitated eels coexist alongside gods, brave warriors and great heroes. They all ‘came to life’ to explain people the origins of their lands; to teach them about the importance of nature; to justify certain choices and decisions. Only in the South Seas are the myths considered legitimate history of the nations.

Today, the legends may be just a part of the folklore; some meaningless and untrue stories. But in the past, they were everything. They were the answers to all the tough questions. They were the fables for children. They were the subjects of everyday discussions. If you ever get the chance to hear a tale told by native Islanders, don’t miss that opportunity. The passion in their voice will struck you. And then you will know that Pasifika mythology is still alive.

When European missionaries began evangelizing the Blue Continent, indigenous beliefs of local people quickly fell into oblivion. But they were never completely forgotten. They’re still there. Drifting from one island to another. Maybe now it’s time to rediscover this wonderful world of Pacific myths?

THE SACRED FORM OF LAW

We all need some rules and guidelines. They are, whether you like it or not, an essential part of our lives. Can you imagine what the world would look like if no regulations existed? Well, I can. It would be nothing but a mess. Complete chaos. Total disarray. In other words, it would be a terrible place to live.

The importance of law and order has been recognized since remote times. Most countries had established their own social principles long before ‘traditional’ legal systems came into being. Such rules indicated what was forbidden and what was permitted. Individuals couldn’t just do as they pleased. Their personal freedom was restricted in favour of public interests. Was it wrong? No. Was it necessary? It surely was.

In the Pacific Islands the first ‘law’ that organized social life was tapu. Although the word is usually translated into English as ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited’, its definition is actually much broader. In order to fully understand the code, we must first dig into Polynesian culture.

The origins of tapu are strongly linked to the concept of mana, which can be defined as an extraordinary power derived from the gods. In the past, mana was a synonym for authority, influence, prestige and efficacy. It was a kind of supernatural force certain people, places and objects possessed. In case of human beings, mana could be both inherited or acquired during life. It could also be increased, decreased or even lost through one’s actions or behaviour.

Now, you may wonder what is the connection between the two concepts. Well, when something was tapu (‘forbidden’), it was actually sacred as it was imbued with the power of mana. And the higher the mana, the greater the tapu. Chiefs and noble families, as well as significant objects and places, were believed to have had an exceptionally high level of mana. That is why they were extremely tapu and out of bounds to those who didn’t have a dispensation.

The concept of tapu was so commonly used in the various Pacific Islands that it quickly became a means of social control. It imposed restrictions, limitations and prohibition. Everything and everyone could be made tapu. Such things or people couldn’t be touched, approached or sometimes even talked to. To give you an example, if someone’s house was declared tapu, unauthorized person was forbidden to enter it. In one of his books, Robert Louis Stevenson mentions how King Tembinok, the ruler of Apemama, made Stevensons’ compound sacred and thus inaccessible to the locals. The natives obeyed; as usual. Tapu was rarely violated by the islanders. They knew that ‘breaking the law’ would have some very serious consequences. They feared the anger of their ancestors, which would manifest itself through illnesses, catastrophes, disasters or even death. The rule was simple: showing a reckless disregard for tapu was considered an offence to the gods. And who would want to lose divine guardianship? No one. At least no one from the traditional Pacific Island society.

As you can see, tapu has always been a very complex system. It was a representation of mana, so its primary aim was to protect and preserve: people, places, objects and natural resources. But it cannot be denied that tapu was also an early substitution for civil law. By placing various restrictions upon members of the community – or in other words by declaring someone or something ‘sacred’ or ‘forbidden’ – chiefs, priests and rulers made sure that the society as a whole was moving in the right direction. And just as no one can escape the law (at least in theory), no one could also escape tapu.

Does the concept exist in the modern Pacific world? It does, though it’s definitely not as strong as it was in the past. But still, don’t be surprised if you go to New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Fiji or several other islands and learn that some average-looking place is loaded with the sacred power of mana…