White Washed Tongan On ‘Fie Palangi-ism’

In 7th grade, I lived in constant humiliation by those who called me ‘fie/a palangi’ because of the way I spoke. My early obsession for English words manifested as “proper” and “fie/a poto” (cocky, conceited) which was understood by my own community as wanting desperately to be white.

Even at church too my siblings and I were ridiculed by this word that insinuated a lack – or complete loss – of one’s roots or culture. I mean, being a child to immigrant parents meant taking on the duties and responsibilities of a ta’ahine Tonga – young Tongan girl – while ignoring the “American-ness” that materialized all around me. Nonetheless, I was conditioned to believe that excelling in school was not a value indigenous to my Tongan culture but rather something that I had assimilated into.

Fast forward to a couple years and Degrees later, I’ve understood this term, “fie/a palangi”, as a misconception of what our values are as indigenous Pacific Islanders. In my Critical Pacific Islands Studies course, taught by Dr. David Ga’oupu Palaita, Ph.D. at both the College of San Mateo and City College of San Francisco, a strong discussion ensued about what being ‘Tongan’ means in America.

On one side of the argument was the reality of living in America and being “washed” with American/Western culture while on the other side stood the core Tongan values and unashamedly practicing them. Both opinions were entirely valid and brought a great point to the table that concerns all of us as multigenerational Pacific Islander-Americans – have our Pacific Islander cultural values been misinterpreted as white culture or being fie/a palangi?

When I asked classmates what they thought of the term, they were reluctant to associate the word to mean the same as American. To paraphrase, ‘fie/a palangi’ is a culturally derogative term that discredits one’s identity and experience as a Pacific Islander-American and presumes that one is “acting” white. Neither of my classmates referred this word to mean ‘owning one’s identity as American’ because to their understanding, they were not seen as American to their peers, but rather Tongans and Samoans.

Me – So fie/a palangi does not mean American?


Me – When you’re expressing your Americanness, do people just assume that you’re asserting your status as an American?

Nah. It’s never like that. Nobody says that, they just say we’re trynna be fie/a palangi – trynna be white.

Me – Do you think we are allowed to own our identities as Americans then? Or will we always be seen as trying to be fie/a palangi?

They don’t see us as American. We are either Tongan or fie/a palangi, not American.

These responses carry a heavy weight of truth in which us Pacific Islander Americans are burdened with everywhere we go. The dual identity crisis of being a Pacific Islander living in America is an imbalance of bi/multi-culturalism that oftentimes is scrutinized by our own people. To most, being Pacific Islander means humility, respect, family, God, kaveinga/fa’alavelave, and to be fie/a palangi means everything else, right?

A common conception of this is when we see Pacific Islanders excelling in education. The most popular stereotype of our people is that we are “dumb” and when one breaks from this internalized racial stigma, they are deemed an outstanding exception. Maybe that’s why high school graduations in our community are celebrated with such high esteem because of the underlying uncertainty that our young ones will continue on to college. Why? Is it because it’s not a part of the essence of being a Pacific Islander? Or because wanting to excel and elevate passed mediocrity belongs only to those who want to “sell-out” and be “fie/a palangi?” Or truthfully, is it because we as indigenous Pacific Islanders were never built to lose sight of the shore?

Cue in Dr. David G. Palaita, an academic enthusiast who shared valuable insight. Dr. Palaita valiantly addressed this topic of controversy not with a simple solution but a great reminder of the inherited curiosity given by our ancestors.

“The thing about our [Pacific Islander] cultures, about being a people of navigation, is that the only reason why we explored was to be educated. The reason why we explored and navigated outside of our islands was because we were in search. We were always traditionally in search of knowledge, we were always in search of new ways of thinking and being.”

With his tranquil response, Dr. Palaita explained that, “it’s weird that the idea of being fie/a palangi gets applied to me and others’ passion for education and learning, because [for me] it’s like that’s what we’re supposed to do anyway! That’s our culture! It’s our culture to be educated! It’s our culture to go out and navigate! It’s our culture to go out and learn new things! You learn new things because you’re wanting to learn new and innovative ways to thrive and survive.  When I hear those who thrive in their education being called fie/a palangi, it’s an unfair attack. They are doing what they’re supposed to be doing as Islanders. They are supposed to go out and seek knowledge. They are supposed to get educated.

Do you think our ancestors built canoes to sit on the water and stare at each other all day? NO! They built them because the main function of a canoe is to connect. Canoe’s connect. By what? The ocean.”

Now, if something as vast and powerful as the ocean has been our archive and our place of learning for centuries, how have we as a people mistaken education and the desire to seek information and share knowledge as a brand of whiteness? How have we become so intolerant to believe that we as a people are not prone to survive what is known as “higher education” in Western culture? Is expressing our intelligence being fie/a palangi? Or can we begin to re-establish the value of knowledge and educating one another as a root of our culture?

So, the next time you hear the word fie/a palangi used to attack a Pacific Islander’s desire to excel passed their circumstance, I challenge you to remind yourself that being educated to know knowledge and to have compassion for knowledge is the Islander way. It is indigenous to us, and to call it fie/a palangi is to perpetuate the act of suppressing our culture to that of Western ideals. We are rooted in excellence and by not seeking knowledge and by not practicing the art of intellectual curiosity, we give up our chance at nurturing ourselves and our souls and our very being in this world. As Dr. Palaita says, “We give up the very opportunity to preserve and share our epistemologies and our oceanic ways of knowing.”   

Our ancestors taught us that in order to connect with what’s on the other side of the ocean, we must be willing to lose sight of the shore.

Seek knowledge. Be great – for it’s the Islander way and will continue to be for generations to come.

Dr. David Ga’oupu Palaita, Ph.D. is professor of Critical Pacific Islands Studies and Ethnic Studies at the City College of San Francisco and at the College of San Mateo.  He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy and a Master of Arts in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from the University of Washington in Seattle.  He is also a proud graduate of Waipahu High School in Waipahu, Hawai’i.  

16 thoughts on “White Washed Tongan On ‘Fie Palangi-ism’

  1. Never ever let anyone tell you fia/ palagi…because everyone has the freedom the right to seek knowledge. ..You’re not what they want you to be, but what you make yourself become…”Be Courageous and Strong” Stand tall with conviction and be proud of your accomplishments…

  2. You’re right; “the phrase fie/fia palangi/palagi” is pejoratively used by Polynesians to degrade other Polynesians because of their presumed incapability of understanding their respective traditional ways. So then the question I would beg to ask: Why do we call—even our fellow familial members—fie/fia palangi/palagi? Yeah we land a couple humorous jabs, but seriously, why? It is because calling them “too White” means they are unable to define their true identity. This is the problem. Polynesians engender the hierarchy that by being “fie/fia palangi/palagi” Tongans/Samoans who are closer to their heritage are characterized as superior than those who are removed from their cultural upbringing. This isn’t true. There shouldn’t be a power dynamic involved in acquiring one’s culturally inherent identity. No woman nor man should ever be ridiculed that they can’t follow their ancestral trajectory and reestablish their cultural importance. Even amidst the ebb and flow, the canoe still makes progress because you could detail the pattern of its movement. NHPIs have lost their focus of the real problem and fostered blame upon each other. You’re right, Tonga. Why should it ever be justified to ridicule a fellow girl/boy for having the fervor to be more certain and knowledgeable of her/his identity. What thus becomes the underlying issue is that too many times NHPIs fail to interrogate the system and accept its pillars for what they stand to be.. The system is subjugated by the hegemony, which universally indoctrinates how people of color think within America. The hegemony is Western civilization. Western civilization, since the beginning of time, has generated myths. Western myths with convincible appeal to the masses—especially when it’s coerced towards communities—soon solidify as facts. Over spans of time, those truths become accepted and never interrogated for their basis. In the end they become etched in stone and the reason brother deprives his own sister of her excellence. I believe that’s why we generate shit like “fie/fia palangi/palagi.” We’re not actively interrogating the system; some of us are just accepting the lies they perpetuate to hamper our collective progress. The system—which has preserved Western pretense for ages–influences perception. The system is “fie/fia palangi/palagi.”

  3. I don’t use “fie/fia palangi/palagi.” as a way to put down anyone who wants to excel in anything. I don’t use this term. I call some of my relatives “palangi” just because they have fair skin. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard other people use it to poke fun at other Tongans who speak correct English. Great article, thank you for sharing.

  4. Love this article and completely agree. Thank you so much for articulating some of the thoughts that have been swirling in my head, and making some really interesting connections to the idea that Tongans are historically explorers and learners and seekers of knowledge. I love this post.

  5. Grew up exactly the same way for me! But our culture is full of constant mocking on many different levels. Growing up in both worlds are hard getting called a Coconut on one hand and a Fie Palangi on the other. I guess you just got to be the best you that you know how to be and let your actions speak above that which people say!!! Stop by i’m at ourhappytalk.com. Totally agree with you our history does tell the knowledge and understanding that our ancestors had!!! Only wish these future generations could take it to the next level!

  6. Dynamic script. I’ve had to deal with snide comments within the Pacific Islander community towards being part Tongan, part Hawaiian, part Samoan, even part Maori, Tahitian, Italian-Jewish…or shall we dare script – “mixed plate”. hoi… The intent is shared in good, never meaning to hurt a soul. However, I am quite sure that there are concerns especially for those who are criticized for not learning the language. The parents who choose to leave the islands of Tonga adapt themselves in a whole new setting. Some are deliberate to cut all ties to their cultural inheritance. Others are kind to dabble in the vocabulary, communicate in Tongan or Samoan language arts among fellow family members & friends. As for the children, they are not pressed nor expected to learn the native language of their parents. At least…that’s my personal testimony. ‘Twould have much to do with acceptance in a sensitive environment where cultural diversity exists. Thus the question, “How can we as a family create harmony where cultural diversity exists?” As my siblings & I continued to be exposed to multiple cultures (Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese, African, Arabic, Native American, India, etc.); we learned that several of our peers were raised to speak 2 languages. They had to be the conduit of language translation for their parents. Over time, their parents learned the English language while their young matured to become masters in their field of education. Sort of a shield that defends themselves from critics. In the home I was raised in, I was taught to take full advantage in Polynesian cultural harmony. Advised & taught to bathe in the journey & adapt by way of cultural music, dance, varied costume attire, learn the myths & legends of old, learn of agriculture, the history in Polynesia, & be an advocate for as many Polynesian activities whenever possible. Anything & everything that’ll keep the ‘mixed plate’ term from affecting me ‘personally’. My Dad (Tom Tu’italau Tonga) & Mom (Margaret Lehuamakanoe Tonga) were absolutely correct. Doesn’t bother me the least bit when one (Tongan or Samoan) mentions the term fie palangi. At least they’ll always know this truth….I did adapt to the society & environment, gained immunity, & quite flexible at best. Great script…truly enjoyed my read for the day. Sharing…

  7. Fabulous article thank you. Im Samoan and raised in Samoa. Whenever I am invited to speak on Pasifika education and achievement, I remind people that valuing education (and making many sacrifices so children can be educated) is very much a Samoan “thing”. Growing up in Samoa – part of that samoanness was for children to attend pastors “school” (after school classes with the pastor n his wife etc to learn reading and writing and study the Bible). Samoanness was to be fiercely competitive in class for who would excel in different subjects and then to have parents and families join in the prizegiving celebrations. Samoanness is for parents in rural areas to send their children to live with family in town so they can go to a good school and then to pool ther money n resources to pay school fees.
    I have seen similar with my Tongan friends raised in Tonga.

  8. My theory is that this anti-intellectualism that has seeped into Samoan and Tongan culture, where people seeking knowledge and education are seen as fiapalagi, is largely a product of Western influence and stereotypes. In traditional Samoan culture, knowledge and intelligence were highly valued. They still are, in fact. Pretty ironic though, huh? We native people, outside of our ancestral homeland, see ourselves and our people as academically and intellectually inferior because that’s what we’ve been told by our palagi teachers, or that’s what our siblings’ and parents’ palagi teachers told them, or thats’ what the results of their experience in the Western education system bore out. So that legacy is what’s passed to us – We’re told “Go lift weights or play rugby. Go get a fast food job, because college and an education are not your cup of tea. And if you think they are, then quit being fiapoko, you fiapalagi.” But that’s WRONG. It’s self-defeating. It’s self-sabotaging. It has to stop and we have the power to shut it down. At the very least, we don’t pass this mentality on to our children and at the very best, we hold fast to our culture and heritage, while pursuing our educational and professional dreams. If we don’t succeed, there is still honor in making the attempt. And if we help root out these destructive ideas, where we fail, someone down the line will succeed.

  9. It seems to me that I have seen those that have gained a US education pull away from there Polynesian community and hold the US education in higher esteem then the Polynesian education. I’m striving for a balance, as I see them both as important.

  10. Most of us with Tongan heritage have used that term “fie palangi”. How we use it is different from person to person due to the meanings that they attach to it. In my own home it was never used to run people down that are striving to better themselves by way of education, career, etc. It was used to teach us that first we have to define ourselves and not allow anyone to dictate to us about who we are and try to define who we are. To know who we are, first we had to know our values, our customs and traditions and then learn about other cultures, their customs and traditions. Learn to appreciate other cultures. If an individual wants to live his/her life like a Palangi, that is fine but live it like the Palangi does instead of half palangi and half Tongan. Material wealth does not define us, maybe a Palangi because that is their values, to aspire to accumulate wealth. As an islander, we can be educated with multiple degrees and cultured both in the western ways and Island ways. It is when we take on a superiority complex towards one’s own people and culture that we use that term “Fie Palang” on.

  11. I learned to speak English in Tonga when I was 10 years old. I can’t remember when I started to think in English, but I do remember when I was called Fie Palangi. Seventeen years later, my family and I moved to Australia. My Fie Palangi-ism opened the door of opportunities for us. I’m 60 years old now and my three children with university graduates are supporting our families back in Tonga. I have always loved our culture and indentify myself as a Tongan, but I’ve left the shore and explore the vast ocean. Great article and thanks for sharing.

  12. Malo ‘e lelei!
    Thanks for opening the dialogue, one that I find extremely vital to have.
    My understanding of “fie palangi” has never been one associated with a tongan looking for higher education but one where I see Tongans who are ashamed of who they are and where they come from in order to assimilate to “white” culture.

    The term “fie palangi” has a lot of connotations, but I venture to say that it is not only Tongans or Polynesians who “want to be white” or “fie palangi”.

    We have been taught throughout our lives by western culture/media, past and present that people of color, including Poly’s, are inferior to whites and I suggest the possibility that many folks, as an attempt to be a part of a privileged race, abandon our own culture in order to share in the resources/power/privileges that whites have without ever earning.

    I’m not a professor, or a expert on this matter…
    I am one of those Tongans, whose parents moved to the suburb in Newark Ca from Redwood City in the 3rd grade to avoid a lot of the gang violence between Tongans/Samoans and Mexicans that was so prevalent during the 80’s and 90’s.

    It was during my grade school years that I learned subtly and subconsciously that if I was going to fit in with the cool kids… the white kids… i should “fie palangi.

    it has taken me years to reconcile this.
    but it began with a trip that my pops and i took back to Tonga
    to remind me that the only thing I should ever try to be is the best Tongan I can be.
    Patient, Kind, Wise, Faithful, Humble,
    Strong and a Servant to my family, community and the to most high.

    may we as a Tongan and a Polynesian people,
    recapture our identity as a people of strength and beauty.
    a mighty kingdom with a humble heart.
    an island known for it’s friendly spirit.
    a paradise known to rescue those lost at sea…
    even a white Captain by the name of Cook.

    ofa atu,

  13. I think that this article points out the obvious. It’s a new time now. Let us grow past this.

    Our islanders need to step out of the talking phase and unite and actually solve some problems that are in our community. We have too many islanders that are fighting and killing each other because we have come over here and learned the art of dependency. We have let the schools raise our children, the pedophiles influence our sexuality, the television babysit our seed, our phones distract us from whats in front of us, and life passes us by while our families slip away into the abyss of facebook and google and unending changes in the compromising of our core faith, beliefs and traditions.


    Let us unite and fight the good fight.

  14. The reason why we explored and navigated outside of our islands was because we were in search. We were always traditionally in search of knowledge, we were always in search of new ways of thinking and being.”

    Brilliant and well defined.

  15. The reason why we explored and navigated outside of our islands was because we were in search. We were always traditionally in search of knowledge, we were always in search of new ways of thinking and being.”

    Brilliant and well-defined.

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