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.