This article is also published in Fightback’s special Pasefika magazine issue.
When I think back to my childhood, I am a Mowgli-like child sitting crossed legged in my Uncle’s living room. Second hand furniture surrounds me; a clutter of memories piled high in every corner of every room. My cousin’s 21st keys, family photos extending back to the Islands, dusty records and old radios. The room is a mixture of adult chatter, laughing Samoans, the smell of chop suey, corned beef, and roast chicken. My Nana sits atop her throne, the only comfortable chair in the house, laughing without her dentures in. She, a 4ft something Chinese/Sāmoan woman, silver hair always tied in a bun, wearing a tree- bark brown mu’umu’u. She calls me over with a wave of her arm, speaking to me in a language I don’t understand. She sizes me up, pinches my tummy and cheeks, says something in Sāmoan, laughs and kisses my baby face. I laugh with her, because it is polite, because she’s given me a cue. She nods at me and I take it as a sign to leave now, her cheeky smile watching as I run off to play with my cousins. This interaction happens every time we meet; she speaks and I do not understand. I laugh and she laughs, then she nods for me to leave.
Only now am I realizing the vastness of the space that was between us. The disconnect between two bodies of water, like she must have felt venturing to Aotearoa. Scooped her five kids under her arms and rowed to white shores for a better life. At 10 years old my Nana passed away, taking with her the Sunday lunches at Uncle’s house, the language so effortlessly spoken, and the best source of finding out where I come from. My mama tries to remember, but was too young to recall the villages, or the names of the people that might serve as a compass. She, a 5ft Chinese/Sāmoan woman, breathes compassion and fire. Her long, straw like black hair frames her gentle coconut skin. She married a white man and spent 25 years trying to abolish the myth that his family held about the brownness of our skin. Buried her culture in the barrels of their loaded shame, trigger tongues sit upon ivory towers. Made my mama ‘prove’ herself, whatever that means. It looked like a forgotten language and the trimming of branches, cutting limbs off in order to grow new ones. Her body, a patchwork of pride and shame stitched together by the taro leaves she tried to outgrow.
My parents’ marriage died the same year my Nana did. I ended up being raised by my father, who spat poison back at the Pacific, damned us all. So as I grew, my culture became strangely foreign land. Hidden behind shame, a spitting image of my mother. Always too white for the brown kids and too brown for the white kids. Our legs were planted in taro patches and everything that helps the plants grow. Only to be uprooted and forced to watch as the fields went up in flames. Burning the landscape of my Nana’s eyes, and all she called home. I refused the stars when they tried to lead me back, told them I don’t know where I belong. Forever searching for a safe place to lace my work boots.
My mama says I got warrior’s blood in my veins, but I’m just a worrier these days. It’s funny how it all comes 360, now I’m ashamed of that which I do not know. I couldn’t tell you anything my Nana said. I could not. Tell you. Anything my Nana said. My village stokes the fire to light my way home, laying out blankets of food, and sweeping the fale in wait of my adventurer feet. I still can’t see that welcome mat. I could not read any signposts leading back. Every year that passes, those stars seem further away to navigate, almost an impossible feat. Standing at the base of a mountain trying to will myself up. When the debris falls and the dust clears, what will be left? A silly boy who never seized the opportunity to go home? Who never sat at his Nana’s feet long enough to hear her speak? I have learned that it is no good to sit at a table offering no food to eat. Saying grace through a lazy English tongue. Cut it out so I can start again. Let me lash back at the forgotten war crimes waged on the bodies of my grandmothers. Let me sew my language to the roots of my spine. Let me learn the stars through my mama’s outstretched palms. She’ll smile and tell me, you belong here, little one, and whatever you are is enough.