I don’t like to write about things that upset me because I don’t want to go off on a rant, but there are a few things about Polynesian stereotypes that have always bothered me, and I think it’s about time I just got it out of my system. I’ve been writing a memoir and as I’ve written about my family, extended family, hanai family, and family friends, it’s become very apparent to me that there are some really strong stereotypes associated with Polynesian ohana. Not all Polynesians are the same, and although we have very similar cultures, language, and lifestyles, we’re all different–just like any other ethnicity/race. Before I go into what are the Polynesian family stereotypes, I feel like I have to define what is a Polynesian.
A Polynesian is a person who is from any of the islands within the Polynesian triangle. The Polynesian triangle is formed between three major islands: Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. So when I’m talking about Polynesian, I’m not just talking about Hawaiians, I’m talking about all the Polynesian ethnicities.
Throughout my life, I’ve noticed things people have said about Polynesian families, or the way the media has portrayed Polynesians (that line from Lilo and Stitch about ohana just drives me crazy) and these comments have really bothered me. I’ve also noticed that these stereotypes, though sometimes true, kind of hurt, especially when they aren’t the experience of every Polynesian. So here are the Polynesian stereotypes about families–and why sometimes it just sucks.
Polynesian families are all about love
The aloha spirit is a big deal in Hawaii. We’re taught to malama (take care of) each other and to malama others. I’ve been deeply impressed, throughout my life, by Polynesian mothers and fathers who just give so much of their time, energy, and resources to others in need. I’ve also been blessed by Polynesian families who have given so much to me and have adopted me into their lives. When I served an 18-month church mission in the Philippines, my trainer was a Tongan gal from Salt Lake City, Utah. The genuine warmth and kindness she showed towards me and towards everyone around her was apparent from her upbringing. When I actually met her family, I was (and actually wasn’t) surprised at how she practically raised herself. While she was culturally rooted by her parents and she was obedient to her parents, she really wasn’t like them: they were kind of cold, had their favorites, and were so distracted by their culture, language, and family events, it drowned out that genuine warmth and aloha. Sometimes Polynesian families focus so much on the temporal and “busy” things to look good, that it takes away from the things that matter most.
Also, when I was writing my memoir about my experiences living in Laie, Hawaii, I had this epiphany that sometimes Polynesians are just mean and abusive. Not all of them are, but I learned a lot of ugly things about Polynesians, and it was all close to home too. While I do think Polynesian families (and all families, hopefully) intend to have that aloha spirit, there’s also a need for control and power, especially from the parents. Here’s a snippet from my memoir:
“SAIA!” the neighbor would yell at her son every. single. night. “Saia! Get inside! Where have you been?” You could hear the belt being whipped out and the son weeping for his dear life. In the back of my grandma’s house, you could hear my aunt or uncle whipping their kid with a slipper, a coat hanger, or a paddle. They were getting the sasa. The worst part was the moaning that came after, because my heart just hurt for all those hurting kids. What kind of a place was that? How was that kind of thing even acceptable? My parents used to spank us, but not in that kind of a way. They would never hit us with a coat hanger or a paddle.
Polynesian families are super cultural
Depending on the culture, most Polynesian families are pretty cultural. We are proud of our heritage and where we come from. I would have to say that the Tongans and Samoans sport their culture the most. Whether it’s a graduation, church activity, funeral, wedding, or any other big event, you’ll usually see their whole family dressed up in their traditional garments. Hawaiian families will match with aloha-wear or they might wear leis, and those from the Micronesian islands usually wear similar clothes (they’ll usually have the name of their island embroidered on their shirts, like Kiribati, for example).
Unfortunately, though, for some of us, our families aren’t as culturally acclimated. I didn’t learn real Pidgin English until we moved to the islands from Japan. I didn’t learn the Hawaiian language until I was a Sophomore in high school (and that’s because I went to a private school). I also didn’t learn how to dance hula (of what hula I did learn) until I went to a summer program between my Sophomore and Junior year of high school. I never wore a flower in my ear until I returned to Hawaii from the mainland several months ago. While most Polynesian families are culturally-oriented, not all of them are, and it makes it hard on us individuals who haven’t been raised to be super Polynesian… Because it’s not that we don’t want to be–it’s just that we weren’t raised with the same opportunities and lifestyles that other parents provided for their children.
Polynesian families can provide or make food for activities, events, etc
This is an interesting stereotype because we really do love to give. We give of our time, talents, resources, and pretty much our whole selves just because that’s how we are. It’s a blessing and a curse, really, because we get taken advantage of… like. A lot. At the same time, however, we love making food because Polynesian food really is delicious. In fact, I just went to a church activity the other week and it was a pool party/barbecue. The people in charge of the food were Polynesians and they made “Polynesian chicken,” which I think ended up just being barbecue chicken with some spicy garlic/shoyu sauce.
Polynesian families follow the conventional family model
This is probably the worst stereotype of them all, just because if you ever go to Hawaii, you will see this is not the case. There are plenty of single parents, divorced couples, and broken families to go around. I remember having an eye-opening experience in high school when one of my classmates blurted out that she was homeless at the moment and that she was going to stay at another of my classmate’s home. Because my family had been so solid and conventional, I hadn’t really thought about what it might be like to live in a home where the family was dysfunctional.
When my parents got divorced, I learned how hurtful this stereotype can be, and my ability to sympathize with others increased tremendously. While most Polynesian families are stalwart, conventional, and tight-knit, it’s important not to stereotype them all this way. When I was in the Philippines, a fellow missionary was genuinely shocked when I said my parents were divorced. “But… how?! You’re Hawaiian!” was all she could say and my stomach just sank a little. I guess I wanted so badly to fit the perfect little Hawaiian mold that coming from a dysfunctional family hurt my pride. But I quickly learned that it’s ok. It’s ok that I don’t fit the stereotype–because my family doesn’t define who I am–I do.
Polynesian aunts and uncles always let family members (and their friends) stay over
This is generally true of most locals, and of most Polynesian families, but not for mine. And I’m sure it’s not true for other families as well, and a part of this is a cultural thing–I’ve thought about this long and hard and I’ve come to this conclusion. My family isn’t 100% Hawaiian in blood or in culture. I took a DNA test and I’m 41% Pacific Islander, 27% Asian, and the rest is all kinds of haole. Just from knowing that, you can probably tell that my cultures are all mixed but I feel like my haole culture dominates my family, and so if I need help with something, my family (extended and close) are actually the last people I’d go to for help. And I don’t mean that in an unkind way. It’s just that we weren’t super close to any of my extended family growing up, and when I’m with them, I don’t feel like I could ever ask for help–because if I did ask for help, it’d spread in a mean, gossipy kind of way throughout the rest of the family. And I hate drama.
I went on this date and had an awful time, but probably the worst thing that the guy said to me was, “You’re Polynesian and you said you have family here on the mainland… so don’t you ever go sleep or kick back at their homes?” And I remember feeling so pathetic, because I could ask my extended family for help but I chose not to. I’m incredibly independent but I just get tired of the spite, gossip, and drama in my family. To be fair, though, I do live with my great aunt, and we’re not even blood-related but she’s hanai-ed me as her own daughter. Now that… that is a truly Polynesian thing to do. 🙂
So now that I wrote down all the stereotypes, I hope it sheds some light on the American-Polynesian experience. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love Polynesian families, and I love that the majority of them do have that strong aloha spirit about them. I’ve been so blessed throughout my life to have fellow Polynesians help me, or sometimes I’ve had complete Polynesian strangers invite me to their homes because they wanted me to have a family away from Hawaii. When I was hanging out at the Springville reservoir last summer, I started talking to an older Tongan guy who was fishing (Polynesians kind of just get drawn to other Polynesians and conversations spark out of nothing). He offered me some fish and invited me over to watch the BYU football games with his family–that’s just how kind Polynesian families can be. When I was working as a waitress at a local restaurant in Provo, a Polynesian lady and I started talking about Hawaii. We laughed and talked stories because we knew some of the same people, and when she left, there was a huge tip on the table with the words “aloha” written on the back of the receipt. When I was with my sisters in Idaho, we went to a barbeque with a local family from the islands. This family had invited us through a mutual friend so we’d never met them before but we just showed up, ate food, talked stories, and had a great time. That’s just the beauty of it all.
Even though I don’t have the stereotypical Polynesian family, there’s still this need to be a part of something or to help others be a part of a family. It’s what I’ve tried to do my whole life: help people feel welcome and to feel that genuine aloha. That’s what being a Polynesian is all about. I may have a dysfunctional family, but as long as I have that aloha spirit, I can help others feel like I’m their sister, cousin, or close family-friend because in reality, we all are just one big family.