The Price I Pay For(ever) My Culture

Autostraddle APIA Heritage Month

Welcome to Autostraddle’s APIA Heritage Month Series, about carrying our cultures from past to future.

For Aunty Hauani
her words, my final resting place one day:
“upon the survival of the Pacific
depends the survival of the world.”

We, the biggest region on the planet.
The oldest ocean.
The heart, if this world ever had one.
How dare anyone look at a map
with Oceania sliced in half
hanging on the edges of it and say:
I know what the world looks like.

For everything that fractured us.
For my severed island,
once belonging to itself
for my chest, where Samoa is whole always
where Guahan is demilitarized finally
Hawai’i too. Northern Mariana Islands too
where the Marshall Islands is nuclear waste free
and the sins that bombed them 67 times
1000 times bigger than the one dropped on Hiroshima
remain America’s judgement day explanation,
and never theirs.

For every misspelled / mispronounced attempt
at our family heirlooms.
How people will suggest that I
introduce myself
before giving my keynote address,
rather than trouble their lazy tongue
with learning how to say it
out of respect for my ancestors.

You say it
so there’s no mistake
that you can see me
and the village
I’m standing in.

The audacity
has always been violent.

The honeymoons
family vacations
spring breaks
violence done to us
masked as gaslight

but this is for the lighting
of the match.

For the spark of my generation
settling for nothing less
than our due.
For the aloha spirit being sharper
than you last remembered.
For the locals no longer willing
to tourist trap for you.

For the love of my ancestors
how once, I read that when our colonizers
came back to Samoa the second time,
their boats were capsized
by our sea.

Oh well.
For that too.

And as always & forever more:
for the culture.

The one I come from
and the one that had no choice
but to come from me.
Indigenous diaspora finds home everywhere
my people survive.
From Cali’s coast to Oceania’s edge
from my swollen heart to the valley in my voice
the one that my love echos between forever
for the ones I intend to die for
and the ones who now understand
why they’re alive.

For the lengths I will go
to tell the truth
in this lifetime
in my writing
for us.

Photo by Kara Schumacher, Collage by Melissa Aliu

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I was a third year student at UC Santa Cruz when I fell in love for the first time. The U.S. was in the heart of the 2008 recession and my then-lover and I were at the end of Fall Quarter — just around the corner from my 21st birthday in February 2009. That love held many of my firsts in the palm of its warm hand: my first real kiss, my first serious relationship, my first time having sex, and my first queer love. That was the year my queerness gained its footing long enough to experience a love that I thought could withstand my family and our Samoan culture. I was wrong. Against my decision to come out on my own terms, I fell out to my parents five days before my 21st birthday, and if I run through the vivid details of it long enough, it’s still one of the most painful days I ever experienced in my life.

I don’t make my way through that trauma the way I used to. Partly because I don’t have to, because it doesn’t traumatize me anymore. My parents and I have healed over the years long enough to own the apology I was afforded by them and honor the time (years) it took for them to not just accept me, but nurture me (and my relationships) as well. After 11 years and many poems about my queerness posted all over the internet, I’m at a place in my life where I can look back at that period of time, the language that was unspeakable to name in the midst of it, and put to rest things that I no longer feel shame or responsibility for.

But one thing that I remember vividly, as the truth about my relationship with my first love was unraveling for the first time, was something my mom asked me. At that time, it made me feel guilty, but now makes me feel more curious to unlayer and reckon with it: amidst (her shock about) me coming out, she asked, “What will the church think?” To someone who isn’t Samoan (or Pacific Islander), it’s safe to assume that she was referring to what our church would make of my queerness in the context of religion, but that’s not all that she was worried about at that moment. She wasn’t just asking me about our church, she was asking me what our Samoan church, a pillar within our culture, would think. She was concerned about the repercussions I might face not from the institution of church: but from our own culture.

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One of the most remarkable things about being Samoan in diaspora is that — despite all that colonization robbed us of when Germany and the U.S. partitioned our islands into countries, declared one of them a U.S. territory, and militarized us to the point of imperialist ownership — despite all of this, we’ve still been able to maintain a strong connection to our rich heritage and sacred traditions. I absolutely love that about us. Go us! I love that I was born into an intergenerational, multiracial Samoan family in the Bay Area back in the late 80s, with our culture as my first crib. My grandparents (may they rest in peace) as our family’s culture keepers, as all Samoan elders are.

Photo by Melissa Aliu

But to understand the Samoan culture and why my mom (or any Samoan parent) would worry about it in relationship to their daughter’s queer identity, you must first understand that as Samoans, our community is a collectivist people. When we say “it takes a village”, we say it in unison and in harmony, with our entire chest. We say it standing for the actual villages our families are indigenous to. Our identity is interdependent. There is no sense of “self” without or even before the collective self. When people say, “You have to love yourself in order to love anyone else”, that’s not how Samoans move in the world (or how any Pacific Islander culture moves).

We derive our understanding of identity through the collective in order to understand who we are individually. Even in diaspora and post-colonization, Samoans live and move through life in a way that emphasizes collective cooperation over independence and self-fulfillment. We have a sense of responsibility to one another, to our families, our genealogies and to Samoa that is defined by the socio-political practice of our cultural values that we call Fa’a Samoa, or “the Samoan way”.

Our identity is interdependent. There is no sense of “self” without or even before the collective self. When people say, “You have to love yourself in order to love anyone else”, that’s not how Samoans move in the world.

Fa’a Samoa defines not just what our culture is, but the structure and codes on who we’re supposed to be in our culture, and if you’re Samoan, Fa’a Samoa is always on. We’re always moving through the protocol of it, or at least that’s the expectation. The cultural code of Fa’a Samoa is as complex and strict as it is powerful and sacred. Much of it revolves around particular behavioral expectations around showing our deep reverence for our elders, our families, our High Chiefs, our ceremonial practices, and our churches. Respect is the cornerstone of Fa’a Samoa, and is oftentimes met with strict consequences when not practiced the way it was taught to us.

It’s in the way I bow my head when walking in front of elders in my family. Or in the way I immediately sit at the feet of my parents or outside of the room that the elders and Chiefs are gathered in. It’s in the dos and don’ts of how food is served during a ceremonial gathering, and in the way I’m expected to dress depending on the formality of the event. Fa’a Samoa is all of this and more. And no other place in our lives is Fa’a Samoa expected to be upheld with the utmost respect than at church, in the presence of the faifeau (minister) and church officials.

As the granddaughter of a minister and the daughter of a deacon, I grew up attending a Samoan church, which means I grew up deeply connected to my Samoan culture through Fa’a Samoa. My upbringing as a Samoan girl, navigating both Fa’a Samoa and a world that didn’t understand it, certainly left me feeling proud for knowing how to articulate my culture to an outside world. But it also left me with a lot of questions that I felt guilty about, because it always felt like questioning my culture was its own world of sin. Plus I was questioning my culture as a Samoan-American in diaspora, another layer that leaves me wondering, if I wasn’t born and raised in Samoa, what “authority” I even have to speak on Fa’a Samoa.

To question Fa’a Samoa felt like a betrayal of the village that raised me, as valid as the questions were, or as valid as simply having a question is. Questions I had around power dynamics between authority figures in our community, gender roles and expectations, or simply why I couldn’t wear what I wanted to wear at times that called for specific attire. What I wasn’t allowed to explore out loud, I worked out on the pages in my journal in isolation. But even that had its limits. I remember times where I’d find myself in arguments with my parents, trying to understand why our culture called for certain things to be the way they were, and was met with “that’s just the way it is.”

But if Fa’a Samoa is what makes us Samoan, and I was struggling with feeling like I could be my full self — my queer, feminist, inquisitive, outspoken, independent, critical self — because of it: what did that make me? Am I any less Samoan because I challenged what constitutes being Samoan? And will my culture still claim me if I’m struggling to claim it? Does being Samoan mean I can be who I truly believe that I am, even at the risk of not being what is culturally expected of me?

And just like my mom asked me the day I came out to her and my dad: what will the church think?

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Until it happened, I never realized that the very thing that would help me answer all of these questions, would come from the first poem I wrote 14 years ago, in my dorm room during my first year of college. When I finished writing it, I felt like I’d deeply exhaled, letting out a gulp of air I’d held in for far too long. When I wrote my first poem, I gave myself permission to stop paying the cost of staying silent about things that mattered to me. Even if those things were the very foundation of who I am. My earliest writing focused a lot on my experience with being a first generation queer student of color on campus. And then from there, I started writing about my Samoan identity, the utter devotion and pride I have in being Samoan, while also writing my way out of the fears and guilt of being seen as a disrespectful daughter. It felt scary to be a Samoan girl from a culture I loved and was so devoted to, while also defying expectations by voicing my opinion and expressing myself through an art form that encouraged it.

I started performing these poems all around campus. With every stage I performed on, I felt our Pacific Islander ancestors giving me permission to stretch the muscle of my voice around every microphone I spoke on. When I wrote and performed my poetry, I imagined being this brave for the rest of my years in college: brave enough to feel as intelligent as my palagi (white) classmates, brave enough to fight my insecurities with the reassurance that I deserved to be a student there, brave enough to quiet my own demons that tried to punk me into believing that what I had to say wouldn’t matter to anyone else but myself.

I also imagined being this brave in the face of my family and my culture.

I had to face the fact that it was more important to speak up and use my voice to tell my story, than it was to stay silent about the things that affected me. If I were silent about it, there’s no telling where I’d be today. If I were silent about it, no one would know when I was hurting or when I needed support. I know too many young people in my community, both in diaspora and in the islands, who have taken their lives, who suffer from depression and anxiety, who fear rejection from their families and culture, because they never had a healthy way to express themselves nor people they could trust to listen to them.

Poetry reassured me that my voice is necessary, and that what I’m speaking about is important because it’s rooted in a radical love I have for who I am as a queer Samoan woman, and who I belong to. Poetry was what helped me to speak to my parents when we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, especially after I came out to them. It helped make our relationship stronger, and helped make it easier for me to express myself with them. There was a time in my poetry career where my parents didn’t always support how open and honest I was in what I wrote and shared with the public. They would ask me questions like: “What is the church going to think about your poem?” or “Why do you have to tell all our family business?” But just like I had to do with myself, they had to ask themselves: would they rather I kept secrets from them about things that I was struggling with or things that were important to me, or would they rather I feel comfortable enough to come to them in those moments?

Thankfully, my parents are now my biggest support systems, and have come to enough of my poetry performances and watched enough of my poems go viral to realize that I’m not going to stop speaking my truth. More importantly: they’ve realized that where I speak from is rooted in where we come from.

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I have poetry to thank for being my entryway to critical conversations in my community. Topics that I never believed would be on the table are now finding their way into the open, even as we fear the cultural repercussions of doing so. Topics such as sexism, gender roles, anti-Blackness in our families, domestic violence in our homes, mental health issues in our community were once things I would write about in private, but am now seeing come to light in dialogue and in action, and I can’t help but think outlets like poetry, art, and the power of social media have played a part in making that possible.

Terisa stands on stage in a bright blue dress at a mic with her hands out and open and her eyes closed

Photo by Youth Speaks

In making a career out of poetry over the last 14 years, that’s what was stuck with me the most: that as terrifying or uncomfortable as it is to speak your truth, or to listen to someone speak theirs, the cost of staying silent is too high a price to pay. Many of us have spent our lives paying for it with a currency that doesn’t even exist, and have instead jeopardized our mental, psychological, spiritual, and physical health for the sake of believing that we were better off silent and in pain, than we were vulnerable and free. We did it for reasons that make complete sense to a people who move in the world as a collective: as the village we come from and the village we will always be to each other. We did it out of protection for one another. We did it out of deep respect for our elders. Out of respect for our parents. And most of all: we did it for the culture.

Many of us have spent our lives paying for it with a currency that doesn’t even exist, and have instead jeopardized our mental, psychological, spiritual, and physical health for the sake of believing that we were better off silent and in pain, than we were vulnerable and free.

But as my professor in grad school once said as I was earning my Masters in Marriage/Family Therapy at USC: “Just because it’s cultural, doesn’t mean that it’s sacred.” The very purpose of culture is to shape itself into protecting those that depend on it to live. To thrive. Culture is supposed to evolve, because we do. I am not the same Samoan girl that I was growing up living by the values of Fa’a Samoa, and Fa’a Samoa isn’t the same either. If anything, my challenges to my culture are what deepened my devotion to protecting it for the remainder of my life. Even if it almost cost me my family. Even when my parents get frustrated at the questions I have about why we do what we do. Even in the shame and pain that I still harbor because of my inability to speak my Samoan language fully. Even through all of that, I still plan on dying for the sake of protecting, defending, and living for my Samoan people and the complexity of the culture that defines us.

Until then: if my Samoan culture is passed down through me, may it be the parts that want me alive. May it be the parts that see my future lover(s) woven into the fabric of queer Pasifika love. If my culture is to be one that I inherit, may I take the parts of it that see us wholly and call us kin, and shed the parts that our colonizers wanted for us more than we wanted for ourselves.

I carry Fa’a Samoa in my mana (power) in the face of a world where white supremacy, anti-Indigenous/anti-Black racism would rather I turn on myself and on my people than on the systems that keep us chained to our fear of fighting for a world we deserve. A world where respecting my culture means ending the anti-Blackness within it. A world where respecting my culture means gender equity towards the matriarchy that we’re indigenous to. A world where respecting my culture means going to therapy. Taking my antidepressants if it helps me to heal enough to show up for my life, so I can show up for my people. A world where respecting my culture means taking care of our youth and creating spaces for them to finally write and speak their truth, is treated with the same reverence as taking care of our elders.

A world where respecting Fa’a Samoa means one day, I’m going to be the queer Samoan elder who looks my grandchildren in their faces, and says: I was afraid the entire time that I was fighting for the world they deserve: but I did it anyway. I did it, afraid. I did it at the mouth of a mic. I did it in every poem I wrote for them. I want to be able to look our future generation of Samoan culture protectors in their faces and tell them that I devoted myself so deeply to our community, that I decided to break the cycles that we no longer need to be in survival mode for. I did it because I loved the promise of them more than I loved my silence. I did it because I couldn’t stop dreaming of our liberation, even as I know that I won’t be around to see it in my lifetime. At least I dreamt it. I want to be the Samoan elder who lives long enough to write/say:

It’s okay to have traditions that stay the same and remain a pillar within our people, but our culture around how those traditions are carried out are destined to change, and the best we can do to prepare ourselves is to be open when it does. There are parts of Fa’a Samoa that couldn’t make their way intact across the Pacific. We’ve had to adjust and adapt in order to make those aspects of our culture work for us. But as we change, and discover ourselves, and speak up, finally, and return deeply to our ancestral roots, my hope for us is that we do so in a way that never leaves any of us questioning whether we’re “Samoan enough”. You are enough. Our ancestors made it so. And as a first-gen, queer, indigenous, Samoan, woman of color in diaspora, not only do I now stand firmly in the notion that I am Samoan enough, but I am Samoan, and more. All of us are.

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Terisa Siagatonu

Terisa has written 1 article for us.


    • 💜✨💜✨💜

      Thank you Terisa ~ I love all that you are expressing and manifesting here. And what feels to me like the drawing into presence of your power. A power that comes not from trying to fit into an outer structure, but that comes from drawing from what comes through you. Just like our genes shape us, but it is the way we inhabit them that shapes our world. I love the way you express that you have found that you do not have to become who you are, that you are already, in your whole being.

      This also brought to mind Mario Faumui’s work which I encountered at the queer film fest here last year, where I saw the stunning “Fangirl”. I’m hoping to get to see more of their work in the future! I can’t link to Fangirl, but wanted to leave this for those who might be interested:

      Thank you again ~ also very much hoping to get to read or hear more of your work!

  1. This is so good – I just want to quote all of it. But I’ll limit myself to this:

    The very purpose of culture is to shape itself into protecting those that depend on it to live. To thrive. Culture is supposed to evolve, because we do.

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