Pacific Islanders: What It Really Means To Be So Small In A Much Larger Place

IMG_1697By: Kayla Keegan

Strolling down Canal Street in Chinatown this past Sunday afternoon, a pedestrian could probably hear the echoes of guitar music booming from speakers and distant clapping and cheering coming from Mott Street.

It was here, between Canal Street and Chatham Square, that thousands of Asian faces gathered with the Coalition for Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA) to celebrate the beginning of May, which has also been nationally known as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month since 1990.

Even though May was given this title 25 years ago, Sunday marked Manhattan’s 36th annual Asian American and Pacific Islander festival. This year, many young and old festival goers picked up fliers and took free candy and pens from the twenty blue tents set up by various city AAPI organizations. Nearby Chinese restaurants sold their food in styrofoam to-go boxes, children got Chinese characters painted on their faces, and there was a constant flow of people walking towards the main stage in hopes of grabbing a seat for one of the 10 performances scheduled that afternoon.

Based on the festival’s sizable turnout, it may seem as though the AAPI community is a huge part of the city’s total population. This is true for Asian Americans, which occupy a solid 12.7 percent of New York City’s head count. Asians were also most recently declared the fastest growing minority in the nation, which experts believe will have an even greater impact on the five boroughs in years to come.

But the “PI” part AAPI is an entirely different story, one that is almost never talked about.

Unlike Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders barely make up a measurable percentage in the city, which could explain why Palauan Henry Miller was disappointed when he showed up to Mott Street and didn’t connect with any fellow Palauans or the celebration at all.

“They had one set of hula dancers but that was it,” said Miller. “Really, there was nothing Pacific Islander about the AAPI festival.”

Pacific Islanders—more specifically, Cook Islanders, Maoris, Native Hawaaiians, Niueans, Samoans, Tahitians, Tongans, Tokelauans, Tuvaluan, Carolinians, Chamorros, Chuukese, Guamanians, I-Kiribatis, Kosraens, Mariana Islanders, Marshallese, Nauruans, Palauans, Pohnpeians, Saipanese, Trukese, Yapese, New Caledonians, Ni-Vanuatus, Papua New Guineans, and Soloman Islanders—come from over a hundred different islands and together have a population of around 2.3 million people, a head count similar to countries like Qatar and Jamaica.

Yet even with these 28 different subgroups that fall under the category “Pacific Islander,” this community was declared New York City’s smallest racial group in 2010 US Census reports, and account for only about .1 percent of the city’s population, followed closely behind American Indian and Alaska Natives at a combined .7 percent. Though the reason why is unknown to experts, many Pacific Islander populations on the East Coast, including in the Big Apple, have even declined in recent years according to 2010 US Bureau statistics.

These numbers are released at a time when there is a drastic growth of Pacific Islander presence in the West and South. In these regions, Pacific Islanders grew by roughly 50 percent in ten states, with California (356,000), Hawaii (286,000), and Texas (48,000) housing most of the country’s population.

A decreasing population in such a large city only makes the challenges—including extensive health issues and problematic higher education rates—facing the greater Pacific Islander community in the United States that much more difficult to overcome, according to Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC)’s chief operating officer Alisi Tulua.

“It is a very big problem because we are not able to tell our stories or our issues,” said Tulua. “It’s common knowledge how Asian American are doing in the city and country, but when applying that information to Pacific Islanders, it’s completely false.”

Tulua also thinks that the tendency to merge Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders into one group, AAPI, when collecting data stems from past US census categories that have never taken into account the cultural breakdown of the PI community. In other words, size is prioritized over diversity.
“We were lumped together [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders] because it was a designation that was created because Pacific Islanders were too small and the countries are close to Asia,” Tulua explained. “And then when it came to forming organizations and research projects, people had to use these established terms that the government had used.”

Yet some historians believe the government, and the AAPI community itself, meshed together on purpose to have a louder voice when a massive wave of immigrants came to the United States in the late 1960s. As cultural historian Daryl J. Maeda puts it in her book  Chains Of Babylon, many Asian Americans and those from Oceania felt they should band together to oppose large scale racism, as they all shared a similar story of oppression and exploitation.

Though the exact reason why Pacific Islanders are categorized in this way is not entirely clear, it seems US census history supports both Maeda and Tulua’s claims. In 1960, the US Census only had two response categories for the newly created state of Hawaii: “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian,” leaving every other Pacific Islander group to fall under the “Other” box. In 1970, the only Pacific Islander group listed was “Hawaiian.” It wasn’t until 1980 that the US Census started to include “Guamanian” and “Samoan,” in addition to the “Hawaiian” category. True progress finally started to be made in 2000 when three specific Pacific Islander groups—“Native Hawaiian,” “Samoan,” and “Chamorro or Guamanian”—and a separate “Pacific Islander” section with a write-in area were added to the list of racial options.

Even with these more defined categories, some Pacific Islanders are still confused as to which group they should choose.

“When it comes to applications I almost always choose Pacific Islander, but even that gets confusing because I think the U.S. Census categorizes Philippines under the Asian umbrella,” said President of the Asian Pacific Islander Nursing Student Association (API-NSA) Stephanie Niu, who identifies as someone with a Filipino-Chinese background.

Constantly changing racial classifications for Pacific Islanders has inevitably affected Pacific Islanders in the five boroughs. The census’s lack of cohesion has made it difficult for city surveyors to gather an accurate assessment of where this community is around the city. This confusion could not be more evident than in the 311-page NYC Department of City Planning foreign-born population count from 2013, a report that lists off the areas where various immigrant groups have settled. Pacific Islanders were not even accounted for once in this in-depth survey.

Being “statistically invisible,” according to board member of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health forum Jake Fitisemanu, has its obvious disadvantages, but it certainly doesn’t mean the death of the Islander cultures.

“ It [being so small] forces more proactive and deliberate and intentional measures to be taken to maintain cultural practice and sense of community,” Fitisemanu said. “In places like New York or Chicago, Pacific islanders are required to proactively organize cultural events and intentionally seek out other Pacific Islanders in order to maintain that sense of community.”

And that’s exactly what Pacific Islanders are trying to do in New York. Pacific Islanders seem to have found one another and formed tight-knit enclaves despite being largely outnumbered.

“It’s not like Chinatown, it’s just random,” said Ovava Afuhammango, who identifies as half Samoan and half Tongan. “There’s always a basic need to connect with each other and seek out other Pacific Islanders, but honestly I think there’s an age and economic difference and everyone came to New York for different reasons.”

Vileti Akolo, who identifies as Tongan, came to New York City from Los Angeles for graduate school in 2012 and instantly noticed this separation and a huge difference. In California, she says it was easy to find people with Islander descent. Here, it’s nearly impossible.

Akolo knows of Fijians in Long Island and some other Tongans that live on Roosevelt Island, and small families of other Pacific Islanders who are spread throughout midtown and Harlem in Manhattan, but to her knowledge there is no large settlement of Pacific Islanders in one area.

“In L.A. you’ll find enclaves and different Pacific Islander communities everywhere,” said Akolo. “But in Manhattan it’s spread out and not all together.”

And it’s not just Tongans and Samoans who feel this way. Miller, who came to the States when he was a teenager, says, like Akolo and Afuhammango, he too finds it hard to locate other Islanders. According to Miller, it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint someone with a Polynesian, Melanesian, or Micronesian background when wandering the streets and connect with them. Especially given that many would just assume he was of European descent.

“We were one of the only white families on the Island when I was growing up,” said Miller. “It’s hard for me to find Pacific Islanders because even if I did, they probably wouldn’t believe that I was from Palau because I look like I could be from France or something.”

On top of this, there are no organizations in the city solely dedicated to the different cultures of Pacific Islanders—only AAPI groups.

But there was a time when Pacific Islanders in the city, and greater country, could not possibly be ignored. Though the exact number is unknown due to changing racial categories and territorial shifts, in the 1800s when the US went to war against Great Britain, thousands of Pacific Islanders fought in the armies and were much appreciated for their participation in combat. They continued to serve in the 1900s, fighting in some of the nation’s most memorable battles including the War of 1812, Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the Civil War, and even the Spanish American War. In World War I and II, Pacific Islanders again served terms, helping the AAPI community, as a collective whole, receive a total of 20 Congressional Medals Of Honor.

“In the twentieth century, around 1965, things really picked up. The Nationality Act was passed and this brought in a lot more APIs to our borders,” said Matthew Woolsey, director of leadership programs at Leadership For Asian Pacifics (LEAP). The standing law before 1965 had discriminated against many African and Asian peoples, allowing only a mix of northern and western European immigrants into the country. The Nationality Act abolished the existing system and opened the doors to many Asian and Pacific Islander nations. “Our country then began to see an increase in scientists, chemists, and engineers, which shows what tremendous impact they’ve had on our society.”

There’s no denying that many Pacific Islanders have had success in this country. But the difficulties of adapting to the culture of the United States are still large and many would argue often glossed over. White House Initiative statistics show that Pacific islanders are less likely to be in professional occupations today while the Department of Labor found that Pacific Islanders have the highest unemployment rates of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

But Pacific Islander activists say numbers are just numbers, and they don’t even begin to dive into why these rates are so high. Tulua, for example, believes the unemployment statistics are the result of many major difficulties adjusting to Western life.

“We come from a communal kind of culture,” Tulua said. “You never think of what’s just best for you and that doesn’t translate well in the work place.”

Woolsey expressed a similar sentiment, saying that that the struggle stems largely from cultural infrastructure differences that, when translated in an American work setting, inhibits success rather than promotes it. It’s a norm the larger AAPI community has struggled to adjust to, but more so with Pacific Islanders.

“You have the individual Pacific Islander who has these values they embrace and then they are placed in an environment that doesn’t recognize the importance of those values,” explained Woolsey. “Take for example the cultural value of respect for authority. It is devout to them in terms of listening and doing what they are told. In their minds, they are your elders and elders have wisdom. But playing that out in the workplace, it can seem to a Western supervisor that Pacific Islanders aren’t engaging in conversations or don’t have ideas. It’s a total misinterpretation of behavior.”

Even though those within the community can identify various cultural differences, one big setback for Pacific Islanders that all PI organization leaders can agree on is gaining access to higher education.

Three-year data collected in 2008 from the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education found that roughly 55 percent of people from Tongan, Samoan, Guamanian/Chamorro, and Native Hawaiian descent obtain high school degrees. But when it comes to obtaining a bachelor’s degree or more, the numbers are severely lower. When averaged, the percentage of the 25-and-older population to earn higher education degrees from these four subgroups is only around 13.25 percent, as compared to the national average of 28.8 percent.

From personal experiences, Akolo sees traditional Tongan culture clashing with what she calls an “American sense of independence” and the great emphasis on education in the States.

“When I moved out to New York permanently after I finished grad school, my dad was not happy because Tongans girls, if you’re not married or in school, you should be home,” Akolo explained on what she deems to be a Tongan tradition. “I’m working and out here and that’s a huge no-no because Tongan women should be child-rearing.”

Like Akolo, other Pacific Islanders also expressed that for women of Pacific Islander descent, the pressure to devote everything to your family—a cultural norm many of the subgroups identify with—can place even greater difficulties for those wanting to receive a higher education.

“As women, and as mothers, your priorities are to the community and to take care of others, not yourself,” said Tulua. “If your family is struggling you give up going to college because you want to help your parents.”

But these cultural differences account for only one side of the explanation. High rates of poverty also contribute to these low education numbers. Based on findings from the White House Initiative on AAPI communities, 22 percent of Polynesians, 12.5 percent of Guamanians or Chamorros, 20.8 percent of Native Hawaiians, 24.6 percent of Micronesians, and 21.7 percent of Samoans live under the poverty line. These numbers don’t encompass the majority of the community, but when compared to the statistics for the general United States population, which has a 13.2 percent poverty rate, the need for action becomes very apparent.

While many universities offer scholarship programs for Pacific Islander students, there is still much work to be done to improve these statistics. Experts say one of the easiest ways to make things more positive in the country and in areas like New York is to simply have more resources readily available to Pacific Islanders. Resources that take into account the needs of every subgroup, not just the majority.

“We need to learn how to open the doors so that every person can have access to the education they need,” said Woolsey. “Some educational institutions are realizing the potential of Asian American and Pacific Islander students, but there needs to be even more support services in place for the future.”

Aside from education, Niu also sees a greater need for organizations that cater to PI health needs, especially in Manhattan.

Unlike Asian Americans, one of the greatest health risks facing Pacific Islanders is obesity, as reports have shown that rates are significantly higher than most other ethnic groups. The Center for Disease Control, for example, found that the prevalence of diabetes is three times greater among Pacific Islanders compared to other non-Hispanic populations. Experts attribute the link between diabetes, obesity, and poverty together, saying that high prevalence rates all affect one another.

Another large health concern is cancer, which is deemed one of the leading causes of death for Pacific Islanders, with cervical cancer incidence rates being the highest in the States for Samoan women. Tulua says high cervical cancer and breast cancer rates are preventable, if Pacific Islander women had regular screenings and checkup procedures more readily available to them.

Most Pacific Islanders are in agreement that true progress can be made only when institutions start separating out the subgroups of both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and take into account the 300 different languages and cultural differences.

Yet in New York, it is apparent that the few organizations in the city that do address Pacific Islander still feel a need to use the umbrella term AAPI, like the  Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA), the advocacy group who organizes the heritage festival every May. And even they don’t see the “PI” in AAPI being addressed in the city or on Mott Street.

“The organizations at the festival are Pan Asian American, or Korean, Chinese, Japanese,” said Virgina Myung of CAPA. “I don’t know of a Pacific Islander organization.”

Even though there were no tents set up or face painting stations, Miller knows from scanning the crowd that he wasn’t the only Pacific Islander there.

But a few faces and hula dancers aren’t going to cut it for Miller in the future. Next year, he wants the tents, food, and even the face painting for Pacific Islanders, too.

“This festival was supposed to be for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but the lack of awareness made it all about Asian Americans,” said Miller. “We need a stronger presence in the city and people here need to care more about us. This festival shows how under represented we are in the city and that has to change.”

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