Laura Toailoa was born in Samoa, grew up in South Auckland, and is now living in Wellington, where she’s been studying at Victoria University.
In this article, originally published in Salient, she answers a question she’s been asked a million times.
But where are you from from?
The answer people look for varies, depending on whether they want to know where my accent is from, or where I lived before moving to Wellington, or if they’re a Samoan asking what villages my parents are from.
Geographically, here’s a quick overview: I was born in Samoa and lived my childhood in Saoluafata. I moved to New Zealand when I was eight years old. I lived in South Auckland for the rest of my childhood and my whole adolescence. I then moved to Wellington when I was 18 for university. Now here I am.
In Samoa, home was a fale-Palagi — we had walls and a tin roof, doors and locks. We also had a more traditional fale-Samoa with its open style and poles in the perimeter. It was where important family meetings happened, but mainly it was where we hung our laundry.
Home housed Mum, Dad, Ma (Mum’s mum), and us kids. Home was where rice and tuna was a luxury that only Ma could have. John Grisham, Roald Dahl, and Encyclopaedia Britannica lived with us too.
Outside, the leaves of the mango, breadfruit, and frangipani trees fell to the ground, and we’d then have to pick them up. Breadfruit leaves were the best because they were ginormous and very few. Mango leaves were the opposite. If, heaven forbid, we lost the salu tū (outdoor broom, made of a long wooden handle tied to a bundle of midribs of coconut leaves), we’d have to painstakingly pick up each and every leaf only to wait for more leaves to take their place.
Inside, we’d choreograph dances to Shania Twain and Madonna.
I have very faint memories of my home in Samoa. There’s a photo of me in a dress at our plantation, but I didn’t feel like Samoa was home. In all of Samoa, there was only a specific plot of land on top of a little hill that was home. It wasn’t until I moved to Aotearoa that I began to long for a whole country.
I hardly reflected on the country I came from. There weren’t national narratives I was aware of or identified with. I never felt like I had to assert my belonging to Samoa. Everyone was Samoan. Just as a fish doesn’t think about the water, I never consciously thought about my home country as a country I belonged to. I belonged to my village. I belonged to my family.
However, when I moved to New Zealand, I became totally aware of being Samoan. I became immersed in a world in which Samoans declared their being Samoan and I learned that it would become something I would do too. It became so important to explicitly talk about the importance of our language and our culture. There was a need to find and hold on to our histories, our narratives. The homeland that was the surrounding I never noticed became the home I wanted to return to, and I developed a belated national identity.
When we arrived in New Zealand, we moved to Manurewa, South Auckland, to my aunty’s house. There were 10 of us living in a three-bedroom house, including the converted garage. I had never heard of FOB (fresh off the boat) before. I wasn’t aware that the way I spoke English had an accent, which was attached to negative stereotypes of unintelligence and poverty. I didn’t know there was a history of violence and injustice that contributed to the present-day experience and perception of Pacific Islanders. I didn’t know I was a Pacific Islander. I didn’t know that overcrowding was common in low socio-economic households because housing was so expensive and most households lived on low wages. I didn’t realise that we didn’t have enough space. I didn’t care about space — I was just excited about a never-ending sleepover with my cousins. My new home had Ricies and Milo — my mind was blown.
We moved around Manurewa. Wherever my family went, that’s where home was for me. I didn’t care about any household items, ornaments, or trinkets. Sometimes I mourn the loss of our massive bookshelf, but at the time it didn’t matter what we left behind. I didn’t need One Ear (my bunny plushie with one ear), my special Sunday white dress, or my box collection. I didn’t feel attached to my room or any physical space where I spent the first eight years of my life. I had Mum’s sternness and Dad’s wit with me, and my siblings, who were my first and closest friends. We still had our jokes and conversations about Harry Potter with us. We still sang along to The Sound of Music. We had no more leaves to sweep or pick up, and acquired a vacuum cleaner.
Nowadays, I sit in my mouldy non-insulated student flat, on a heavily student-populated street, and think: Is this home? I live here, but I don’t belong here. This is a transient stage.
And if you look at it like that, all phases of my life are transient. My roots are not dug here. I have put photographs, posters, and my previous Salient columns on my bedroom wall to establish some sort of claim to the space that my share of the rent grants me.
But, when the moisture that saturates the air in my room lessens the adhesion of the Blu-Tack holding up my poster (Keep Calm I’m The Doctor), I have no desire to try stick it back up.
It seems futile to try to make this space mine when I’m counting down the months until our lease is up. I can’t wait to move into a new place that doesn’t have mould growing on the bedroom walls and a noisy downstairs neighbour. Maybe, if I don’t absolutely hate the new flat, I might find that it can also be a home, somewhere I belong.
The one sense of belonging that has never disappeared is belonging to my family. I used to belong to a church, to a high school, to certain houses, to a different country. I’ve lost some friends over the years and gained new ones. I’ve formed social circles built on shared values, experience, and solidarity forged through mutual suffering.
But my family, they’re my home that I have no doubts in claiming. I am utterly grateful to be born into a family that I feel homesick for.
Home is where I want to be, where I feel secure, where I feel like I belong. Sometimes home is at university, surrounded by people who can empathise with the student struggles. Sometimes home is lying in the arms of someone whose body fits perfectly with mine. Always, home is with Mum and Dad.
Homes are spaces and places that I can, even if only for a day, feel completely at ease. Most of the time it’s with others, but it’s also when I’m alone. I can feel a temporary sense of home in a new and public place, sitting with my notebook, somewhere I can write down any and every thought swimming through my head. I feel at home when I go back to Mum and Dad’s house and everyone has gone to work and I have the freedom to raid their cupboards and watch all the television I desire. For those very few weekends, I’m back to being their child and not this mostly independent budding adult with more responsibilities than she can sometimes handle.
Before entering a new space and meeting new people, I wait for an invitation from someone who belongs there. I wait for the assurance that I can just help myself, that I don’t need to knock, that I can say what I mean, that I can laugh my loud ugly laugh and feel no shame.
I don’t know how to process the phrase “make yourself at home.” I was taught, when visiting someone’s home, to sit on the floor, legs crossed, and be as quiet as possible, to answer questions directed at you, to be concise and to not blabber on about yourself. I still follow these rules.
At university there are several spaces dedicated to Pasifika students for study and socialising and, even though there’s an explicit sign saying I have a right to it, I needed a friend to physically take me there and to invite me to return whenever I feel like it. I find that this is a common trait in many young Pasifika people I know. I return the favour too, to make people feel explicitly welcome, because I know what it feels like to be a stranger.
I’ve lived in New Zealand for 13 years and I still feel like I haven’t been welcomed yet. After learning about New Zealand’s administration of Samoa in the past, I thought: Actually, I do have a right to be here. New Zealand forced themselves into our country and our mass migration here is an aftermath of that.
But then I learned about New Zealand’s colonisation and I thought: Shit, do Māori want us here? They didn’t colonise us and now we’re just flocking to their whenua. Am I welcome here? Who’s allowed to make this call? It’s a hard question to discuss. I don’t know how to address this question without offending the people whose country I now claim to belong to.
So, while I continue to struggle with national identity and belonging, I’m going to create my temporary pockets of home as I go, because I cannot stay in one fixed place (financially mostly, but also emotionally). I doubt I’ll own property and thus I need to find other ways to belong.
For now, I have a sense of home at the university when I’m surrounded by my friends. There’s a sense of home at the café my friends and I visit for late night coffee. Home is found on our blue couch watching movies on a laptop with my flatmates. I feel at home when I visit my sister’s house and she deflates my big head and brings me back to earth. I feel at home when people I love message me from their side of the world. I feel at home when I feel comfortable in my own skin. I feel at home writing for Salient. Thank you to everyone who has ever made me welcome in their homes, their spaces, their lives. Thank you to all those who let me put my feet up and express my genuine self. Thank you for extending your generous arm to my timid one.
Home isn’t the one special house. It isn’t one city, or one country. It’s many places all at once. It’s people. It’s temporary, it’s long lasting. It’s virtual and geographical. It’s safe. It’s mine. Where I came from doesn’t feel like home anymore. Likewise, what is currently home for me may not always be.
So when people ask, “Where are you from?” I should just answer: “I come from my parents.”
This article was originally published in Salient, the magazine of Victoria University’s Students’ Association.