Dahlia Malaeulu is a Wellington mother and teacher, and the author of Mila’s My Gagana Series, a set of Sāmoan language books for children.
These days, she’s also a proud New Zealand-born Sāmoan, but it wasn’t always so. Despite growing up in a household with Sāmoan-speaking parents who’d been born and bred in Sāmoa, she has spent much of her life struggling with her identity and trying to figure out what being Sāmoan really means.
Here she writes about the long, hard road to becoming Sāmoan.
‘What’s your iwi?’
My first encounter with my cultural identity was around 30 years ago at primary school in Wainuiomata, Wellington. During a lesson about where we came from, one of my teachers asked me: “What’s your iwi?”
I remember going home and asking my mum. She gave me a shocked look, and giggled. Then she told me that I had no iwi and that it was “only for Maoris”.
I retreated to my bedroom, stumped.
Up until then, my only cultural experiences had revolved around my school kapa haka group and my Māori friends. Everyone thought I was Māori, including me.
But if I wasn’t Māori like everyone else around me, what was I?
‘Don’t you want to be Sāmoan?’
By intermediate, I knew I was “Sāmoan”, purely by being told that by my teachers and noticing that my parents spoke a different language at home.
But, to me, Sāmoan was just a title. What did it even mean?
My father, Malo Gray, is from the village of Sinamoga, and my mother, Lagimauga, from Vaivase tai. Both of them are proud Sāmoans who’d come to New Zealand in search of a better life.
Like many Sāmoan parents, Mum and Dad had ingrained in their children the importance of education. School came first, second, and last. We were told that we had to do whatever the Pālagi teacher said. Work hard. Do our best in everything.
Being Sāmoan didn’t even make the list.
There was no room for friends — Dad used to tell my sister and me that he was our best friend — or cultural groups. As far as Dad was concerned, these were just unnecessary distractions.
One day, the Pālagi teacher in charge of our school cultural group asked me and my Sāmoan friend why we weren’t members. We didn’t want to tell her that our parents didn’t think such groups were what school was for, so we said nothing while she lectured us about how important our culture was, and how we were basically shaming our parents by not representing our Sāmoan culture.
“Do you even want to be Sāmoan?” she asked.
Little did she know.
‘You can’t even tell you’re Sāmoan’
By the time I hit high school, I was quite despondent about my Sāmoan-ness. I was regularly called “Pālagi” and laughed at by the “real Sāmoans” at our school — a group I avoided as much as possible. Their mere presence made me feel inferior and “plastic”.
I remember saying to a close friend at the time that, if they were what real Sāmoans were like, I’d rather not be one.
I even felt justified when I’d hear comments that seemed to support my unconscious decision to distance myself from my culture. Like:
You can’t even tell you’re Sāmoan . . . you speak good English and you’re good at maths.
You’re the first Sāmoan I’ve met that doesn’t have frizzy hair and a flat nose.
I felt like the outside world was basically telling me that I was better off not being Sāmoan.
And if I wasn’t a Sāmoan according to real Sāmoans, then what was I?
I felt lost and confused, stuck in a cultural void.
I like to think God intervened at that point, because my family joined our local Sāmoan Methodist church, and, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by Sāmoan culture, and accepted as I was.
Finally, I was in a safe environment where I was encouraged to take part in everything Sāmoan, even if I didn’t speak our gagana fluently. My church sisters became my teachers — role models willing to answer my cultural questions.
I was still called Pālagi, but in a much more loving way.
I learned, too, that the church is really the cultural hub for our people. A home away from home, where bonds are made amid the laughter and tears, and where families are celebrated and supported in times of need. Time was spent together, breathing life into important Sāmoan values. Alofa (love), ‘āiga (family), fa’aaloalo (respect), tautua (service).
I started to see my Sāmoan culture in a different light, and to appreciate the beauty of the fa’a-Sāmoa world. I was finally beginning to understand what it meant to be Sāmoan.
Why wasn’t I told about being Sāmoan?
Years later, when I was a student at Victoria University, I went to a lecture about the impact of migration on Pacific people. I heard how many of us had been forced to adopt dual identities to survive — Sāmoan at home, Pālagi in the outside world — and how New Zealand-born Pacific children were losing their connection with their cultures and languages.
It hit me like a bolt. Of course — cultural knowledge isn’t automatically passed down. It has to be taught.
The lecturer could have been talking about my family. At home, my sister and I weren’t expected to speak Sāmoan — just to be Sāmoan. Cultural knowledge was only passed on if you asked. And, except for church, our Sāmoan-ness never made it out the front door of our house.
Feeling frustrated, I thought: Why hadn’t my parents taught me about being Sāmoan from the beginning? Why hadn’t they taught me our language and culture?
One day I asked them. My mother explained that this was how it had been for my father and her in Sāmoa. They had spoken Sāmoan at home and English at school. “You had to speak English at school or else you got the strap or detention,” she told me.
So my parents had absorbed the message that, to achieve in the Pālagi world, you had to live “the Pālagi way”. They hadn’t taught my sister and me our own culture and language at home because it wasn’t valued in the Pālagi world. And it had never occurred to them that we wouldn’t just “pick it up” along the way, as they had done back home.
My frustration with them turned to sadness. The better life they had sought in Niusila had come at a price: they could never fully be themselves in the Pālagi world. For them, being Sāmoan had no place outside of home and church.
And here I was, trying to find the piece of me that wasn’t even valued in the world I was living in.
The return home
My search for my identity turned into an inquiry. I wanted to know more. I researched Sāmoan history. I asked my parents and other family elders to explain the Sāmoan world to me. I spoke to friends who were on the same journey.
And, finally, at 26, I took my first trip to Sāmoa, the place where it all started.
It was there, immersed in my cultural heritage and its beauty, in my family and fanua (land), that I made a spiritual connection to the motherland that words cannot describe.
That life-changing visit deepened my understanding of the origin of Sāmoan culture and values, and affirmed the love and pride I felt for my culture. A few years later, my partner and I returned to be married there. Like my parents, who had long dreamed of the return home, I felt something spiritually anchoring me to these beautiful islands.
I realised that my culture had always been there in the shadows, waiting for me to understand its true value in order for us to be reunited.
Building culturally confident Pasifika
I knew that I’d been lucky. I’d found my way home. But I could see how important it was to help others who had lost their way as well.
As a teacher, I was constantly coming across Pasifika parents who weren’t actively passing down cultural knowledge to their children — or didn’t know it themselves. Many of them continued to believe, as my parents had, that our children needed to be Pālagi to succeed.
I could see, too, that many of my Pasifika students were going through the same turmoil that I’d gone through. I saw my younger self in so many of them. They were struggling to find their place in the world, confused about who they were.
I wanted to help our tamaiti by developing their confidence as Pasifika. So I started teaching them their cultural history, giving them examples of Pasifika succeeding as Pasifika, and creating school-wide cultural programmes.
And, in an ironic twist of fate, I ended up starting our school’s first cultural Pasifika group. I even had my parents’ support this time around — with my dad telling me, years later, how proud he was of this.
Breaking the cycle
But there was still one more barrier to overcome.
Becoming a mother had highlighted my own lack of confidence in using gagana Sāmoa. I knew how important it was to be able to speak Sāmoan, and I knew I had to start there with my own children. Especially as my parents wouldn’t be around forever and my kids were learning more Spanish than Sāmoan, thanks to Dora the Explorer.
But I’d been ridiculed for my attempts to speak Sāmoan over the years, and this had paralysed me from trying to speak the gagana. I struggled to become more fluent and to teach my two boys. But I kept trying. That was my parents’ advice: Taumafai. Try. Then try again.
I set out to engage my boys in the same way Dora did. My home became my cultural classroom. We sang Sāmoan pese (songs). We played Sāmoan language games and took part in cultural events.
And that worked great for a while. But then I got to a stage where I couldn’t keep my growing boys engaged. We ran out of pese to sing. I couldn’t find quality Sāmoan kids’ programmes or DVDs. I even resorted to the Tākaro Tribe, a Māori children’s programme, figuring that Māori was much closer to Sāmoan than Spanish.
But there was nothing that reflected my children. Nothing that reflected our New Zealand-born Sāmoan world.
It felt like history was repeating itself. If my boys couldn’t see or find themselves and our culture reflected and valued in the world we lived in, they would face the same challenges my parents and I did. They would have to make a choice about when to be, and who to be. I didn’t want them to have to choose. I wanted my boys to know they were tama Sāmoa and to be proud of who they were all the time.
I had no choice but to create our own stories, and so I did. That’s how Mila’s My Gagana Series was born.
It’s my attempt to provide rich language learning stories to help other New Zealand-born tamaiti and the first teachers in their lives — their fānau (family) and faiā’oga (teachers) — to become more confident in speaking gagana Sāmoa.
Our tusi faitau (books) are also for those New Zealand-born Sāmoans who have ever thought that they weren’t Sāmoan enough — and who are on the same journey that I’ve been on.
Like many journeys of cultural discovery, my quest to find my identity as a New Zealand-born Sāmoan has been a long, hard road.
For me, the journey has been rewarding, but I know that many others haven’t been so lucky.
I hope that we all can play our part to make it easier for the next generation to make this journey, so that they can confidently take their place and succeed in the world — as Sāmoans, as Pasifika, as whoever they are, with their cultures and identities intact.
O a’u o le Sāmoa — I am Sāmoan
As part of a reflection for my students’ inquiry topic about identity and culture, “Ko wai ahau?” (Who am I?), we shared our top 10 lessons from our identity journeys. This is mine.
- I am Sāmoan by birth, therefore I have the right to claim my Sāmoan identity regardless of what others may say. It’s our different environments and unique experiences that create the beautiful spectrum of Sāmoan people in the world today.
- We must stop tearing others down just because they weren’t immersed in our gagana and aganu’u. Lift each other up.
- It’s important to share, teach, and record, our cultural knowledge before it disappears with our elders.
- We have to value being Sāmoan before we can expect our tamaiti and the Pālagi world to.
- We must actively seek out and learn our gagana and aganu’u if we want to gain cultural understanding and confidence.
- Share examples of Sāmoans succeeding as Sāmoan, so our next generation can see what’s possible for them.
- Create more resources for all age groups — whether it’s books, TV, animation or music — providing access to our perspectives, values, gagana and aganu’u.
- Help break the dual identity cycle by creating culturally inclusive environments so we can feel valued, confident, and free to be Sāmoan.
- Sāmoan language is key to our culture’s future — if we lose our language, we lose our culture.
- I’m proud to be a New Zealand-born Sāmoan and the journey is far from over.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.