Lana Lopesi

Imperialism created false divides in the Pacific, weakening ancient connections between Pacific peoples, many of whom now barely recognise one another as kin. But, as Lana Lopesi suggests in this extract from her new book, False Divides, (published by Bridget Williams Books), the internet is making it possible for the peoples of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, our great ocean continent, to get to know each other again.

 

Aotearoa is where I have lived my entire life; as a second-generation New Zealand-born person I make the most sense here, and, like most people who have a national attachment to Aotearoa, I am a daughter of migrants with family whose gafa can be traced to many places around the world.

My mother’s parents, at different times and for different reasons, migrated to Aotearoa: the Smiths from England and the Gardners from Canada. Children of the motherland/s, you could say. My grandmother arrived as a child, having a very “New Zealand” upbringing (although I can’t be sure exactly what a “New Zealand” upbringing actually is), while my grandfather migrated for love as an adult, departing from Vancouver, British Columbia, to start a family in Aotearoa.

My father’s parents on the other hand migrated from somewhere much closer, from the villages of Satapuala (Sa Va‘ili) and Siumu (Sa Li‘o), Sāmoa. In 1970, they boarded a plane, young, in love and pregnant with my father.

It’s important to acknowledge that my Sāmoan grandparents too have mixed ancestry. My grandfather’s father migrated from Niue to Sāmoa to work on the roads and my grandmother’s grandfather was a Chinese labourer, his memory and his name lost from my generation’s reach.

These genealogies joined together in West Auckland in the late 1980s through the young romance of my parents. West Auckland is not only the urban environment that shaped me but the place that today I still call home.

The Pacific, Oceania, the Moana looks different from every vantage point, and I write this interpretation of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa from this vantage point. To be exact, my home in Rānui. I write it from the perspective of a Moana person in diaspora, an Indigenous person not at home, and an English-speaking, university-educated islander on Te Kawerau-ā-Maki land in Aotearoa.

 

Introduction

Have we forgotten so much that we will not easily find our way back to the ocean?
— Epeli Hau‘ofa

You see, we had been in Taiwan for two months at this point. As we disembarked from our flight in Taitung, my partner and I saw someone. We looked at each other and looked back at him. He was a staff member at the airport loading the bags onto the carousel. Catching our eyes, he looked away with a what-the-fuck-are-they-looking-at expression on his face, and continued to move the bags.

Preparing for my trip, I had understood Taiwan to be home — albeit a distant and ancestral romanticised homeland. But a fanua nonetheless, from which, in deep time, my ancestors travelled before settling in Sāmoa.

However, arriving in Taipei was a wake-up call. This was not the Austronesian homeland that I had imagined. This was a branch of China’s empire. Taiwan’s Indigenous communities were not only invisible from within Taipei, but as far as I could tell were also silent.

There was no mention of Indigenous issues, of Indigenous politics; these were all absent from my observations of the urban Taiwanese psyche — although, to be fair, this is not too dissimilar from my experiences in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa.

Yet despite what I was observing, despite not being able to read the language used in the city and being clearly visible as an outsider, I still held on to the sense of entitlement that comes with being home.

So, when I saw that airport staff member after touching down in Taitung, after months of isolation on a Pacific Island disguised by its history of Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese conquest, I grabbed my partner’s arm, turned to him and said, “He looks like us, he’s an islander.”

Taitung, southern Taiwan, was the last part of Taiwan to be colonised and so today is the least developed, with the highest Indigenous population. I’m not sure what we expected of Taitung, but our expectations were definitely high.

But there we were, my partner, my two-year-old and myself, in a hotel room with no natural light. The air conditioner leaked into a puddle on the floor and there was no refrigerator to keep my daughter’s milk from curdling. We could not speak their conqueror’s language, nor could they speak ours. We were right in front of each other yet were kept distant by false divides.

We had no means of transport other than walking with the pram. And since there were very few footpaths, most meals were had at the McDonald’s across the road. My online search had not served me well. I had booked a holiday from hell and my partner resented me for it. I could see it in his loathing stare over the third McChicken meal in a row.

Falling back into the hopes of the internet, I searched forums for the best place to meet her. In our two whole months, I had not seen her yet. We chartered a car and we were off. It promised to be the one good day in amongst many bad ones. But when we arrived, I got the McChicken stare once again. We were underprepared for her isolation, we had not enough food, not enough drink, not enough anything, frankly.

A gravel road met a barrier of round rocks which bordered black sand, which she had pounded and discarded with every furl of fury. A freshwater stream ran from deep-set palm trees, pointing to her, Vasa Loloa, Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. The guilt of my daughter’s chicken-nugget diet suddenly washed away.

At the beach in Taitung, southern Taiwan.

As each wave rolled over my body, there it was, that undeniable sensation. I’d know that feeling anywhere. It is a sharp ice-down-your-back cold, with deep maternal warmth. It is familiar yet foreign, safe yet relentlessly dangerous. It’s home.

In that moment in the ocean, I realised that despite the false divides I experience on the land, the ocean knows no such barrier. And arguably neither does the internet, which enabled our trip that day. How could I possibly capture this emotional experience for my Instagram? And if I did get the gram, how could I possibly contrive a witty one-liner to accompany it?

It was her, this ocean (and pragmatically her, the internet), that connected a series of opportunities I had over that year. 2016 saw my time split across four countries, China, Taiwan, Sāmoa and Aotearoa, all for different reasons and with different people.

These four countries, which may seem disparate, are all those which I call home, connected by both Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa and a stable internet connection (although the cost of that internet connection in Sāmoa is another conversation for another day).

Feeling rejuvenated by spending time with the Moana, I received a phone call at my studio. Walis Labai (of Taiwan’s Indigenous Seediq people) had learnt that I was staying in Taipei, finding my profile on the website of Taipei Artist Village, which was hosting me.

Seeing that I was Sāmoan and we shared a connection to the Moana, he invited me to speak at an Indigenous design conference in Chung-Li, where he taught on an Indigenous design bachelor’s programme.

At the conference, all the students dressed in their traditional outfits and I again had that feeling of seeing the Taitung airport worker. Everyone looked beautiful. I was full with that sense of pride you get in spaces where Moana peoples can culturally flex, like Polyfest back home.

However, as I was speaking on my relationship to Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, I looked out into the audience of mostly Indigenous Taiwanese to realise that my presentation was falling on deaf ears. They could hear me, but what was coming out of my mouth was white noise. Not only was the language barrier pronounced, but because our language abilities influence our scholarship and research and its distribution, our Indigenous discourses were not the same.

I realised that while the internet connected us — well, Labai and myself anyway — in real life we had no way of sharing our belonging to the ocean. I became acutely conscious of myself as an English-speaking Indigenous person and them as Chinese-speaking Indigenous people.

I had never been so aware of my specific vantage point from which I understand the Moana; my time in Taiwan was the first time I ever acknowledged myself as a part of the British Empire, and the real implications of that imperial legacy on me as a person.

The British Empire, which was once so large it was known as the “empire on which the sun never set”, holds claim over Aotearoa, the land that grew me. The British colonisation of Aotearoa means that we operate in English, affecting even our conversations on global Indigeneity. What we read and who we talk to tends to exist primarily around those settler nations within the British Empire, and so while we may talk back to the empire, we can’t talk to each other.

Knowing how developed and significant pre-colonial trade and migratory routes were, I find contemporary divisions (of which the Chinese- and English-language barrier is only one of many) of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa confronting.

One only needs to look at the border driven through the Sāmoan archipelago, dividing what is commonly known as Western Sāmoa and American Sāmoa, to see how significant and contemporary this issue is. The division places New Zealand and American diasporic Sāmoans in opposition to and in competition with each other online, often resulting in public disagreements over cultural authenticity.

This example is only a drop in the ocean; Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa today is divided between the empires of Britain and its former colonies (including New Zealand, Australia and the United States), and those of China and France, as well as Chile and Indonesia, which have colonised their neighbours.

The false divides the colonial project leaves behind change the ways in which we understand ourselves, reinforcing colonial borders. And only talking back to our individual imperial histories, rather than talking to each other across empires, can lead to an unknowing strengthening of these false divides. These ongoing effects are perhaps what Maualaivao Emeritus Professor Albert Wendt refers to as the “chill” that “continues to wound, transform, humiliate us and our culture”’.

And yet these divides become forgotten in online spaces such as Twitter, which provided me with a connectivity and shared language which distinctly expanded what was possible in real life. In that moment of time in Taiwan, feeling the weight of multiple empires, tweets not only connected me to people, but did so through intelligent and rigorous conversation.

On Twitter, I found my community. False divides established through imperialism clearly exist across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, and maybe the internet provides an opportunity to jump across those. I wonder if the Moana and the internet have more in common than would initially seem apparent.

A collective Moana enabled through the internet aligns with globalisation theorist Arjun Appadurai’s “social imagination”. For Appadurai, the ways that people move around the world and consume mass media enables them to imagine new lives and new worlds; this “social imagination” disrupts false divides.

Therefore, while the notion of a collective identity centred on Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa is reminiscent of a pre-colonial world, it is perhaps also an imagination enabled by a connectedness made possible both through our uptake of new technology and our ability to be mobile again.

Many Moana peoples (myself included) now live in diaspora. Communities that once originated in particular places are now spread globally, as what scholar James Clifford names “commuting cultures”; regardless of where one may now live, members of a diaspora continue to imagine a home.

In this sense, perhaps the importance Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa holds for me reinforces my diasporic identity as constructed online. This is what Appadurai calls diasporic publics — group identities that exist across national and other spatial boundaries.

Indigenous communities, then, do not simply consume electronic media passively, but use it to build shared identities which are local and global at the same time. . . .

In False Divides, I have chosen to use the term “Moana” rather than “Pacific” as a descriptor. This acknowledges the hard work of Dr Hūfanga Okusi Māhina, Kolokesa Uafā Māhina-Tuai and Dr Tēvita Ka‘ili, who advocate for the use of our own words (such as Moana) over those words forced on us (such as Pacific). As art curator Ioana Gordon-Smith noted in her essay Terms of Convenience, the term Pacific was:             

… a name given to the sea by Portuguese navigator Fernáo de Magalháes in 1521 to mark the peaceful nature of his journey into the waters while he was in the employ of the Spanish crown. His calm journey was a distinct change from his prior and treacherous journey through the South American Straits, now eponymously called the Straight [sic] of Magellan. For a while, the ‘Pacific Ocean’ was used interchangeably with ‘The South Seas’, so named in contrast with the Atlantic (the ‘North Sea’) by Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1512. The names given to the region are here constructed as ‘other’ in relation to the Northern Hemisphere, inserting into language a colonial view of the ‘Pacific’ as a place on the periphery.

Throughout the text I also use the te reo Māori term “Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa” to refer specifically to the Pacific Ocean. Writing from Aotearoa, this term feels the most appropriate way to acknowledge my viewpoint of the great ocean expanse.

Similarly, False Divides at times uses the term “Indigenous” to refer to a collective Moana identity and the shared connection of all Moana peoples with Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Indigenous Studies scholar Eve Tuck, of the Unangax people of Alaska, recently tweeted, “I don’t love the word ‘Indigenous’ more than other words. I care about it insofar as it conveys a spatial, political, ongoing and historical relationship to the state. I care about how it connects us up with other peoples.”

While I believe the arguments in this text may resonate with non-Moana Indigenous contexts, I am wary to speak out of turn. Therefore, I posit that False Divides is written from a Moana point of view, specifically my point of view.

Moana cultures, like all cultures, are constantly in flux. Indigenous cultures, Moana cultures included, are often seen only in relation to the past, or as if frozen in time, but how can that be possible?

Scholarship around Moana peoples online is currently so thin, and I do worry that we won’t be able to keep up with evolutions of our dynamic cultures. Moana notions of time are not linear like Western notions; rather we walk backwards into the future.

In writing about false divides, frontier boundaries, “arbitrary borders” or the imaginary lines of the Papālagi, I do so as one of the many Moana voices collectively shaking the land off our feet in return to the ocean.

But I also do so with the intention of acknowledging Moana peoples as being in motion. In that sense, Moana futures are rooted in the past — but it’s that rootedness that allows us to also move into the future.

I turn back to Hau‘ofa’s question as a poignant reminder, “Have we forgotten so much that we will not easily find our way back to the ocean?”, which underlies the core question of this text: how do we get to know each other again?

 

Lana Lopesi is a critic of art and culture based in Auckland. Lana’s writing has featured in a number of publications in print and online as well as in numerous artist and exhibition catalogues. Lana is the editor-of-chief of The Pantograph Punch and was founding editor of #500words.

Next Sunday, September 9, as part of the BWB Winter Series, she’ll be discussing the ideas in her book with associate professor Damon Salesa, of Auckland University, at the Pioneer Women’s Hall/Ellen Melville Centre, in Auckland, between 3-4pm.

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