As a Sāmoan kid growing up outside Sāmoa — first in Aotearoa and then Brisbane, Australia — Lefaoali’i Dion Enari copped a lot of flak from other Sāmoans. Because he didn’t speak Sāmoan, he was often labelled “plastic” and not Sāmoan enough. Once he was even told that his lack of Sāmoan was “disgraceful and shameful”. That propelled him on a journey to learn Sāmoan. Nearly two decades later, he reflects on becoming a Sāmoan speaker and what it’s meant.
Growing up in Australia, I was often lumped into the “plastic group”. The Sāmoans who didn’t speak Sāmoan. The ones without their mother tongue.
I knew just two phrases as a teenager. “Ou te le mālamalama fa’a-Sāmoa” (I don’t understand Sāmoan). And “Manuia, fa’afetai” (Good, thank you).
Most of the time, these were enough. Sāmoan people would smile back and say, “Tālofae” (What a pity), before switching to English.
To them, I was another kid in the diaspora who didn’t speak our language. To me, I was a product of my family’s migration story.
Both my parents left Sāmoa to chase the overseas dream. They met in Tāmaki Makaurau in the 1980s, got married and had me and my three brothers (Loveni, Herman and Sotiaka). Mum was actually born in Aotearoa, but grew up in Sāmoa.
When we came along, they made sure English was our first language. Like a lot of parents back then, they were scared that too much Sāmoan would limit our learning in a place they weren’t from. When we moved to Australia in 2000, English continued to be the main language at home. My grandparents, who also lived in Australia, spoke English with us, too.
I hadn’t thought much about it until my friend’s mum called it out. I was 14 and we were at the mall. I rolled out my go-to phrases and she shot back with: “Did you know it’s disgraceful and shameful if you can’t speak Sāmoan?”
I remember wanting to melt into the concrete.
I’d always thought that, because I was good in English, everything else would take care of itself. I was a capable student and did well at school, which is everything my parents wanted. Only now I was being told something very different.
And it wasn’t the first time I’d had my English-is-the-best mantra tested.
At school, I was bullied by other Sāmoan students because I didn’t speak Sāmoan. They’d say things about me I didn’t understand and I’d get called names like “Oreo” and “plastic”.
Other times, I’d get questions around whether I was really Sāmoan. I always believed I was Sāmoan, and every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a Sāmoan. But I was often told there was a limit to my “Sāmoanness”. Some even said my lack of gagana Sāmoa and life overseas made me Pālagi.
It made the racism that came with being Sāmoan in Australia even harder to deal with. On one hand, I didn’t cut it as a real Sāmoan. On the other, I was being stereotyped as dumb and a troublemaker.
Maybe that’s why the comment at the mall landed so heavily. It was the first time I’d been called out by an adult.
I started to think carefully about what it meant to belong to a culture, to Sāmoa. Why that was important and what it meant to be without my mother tongue. I thought about how learning gagana Sāmoa could help with questions around my identity. And how I’d be able to stand up to the other students when they threw words at me.
I also thought about my parents and grandparents. I wanted to connect with them in Sāmoan — the language and world where they were born and raised in. A world they’d left so my brothers and I could enjoy a better future — lumana’i manuia.
I started out as quiet as a mouse about what I was up to. I taught myself words and phrases in secret. Not so much because I was shy and lacked confidence, but because I was able to hear what my parents were saying without them knowing.
Because I’d grown up hearing the language, with a bit of work, it wasn’t long before I could follow everyday conversations.
One day, Mum and Dad snapped me giggling while they were talking. One of my brothers also let them know I’d been eavesdropping for a while. So, I came clean about what I was doing and the listening in.
I remember their surprise. I don’t think my parents ever thought about one of their children trying to reclaim Sāmoan. Even today, it’s still not something we’ve really talked about, although I know they’re proud of how far I’ve come.
I started going to lots of events where I’d be surrounded by native speakers. Mum is part of the Sāmoan Mormon congregation and everything is in gagana Sāmoa. For a while there, I was the number one parishioner and volunteer.
I also spent more time with my beloved grandparents and their friends. Being with them meant I picked up a different side of the language — they’d often use oratory language layered with metaphors.
Years later, I received my matai title from my father’s family. I’d think back to the hours I’d spent listening to my grandparents and other members of their generation. The language of the chiefs is its own realm. It’s poetic and clever and has its own etiquette and sense of humour — alway rooted in what we know from our land. In their own way, my grandparents paved a special path for me from their Brisbane living room.
I also took formal language lessons. And when I was confident enough, I started practising whenever I could. I remember the first prayer I said in Sāmoan at one of our family events. Aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and my own mum and dad and brothers — they were all there. My pronounciation was so bad the whole room cracked up. Unfortunately, that would happen many more times in different settings and events and with different people.
But that’s the thing with taking on gagana Sāmoa. To get better at it, you need to become comfortable with being made fun of. There isn’t a safe learning space for the language yet and we shouldn’t pretend there is. In fact, a big part of the humour among Sāmoans is around mispronouncing language.
I’ve had so many humiliating experiences when I’ve wanted to give up. But my desire to speak my mother tongue and reconnect with my culture has always got me through.
It’s also why, at 25, I moved to Sāmoa. I’d spent 10 years learning as much as I could, and it still felt like things hadn’t quite fallen into place.
In Sāmoa, I was able to see the language used in the land it came from. I lived with my aunty and one morning, she woke me up and I was put to work at our family’s taro plantation. It was hot, relentless, back-breaking stuff, most of which was being done by women like my aunty.
By then, my Sāmoan was pretty good and English had faded into the background. In one of my more sensitive moments, I remember going on about how hard the work on the plantation was — and that my aunty and other women shouldn’t have to do it.
Her response still makes me laugh: “Well, that’s why we’re built like this.”
That’s what I loved the most about my two years in Sāmoa. I got to be Sāmoan in Sāmoa and connect with things that you just don’t experience when you’re living in the diaspora.
I linked different Sāmoan sayings to life in the village, and saw the mountains and plantations that frame so many of our proverbs. I worked on my gagana fa’aaloalo (formal language) and anchored myself in the place where my parents and grandparents grew up.
When I went back to Australia, it led to my PhD looking at the the importance of the Sāmoan language and culture for those of us living overseas. My journey of reconnection and reclamation had settled much of the uncertainty I’d had within myself. It’s a type of self-belief and peace flowing into all parts of your life.
Through my research, I tracked my experience as well as the journeys of 23 other Sāmoans who’d grown up in Australia. I found those who lived and breathed their culture and language actually do better in Pālagi settings because of it.
For example, many of them used the speechmaking skills they’d learned at White Sunday, or from Polyfest, to set up board meetings and work conferences. Often, it was a point of difference with employers. I also found those who weren’t connected to their language had a harder time in Pālagi settings.
Today, I use Sāmoan in every area of my life. I’m a lecturer in sport leadership and management at AUT in Auckland and I’ll often use Sāmoan sayings in class. I speak it with other Sāmoan staff members and students, with my family and friends and any Sāmoan speakers. I’m also constantly working at improving it, especially my gagana fa’aaloalo — which is important as a matai.
I reckon it’s a journey that’ll sustain me for life. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning and perfecting my language because there’ll always be more to understand. That’s how deep and rich our culture is.
For others on their own gagana Sāmoa journey, I’d encourage you to keep moving forward. We’re all at different stages, but every word is a new step in reclaiming our language.
And in those wobbly moments when things seem a bit much, it’s about keeping the big picture in mind. The survival of our language is critical to the survival of our culture and knowledge-systems which simply can’t be translated into English.
By learning it for ourselves, we’re able to pass it down to the next generation who will care for it in their own way.
And for anyone who’s had “plastic” and other insults thrown at you, just leave it be. It’s a distraction from reclaiming something that’s rightfully yours. None of us are plastic. We’re Sāmoan.
Lefaoali’i Dion Enari is from the villages of Lepā, Malaela, Saleaaumua, Vaiala, Nofoali’i, Vaiusu and Safune. He moved to Tāmaki Makaurau a year ago, and is a lecturer at AUT’s School of Sport and Recreation. His matai title Lefaoali’i is from his father’s family in Lepā and his PhD is in Sāmoan cultural sustainability.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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