It’s Okay to Admit You Don’t Understand Pacific Culture

Last year was a huge year for Talanoa. Now that the dust has settled, I’ve taken a lot of time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and the responses we received through our storytelling. One common theme of confession from both Pacific and non-Pacific people was,“This is so bad, but I don’t understand Pacific culture. I want to, but I’m too embarrassed to ask questions or admit I don’t know that much.”

We weren’t all born under a coconut tree

“Your mother and I came to this country for a better life.” That’s how many of us Pacific people came to be born abroad. Somewhere, sometime before we were thought of, a family member decided to make the big migration over the seas. From birth through to adolescence, we learnt about our culture at home, at functions, at church and even through our friends at school. We didn’t have the luxury of being immersed in it, aside from the select few who could travel to the islands for holidays. Our parents did their best, and even if they didn’t, we picked up what we could, with question marks hovering over the gaps.

Then there are those of us who were born in the islands, but grew up sheltered from Pacific culture. Yes, it’s possible, and it’s not a joke. I know Fijians who were born and raised in Fiji yet have no idea where to start when it comes understanding Fijian culture.

Neither make us less Pacific. You are Pacific because you are. That’s all there is to it. But it’s okay to admit you don’t understand what that means. It doesn’t make you a bad person, or an ignorant person. It makes you honest.

The real shame is in never knowing

The shame that’s associated with people knowing little about culture is exactly what stops us from ever learning. We’re afraid we’ll be labelled as ignorant. The truth is, a lack of knowledge itself doesn’t make us ignorant. Acting on a lack of knowledge with the impression that we know enough is ignorance. Even with the best intentions, this behaviour can come across as disrespectful and offensive.

It’s okay to not know. But it’s not okay to pretend to know, and to act on incorrect information. It’s even worse when that incorrect information is passed on and accepted as truth. We’ve all heard people say, “That’s why I don’t like going back home to the islands, they clean out my suitcase and my wallet. That’s just our culture.” No, it’s not. It might be a family culture, but it’s not our Pacific culture. Yes, there is a difference. What might be common practice in my family may be different from yours. But that doesn’t change our Pacific culture. Confusing the two and spreading that information can give power to negative stereotypes and that’s exactly what sets us back years and years. We don’t want that, nor do we need it.

Pacific learning is like coming home

My childhood was a splendid mix of Fijian and Tongan. But like many Pacific people from a diversified culture, I was exposed to one more than the other. I didn’t understand much of Tonga. At Tongan functions and around Tongan people, I didn’t know how to act or what to say, and I felt like an idiot for it. I accepted it, and decided I’d safely sail through life this way, with an unknowing smile whenever anything Tongan came up. My mother believed in no such thing and sent me to Tonga for five of my high school years. I had no choice but to face my fear, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. It felt like coming back home – to one I never knew existed. In the knowledge of my culture, I found myself, and I found my ancestors. I began to understand their decisions, their belief systems and their values – all of which make up some of who I am – who we all are.

The next time you hear a person say they don’t know anything about our culture, encourage the conversation. Find out why, if they’d like to learn more, and how you can support their learning. Acknowledge their questions – or better yet – think of some of your own. If you can’t find answers from your family, speak to elders in the Pacific community, read writings by Pacific people, listen to our stories, look online, and most importantly, make time to visit our island home. Is there something you want to ask? Is there someone you can encourage? Don’t hesitate. We can’t afford to be divided by a lack of knowledge, or worse, lose our beautiful, rich and diverse Pacific culture, all because we’re too afraid to ask. Talanoa, and start the conversation today.

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