Monday, October 29, 2012

An Unhappy Marriage

Before I started my year of communications, my sister (who had helped me with/done for me my application) gave me a bunch of scholarships she thought I should apply for. A few of them were specifically for Pasifika students, and I thought I had an okay chance at winning one... until I read through the applications in their entirety, and discovered they all required a letter from my pastor or youth leader. Because if you're Pasifika, and you're on the right track (which is going to university - preferably to study law, not communications), you must belong to a church.

I didn't. I had left my mother's church when I was sixteen (and hers is a born-again church of mostly Pakeha anyway), and had since owned my atheism. I didn't apply for any of those scholarships, and I'm pretty certain that if I had, I wouldn't have won one, because if you are not religious, you are not really Pasifika.

On our trip there are few months ago, Vincent and I came across painted signs and bronze plaques that read "Jesus is the foundation of Samoa". We mused to each other what the foundation was before the missionaries arrived, but it didn't change the feeling of belonging I felt.

Before our trip, we had both taken part in the Advance Pasifika March. The march was intended to unite Pasifika people, and to demand a voice, independent of political parties, for all Pacific people. At the time I thought I would like to extend that to a voice independent of religion, but it seemed a good start, and I was happy and proud to be part of it. I joined the facebook page, and felt connected to other Pasifika people, in spite of our differences. One of the organisers had said the march was about supporting each other, though our experiences may be different, and I believed that meant accepting one another. Until I read a post praising those who had taken part in a march against the proposed gay marriage bill. The march had taken place in South Auckland, and was attended by mostly Pasifika Christians. They held awful, offensive signs, and MPs from National, Labour, and Mana spoke(/lied; the National MP claiming most other MPs in his party had voted against the bill - wrong. He later told the truth to another journalist. It seems his party leader has set a precedent). Some of us who objected to the movement's support of a protest advocating hatred and disrespect (as well as the protest itself) voiced our objections, and were responded to in a rude, self-contradicting, patronising manner. My statement, that I was no longer happy to be a part of the movement and was leaving the page, was replied to with "good riddance". It was glaringly clear to me that to be part of Advance Pasifika, you must be conservative and religious, not to mention bigoted. (I want to make it clear that there are religious people who are not bigoted, even if I know few of them). Some others who disagreed with the post; who support gay marriage, and equality, remain a part of the movement, and I admire them for that. They make me feel like there is hope for a Pasifika identity that is not defined by religion.

But right now, it is. "Jesus is the foundation of Samoa" really means Samoan culture is so entwined with religion - mainly Christianity and Mormonism, that religion defines it. Religion is part of every funeral, every wedding, everything, and if you are not religious, you accept that; you have to, if you don't want to go mad. You also have to know that you are not going to be fully accepted as belonging to Samoan culture, because if you reject religion, it seems you are rejecting Samoa.

And that hurts. I have tried so hard to belong as Samoan, and felt so happy since I began to feel like I do. I feel as if I have been knocked down, and all because of the unholy union between religion and culture. The two are related, no question. But they must be able to be separated - they must, if people are to be united, and able to move forward.

On Neighbourhood on Sunday, Siliga David Setonga, creator of Popo Hardware, talked about his experience as a Samoan living in New Zealand, and the implications of the distance. One of those was his ability to see, and to question, and to reject aspects of Samoan culture, such as sending money for funerals of people he doesn't know. It was almost shocking to hear someone so Samoan talking freely about choosing parts of Samoan culture in which to engage, and which to reject. It gave me hope that this might become possible for everyone, and that without losing our Samoan-ness (or other Pasifika identity), we will be able to reject "god" and his associated laws and prejudices. Some people believe in god, and that's fine. Some people don't believe in god, and we need to be allowed to do this.

On a related note, I want to say this. I absolutely, unequivocally advocate gay marriage. No couple who love each other and want to be married should be prevented from being so; no-one has the right to tell them that their love is worth less than that of any other couple. And civil union is not marriage; it's barely a poor cousin. Apart from the fact it doesn't include the same rights as marriage, it just doesn't feel the same; and I think I know, because I had always planned to have a civil union because civil unions are available to all couples, but when it came to it, it wasn't enough. If there has to be a separation between the religion notion of marriage and the legal notion, then maybe that's a good thing, because marriage does not belong to any religion. My marriage, which is full of love and happiness and every other good thing, has no "god" in it. It is a legal and symbolic joining together of my life and my husband's, and certainly not anything to do with anyone's notion of a higher power.


  1. What! I can't believe that they support anti-gay marriage AND said good riddance to you on FB! That is so shameful. I forget there are people out there who still think this way, but when you realise they are so close to home it's very unsettling.

    I don't know how much I feel I 'belong' to the Tongan/Pasifika community. I'm proud of my Tongan heritage, and my family who are awesome, but 'belonging' is different for me, I guess it implies alignment which comes from acceptance or understanding. Growing up in the church I was constantly labelled a Palangi, because I was different and therefore treated differently - it was really difficult and I think it still effects me in some ways. It's always been hard knowing where I 'fit in' because of this - how I should behave or think or speak... but I reckon we are and will always be Pasifika no matter what belief systems we invest ourselves in - because it's in our blood aye. If we buy into the belief that we ought to act a certain way because of our ethnicity then we are sadly stuck in the dark ages. I have a lot of problems with Christianity too, I don't consider myself Christian, but at the same time a lot of my beliefs do align with the bible/Jesus; spirituality goes deeper than the church just as our Pacificness is deeper than being anti-gay or whatever. It's important people like you, and Siliga, and me, and whoever, continue to be open about our own beliefs because maybe that's the only way to progress- leading by example.

    I work with a lady who has a civil union, they are such amazing people- intelligent, hard-workers, beautiful souls, AND they are self-made millionaires: it just doesn't make sense to me that they are inferior to other New Zealanders and therefore deserve less rights than us. It's a fucking lie!

    Omg sorry bout the essay xo

    1. I love the essay! And it's good for me to hear how you relate to your Tongan-ness, and how much you're allowed to! I agree that we are Pasifika, and as much because we want to be as it being in our blood. I get so defensive about it because I was labelled Palagi too (or even worse, fia palagi) by Samoans, so I felt like I didn't fit anywhere. But I just read this
      on my cousin's blog, and between it and what you said, I think I need to just own it! She came into work today, and we talked about getting a group together who aren't represented by the dominant Pasifika voice, would you be interested? I hope so! I have already started writing up a manifesto of sorts... :) xo