The Pacific Islander conflict between the individual and the collective

Slideshow and story by ANTHONY SCOMA

In 2017, the United States had the highest GDP (gross domestic product) in the world at $19.42 trillion, based on information gathered by the International Monetary Fund. But that wealth has not been felt across the board by the American population.

According to a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board in 2016, wealth disparities between upper-income families and lower- and middle-income families are at the highest levels ever recorded.

This unprecedented gap between the wealth of the richest and poorest in America is paralleled by a national sense of division. The Pew Research Center has reported that across political and racial lines, there is growing disagreement over what the U.S. should be and do.

Inequality of wealth and political polarization may reflect something foundational to the ethos of the U.S., which is the placement of the individual interest over the collective good and the resulting interpersonal conflict. This elevating of individual interests may be especially glaring to Pacific Islanders and other immigrants, whose cultural practices emphasize the collective over the individual.

Te Anu Tonga, a U.S. immigrant with Tongan and Maori parents, grew up in Utah and is well aware of the clashes between the worldviews that define U.S. and Pacific Island cultures.

“The biggest thing that I see between the two worlds is — there is no ‘I’ in communal/tribal cultures … there is only ‘we,’” she said. “I was always brought up to think and care about others before myself, to always take care of others before myself.”

These rival lessons are instilled at an early age. The importance of sharing is taught to nearly every child through examples of toys and food, but what and how much must be shared differs significantly across cultures. Tonga recalled times as a child when the obligations of Pacific Islander culture felt like a burden.

“Growing up when I went to school … some of my cousins were there too,” she said. “And if I had food in my bag, I’d always watch out for my cousins because if I saw them, I knew I would have to share. … If we have one cookie and seven people, we are going to split it seven ways.”

These childhood lessons have important applications in adulthood. Maryann Tukuafu, the manager of Pacific Seas Restaurant, shared a story over a phone interview about the good that mutual aid can achieve.

“I’ve got a first cousin of mine that lives with us. I took her in about a year and a half ago,” she said. “She was pretty much destitute, just barely graduated from high school. Just with my husband and I’s support, she’s now a sophomore at SLCC (Salt Lake Community College) and getting ready to go to the [University of Utah] in the fall and doing well.”

However, this readiness to provide aid to family and friends can be an obstacle to achieving success in the individualistic world of U.S. business. Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou is executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), a community organization that provides business education, networking and other resources to prospective Pacific Islander businesses. She spoke about how the Pacific Islander collective mentality has to be deferred to run a successful business.

In meetings, she said in a phone interview, the goal of PIK2AR is just to educate the participants on “the systems of America and … the business-owner understanding that if you want to be successful, that means you can’t just give away your products for free or services for free to all your family members.” She added, “We have to change that idea within our community that we need to pay for these services if we want to help those businesses grow and stay around.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou also recognizes the problems that can arise from prizing individual interests over all else. She spoke about how cultural individualism drives the mass accumulation of money for its own sake, causing the wealth disparity that we see reflected in the U.S. economy. In contrast, she pointed out how Pacific Islanders view money as a means to address the needs of family and friends at the moment. But that can lead to giving too much away. She attributes these cultural differences to what motivates our actions in society.

“The motivation in America is money, the motivation for Pacific Islander homes are God, church and family,” she said. “So I think that both can learn from each other. Pacific Islanders need to learn about financial literacy and … the line between enabling and helping.”

Feltch-Malohifo’ou also said that this line, and the larger Pacific Islander question of whether to embrace the collectivism or individualism, comes down to the individual and their family and what works best for them.

Lani Taholo, director and owner of Child and Family Empowerment Services, agreed that the individual and collective perspective are not absolutes within the Pacific Islander community.

“I believe that it works on a continuum between co-dependence, interdependence and then independence,” she said. “I think that when the Pacific Islanders work on an interdependent fashion, that is when we are at our best.”

Taholo went on to explain that at both ends, codependence and independence, there can be a loss of identity. Codependence leads to a loss of individual expression and creativity when the individual is lost in living solely for others or relying on others. On the other end, complete independence leads to a loss of the part of identity that is formed out of being a part of a greater whole or community.

Taholo says that to achieve interdependence, one must have a sense of individual identity and goals but also acknowledge how one is connected to others economically, socially and spiritually.

This acknowledgment that there is danger in extremes of both the American and Pacific perspectives was echoed by Te Anu Tonga, who is currently working on a film that documents traditional Maori dances and seeks to start a conversation on how to preserve these practices for the future.

“Being a collective is beautiful and wonderful, but there needs to be order in it as well,” she said. “Being able to help your community but … sacrificing your family to do that.” She expressed her dismissal of this idea with a simple, “No.”

“On the other extreme,” she said, “not sharing at all because you’re taking care of yourself to me is so sad because it reflects this fear or philosophy of scarcity.”

While Tonga acknowledges the fault of each extreme, she believes that there is a middle path that can be found between the two mindsets when it comes to new generations.

“I don’t believe we are meant to move forward in our lanes,” she said. “Because that’s not fair to the younger generations, because [traditions] are meeting in every way and form from school to social media. … And that blending is powerful, it has the potential for a new culture that none of the nations have ever seen before.”

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