|From sea to shining sea
Posted Tue Feb 8 13:46:44 PST 2005
By Tim Currie of Verde Magazine
The Kolotos are a Tongan and Samoan family, and like many other Polynesians they have found their way to the United States in search of a better education and more job opportunities. Although it may seem like Northern California has a myriad of cultural differences, Palo Alto High School has proven to be a positive welcoming wagon, especially for sophomore Fred Koloto.
American Samoa is the United States’ southern-most territory. It has been described as the heart of Polynesia, located between Hawaii and New Zealand. Although still somewhat unorganized, the Samoan people have done a laudable job of preserving traditions while inevitably feeling the influence of its hegemonic mother country.
There are a number of problems Samoans face, including unemployment, poverty (average annual income is around $8,000 U.S.), and unhelpful government officials. Although modeled after the United States’ government, the administration has proven to be more troublesome than anything. There is a legislature, broken into the Senate, whose members are elected every four years by the matais, or village leaders, and the House of Representatives, where elections are held every two years in a general vote. In addition, there is a governor, and a lieutenant governor, however, these powerful people reside on the main island of Tutuila, far from the farmers in the more remote areas. “It’s a very corrupt government,” says Losi Koloto, the Samoa mother of the family. “We need smarter politicians.” Sadly, the dishonesty of some of these officials has proven to be enough to drive many islanders from the golden shores.
“I left in 1979 to go to high school in Indiana,” Losi says. “It [Indiana] was ... culture shock.”
Like many other Samoans, Losi left the South Pacific because she knew opportunity would await her after completing high school. The majority of her peers on the island of Ofu were working on farms or in tuna canneries. Luckily, Losi had family in Indiana, so she had the option to leave. Also, she knew that if she established herself in America it would be an easier transition for her children to make. Understandably though, there was an adjustment period needed. “Well there was the language barrier,” she recalls. “But what I noticed most was the racism. In Samoa there was no big difference between white and black.”
After finishing high school and starting college, Losi found her way back to her family in American Samoa. In 1986 she returned to America to put her high school diploma to good use. While Losi settled into her life in California, her son Fred was living with his grandmother in Samoa. He was raised like all of his peers on Ofu, waiting for the time when his parents would bring him to the U.S. During the time Fred spent with his extended family, Losi found that in returning to America she had a better sense of what to expect. “There was much more diversity in California. Also, more Samoans and Tongans than before.” Regardless of where she and her family end up, Losi feels a sense of appreciation for being able to improve her lifestyle.
Samoan families who do not have the money or connections to make a life for themselves in America are left with few options. Not too surprisingly, one path that is becoming more popular is the military. American Samoans can join the United States’ military to change their situation, and like a niece of Losi’s, a year spent in Iraq can be a worthwhile trade off for improving the lifestyle in the long run. However, Losi herself would not have her children in the military. Instead, she established herself in Palo Alto, knowing that her family would have much more opportunity here than in Samoa. A year and a half ago, just before her son started the 9th grade, Losi brought him to the U.S. so that Fred could get the best education possible.
“I wanted Freddie to come here for the opportunity. The schools in Samoa aren’t as good as here, so it’s better for him now,” Losi says.
The difference in lifestyles for a high school freshman in Samoa and one in the United States would have been overwhelming had there not been any common ground for Fred. Although he was bilingual, like many Samoans are, there was clearly a void created when he left tropical homeland for this San Francisco suburb. Luckily, just weeks after his arrival, Fred found that the organized sports at Palo Alto High School would be a sufficient means for adjustment. And luckily for Paly coaches, they found that the six foot four inch, 245-pound Samoan would be a perfect addition to the football team. Although football is not a sport played in American Samoa, the even more brutal game of rugby is outrageously popular among the islanders, so football was a natural fit for Fred. “I remember the first day of practice,” recalls Paly junior and teammate Nick Rosas. “Fred had like three sacks. I asked him if he had ever played football before, and he said he used to play ‘tackle’.”
Though sports come naturally to Fred, and are a very welcoming arena for him, his move was more about the opportunities he could create for himself inside the classroom, even if academics proved more challenging. Most of the hardships Fred endures outside of the locker room are due to the cultural differences between American Samoa and the United States. Adolescents in Samoa are expected to be very respectful of elders and anyone in an authority position, and usually they only speak when spoken to. In Paly classrooms, student participation is not just expected, but almost demanded. These in-class contributions are necesary to obtain good grades, and they create problems for Fred, whose mild-mannered, respectful attitude can sometimes come off as uninvolved. It is hard to change thirteen years of tradition in less than two, but Fred manages and is starting to show signs of Americanization. However, this is not the point of Fred’s time spent here, and the last thing he wants is to lose sense of his heritage.
For the Kolotos, and many other Samoan families, their hope is that someday they may return to the island they left. They keep their traditions and try to remain as intact with their lives in American Samoa as possible. On Sundays, the meals are cooked before sunrise, and at 6:00 o’clock, even though the traditional bells do not ring here, prayers commence. Many men wear lava-lavas, or sarongs, and respect is still valued highly.
The Kolotos who are living in Palo Alto do not need a matai, or family representative who speaks at village meetings, but they know not to forget about them for when they return home. Although Fred eats what every other Paly student would eat, when he is home the meals are as they would be on Ofu –– boiled bananas, lots of pork and fish, and kava, a ceremonial drink made from taro root, for the older and more respected men.
Whatever the Kolotos endure now is all done to make retirement worthwhile. Their lifestyle has changed for the better in terms of money and opportunity, but as soon as they can return to American Samoa happily, they will. “It’s much slower on the island,” says Losi. “No traffic and pollution, just the beach right next to you .”
This story originally appeared in Verde Magazine on February 14, 2005