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Can We Please Leave “Plastic Pacific Islander” In 2023?

Graphic by Tonga Victoria Fakalata

Each new year unfolds with a promise of surpassing the preceding one, enveloping individuals in a cascade of aspirations and reflections. In the Western hemisphere, the commencement of a new year is marked by opulent celebrations, characterized by the indulgence in champagne, delectable cuisines, and the formulation of resolutions. This facet of American culture is not merely a routine observance but an emblematic portrayal in movies, resonating in musical compositions, and amplified on the digital stage of social media, where the fervor of outdoing one another prevails.


This cultural phenomenon extends beyond the confines of New Year's Eve, permeating various holidays embedded in the American calendar that thrive on hyperconsumerism. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, and Independence Day all exemplify this ritualized extravagance. America adeptly imparts significance to these occasions, effectively weaving them into the fabric of people's lives, particularly for those newly arrived on its shores.


The pervasive assimilation into American culture, a phenomenon experienced by immigrant communities and notably pronounced among Pacific Islanders, carries profound impacts that are initially regarded as harmless. The loosening of ties from indigenous knowledge and ways of being to embrace more fully American culture is regarded as harmless at first. However, the generational repercussions of this is costly. The importance of culture and identity is truly appraised when a fellow member of the same culture exploits it. The term "Plastic Pacific" emerges as a potent weapon unleashed onto those who are bereft of historical awareness, cultural customs, and native language.


As the popular adage “words can’t break my bones” goes, the term “Plastic Pacific” does just that. For first and second generation Pacific Islander-Americans, the term Plastic Pacific stirs a thread of emotions because for most households in America, regardless of culture, religion, race or class – parents have to work to put food on the table. The cost of the American Dream is the re-shifting of the family unit, and for Pacific Islanders, this might mean only seeing parents on the weekends or at night, where traditionally back home on the islands, homes are made up of multiple generations, and the village is an integral extension of the core unit.


Behind the term 'Plastic Pacific Islander' lies a poignant commentary on the immigrant Pacific Islander experience. It subtly points to the sacrifices made to secure a home and put food on the table. The sting is especially profound because this label strikes at the heart of the Pacific Islander identity—our heritage. The term encapsulates the emotional weight of the immigrant struggle, echoing the challenges faced in forging a new life while preserving the essence of a distant home.


As a Pacific Islander, embracing my dual identity as a Pacific Islander-American is a decision I have to make every day. It is an active exploration of my Tongan roots, and a constant celebration of both worlds. This journey entails a continuous download of information, and a commitment to unearthing the historical intricacies, and an intentional exploration of how these two distinct heritages intertwine, clash, or harmonize.

One of the deepest revelations that have emerged is that the very attributes essential for navigating the complex terrain of American society are deeply rooted in the foundational tenets of Pacific Islander culture. 


The resilience, communal bonds, and adaptability inherent in Pacific Islander heritage become not just a source of pride but essential tools for thriving in the multifaceted American landscape. This duality is not a mere coexistence; it is a dynamic interplay where the strength drawn from Pacific Islander roots fortifies the individual in their journey through the intricate tapestry of American life. It's a symbiotic relationship, enriching both identities and contributing to a unique narrative that transcends geographical boundaries.

Tonga Victoria Fakalata Is an East Palo Alto writer and resident.

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