This is a continuation of my previous post, “Welcome to Ford Country (aka American Samoa)”. You can see Part 1 here.
3. The American.
Just as Samoa has a definite flavor of New Zealand and Australian influence, the US is reflected–probably even stronger–in Pago. You can see it everywhere–the giant, shiny, new, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs that everyone drives; two McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut, a KFC, and a Carl’s Jr/Green Burrito; the hordes of kids playing rugby replaced by the hordes of kids playing football; fales traded out in favor of Western-style houses. And it’s true that on many fronts, the standard of living appears to be higher in American Samoa.
Case in point: the 8-year-old in the family I stayed with walked around with an iPad (granted his dad works in the IT business). Food costs are much lower. The cost of everything seems to be lower, actually, despite the fact that the two islands face almost identical geographic isolation, and Pago represents an even smaller market. Pago is lucky too, because unlike their neighbors they have an industry: tuna canning. The two tuna canneries–Starkist and Samoa Packing, a Chicken of the Sea subsidiary–once employed up to a third of Pago’s work force. Since minimum wage laws were enforced by the US a few years ago, Samoa Packing has closed doors, and Starkist operates at a reduced level, but that is still more than Samoa has by way of industry.
After Aimoto picked me up (in her giant Toyota FJ Cruiser, the A/C blasting and reminding me of summers in California), our first stop on my tour of Pago was…Samoan Walmart. Actually I’m not sure what the store was called, but it sure looked like Samoan Walmart. Next up was Cost-U-Less, eerily reminiscent of Costco, where I could buy cheap candy to bring back to Samoa for my friend Lusila. After a couple months of Samoan grocery stores, my eyes pretty much bugged out of my head at how cheap (and familiar) everything was.
Just to make me feel even more like I was back in the States, it turns out that a huge chunk of Aimoto’s extended family lives in the South Bay back in California. In fact, one of her aunts lives in Saratoga! Way too crazy. By the way, American Samoans are US Nationals but not citizens–so they can travel freely through the States, but they can’t vote in presidential elections. They have a single, non-voting delegate in the Senate. When I asked Aimoto how people generally felt about this situation–expecting perhaps indignant scorn for imperial oppressors, materialistic satisfaction with easy access to cheap goods, snobbery and envy for their nearby independent cousins–she just frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”
I prodded her a bit more, and finally she mentioned that some people did argue for independence, and in fact there has recently been a vote regarding the idea of secession. The majority had voted against it, and in Aimoto’s opinion, that was for the better. Interestingly enough, American Samoa has all but refused to acknowledge Samoa’s name change in 1997 from Western Samoa to just Samoa, as many felt it denigrated their identity as Samoans. Everyone I spoke to still referred to Samoa as Western Samoa, and the people as Western Samoans.
The dynamic between Samoa and Pago is very interesting–it’s like a two way feeling of pity. People from Pago tend to talk about ‘Upolu as ‘such a nice place to vacation’, but felt sorry for Western Samoans because things are so expensive. Some people have the opinion that all Western Samoans want to marry someone from Pago and move there. Amazingly, people from Samoa make fun of people from Pago for being large, as well as dressing and speaking strangely. Both sides told me “You can always tell when someone’s from Pago/Western Samoa….” Aimoto also told me that unlike people from Pago, Western Samoans ‘eat healthy and a lot of vegetables’, which made me snap my mouth shut and not let a sound out.
Sadly, the truth is that people from Pago tend to be genuinely huge. In this case, though, I do think it’s more a question of culture than access. The consequence of food being cheap–especially fast foods full of fat and salt–have created a food culture abomination that does, in fact, make Samoan food feel healthy. Many Samoan foods, like taro, bananas, and breadfruits, are almost unseen in Pago, replaced by McDonalds, KFC, and Carl’s Jr. The family I stayed with was absolutely lovely in their hospitality, but two rounds of instant bowl noodles in less than 12 hours (both times, I had to fend off the jumbo can of Vienna sausage) is apparently standard fare. After a dinner of instant noodles, tuna, and white rice, I took a shower and tried to process the carbo- and sodium-load. As I wandered back into the kitchen, I found my host cooking a dish of corned beef and bok choy–not health food, for sure, but at least there was real food involved–for her elderly mother.
All in all, the feeling of being in Pago is definitely that you are in a different country–both coming from Samoa and the States. But I would be lying if I said that as I took in the beautiful landscape, visions of colonization didn’t play in my mind.
4. The Samoan.
Despite the shiny, bigger, betterness of American influence, there is no doubt that the people from Pago are still Samoan. They speak the same language (although Samoans say that they have weird accents) and fa’a Samoa–the Samoan way–is still strong there. This was clearly reflected both in the village I stayed in and the nighttime entertainment I enjoyed: a local village’s church youth group talent show.
Aoa is a small village of about 300-400 people. Aimoto’s mother and father were both from the village, so it’s full of family. Typical of most villages in Pago, Aoa is wedged in between the ocean and the mountains, but it’s also cradled between two arms of the rocky island that make it feel cozy and remote. There’s a sandy beach lining the village, where I spent part of the afternoon playing with Olyann and her little brother Iga. We tried catching baby crabs and hunting for shells, then both kids showed me how high they could climb the trees. They also told me about one of those classic childhood games–plucking hard fruit off the tree and hurling it at each other. “Doesn’t that hurt??” I squeezed one of the projectiles, wincing at the thought of it striking tender flesh. The kids were puzzled. “If it hurts you, then you’re out. If you cry, then you’re out.” Duh.
Despite the demise of the fale in American Samoa, village life is still strong. Because of limited land area and the smaller population, villages in Pago tend to be even smaller than villages in ‘Upolu. Still, the idea is the same: generations and generations of a family, close ties, communal living. In the morning, I saw many older women from the village gathering in the ‘guest house’ (communally used fale, just for ceremonies but not for living) with various goods…not for trading or selling, but just to share what they have. The house was nicely tiled with a modern kitchen, but the family still all share rooms–I stayed with Aimoto, her mother, a niece, and a nephew. A village curfew means that there is no swimming before sundown. Which sort of seemed to me like a reverse curfew, but the point is, all of these things are very familiar, because they are all part of the Samoan culture. Being in Aoa definitely made me feel like I was not so close to the US after all.
The youth talent show I attended (Alao’s Youth Got Talent; people from Pago clearly share their Western cousins’ passion for American competition shows) was put on to raise money for the village church, and was an amazing display of culture and energy. The performances–many of them including an odd amount of cross-dressing–ranged from singing church hymns and modeling traditional fashion designs to re-enacting musical scenes from Disney movies and performing choreographed hip-hop dance moves. The incredible power of the church to fundraise in the Samoas was demonstrated to me first-hand. First, there were donations made prior to the performance. Then, there were raffles raised and drawn continually throughout the performance (raffles combine the Samoan love for mini-gambling and donating to the church). Finally, there was the strange but entertaining practice of contributing as the youth performed. Although there was a box placed on stage for each performance, this consisted more often of marching up to the stage and hurling dollar bills at the performers’ faces–the more you liked them, the more aggressively the bills were thrown. This practice culminated in one of the judges (a palagi who married into the community) performing a traditional Samoan dance as her husband stood behind her with a stack of dollar bills and steadily showered her with them. Making it rain, as it were. The competitive nature of church donations were definitely evident both as the pastor periodically read out family names and the dollar amount contributed and as those in attendance continually one-upped each other with the dollar bills fluttering onstage.
At the core, then, Pago is definitely a Samoan country. But just as the past influences of Germany, New Zealand, and Australia can’t be denied in Samoa, the Stars and Stripes are clearly planted in American Samoa. Despite the microcosmic nature of the country, there is a streak of that “bigger and better” mentality that both troubles my homeland and accounts for much of its success. I would love to someday return to enjoy more of the abundant natural beauty, and when I do so, I will be grateful for the ease of travel that comes from Pago’s territorial status. But in the meantime, I do find myself troubled both by the reality that American imperialism sweetens modern colonization with a euphemistic name and the notion that maybe the country in question has benefitted from it.