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May 27, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash |
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La’u Pele. My beloved.

My name is. It begins and ends with the spirit of my Aiga. The spirit of my ancestors, guided by the stars across seas, navigating new waters and new worlds. The same spirit my great grandfather, Leapai of Malie, upheld in the Mau Movement for Samoa’s journey to independence; in honest leadership, tautua, and in peaceful protest. The spirit that flowed within my mother, Vi of Mt Albert, when she chose to raise me, to serve her parents, over a life of her own. The spirit that encouraged my grandmother’s strength—fa’amalosi! Through the scornful words. Through the mocking tones. As she learned of her adoption. Of her husband’s devotions. Of the painful functions in life—as a mother, as a wife, as a migrant. Her name is Lefaataualofa.

My grandmother likes to mock me. We share the same name and yet she insists that my nature takes after her husband, my grandfather. We call her bag lady—she has one for every possible use, hanging from every free doorknob, nestled underneath her bed, and then more bags stuffed inside other bags in all our cupboards. Her presence is sometimes claustrophobic, often meddling, at every chance taking on more than her tired body can handle. She makes food in excessive amounts, points out every mistake in detail, and becomes magically obedient and less snappy when those outside our immediate family are present. Almost as if she is hiding all the bags that she carries emotionally. Both her own and others’. I must remind myself constantly that her actions, seemingly overbearing and intrusive, are in fact her being living up to our name. Loving, and loving hard.

Depending on the environment—which I often measure using an assurance spectrum called “The Willingness of Others to Understand”, how and what I introduce myself as is always changing. How I look and how other people look contribute. My mother used to say that we must always dress clean, because we represent my grandmother, our family, and essentially our ability to live out the values we were brought up with. I didn’t listen to her. I went through a period of only wearing button-up shirts with a mean print, but this stopped when Hawaiian shirts became a thing with white boys. I refused to wear dresses to church and I remember arguing with my mother about why I should be allowed to wear jeans instead. I hated combing, straightening, or tying my hair up properly, instead always wearing it in natural waves. Another phase saw me wearing overly baggy t-shirts and pants, a combination that did not have the approval of my mum nor my grandmother. This defiance may seem like typical teenager behaviour, but it’s an unusual reaction from a young Polynesian girl, in a house where what our parents or elders say is always right, never wrong. I didn’t realise it growing up, but if I wanted people to respect my name, how I presented myself had to be extra clean. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are judgemental and one’s aesthetic generally acts as an indicator to the nature of a person. Or for me—the willingness of others to pronounce and understand the significance of my name.

 

I don’t need you to understand the full historical background of my name. Just a bit of effort in pronunciation will suffice. If I’m at a relatively expensive or hipster food place and they ask for my name—I say Naomi. Partly because Naomi Campbell is my idol and partly because it’s my middle name, gifted by my grandfather who values names with Biblical roots.

I lied. Both facts are true, but they aren’t the reason why Naomi is thrown out. It’s fully because I don’t want to be greeted mockingly with “Talofa” yet again in order to receive my coffee. When I hear others say my name, it again reflects their willingness. I hear it in the way they try again and again, wanting to get it right. I hear it, but differently when they ask a question after it—‘why?’ This one time, I had someone ask ‘why I was so brown’ after sharing my name. Another exclaimed at the exoticism.

For a long time, I despised my name, and every fake struggle that was attached to it. I made every excuse to label it as inconsistent, inconvenient, and too intense. When people asked for its full meaning, I would mumble something inaudible about love, cheeks flushed and ears hot. My skin would crawl in school assemblies and prizegivings, as I would stand up in front of large gatherings to accept an award, to speak as ‘Taulofa’ or ‘Lowfar’ or ‘Talofa’. I resented my mother for not naming me Rebecca or Julia, the somewhat pretty names of pretty girls I knew growing up. I tried to teach them. But soon I gave up, and allowed people to stumble, trip over and mold my name into whatever was convenient, whatever made sense for them. Even if it meant responding to the wrong emphasis on vowels for years.

I would go home, escaping from a world that didn’t get it, to one with struggle and love, from people who respected Lefaataualofa. We would feast twice a year in celebration of Lefaataualofa Matua (older) and Lefaataualofa la’itiiti (younger). Comfort. We would eat sapasui mamoe, palusami cooked and wrapped with care, kalo and bananas drenched in coconut cream. The smell of soul food is linked to the spirit of my Aiga, scents that now I rarely encounter since moving to Wellington. Nowadays, the closest I get to these feeds are through Facetime calls.

A few weeks ago, my mother called me regarding an upcoming saofa’i within my grandmother’s village of Malie. This is a ceremony that takes place in the Samoan culture when a new matai, (holders of family chief titles responsible for taking care of the family) is accepted formally into the circle of chiefs and orators. She spoke of the significance of carrying my great grandfather’s spirit and legacy, a man who led with great humility and wisdom in trying times for the people of Samoa. To do my best to walk, speak, write, and love others as he did—drawing strength from our family spirit while I am here, far from home, and even farther from our Motherland. She spoke of my grandmother’s adoration for him, a man who continued to protect and love her even after she had been given up by her mother for adoption. She spoke of how he named my grandmother as Lefaataualofa before she was placed on a bus and sent to strangers as a newborn. A name meaning love cannot be bought.

I often reflect on the many meanings Lefaataualofa has in my life. Sometimes I think about the power of my materialistic wants—something that differentiates my outlook from my grandmother’s, due to assimilation. A never-ending void that has the power to blind and cause destruction. I think about competition with myself and others. I feel the spirit of my great grandfather encouraging me—fa’amalosi—to walk taller and to speak with courage and passion. I think most about my mother’s ability to not take anything less than what is rooted in love. I see my grandmother’s worn face printed in my mind, her struggle and successes carved into her being. Today, I’m working on smiling as I introduce myself as Lofa. In many ways, I’m reclaiming what has always been mine.

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