Tongans and the Navigation of Authenticity in the United States
I believe it is important to begin my contribution to this forum on authenticity with my genealogy as a Tongan American. My name is Joshua James Taulua Uipi (Siosiua Semisi Taulua Uipi). My father is Taulua Kī Moana Latu Uipi, and my mother is Melinda Suzanne Muir Uipi. My father is from the village of Ha‘ateiho, Tongatapu, Tonga, and my mother is from Berkeley, California, USA. I am hafekasi Tongan—which means I have one Tongan parent and one non-Tongan parent. Hafekasi, a transliteration of the term half-caste, has been described by Karin Louise Hermes as “colonial terminology alluding to mixed blood, and thus blood quantum as a racial determinant.”1 This colonial terminology frames requirements of authenticity rooted in colonial concepts of blood and reinforces narratives of power based on inclusion and exclusion. My identity as hafekasi is a significant aspect of how I am seen, and see myself, in the US, as well as in Tonga.
Sharing my genealogy, both nominally and geographically, is essential in approaching the topic of authenticity because it positions my genealogy as central to who I am. In Tonga, as well as throughout other islands in the Pacific, communicating one’s origin, and continued connection to that origin, is key in establishing relationality between family, place, and culture. In doing so, we are recognizing our familial and cultural histories, as well as our personal connection to the land of our people. Furthermore, reciting these genealogies allows us to be claimed by our families and communities, which is meaningful when discussing authenticity. Belonging to one’s family, community, land, and waters situates one within a community and culture that span both time and physical distance. The importance of genealogical ties in Tongan culture should not be understated. Who we are is forever connected to our ancestors and our ancestral land. As Tevita O. Ka‘ili states, the metaphor of weaving in Tongan culture is used to explain connections to how “people are woven together genealogically via kāinga [kin group] and fonua [land and its people] ties.”2 It would be impossible for me, as a Tongan, to contribute to this forum [End Page 157] on authenticity without first presenting an introduction to how I am woven into this world.
Engaging with perceptions of one’s cultural authenticity in a diasporic community is a multilayered and active pursuit that is directly affected by the space in which one lives. I was born and have lived most of my life in the continental US. Within the US, whiteness holds social privilege and power and is undergirded by long-standing structural and institutional racism, which George Lipsitz refers to as the “possessive investment in whiteness.”3 Moreover, Lu-in Wang suggests that whiteness is upheld as the “default” or universal American experience, while groups who do not fit into the boundaries of whiteness are treated as aberrations who experience racial discrimination, exclusion, and subordination.4 With the US being a nation where whiteness is held as the so-called default, the journey of feeling personally authentic to a certain group of diasporic people is a cultural act being navigated in a racialized space.
In the US I am considered Tongan, despite my mother’s European heritage, because I am not white-passing and, phenotypically, I move outside the boundaries of whiteness. However, when moving to areas outside the US, perceptions of race and racial identity often vary. When discussing race, place, and identity with my students, many of whom also identify as mixed race, I often share a personal story about the first time I traveled to Tonga to visit my family. I did not have the opportunity to go to Tonga until I was in my early twenties. I arrived in Tonga during the summer months, and was greeted and housed by close family members in the village of Ha‘ateiho, Tongatapu. One sunny afternoon my family decided to take me to a swimming area surrounded by reef. There was a ledge of the reef where children were jumping into the water. Before jumping into the water, one child yelled to another child to watch out for the pālangi (white person). I immediately scanned the landscape curious as to how a white person ended up in this rural area of Tongatapu, but I could see no one fitting that description. As the child splashed into the water next to me, I realized that they were talking about me. It was the first time I had ever been a white man. And I was in Tonga, the country of my ancestors.
Understanding my own identity as Tongan was complicated by the context of place and perceptions of authenticity. My lived experience while being raised in the US was heavily influenced by how others perceived me as Tongan. In the US, I felt as though I were Tongan. However, after visiting Tonga and having that perception of my identity challenged, I realized that I needed to do some reflecting on how my environment was shaping my ideas of identity and authenticity regarding my Tongan-ness. Often, recognition of my [End Page 158] authenticity as Tongan comes in the form of self-critique, rather than from others questioning my place in our community. This experience of questioning my own authenticity as a Tongan led me to contemplate what cultural and communal values have been maintained within my community and the ways that I was taught to actively sustain my connections to Tonga and to Tongan culture and my kāinga.
To address authenticity in a Tongan perspective, one must also understand how space and genealogy are interconnected and navigated in the Tongan diaspora. There has been meaningful work done by scholars in recent years about the concept of vā, the “space between people or things.”5 Ka‘ili writes, “in the context of people, vā refers to sociospatial ties or sociospatial relations of kin members who are genealogically connected.”6 In this way, the space between Tongans across oceans and lands is not stagnant or muted. Rather, the space between us is alive, interacted with, maintained, and nourished by the kāinga, regardless of physical distance, through the practice of tauhi vā, which Ka‘ili describes as “taking care of sociospatial ties with kin and kin-like members”7 and Charmaine Ilaiu translates as “maintaining beautiful social relations.”8 Tauhi vā is often manifested through gifting money or goods, but can also be exhibited through assistance in other forms. In maintaining these connections across space, Tongans actively sustain our kin relationships, both in Tonga and in the diaspora.
The purpose of including tauhi vā in a discussion on authenticity in the Tongan diaspora in the US is to recognize the foundational importance that familial connections have in Tongan diasporic communities. Being a historically communal society, Tongans hold community recognition and participation as significant factors in social relations. In pondering my own authenticity as Tongan, it is necessary to consider what tenets contribute to community recognition of my authenticity. Maintenance of kāinga relationships that are considered acceptable is vital in continuing “beautiful social relations.”9 Additionally, further questions and assumptions arise when one is not “full” Tongan—when one is hafekasi. For instance, how one can identify as Tongan when there are social perceptions of racial “validity” based on bloodline that separate “full” Tongan and “half” Tongan. The question of validity by blood further complicates one’s own perception of identity and authenticity within a group, specifically in the US, where race carries with it significant social and economic implications.
Perceptions of authenticity are both common and dynamic, active and pervasive. They influence our interactions while constantly changing with the [End Page 159] time and place in which we live. The persistence that we have in seeking out the “authentic” drives us in ways that are unique to ourselves and our own experiences while also existing within larger systems of inclusion and exclusion that remain ubiquitous in our everyday lives. It is that very complexity that contributes to our voyage toward what we perceive as authentic within ourselves as well as our community. Authenticity, both self-recognized and community-recognized, plays a major role in one’s identity. Participation in my community through the practice of tauhi vā is an effort undertaken to maintain relationships with my kāinga, and in doing so actively take part in defining my own authenticity as a Tongan in the diaspora.
Joshua J. T. Uipi is a lecturer in Pacific Islands studies and American studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His research is centered on Tongan diasporic communities in the US, indigenous studies, and race and racism. Joshua’s work explores Western imperialism in the Pacific, Tongan movement to the US, and the navigation of cultural and social aspects of American society by Tongan communities.
1. Karin Louise Hermes, “The Female Voice in Pasifika Poetry: An Exploration of ‘Hybrid’ Identities in the Pacific Diaspora,” in “Pacific Waves: Reverberations from Oceania,” special issue, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 54.5 (2018): 655.
2. Tevita O. Ka‘ili, “Tauhi Vā: Nurturing Tongan Sociospatial Ties in Maui and Beyond,” The Contemporary Pacific 17.1 (2005): 91.
3. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
4. Lu-in Wang, Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine (New York: New York University Press, 2006).
5. Ka‘ili, “Tauhi Vā,” 89.
6. Ka‘ili, 106.
7. Ka‘ili, 114.
8. Charmaine Ilaiu, “Tauhi Vā: The First Space,” Interstices: A Journal of Architecture and Related Arts 10 (2009): 20.
9. Ilaiu, 20.