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The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 371-384

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Remaking Footprints: Palauan Migrants in Hawai'i

Isebong Asang

A omerolek from Palau was made possible by relatives and acquaintances along the way. I would like to go home someday, but now it is my turn to help my children and others." A omerolek 1 (my trip) is part of a story told by Serek, 2 a sixty-three-year-old retired Palauan man from Ngaraard State who came to Honolulu about twenty-eight years ago. With a faraway look in his lively eyes, Serek tells of a journey filled with hard work and sacrifices made possible by a tapestry of helping hands--klaingeseu. When he left Palau, Serek had hopes of getting a higher education. His family helped him save enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Guam, where he lived with relatives until he saved enough money to move to Honolulu a year later. In Honolulu Serek relied on his older brother's generosity until he found gainful employment with a plumbing company. The Chinese proprietor grew to trust and rely on him, eventually offering him company housing in exchange for security duties in the evenings. He lives with his wife in the same house, although he retired from the company two years ago.

I found him sitting amid boxes of soda pop framed by a couple of storyboards in the background. Serek now operates the only Palauan mom-and-pop store in O'ahu, which he opened when he retired. He has had to work hard to prove to himself and to those who helped him along the way that it was worth all their efforts. He now employs his wife's two nephews, who recently arrived from Palau, thus perpetuating the cycle of klaingeseu.

The primary purpose of this paper is to describe the sociocultural processes that influence the success of Palauan migrants 3 in Hawai'i. I employ Lev Vygotsky's notion of sociocultural process, which suggests that the "internalization of culturally produced sign systems brings about [End Page 371] behavioral transformations and forms the bridge between early and later forms of individual development" (Vygotsky 1978). For Palauans, sociocultural processes are largely embedded in the meaning of the Palauan language. Consequently, language and meaning define a person's function, behavior, and position in relation to others. For example, Serek was motivated to leave Palau to seek a higher education, but his migration was a process supported by the collective actions of relatives, friends, and the community in both the home and the host countries. Termed klaingeseu, this process is shared by the other Palauans in Hawai'i who chose to share their stories with me. Palauan migration is a complex sociocultural process that is affirmed by the aggregate body of codes found in Palauan hermeneutics, and which can not be fully explained by the economic models other writers usually employ.

The research for this paper was begun in response to the policy recommendations of the Palau National Committee on Population and Children (CoPopChi), whose report on sustainable human development was released in March 1997 (CoPopChi 1997). The report noted that the rapid population growth between 1990 and 1995 was attributable to the in-migration of alien workers, who now compose 25 percent of the total population. There is a perception that the rapid growth in the number of foreign workers in Palau is due in part to the migration of large numbers of Palauans to locations such as Guam, Saipan, Hawai'i, and the continental United States in search of higher paying jobs, better education, and adventure (Endo 1997). As part of an ambitious plan to achieve "controlled growth, and cultural continuity," the committee proposed to bring Palauans residing overseas back to Palau at an annual rate of 150-200 to meet some of the nation's labor needs (CoPopChi 1997). This policy can only succeed if the overseas migrants are consulted to ascertain the reasons that propelled them to leave Palau, and if steps are taken to address their concerns about returning home. However, the committee...


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