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From Fishing Village to Tourist Town

Immigrant Families Experience Culture Clash, Causing Impressionable Students to Drop School

By John Rosales

For the sake of appearance, 12th-grader Tu’uali’i Pele would wake up early, grab her books and catch a city bus to school with her two younger sisters.

After the 15-minute ride to Honolulu’s President William McKinley High School, Tu’uali’i, nicknamed Stuki, would walk to the beach or mall to meet others who had dropped out. This went on for almost three months last year.

Tu'uali'i Pele, nicknamed Stuki, stands in her family's living room between her two sisters, Miriama (left) and Beatriz.
Photo: Philip Spalding

“I didn’t find out until the Friday before the Sunday she was supposed to graduate!” remembers Mareta Pele, still stunned by the memory of her daughter’s action. “When her counselor called to tell me, I couldn’t believe it. She (Stuki) got a licking.”

Stuki joined the 15 percent of students who drop out in Hawaii, according to the Hawaii State Department of Education (HSDOE). Even more, she became another Pacific Islander student who was discouraged from finishing school for one reason or another.

“I started hanging around with the wrong people and trying to please my friends and what they think,” says Stuki, 18. “They would call me a loser and a geek for going to class.”

Typically, peer pressure is but one of several barriers affecting Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs), a diverse population whose heritages represent more than 50 ethnic groups and over 100 languages. One of the fastest growing groups in the nation, APIs comprised 5.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2006, compared to fewer than 3 percent in 1990 and 1.5 percent in 1980.

The three Pele sisters stroll near one of McKinley’s historical buildings. Though Stuki dropped out in 2007, she occasionally visits her former campus.  
Photo: Philip Spalding

Chronic absenteeism, poverty, lack of role models or a combination of all of the above pose particular challenges for some students. For immigrant students like Stuki, senior Miriama, 17, and Beatriz, a 14-year-old freshman, the struggle to finish school is compounded by poor English skills and culture clash.

Like many immigrants students who leave their motherland setting, Stuki was a good student during her primary schooling in her village of Amaluie, where most teachers hold Samoan teachers’ certificates and the medium of instruction is Samoan. The government maintains secondary schools in which the language of instruction changes to English.

The spark that led to Stuki’s disenchantment with school involved a teacher’s cultural insensitivity, she says. When the teacher intimated that Samoans who excel “think they’re all that,” Stuki felt she and her culture had been insulted.

“A lot of teachers don’t understand our (Samoan) traditions,” she says. It was another teacher’s remark about a particularly good assignment Stuki submitted that also struck her as derogatory.

“She (teacher) said, “I never knew you were that smart,” says Stuki. Eventually, Stuki began to skip classes taught by those teachers, then others, according to her mother.

“She only went to classes she liked,” says Pele. Skipping school was sporadic at first, and then became habitual.

Mareta Pele holds a picture of her mother, taken in Pele’s hometown of Amaluie, American Samoa.
Photo: Philip Spalding

“When I knew I could do it, I just kept on doing it,” Stuki says of her truancy.

Like many immigrant and first-generation families, the Peles do not have the extended family support system in Honolulu that would have intervened on Stuki’s behalf. They are newcomers, if not strangers in a strange land. Their family’s base in American Samoa is about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and about 1,800 miles northeast of New Zealand.

Mrs. Pele’s motivation to move from her village to Honolulu in 2002 is typical of many Pacific Islander families. Many leave the tranquil blue waters and slow pace of village life to find jobs and opportunity in Mainland America.

Approximately 990,000 Pacific Islanders and 14.3 million Asian Americans (two-thirds foreign born) reside in the U.S. While Hawaii is the nearest state, California, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts also contain large API populations. Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian, Tongan, Fijian and Marshallese are the six largest Pacific Islander ethnicities in the U.S. Many, like Pele, arrived ready to take whatever jobs they could find in order to build a future for their children.

“I brought my kids here for the education,” says Pele, who earns almost $17,000 a year as a packer for Kakaako Bakers. “You want the best for them.”

Stuki and Beatriz stand outside their apartment building.
 Photo: Philip Spalding

With an almost 18 percent poverty rate among Pacific Islanders, Pele knew that the family  would be living paycheck to paycheck in low-income housing.  The sacrifice that Pele is making for her children is apparent when she explains about leaving a steady job at an Amaluie tuna cannery and five-bedroom, two-bath house across from the beach.

“It’s our family home,” she says. “I want to retire there.”  

Pele, 45, finished high school in 1980 at an all-girls Catholic school near her island village. She is proud of her oldest daughter, Elizabeth Emanuele, 26, a community college graduate who lives with her husband in Pele’s modest three-bedroom apartment. Pele shares a room with Miriama and son Peo, 7, while Stuki and Beatriz occupy the third room.

Though modest in appearance and furnishing, the living room has a computer with Internet access, TV, microwave and well-stocked refrigerator. A sofa and dining table also compete for space in the living area. Photos of family members, cherubs and a Sacred Heart of Jesus tapestry hang side-by-side with the children’s school certificates and achievement awards. The $225 the Pele family pays for rent is reasonable considering Honolulu’s high cost-of-living.

The Pele family (left-right): Miriama, Mrs. Pele, Peo, Stuki, Beatriz. Not pictured, oldest daughter, Elizabeth. 
Photo: Philip Spalding

As is customary in American Samoa, every evening the family gathers for prayers voiced in Samoan.  “I don’t want them to forget to speak Samoan,” says Pele. “It’s who they are.”

Samoa is a traditional society with a distinctive Polynesian cultural heritage. There are over 360 villages in Samoa. In Pele’s village, it was inexpensive to live and “everyone knows everyone.” Even more, Pele’s father was the village chief, a role in which he was considered a wise elder who must be consulted on important village matters.

“He had a lot of influence,” she says of her dad, a welder by trade who died in 2000. There are about 18,000 chiefs in Samoa. Villages are made up of customary land owned by the extended family units whose head is a chief.  In addition to missing the slow pace of Amaluie, Pele admits the schools there did not fully prepare her children for Honolulu ’s public schools.

“No way,” she exclaims.

Since leaving school last spring, Stuki has been unable to find a job though has enrolled in an alternative education program which leads to a high school diploma. She is scheduled to graduate in May 2008. Miriama is set to graduate June 1 from McKinley. Beatriz, Class of 2010, is on track at school and still a member of the Polynesian Club.

“I had a downfall and it changed my life,” Stuki says. “I’m trying to make up for it now.”

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