Where Are the Pacific Islanders in the "Asian Pacific Islander" Identity?

Where Are the Pacific Islanders in the "Asian Pacific Islander" Identity?

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I went to a conference last month for the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community from across the nation. The gathering exampled a pattern I am seeing at these API functions. When I am at an "API” event, organization, festival, or anything, the “P.I.” part is exactly how the acronym reads, left at the end or often non-existent. So usually when I, a Samoan-American, am invited to an API anything, I am usually the only, suspiciously token, Pacific Islander. It the common story I hear from other Pacific Islanders as well. As it turned out, I was only one of two PI’s at the API conference of more than a hundred or so Asians – meaning people whose ancestors come from the continent of Asia.

The Pacific Islands are the make up of three sub-regions of Oceania including the islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. The region is around 25,000 islands including the Marianas, Tuvalu, Gua'han (Guam), Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Saipan, Palau, Bikini Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, Vanatu, Solomon, Cook Islands and many more. The term "Pacific Islander" was created by the American Census in the early 90’s, I assume, to make the process of counting a little easier.

Some might argue that it is good that groups are falling under the same umbrella, but the problem with the API rubric is that it lumps too many cultures that are too diverse culturally and economically in America. Pacific Islander communities in the Bay Area for example have a problem with our youth dropout rates, while Asian representation in four-year college enrollment maybe one of the highest of all backgrounds.

In fact, growing up as a Pacific Islander in the Bay Area, I was always trying to keep our indigenous culture, while surviving in a country where time is money and "island" time or the "fa'a samoa" (Samoan way) always comes in conflict with the bureaucratic systems of American — such as the "API" term. It's a term thats too broad for those that it includes.

I was reading the handbook of statistics I was given at the conference, and as expected, it was an "API" research study that did not include Pacific Islanders, despite its title. Some of the findings were completely inconsistent with Pacific Islanders, such as the priorities raised for Asian queer folks were marriage equality, visibility, and discrimination. The lowest of priorities of Asian queers in the study would be the main priorities of Pacific Islanders — poverty and education.

There was a study done by the National Education Association called “Focus On; Asians and Pacific Islanders.” I thought I had finally found a broadly used piece of research that “focused” on Pacific Islanders, but upon reading it, came to find our name is included, but we are not.

I asked my friend Vaimoana Niumeitolu, a well-known Tongan artist in the Pacific Islander community, about the PI part of the API concept. She says she has struggled with the term since the first heard it. "When I was in college, I was so happy they had an API studies program. I couldn't wait to take a Pacific Islander class and there were NONE. When I attended my API American cultural class, I had to bring Tongan, Maori, Samoan and other "PI" writers and films to my professors to put on the syllabus," Vaimoana says.

This API rubric that Pacific Islanders are placed under becomes a problem when there is no real outreach to the Pacific Islander community and many other sub-regions of Asia as well. Those communities have been suffering for quite awhile because for the majority of the time there hasn't been any real community work towards Pacific Islanders, even though there maybe hundreds or among thousands of API community organizations, groups, or non-profit services.

So here is my challenge to all Asians pushing the API banner — make sure that if the Pacific is ever mentioned, that the Pacific is present and that you are in fact working with and in Pacific Islander communities (hiring a token Pacific Islander is not an exemption either). If not, then stop misleading. And know that people of the Pacific would be fine with not being included in something that they don't really feel included in anyways.

Jean Melesaine is a writer and photographer for Silicon Valley De-Bug.
Graphic design by Vaimoana Niumeitolu.