Monday, October 29, 2007

Pacific Islands in Australia, by Dr. Katerina Teaiwa

When it comes to the prominent Wallaby player, it's pronounced Lote, not "Lotty", and Tuqiri (pronounced Tunggiri), and not "Tukiri".
Pacific communities are some of the fastest growing and visible members of the Australian population, but what do Australians really know about Pacific Islanders beyond the stereotypes of characters such as the reluctant student Jonah from the popular TV show Summer Heights High?
Is Oceania out there or right here in our major cities?
From rugby league and rugby union, to Australian Idol and Big Brother, Pacific Islanders are visibly contributing to the expansion and diversity of Australian popular culture.
But unlike in New Zealand, a country that now describes itself as a "South Pacific nation", prominent Pacific people here are rarely identified by their island heritage.
There are plenty of potential role models in Australia, but if heritage holds no social cache, it does not help young people struggling with identity issues.
A young woman I spoke to in Sydney, concerned with her Fijian boyfriend's snobbish attitude to all things from the land of his heritage, described this to me as the "Anglicise me" syndrome.
Many Pacific Islanders feel pressure to assimilate and forgo their cultures in exchange for acceptance.
The choice impacts particularly on young island men as stereotypes of the violent, unruly Polynesian male continue to circulate in popular imagination.
Recently in a lecture, a student asked me what I thought of the high-rating series Summer Heights High, the final episode of which aired on ABC this week.
The incredibly clever and disturbingly funny serial created by Chris Lilley was flagged because it is one of the few on air with a star Polynesian character.
The 13-year-old Jonah Takalua, who is Tongan, is the epitome of delinquency, obsessed with breakdancing, drives his teachers up the wall and has a violent father.
The Year 7 b-boy crew, The Aussies, rivals Jonah and his Islander mates and allegedly tags their lockers with: "Go home FOB ", "We grew here you flew here", "Get back on the boat".
In Episode 6, the Polynesian Appreciation Day featured an ambiguous Pacific dance followed by a Poly rap video illustrating two of the strongest forces shaping young Pacific migrant lives: Tradition and African-American popular culture.
One is rooted in the strength of culture in the home island.
The other is a strategy for maintaining a sense of efficacy and pride in the urban metropoles that continue to attract Pacific families searching for better opportunities.
What is striking about Pacific Islander migrants and the strategies that help them thrive in the diaspora is the way in which they can build on tradition.
Jonah isn't just obsessed with dancing because he's too stupid to learn. Most islanders come from strong oral and embodied cultures and so excel at sports and the arts for good reasons.
Let's look at a select list of Pacific Islander icons in Australia:
n Lote Tuqiri (Fijian, rugby league and Wallaby), Petero Civoniceva (Fijian, rugby league), Paulini Curuenavuli (Fijian, pop and R&B singer), Trevor Butler (Fijian, winner of Big Brother 4), George Smith (Tongan, Wallaby), Mark Gerrard (Tongan, Wallaby), Mo'onia Gerrard (Tongan, Australian netballer), Wycliff Palu (Tongan, Wallaby), Willie Ofahengaue (Tongan, Wallaby), Mal Meninga (South Sea Islander, rugby league), Jay Laga'aia (Samoan, actor), Jai Turima (Maori, Olympic long jumper).
The numbers of Tongans and Fijians featured in this line-up is fascinating when put into the context of Tongan representation in Summer Heights High, and Australia's stance on affairs in coup-riddled Fiji.
Aside from Meninga and those with Anglo surnames, all other Pacific-Australian icons have their names regularly mispro-nounced or strategically shortened.
Civoniceva is "Thivonitheva," and Laga'aia is "Langa'aia," with a soft ng like "sing".
A small thing like getting this right goes a long way in helping Pacific youth feel they can be proud to be both Australian and Islander.
It goes a long way in the perception of people in the islands who see Australia as culturally insensitive and bossy.
The Howard Government's approach to the region has been of the distant and hard "Big Brother" variety, focused on security with aid tied to the mantra of "good governance".
The Pacific, in the imagination of journalists, policy-makers and scholars, is strangely both paradise and nightmare and regularly focused "out there".
In the meantime, the number of Pacific Islanders is swelling in NSW and Queensland.
Maori numbers, in particular, are growing so much that on October 1, Pita Sharples, of the Maori Party in New Zealand, requested the creation of a new electorate for the one in seven Maori who now live in Australia.
So numbers grow, Fijians and Tongans are scoring the Australian tries, Australian museums and galleries are hankering for Pacific art and artefacts, and there is a strange and simultaneous increasing gap in understanding the islands in the streets, classrooms, sports fields, media and halls of government.
With economic giants such as China and India occupying the minds of students, business leaders, scholars and politicians alike, what is assumed to be the "tiny Pacific" in fact a region that covers one-third of the surface of the planet has slipped from the centre to the margins in the Australian consciousness.
Pacific Islanders must become Australian if they move here, but is it the case that Australia no longer needs to educate itself on the Pacific?
For a region of incredible historical, economic and political significance, such a situation is of great concern.
A 2003 Senate report that never received a formal reply from the Government made a passionate call for more education in Australia about Pacific cultures, lest Australia suffer a "dramatic loss" of influence in the region.
As the Howard Government ignored many of the report's sensible suggestions, I can only hope that if Labor wins, it will take a new and fresh approach to Oceania and the talented Pacific Islander communities that help make Australia the diverse and prosperous nation we know it will continue to be.
Dr Katerina Teaiwa is Pacific studies convener in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University
The Canberra Times