Perspectives from a Second Generation Samoan American
Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to reflect on how we could better support our API colleagues, sitting down with attorneys and staff to have important conversations about racial justice and allyship. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be presenting a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos help advance dialogue around API Heritage Month as well as lead to further discussions of how we can be better allies to our API friends, family and colleagues.
In the seventh episode of this series, Courtney Toiaivao, the Director of our Research Services Department, reflects on her experience as a second generation American. Her father grew up in Samoa, a small Pacific island, and moved to Florida to work for Disney World in his 20s. Courtney explains that music and dancing are important elements of Samoan culture and recalls listening to her parents sing and watching her dad perform at events throughout her childhood. With this perspective, she says it's important to learn about other cultures and other countries, because this knowledge can shape how we view others and how we interact as a global community.
Courtney Toiaivao: So my father is from Samoa. He grew up in a little village called Sale'aula. And for those who are not familiar with Samoa, it's a really tiny Pacific island. I always tell people it's between Hawaii and Australia. And he immigrated in his early 20s. My dad went to college at Church College of Hawaii, and then he was recruited to work for Disney World, actually, in Florida. They had a Polynesian song and dance show. And my father is an incredible musician, just a really talented performer and the best ukulele player that I've ever seen. And he was recruited to go and work in Florida, Disney World, and that's how he, eventually the start of how he would become an American. So something really important in Polynesian culture is music and dancing. Most Polynesians are known for being really beautiful singers and having wonderful singing voices, and so both of my parents — my father is Samoan, my mom is American — but they both had tremendously beautiful singing voices and would sing together and perform at different events. And dancing was also a huge part of the culture in Samoa. There's something called a fire dance where a performer will have a stick that's lit on fire on both ends and will twirl it sort of like a baton and do tricks with this fire stick. And growing up, my dad would always do this fire show where he would, you know, for luaus or for other performances, and I grew up in Virginia, so this is not a place where people had ever seen anything like this. He would put on his lavalava, which is a traditional, like a piece of fabric that you wrap around your waist, and he would be performing in his lavalava this fire dance. And I remember as a kid, obviously, I grew up in Virginia, but just thinking this was really beautiful and cool and impressive to my school friends that my father was dancing with fire at these various events. I feel like those memories in those moments where the Samoan culture bled into my experience growing up, you know, as a second generation American, were really important to me.
A lot of times when families immigrate, their culture comes along. In my particular experience, my father was really insistent that we become American, you know, that we're American now, that this is our home and this is our culture. And so I think in a lot of ways, a lot of the traditional culture was lost, which I really mourned that didn't get passed on to me. So for example, I don't speak Samoan, and none of my siblings speak Samoan. And actually as an adult, I'm trying to learn it now. Samoa is a very small country, so there's actually more Samoans outside of Samoa now than inside of it. But as an adult, I'm trying to learn my father's native language now and in that way reconnect to my culture. So I think, you know, culture is really important and really beautiful. And a lot of times, especially in America, people don't talk about culture and where we come from, especially since we sort of raise up the beauty of being in this melting pot where at some point everyone was an immigrant. I guess unless you were part of one of the first peoples or have a Native American background. But everyone is from somewhere, and we don't often know enough about other people's cultures or try to learn enough about them. I think every immigrant has a story or second generation immigrant family has a story about when they realized that they were different. Mine was when I was in elementary school. I remember that I was in the first grade and my best friend Angela asked me what my dad's name was. And I said, "Ovala Faleolo Toiaivao," and she said, "Oh, mine's Johnny Lewis." And so a frequent question I would get as a child was, "Are you mixed?" And I didn't know if I was mixed or not. I would go home and ask my mom, like, are we mixed? And then when she would say, "No, you're Samoan," I would go back to school and tell the kids that I was Samoan and they would say, "Oh, Somalian, you're Somalian," because no one had ever heard of Samoa. And so I feel like just having an opportunity to learn about other cultures and their heritage can be really moving and powerful. And I don't think we do enough to learn more about other countries of the world. I mean, obviously, even in our history growing up, you learn loosely American history or loosely the history of your state, but you rarely learn the history of the world more broadly or other countries beyond the World Wars and things going on. And so I think knowing our history, because the past is prologue, can be really powerful and important and guide how we see others and how we act as a world community.
More Videos in this Series
Episode 6: Becoming an Ally with Jennifer A. Mansfield
Episode 7: Perspectives from a Second Generation Samoan American (You are currently viewing Episode 7)
Episode 9: Explaining the Model Minority Myth