Seattle writer Marika Malaea recalls her first trip to American Samoa to meet her birth family, a trip filled with big expectations about what awaits her. Reality, as always, has its own plans.
I’m on a flight to American Samoa to meet my birth family and, like any teenager, I am daydreaming.
Of exotic red flowers, blooming behind my ears; coconut milk, and pineapple-scented breezes; digging my toes into white sand under a bright sky full of stars; smooth-skinned brown boys, roughly my age; and a parade thrown in my honor, that weaves through the town, as natives rejoice at my homecoming. Amidst the celebration, a sailor kisses a dame and someone takes a picture. Exotic cuisine; a drink named in my honor. And flower petals in every color raining upon my face, as I blow kiss after kiss at my new loving patrons.
This becomes my list of expectations for the trip.
“Try this, this one!” my birth mother cries, throwing me a dress. I use the term ‘dress’ loosely, since it looks like an elephant’s cape made from the soul of a muumuu and the heart of an ugly tablecloth. I can’t decide what color it is, but I see turquoise, hot pink, and neon yellow before my vision starts to blur.
I put it on over my clothes, and it’s roughly the size of a circus tent; I’m fairly certain astronauts can see me from space. Over my dead body will I wear this monstrosity. It’s bad enough that I have to go to church — actual church.
There are dark, newly-paved roads, still warm from the morning sun, that wind their way through the lush green hills of this isolated planet. I walk to church with my half-siblings, in a dress of my own, lifting my face to the sun. ‘It’s not so bad,’ I think to myself. It’s lovely outside the cement house we’re currently staying in.
Church is held in a building without walls, and a thatched-hut roof. People greet one another with laughter, slapping backs and pinching cheeks. We sit on long benches, shoulder to shoulder.
Surprisingly, I love the service. There’s a sea of smiling brown faces dressed in crisp, bright whites, and the music gives me goosebumps. Strong, powerful voices rise in harmony together, vibrating us out of our seats.
The entire sermon is delivered in Samoan, so I don’t understand a word. That helps, too.
A happy voice says, “We make you traditional American meal!” I wonder what that could actually mean. Steak and potatoes? Pizza and Coca-Cola? What do these people, so far from the mainland, consider a traditional meal?
Everyone is a-flurry, chattering and bustling around. I’m sitting on a daybed in the living room, watching my birth mom’s husband take his flip-flops off. When the kids run around the couch he’s reclining on, he swats them in the back of the head, barking in Samoan. I assume he’s telling them to knock it off, but he could be shouting out the principles of calculus, for all I know. My youngest sibling, six years old, rubs her head and grins at me, dancing beyond her father’s reach.
From the kitchen, a line of women – never the men – bring steaming bowls of colorless food to the main table. I’ve been a little disappointed with the food up to this point, because everything tastes like potatoes. The day before, I had eagerly bitten into a piece of exotic-looking fruit, and it had no taste at all; it was like chewing on clear rubber.
A large bowl is thrust into my hands, and smiling faces look expectantly at me. I hear someone in my family, or maybe it’s me, exhale sharply through their nose; it’s a quick, nasal laugh. “Mmmm!” I say, too-brightly. I raise my eyebrows and widen my eyes, miming to the women how pleased, thankful, and hungry I am.
Then I dig into my bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese, with boiled Vienna sausages, and try not to laugh or grimace. It is slimy and salty.
Everywhere I go, people tell me that I’m fat. And by people, I mean other gigantic Samoans with terrible eating habits and exercise allergies. My biological mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, in-laws, neighbors: they pinch, tease, and prod me about how much I weigh. Most of them are equal in size to me, oftentimes larger. It’s like being called a cheater by your philandering spouse: pot and kettle meets black.
The insults don’t bother me as much as the tone in which they’re delivered. Instead of a malicious ‘You’re revolting’ or ‘Lose weight or no one will love you!’ it’s more pleasant and conversational, like ‘Oh, you’re quite large, aren’t you?’ or ‘Once you lose weight, I’m sure you’ll marry.’
We travel to Western Samoa to meet my youngest aunts; one is 26, the other 16. The 26-year-old comes bounding out of the house, arms thrown out in welcome. She beams, and shouts, “HEY FATTY!” as she throws her arms around me. The nickname sticks for the rest of our visit.
My aunts take me out to Western Samoa’s version of a nightclub. Being eighteen, and from a small town, I look forward to living a little. I’ve never drunk from a coconut before, or heard authentic music from the South Pacific; I imagine tiny paper umbrellas and lazy ukuleles.
The nightclub is a dark room with a crappy bar and no windows; this makes no sense to me, since the ocean is right outside. There’s a small disco ball throwing weak rays of light onto the band, trapped behind a chain-link fence.
An old Mariah Carey CD plays over the PA system, and the band plays along, slightly off-key; the singer, a Japanese girl in go-go boots, writhes around while singing in a mixture of English and gibberish. I decide to name her stupid language ‘Gibberglish.’ The CD plays on repeat, all night long.
Someone brings me a drink in a red plastic cup, the kind you find at barbecues and frat parties; it’s rum without ice or a mixer. I sip for a while, mouth wincing, then dance with some local brown boys. Some of them high-five each other after they dance with me, as though they’d won an American prize.
“I make them feel like winners,” I think, and that makes me feel quite noble. I’m like a social philanthropist, spreading goodwill to the people of this godforsaken land.
The clear winner of the evening is rum.
Half of my clothes and most of my money are stolen by a family member; a waiter gets aggressive in the resort we’re staying at; we sleep on hard straw mats on even harder cement floors; the family tries to tattoo me against my will in the backyard; I find my new family members invasive and strange; and the vastness of the ocean just freaks me out. I don’t totally warm up to the place.
Like every trip, however, I arrive halfway through — mentally, emotionally — and begin to enjoy myself, right before it’s time to leave. I’m glad I see the beauty of the island and its people — my island, my people — before returning to where I belong.