Micronesian in Hawaii
Micronesians are Hawaii's newest arrivals. We wanted to find out more about what it’s like to make a new life here.
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Josefa Munez remembers the first time she realized that not everyone wanted her in Hawaii. It was a Sunday, and she had called for a taxi to take her and her children from Kuhio Park Terrace to Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, downtown. After the driver picked them up, he started making comments about a nearby group of Micronesian women, also waiting to go to church. “He said, ‘See, all these Micronesians, everywhere you see so many Micronesians. How come they wear those dresses like that? Why they come here and wear that?’ He talked so bad,” she remembers.
Munez was wearing an American-style outfit that day, and the last name with which she reserved the cab was courtesy of her Filipino husband—the combo was apparently enough to escape the driver’s notice that she was Micronesian herself.
“He kept going on, and I stayed quiet in the back. I almost said something, but I held myself,” she says. “I’m just going to pray for that person, not to keep saying those kinds of things. But I could see that my friends were right, because I heard directly from this man the things he said about Micronesians.”
As the state’s newest and fastest growing immigrant population, Micronesians face a lot of discrimination and stereotyping. Hawaii’s unfamiliarity with the cultures of Micronesia, and Micronesians’ unfamiliarity with our own, have isolated the community, but there are people working to bridge the gap. We spoke with Micronesians who have been here for varying lengths of time—one year, a decade, 20 years—to get a sense of what it’s like to move to Hawaii from a tiny island in the South Pacific, and how they’ve managed to make lives here for their families.
Josie Howard never expected to end up in Hawaii. In 1989, she was one of the earliest Micronesians to travel to Hawaii under the new Compact of Free Association between the Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. Howard’s plan was to get her degree from the University of Hawaii and return to her home country of Chuuk (formerly known to Americans as Truk).
But after finding both a job and a husband here, one thing led to another. More than 20 years later, she’s still here, raising a family and working at Goodwill Hawaii as the program coordinator for Imi Loa, a job training program for recent immigrants. She’s still got her musical Chuukese accent, but now she’s the one helping other Micronesians succeed in a new, strange place.
After 20 hours of job, acculturation and language training, and 10 more hours of one-on-one counseling, Imi Loa places candidates with partnering businesses such as groundskeeping and janitorial services, and then sticks with them over the next year to make sure everything works out.
It’s a tall order. Incoming candidates often speak little or no English, and may never have held a job before. Howard coaches them on typical skills, such as how to draft a résumé, but finds she also has to deal with basic cultural issues. “These people are coming from an underdeveloped area with limited resources, into this big city of Honolulu. A lot of them don’t even know what to wear. I have to train people to get used to wearing pants.”
Howard can’t take anything for granted. Many recent arrivals don’t have a stable living situation, or a reliable contact number at which potential employers can reach them. It’s a catch-22 that leaves many immigrants stuck on public assistance, but Howard helps them take the first steps toward independence.
Howard introduced us to Helen Tipen, a Chuukese woman who moved to Oahu in early 2010, and speaks so little English that we spoke with her using Howard as an translator. In the nine months she’s been with Imi Loa, however, she’s held a steady cleaning job in Waikiki, rented a studio apartment for her family and started saving money.
Hawaii, she says, has been overwhelming. On Pollap, the atoll on which she grew up, there was no electricity, the houses were made out of coconut leaves and local woods, and the people lived off the land—taro and fishing. To suddenly be surrounded by high-rises was completely disorienting. “For the first month, just going from one spot to the next, I couldn’t find my way back,” she says. “It was too crowded, and all the buildings looked alike.”
The first time she took the bus to her job site, Tipen says she had no idea how to figure out where she was (street signs were a new concept for her), and had to borrow a cell phone from a bystander so she could call her new boss for help. She was so flustered she started to walk off with the phone, peering up at the signs above, the phone’s owner trotting after her.
Howard says people in Hawaii sometimes get the wrong idea about Micronesians’ personalities. “I’m not a doctor in psychology, but I’ve observed that the cultural shock of coming to Hawaii can be confusing to the point where it makes a person look like they’re mental,” she says. “But they’re just overwhelmed by processing all the new information in front of them, and so a new immigrant may come across as disorganized, out of touch with reality.”
Tipen has a better handle on the basics by now, but she’s still getting used to the daily grind of life in Hawaii. Five days a week, she wakes up at 3 in the morning, catches the bus from Waianae to Waikiki, and starts her shift at 6 a.m. After work, it’s another long bus ride home, then errands and chores, and the next day she repeats the cycle.
“Life here is hard, because you live on money,” she says. “Everything is money. Back home, it’s up to me when I go get food, and what to eat. If I feel like sleeping, I sleep. There’s no need to work the same hours.”
Money does have its advantages. Tipen says she loves being able to buy the clothes she wants, as well as a much wider variety of food than she could get on her home atoll. And she’s got her eyes on the future. Her husband has flown up to join her, and they’re saving up to bring their other four children to Hawaii. “I want them to get an education, and learn how to speak English, and use computers,” she says.