Although they’re often referred to as a singular group, the immigrants who travel to Hawaii under the Compact of Free Association actually come from three different countries, each with its own language and culture: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, which includes Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae.
Most of the Micronesians in Hawaii are Marshallese and Chuukese.
These island groups are about 2,500 miles from Hawaii, north of Australia and east of the Phillipines. While most of the individual islands are tiny (hence the name), they’re spread out over more than a million square miles of ocean. While each of the countries has larger cities and towns—the largest is Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, with about 25,000 residents—many of the outer islands and atolls get by on subsistence farming and fishing, with no electricity.
There are a lot of differences among the hundreds of Micronesian islands, but there are commonalities as well—even compared with Hawaii.
Throughout Micronesia, family is everything. On tiny atolls reachable only by boat, with no police or other social infrastructure, it becomes the basis for survival, for celebration, for social status. “If you don’t have a family, it’s almost as if you’re nobody,” says Howard. Accordingly, family obligations come before most other ones, including work and school. “The saying is, I can always find another job. I cannot find another family.” In addition to literal family, many Micronesians form strong ties with anyone from an island within their specific atoll, often maintaining contact even after moving to Hawaii.
Today, more than 90 percent of Micronesians are Christian, either Catholic or Protestant. Churches are an important social hub for Micronesians in Hawaii. Sunday services and related activities in Micronesian congregations can often last more than four hours.
Coming from a subsistence life on tiny atolls, without electricity or other basic utilities, many Micronesians are used to a much slower pace. “In our country, it’s so easygoing,” says Josefa Munez. “We don’t look at the clock. You walk the way you want to walk, slowly.” Culturally, it’s often expected that a 4 p.m. event actually starts at 6 or 7 p.m., a concept that’s not too different from the Hawaiian Time we often joke about in the Islands.
Micronesians serve in the U.S. military at disproportionately high rates, compared with the U.S. itself. In 2008, for example, the Army signed up more recruits, per capita, in the Federated States of Micronesia, than it did in any other U.S. state.
English is the official national language of the Federated States of Micronesia, but it’s not universally taught, and each of the different Micronesian nations speaks a different language. Someone from Chuuk, for example, likely won’t be able to understand someone from the Marshall Islands, or Yap.
Here are some common words and phrases, translated into a few of the main languages of the Compact of Free Association member nations.
Marshallese: iakwe (YAH-kway)
Chuukese: ran annim (ron an-NIM)
Pohnpeian: kaselehlia (ka-say-LEH-lee-eh)
Palauan: alii (a-LEE)
Marshallese: kommol (kohm-mohl)
Chuukese: kinissow (keen-ee-SO)
Pohnpeian: kalahngan (ka-LANG-an)
Palauan: mesulang (m-soo-LAHNG)
Marshallese: eta in (insert name) (E-da een)
Chuukese: itei (insert name) (eh-teh)
Pohnpeian: edei (insert name) (et-TAY)
Palauan: a ngklek a (insert name) (ahng KLEK a)
Marshallese: etam? (e-dam?)
Chuukese: ifa itom? (eh-FA ee-TOM?)
Pohnpeian: ia edomw? (ya TOM?)
Palauan: ng techa ngklem? (TAHNG-KLEM?)
The long, brightly colored skirts and muumuu worn by many Micronesian women are a sign of modesty and respect, particularly toward the men in their families. In many areas of Micronesia, pants are considered to be too form-fitting. “The way you dress is a form of communicating that respect you have for people,” says Josie Howard, Imi Loa program coordinator at Goodwill Hawaii. “The closer you are to someone, the more thoughtful you are to them.”
It’s generally acceptable for a Micronesian woman in Hawaii to wear Western apparel in nontraditional settings, such as a job site, but, in the presence of other Micronesians, modesty comes first.
When we spoke with Helen Tipen, she said one of the biggest stresses of her new custodial job was getting used to wearing pants. “I was constantly nervous and looking out for any male from my area who might see me, because of the pants I was wearing. But now it’s easier, because I realized there are not too many Micronesians in Waikiki.”
Almost all the skirts worn here in Hawaii are hand-sewn by women in Micronesia—the elaborate appliquéd floral patterning is an artform unto itself.
Feature Story: Micronesian in Hawaii