Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print

Micronesian Culture

What is Micronesia, exactly?

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.

Island Cultures

There are a lot of differences among the hundreds of Micronesian islands, but there are commonalities as well—even compared with Hawaii.

Family first

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.

Micronesian time

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.

Military service

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.

The language barrier

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.

Speak Micronesian

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)

Thank You

Marshallese: kommol (kohm-mohl)

Chuukese: kinissow (keen-ee-SO)

Pohnpeian: kalahngan (ka-LANG-an)

Palauan: mesulang (m-soo-LAHNG)

My Name Is (Insert Name)

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)

What Is Your Name?

Marshallese: etam? (e-dam?)

Chuukese: ifa itom? (eh-FA ee-TOM?)

Pohnpeian: ia edomw? (ya TOM?)

Palauan: ng techa ngklem? (TAHNG-KLEM?)

What about the flower skirts?

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.


Related Links:
Feature Story: Micronesian in Hawaii


HONOLULU Magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page, if name and city are included. Comments are moderated as time allows.

Old to new | New to old
Aug 12, 2011 05:15 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

A large family from Micronesia moved in across the street. I'm the friendly type who waves and says hello to my neighbors. They have always been withdrawn and reserved. I thought perhaps they were in some way discriminated against, particularly by the haoles. Reading your article, 'Micronesian in Hawai'i' has given me great insight and fostered a better understanding of how it is for them here in our islands. Thank you for the article. I'm sure it will open the hearts of many towards these beautiful people.

May 9, 2012 10:55 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

It's a sad day when Hawaiians are minorities in their own homeland. Currently there are more micronesians in Hawai'i than Hawaiians. What is it going to take for Hawaiians to reclaim their home before there is no Hawaiians left to enjoy it?

Oct 13, 2012 06:12 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

It is their culture to be reserved.

Add your comment: