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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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Helen Tipen moved from Chuuk a year ago. The transition has been challenging, but she’s found steady employment cleaning in Waikiki.

Stepping Forward

Josefa Munez started her Hawaii career in much the same way as Tipen—working for different janitorial companies. Originally from Chuuk, she moved to Hawaii in 2002 in order to help out her father, who was in desperate need of dialysis. “If he is not coming here, then maybe we don’t see him anymore,” she says. Once she successfully got her parents to Hawaii and her father receiving proper medical care, she knew she would also be able to build a better life for herself and her children, even if it meant cleaning hotel rooms.

Munez’s big break came in 2007, when she landed a job at Linapuni Elementary School, as a teacher’s liaison. The school serves Kuhio Park Terrace (KPT), one of the state’s two largest public housing projects—98 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and the majority of the student body is either Micronesian or Samoan.

Munez helps Linapuni’s teachers and administrators communicate with the Micronesian families at KPT. It’s not just an issue of language. Micronesians often are not familiar with the Western-style school system, and there are cultural divides. If a child wakes up late, for example, parents may keep them home the entire day, to avoid the embarrassment of having them walk into a class mid-session.

Munez visits KPT families in their homes to show parents how to study with their children, explain how public libraries can be used, and teach other habits with which they may not be familiar. “My job is to get the parents more involved,” she says. “I see that the parents really want to help with their kids’ education, but for us [Micronesians], we don’t know how it works in Hawaii sometimes.”

After almost a decade in Hawaii, Munez is still learning her own lessons. Her oldest daughters are 12 and 13, and she has mixed feelings about seeing them grow up American. On the one hand, they can speak English, and their social circle is a mix not only of Micronesian, but Filipino and other local cultures. But Munez laments how inevitably different her children will be from herself, even in such small things as household etiquette.

“I keep on telling myself, I’m going to teach my culture, my values, because this is how I was raised,” she says. “But looking around, and understanding they’re not in Chuuk, I think, OK, I have to think more about this.”

So when her kids want to leave the apartment and play with new friends for the afternoon, she forces herself to say yes more often than she otherwise would. When her sons and daughters crowd into the bathroom in the morning, chatting and joking together, she quells her Chuukese instincts that discourage displays of affection between brothers and sisters. In exchange, Munez is happy to see her children want to learn more about Micronesian culture. Her daughters, for example, recently asked her to buy them the traditional appliquéd-flower skirts.

“My hope is only for my kids to be successful,” Munez says. “I am praying for it. Looking at my kids, I see they are doing good in school, and I am happy for them.”

Related Links:
Micronesian Culture

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