Micronesian in Hawai‘i

Micronesians are Hawai‘i's newest arrivals. We wanted to find out more about what it’s like to make a new life here.

The members of the Micronesian Cultural Awareness Project hail from countries all across Micronesia, including Yap, Kosrae, Chuuk, the Marshall Islands and Palau.


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.


New Experiences

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.

Josie Howard helps new arrivals to Hawaii find jobs, as the Imi Loa program coordinator at Goodwill Hawaii.


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.


SEE ALSO: How a Single Mom from Micronesia Thrives in Hawai‘i

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.”


SEE ALSO: Finding Honolulu’s Helpers: Josie Howard, Advocate for Pacific Islanders, is Reaching a Community in Crisis

Navigating Between Cultures

Howard also feels caught sometimes between the culture in which she grew up, and the culture she’s adopted, even after living in Hawaii for more than 20 years.


She got her first introduction to modern life while still in Micronesia. Although she grew up on Nomwin, an outer atoll similar in size to Tipen’s Pollap, her family sent her as a teen to attend Xavier High School in Weno, Chuuk (“It’s like the Punahou of Micronesia,” Howard says).


Little things we take for granted were a revelation to Howard. She remembers encountering a freezer for the first time and not being sure if its contents were cold or hot. By the time she graduated from Xavier, though, she could speak English well, and was comfortable working and playing with the broad mix of nationalities that made up the school’s student body—essential skills for her next big move, to the University of Hawaii, and for the jobs she would take after graduation.


Even after earning a college degree and setting down roots in Honolulu, Howard still found herself being stereotyped and underestimated. “I’ve had to struggle with my employers not realizing my potential,” Howard says. After more than a decade of working in Hawaii, she says the first job in which she was really able to put her skills to use was as a part-time teacher and service coordinator at Kaiulani Elementary School. “And when I came to Goodwill, the same thing happened. They recognized my skills, and saw me as a person. I’m so fortunate, because if they didn’t give me a chance, this Imi Loa Program would not have existed.”


For Howard, being a successful U.S. resident doesn’t mean giving up her Chuukese heritage. “When I step out of the house, I’m in America, and I act American. I wear pants,” she says. “When I go home, I put on my skirt, and I speak Chuukese. I do everything in the culture.”


The most interesting moments take place when her roles overlap—something that happens regularly, thanks to Goodwill’s Imi Loa Program serving the Micronesian population. Howard works in a position of authority, offering mentorship and assistance to those who need it. But when an older Micronesian man walks through her door, she says, she has to figure out a way to offer her services in a more culturally respectful way.


“There are so many roles to play,” she says. “You have to know when you are this person and when you are that person. I’m a wife, I’m a younger sister, I’m a program coordinator. I call it multiple personalities.”


Moving Up

It’s tough being the new kid on the block, and Micronesians are still getting hazed. But, if Hawaii’s history is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before the new kids become truly local. Howard says she has an exercise through which she leads her Imi Loa students to illustrate how immigrants make progress here.


“I say, OK, let’s say you go to McDonald’s and you order food. Who do you see helping you? Micronesians. When you go to McKinley Car Wash, who helps you dry the car? Micronesians and Samoans. When you go to Queen’s Hospital or to the schools, who do you see working there? Filipinos, Japanese, Americans. And then I ask, Who was the previous governor? Ben Cayetano, a Filipino. The last mayor of Honolulu? Mufi Hannemann, a Samoan.


“I tell them, do you see it? Pretty soon we’re not going to be working at McDonald’s. We’re going to be in the schools, the hospitals, maybe even in the mayor’s office. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”