Plastic: How This Term Continues to Hurt Our Culture

guest blogger

Today we are so lucky to have a guest blog written by Sipping Koko. Welcome and we look forward to reading more of your insightful work.

This topic has been in the back of my mind for a long time now. It hasn’t been an easy topic for me to really formulate the words on how I feel about the term “plastic ________.” No matter what island you descend from, you can be called a “plastic Samoan,” “plastic Maori,” etc. if you happen to not know the intricacies of the culture you’re from, but guess what? Some of us didn’t get the choice. So, let me start from the first time I heard the term “plastic.”

First Visit With Family Since 2001

Before I go too much into this story, let me lay a little ground work. I was born in the midwest of the United States. My parents then moved us to the South where I was raised and currently live. There are not many islanders here. Before I left the state I was living in, there were a few Marshall Islanders moving to my state. The only touch to culture I got was every year when we went to a Northern state for Samoan Flag Day and Culture Weekend. That’s it, and that didn’t start till I was 16. So, before that all I knew is that I was half Samoan, had family in NZ, Australia, and Samoa. We talked every on in a while with my family overseas, but that was it. I grew up around palagi people mainly and some meauli people. At the time, my mom didn’t think it was worth teaching us the culture or language because we weren’t around it. The ole, “Do as the Romans do,” mindset. So, I say all this to let you know, I had no freaking choice in this matter, and at the age of 26 I’m still living in a very sparse to zero population of islanders. In my town area alone, there’s like maybe 4 of us and I live in a major city. Can you picture it? Okay now to when I first heard this annoying term.

It was 2017, and I was traveling to Australia for my cousin’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid and was very excited to finally get to hang out with my cousins who I hadn’t seen or really interacted with since I was like 6. It was amazing. I was around my people. Growing up I never felt like I fit in and when I was around my cousins it was like this instant connection. We joked the same way, had similar stories, and loved to be around each other. It was all great. Sure I got teased for my American accent, but it wasn’t really a big deal. As Polynesians we always tease each other.

Anyways, it was during rehearsals when I was sitting with my cousin’s cousin from the otherside of the family. (We’re all cousins, but I just want to point out that this isn’t someone blood related.) So, we’re just chatting, getting to know each other, and having a great conversation when she asks me, “So, do you know any Samoan?” Of course I say I do because I know a few basic words. She says, “What words do you know?” Well, I say, “Fa’amulimuli” instead of “Fa’amolemole.” Which I know better now, but she starts laughing and I was like, “Oh no did I say it wrong?,” and she was like yeah, and told me the right saying. I then tell her how there’s a ton of Americans thinking they’re saying the right word, but instead they’re saying butt, butt. We laugh and then she goes, “So, you’re a plastic Samoan.” At the time, I thought it was like one of those jokes. I didn’t think that it was a derogatory word. Something more degrading. Like, I wasn’t a true Samoan.

It wasn’t until I told my sister, and she pointed out how awful that term is. Now, when I look back at that moment, I wish I had said something. I wish I had stood up for myself and any person who has been called a plastic. It’s such a hurtful term. Some of you reading this may be wondering, “Why does this matter?” or “We’re just joking,” or “Who really cares?” Let’s get into those questions.

Why does this matter?

Believe it or not, there are actually some damaging effects of saying this to each other. Living where I do and having the opportunity to speak to islanders in my similar situation has allowed me to explore what this term can do to a person of Pacific Islander descent. One of the first things that we discuss is that it just discourages us to even try to learn. Why learn our culture when our own people will make fun of us and basically say we aren’t even true Pacific Islanders? To be 100% with you, unless you are living and growing up on the islands you really have no say. The thing is if you call another pasifika person plastic, you are saying, “You have no value,” “You will never be a part of the culture,” etc.

This in turn hurts our culture because who wants to share where they come from when their own people hate on them. It has not just short term effects but it also has long term effects. There needs to be more understanding. Sure, I get that we may laugh at each other for the way we pronounce words, but do so with compassion and understanding. Tease us, but then explain with love how to correctly say a term. Allow us the courtesy to make the mistake, but correct us with kindness. When we’re dancing or learning, give us a learning curve. We are trying our best.

“Plastic” Being Used In The Media

I recently saw a new tv show that was being aired. I watched it on YouTube and it was called, Know Your Roots. Not too bad of a title and super interesting. I figured like Game of Bros (LOVED THAT SHOW BTW *insert heart eyes*) where contestants needed to prove that they knew their culture traditions. Which it was, and it was an interesting show for sure. The only issue I had with it was that they would be like, “Today we are going to see how plastic you are.” Just so casual and the contestants didn’t really see a problem with it. Granted most of them are very well known in the Polynesian circles and probably don’t always have to prove themselves. They might, I don’t know them, but I just hate how casual the term is being used. That’s just one example of making the term “plastic” okay.

Time For Understanding

I was scrolling through Instagram and saw this post:

Samoans learning to speak Samoan

I think right here is what those of us who didn’t grow up in the culture are looking for. Just a bit of encouragement, understanding, and love.

I also decided to go to Instagram and ask my followers what they thought. I didn’t get many responses. I don’t know if that’s because some people think it’s silly to make a big deal about this, or if it’s because we’re all focused on the issues facing Pasifika rugby players. Either way, I did get one response. I asked, “When you hear the term ‘plastic _______’ how does it make you feel?” Their response was, “It makes me feel sad and disappointed. A nation divided within itself will never prosper.” This is literally everything. If there is one point that should be made, it’s this one right here. How are we to continue the sharing of the culture and language if some of us are discouraged or shamed for just trying to learn.

What are your thoughts?

At the end of the day, we have to continue this conversation. Not just on social media, but we need to actually talk with each other about this. Some might think it’s just a joke, but to some it’s not a joke. It’s a hurtful slur, and quite frankly it needs to stop. We have other problems facing our community than to bring each other down. Modern colonizers are still persisting their way into our way of doing things or bringing us down. We need to stand together and not divide our nation.

And, that’s the koko for this week. Much alofa to all of you!


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