It is a choice. In 1960 my grandmother, 20 years old, raised $27 in six months to take a ten-hour Pan American flight from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Honolulu, Hawaii. She didn’t tell her mother until the morning of the flight. The daughter of the chief? Kalofae! Not heard of. Breaking tradition, she married a white guy from Minnesota. My grandmother toiled as a seamstress for thirty-five years, the tedious pinwork leaving an ache in her hands, opened fists ready to moko anyone who hurt her or her family.
“Because you’re a girl.”
There it is. That tightrope I balance on every day. A sudden gust of reality and I’m tottering between centuries old tradition and self-autonomy.
An island woman is a great woman indeed. She is the rock of her family, built from hardened lava but kissed sweetly by hibiscus petals. Long-braided coral and strong currents. But getting caught up in the undertow is always dangerous. Even then, she is still expected to be an obedient wife. She can be either the caregiver or the warrior or she can be both. That is her choice. That is her feminism.
There are things we owe to our people and there are things we owe to ourselves. Feminism is making that choice: preserve the old or embrace the new—I can do both. From my grandmother’s insurgent actions, from her choice to not remain on an island and continue what was expected of her, I have learned life is what you make of it.
My grandmother’s sunset will come before mine and I am honored to have spent my life getting to know her. Some of my choices would be cultural faux pas, in my grandmother’s eyes. It is my choice.
One aspect of Samoan culture is to know your place. But if everyone stayed in their place, my mother or my aunt would not have been born. I would not be born. I have broken as many traditions as I have upheld. That’s what feminism is. It’s my choice. It is my feminism.
From taro, to tataus, to a teary tofa, my grandmother is my toa. My strength. She is the ocean filled with bottomless wonder. An oasis filled with good humor and good food. A giant resting amongst palm trees and a warm, Samoan breeze.