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Islanders make Utah their home

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Associated Press series: The New Americans

First come the brave words. Bill Afeaki is telling how Polynesians have always been an adventurous people, hopping from island to island across the vast Pacific.

That wanderlust, he says, helps explain why so many Polynesians have settled in cold, dry Utah, far from the tropical breezes and swaying palms of home.

"We've found another big island here," says Afeaki, a native of Tonga and Utah's director of Pacific Islander Affairs.

Landlocked Utah has an estimated 25,000 or more Pacific Islanders, the nation's fourth-largest population behind the saltwater states of Hawaii, California and Washington.

But even adventurers get homesick, Afeaki concedes as he sits in an overheated office filled with reminders of the South Pacific. On one wall he has hung a huge oil painting of a palm-fringed cove. On another wall he has pinned posters of tropical dancers wearing banana-leaf garlands.

Afeaki, his 300-pound frame stuffed into a black business suit, fondly describes professional attire in Tonga: a shirt and jacket above, a wraparound skirt and sandals below.

There's not much call for clothes like that in Utah.

"Sometimes in winter," Afeaki says, "when the cold wind drives down and there's snow all around, you look around and say, 'What . . . am I doing here?' "


In 1847, while Brigham Young was leading his followers to Salt Lake City, other Mormons were traveling the globe as missionaries. A few went to the South Pacific, seeking converts among the islanders, and thus began the Utah-Pacific connection.

Today's fast-growing Polynesian population in Utah is about 2-to-1 Tongans to Samoans, with a smattering of migrants from Fiji, Guam, Tahiti and other islands.

Many were drawn here by religious ties. Non-Mormons came to be near relatives who had already made the move. All the migration occurred against a backdrop of scarce resources back home in the islands, which may seem like paradise to visitors but can support only a limited population. Unemployment is high, and land is virtually impossible to acquire.

Pacific Islanders were attracted to Utah by the promises of economic opportunities and better educations for their children. For many, however, those promises have not been fulfilled.

About half of Utah's Polynesian families fall below the poverty line, with many parents working long hours at menial, low-paying jobs. Their children, caught between two cultures and belonging to neither, are overrepresented in gangs. Pacific Islanders drop out of high school at twice the rate of Utah's white students.

As if that weren't enough, the seafood here is lousy — no small matter to a Polynesian.

"People from the islands love to eat stuff we can't get," says Leti Lavulo, 54, who came from Tonga in 1961. She and her husband, Davita, run the Pacific Seas Restaurant, where Tongans and Samoans crowd each day for a taste of home.

Lunch-hour customers line up for take-out orders of fried fish, curried lamb, tapioca root and chicken cooked with taro leaves. Twenty or so men gather around two pool tables, filling the room with laughter and loud conversation in Tongan, a melodious, vowel-laden language.

Behind the counter, the Lavulos quietly slice fish heads and chop taro leaves. They are experts in the art of creative substitution. Instead of serving fresh fish caught in the lagoon, they cook up frozen tilapia imported from Taiwan. Yams from Costa Rica taste somewhat like the ones from home, but sea urchins can't be found, nor can giant clams.

The missing foods are daily reminders of bigger holes in the lives of these transplants. Polynesians come from an agrarian, village-based society. Their families are often large — a characteristic they share with their white Mormon neighbors in Utah — but the extended family they depended on back home is fractured here.

On many Polynesian islands, villages are essentially big families, with most residents related by blood or marriage. Children are raised by a network of parents, uncles and aunts, all of whom expect respect and obedience from the youngsters in their care.

"You can't find all the respect here that you do at home, kids respecting their parents," complains Lee Moe, 45, a Samoan. He was raised in a family of 13 children; now he and his wife are raising three of their own.

A maintenance worker at a health insurance company, Moe was raised a Mormon. He has lived in the United States since age 13. Still, the island ways make more sense to him.

Consider corporal punishment, he says. "Back home, if you get a licking from your teacher, you go home and get another licking from your parents. Here, you lay a hand on your kids, you land in jail. What are you left with? Nothing. All you can do is talk to your kids, and kids don't listen to just talking."

Many Polynesians who had hoped to give their children a better education in Utah end up working long hours and have little time to help their children succeed in school.

Afeaki says the high dropout rate is his biggest challenge. He runs a "Young Achievers" award program to give Polynesian high schoolers some incentive to succeed. Too often, he says, such youngsters are left to fend for themselves, torn by different cultural expectations.

"At home, our kids are told to listen to the wisdom of their elders," he says. "A few hours later, they are taught in the classroom to speak out and express themselves. That's confusing. There's a great identity crisis in our kids."

Polynesians make up less than 2 percent of Salt Lake City's population but 9 percent of its gang members, specializing in assault, home invasions and enforcement duties for drug dealers, said Sgt. Paul Brenneman with the Salt Lake Area Gang Project.

Still, Pacific Island traditions of respect and courtesy persist. Police tell of gang members turning off their booming car stereos when cruising past a Mormon temple.

"They're very strong in the Mormon faith, mostly respectful of their parents and their elders," Brenneman says. "But out on the street, they're doing the typical gang kind of stuff."

The gang activity saddles Polynesians with a violent, muscle-bound stereotype. Put politely, many Tongans and Samoans are big-boned. Put more pointedly, they are huge. A 300-pound Tongan is a relative lightweight.

Such mountainous physiques can be a blessing or a curse. Samoans and Tongans are an imposing presence on Utah's high school and college football teams.

Sgt. George Tonga, 350 pounds, has little problem quelling disturbances among inmates in his job at the Salt Lake County jail.

But he also tells of the disadvantages, such as the day when, off-duty and out of uniform, he was driving his pickup truck and got stopped by another police officer for no apparent reason other than being a big Tongan guy with a shaved head.

"I know exactly why he pulled me over. He was profiling me," Tonga says, still seething at the memory. The officer, after learning who Tonga was, let him go his way, citing "police courtesy." Tonga complained to the officer's superiors, who warned the officer to watch his assumptions.

Tonga now teaches cultural diversity at workshops for fellow officers. In a domestic dispute, he advises them to deal with the woman, who holds the real power in the household.

He also tells them not to panic if they stop a Polynesian for a traffic offense and two or three other Pacific Islanders loom up beside the car, asking what's going on. Chances are they're relatives who feel obliged to find out what is happening, Tonga explains.

The extended family, weakened as it is, helps many Tongans and Samoans survive in their new land. Settled-in Polynesians are expected to help newcomers get established. Family events occur regularly and attendance is more or less mandatory. A Tongan wedding can draw 2,000 people, all related.

When a cousin got married recently, George Tonga got a call from his uncle telling him what his share of the wedding's cost would be. A few days before the wedding, his aunt informed Tonga he was responsible for finding 500 chairs to rent. He did it, no questions asked.

"There's always something," Tonga says. "That's why you don't see any rich Tongans. There are too many functions, too many things. You're always paying for something."

White Mormons, Utah's predominant population, have had their own culture shock. The Polynesian custom of slaughtering pigs or horses in the backyard before a feast has horrified more than a few neighbors.

Bridging cultures is Afeaki's job, and he succeeds as well as can be expected, given the stark contrasts between Utah and Polynesia. He's a Mormon who knows how to speak to politicians and CEOs. But he's also likely to break into a bit of Tongan dance in the confines of his office and business suit.

"As big as I am, I'm a good dancer," he says, smiling assuredly.

He offers more brave words, about how his sturdy seafaring people survive and thrive in Utah.

But the islands never stop calling. Afeaki is 54 years old and happy enough to be here. But after he retires and the last of his five children finishes college, he knows where he wants to be: Tonga.

"Life is more relaxed in the islands," he says. "There's more to worry about here."