I know I’m not alone in experiencing feelings of displacement and a lack of connection with loved ones and other people, generally speaking, across the last two years.
The onset of the pandemic highlighted the wider disconnection between cultural communities here and the white Australian governing forces; a disconnection many of us have been well aware of since…well, ever.
The urgency of making COVID-19 protocol updates readily available in different languages became a problem for those governing forces and departments; there were no consultants or consulting strategies in place to safely bring everyone up to speed in the early days. And as such, we had large groups – including those from the African, Pasifika and Asian diasporas – left in the dark until state health departments caught up.
Enduring ‘til recently, Australia’s toughest lockdowns took a strain on all of us in Victoria mentally, physically and emotionally. It’s one thing to lose work and a foreseeable forecast of when things would be getting back to normal. It’s another to be dealing with these things separated from your parents and loved ones, scattered elsewhere around the country or overseas.
For me, my one brief thread of respite came in knowing that while I couldn’t see them, my family in Western Samoa remained relatively untouched by the effects of the pandemic in those early stages. Travel was limited in and out of the country fairly quickly, wasting no time in curbing potential outbreaks on their shores. For once, being a small island nation worked in their favour: like many other islands, Western Samoa did not have to deal with the sheer amount of tourism that other major countries did, nor did they have to deal with a crumbling infrastructure and economy on the scale of other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
“It’s okay,” I would think to myself.
If our people could withstand and rebuild through multiple natural disasters and the ongoing threats of climate change; if my dad could still remain in contact with his elder brother who lives on and maintains our family home and plantation, I knew we would be okay.
Cut to the final weeks of 2021 and the beginning of 2022. The Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai volcano eruption in Tonga literally sent shockwaves through many neighbouring island nations and even beyond. Immediately, I began to worry. Though American Samoa experienced tsunamis as a result of the volcanic eruption, Western Samoans still had to weave their way through heavy rainfall as well as loss of power and essentials. A sharp reminder of how a country so close could still be so developing in the simplest of ways, this event drew my perspective back into focus.
It was some days before my dad was able to make proper contact back home. Thankfully, our family was safe, though the explosion was heard clear as day. A breath of relief and reminder of resilience: they’ve got this.
In the months that have followed, the importance of remaining connected has taken on more urgency for me. The last two and a half years have never made me feel so disconnected to this integral part of my being. Lockdown aside, I live almost completely detached from the Samoan community here in Melbourne. It’s a big city, so too is the distance between the western, the southern and inner northern suburbs. Though perhaps I’m used to it, having been born and raised living in a state like South Australia, where finding your community can be a task at the best of times. The connection for myself as a Samoan-Australian, and the culture that I was largely without in those younger years, was a connection that I had to actively seek out. I found it once I moved to the Northern Territory in my adolescence; I reinforced it during my first visit back to Samoa in my late teens; I’ve continued to express pride in it as I’ve navigated my way into my thirties.
And yet, from 2020 into 2022, in many ways I’ve felt like the anxieties surrounding cultural worth and identity have resurfaced with an intensity I wasn’t expecting. There’s always intense pressure to be able to provide and make your family proud when you leave the nest: my dad and his siblings went through it when they left Samoa for Australia, New Zealand, the United States and elsewhere. And a generation on from that, I feel that now. We’re often told that simply by us succeeding our chosen careers, in our embrace of modern independence, that this is enough for our forebears. Still, we battle with the pressure to live up to that ideal. For my dad’s generation, it may have come in the form of leaving to better their education or to work and provide money back home. For my generation, it’s in the form of blazing a new trail for ourselves that those prior could have only dreamt if not merely perceived.
At the end of the day, there’s that island home: close, yet still far away, waiting to welcome us back.
Except right now, that’s not a reality for many of us.
Speaking with my dad recently, we discussed the fact that COVID-19 – while having been on Western Samoa’s radar since 2020 like it was for the rest of us – had begun picking up more momentum in recent months. This bubble we’d held our loved ones in for much of the last year and a half; one that was held out of the way of waves of positive cases and death, had popped and it was now part of their everyday reality. Statistics wise, Samoans are dealing with a far smaller number of positive COVID-19 cases and deaths than Australians could currently fathom. According to the WHO, there are currently 3,665 active cases and only seven deaths. With a population of just over 200,000 people though, coupled with the fact that these cases have really only started to accumulate since the beginning of 2022, the shift in lifestyle would have felt extremely severe.
It has made those of us living away from the islands feel helpless. Now on the outer, we can’t do anything but watch, all the while dealing with the pandemic affecting our own daily lives. This isn’t a situation that can be fixed by my dad flying back home for two weeks. It’s not a situation that can be fixed by a cheque being wired back home. And this was hard to mentally work through over the last few months.
Each time I get an update from my dad, it’s filled with the same sentiment – sentiment I know we are meant to take comfort in.
“Uncle sends his love, they’re doing okay. They’re doing okay.”
Because of course they would be. Even if things are tough and *not okay* all the time, they get through. My ancestors – like those of so many diasporas around the world – were survivors. They found new homes by setting out and following the stars; wayfarers who founded new communities by maintaining an innate connection to their land, their water and environment. From that connection was born a resilience and determination.
In a contemporary sense, the last few years have shown me that keeping threads of cultural connection alive has never been more important. There’s a yearning for connection in general that spurs me on: in my relationships, in my work, in each interaction. It took me a long time to come back around to the idea of travelling again but spending so long alienated and locked away from human connection I (and we?) largely took for granted, I emerge from that dark space ready to immerse myself once more. Ready to introduce my partner to this vibrant, warm place that sits closer home than people normally would think.
It’s been three years since I’ve seen my dad, even longer since I’ve seen the rest of my family on that side. And though I know there are still multiple hurdles to clear before we regain some semblance of normalcy; the pandemic has reshaped my view of human strength and optimism.
That island home I remember first experiencing at the age of 17 still exists; close, yet still far away, waiting to welcome us back. We’re just taking the long way around.
This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.