On Being Asked What You Are

I feel like this piece of writing is conversation three in a series of at least five conversations needed to answer the question “what are you?” However, I’ve decided to write as if everyone has the prior knowledge needed to interact with this piece in a way that makes sense of the Pacific ideology and language scattered throughout. There are three things I have left in a list at the end to help you fill in the blanks.

Within the multiple islands I inhabit, constituting ‘our sea of islands’, also known as the Pacific, there is a belief that I know to be echoed throughout the various aquatic highways that link the lands my forebears navigated. In Te Reo this belief is ‘ka mua, ka muri’ (when translated into other Pacific tongues it’s similar, I promise); in English, it is ‘walking backwards into the future’. I believe this point important to highlight, because as a tamaiti of the Moana this whakatauki plays an integral part in what I am made of.

To walk backwards into the future (and vice versa forward into the past) is to acknowledge that every step I take, I draw from my gafa. Reconciling an indigenous Pacific past with a colonial Western present and thereby existing in a hybridised future. To understand what I am as a fixed, embedded and immersed being in the physical day-to-day world is to understand what tethers me to this plane of existence — which is, as you guessed it, my ‘past’!

To understand me in as ‘authentic’ a way as possible at this point in time is to know that while it is reasonable to believe we are thrown into the world, my ‘past’ , which includes my whakapapa, catches me and roots me within myself. Therefore, I am my ancestors, and by extension the lands they existed in, as the land itself is part of my genealogy as a Pacific person.

My ‘past’ and all that constitutes it — being what I know as well as what is still hidden from me — stabilises the vacuum where I exist. The fact I am here right now and can be present in this moment, sure of myself, is because I am sure of what preceded me. In knowing this I can be properly present in the now, existing as all I was and all I will be.

I am the past
my ancestral vaka,
my grandfather’s matai title,
my mother’s immigrant story
and yesterday’s lunch.

As a child of the Pacific,
I am constantly bringing the past into the future.
Although I am thrown into the world,
I land in the hands of my ancestors
the sea cries with me.

 

Reads:

‘Our Sea of Islands’ – Epeli Hau’ofa
‘Tā , Vā, and Moana: Temporality, Spatiality, and Indigeneity’ – Hufanga ‘Okusitino Māhina
‘Being and Time’ – Martin Heidegger

About the author
Eric Soakai is an Arts/Global Studies student at the University of Auckland. He enjoys country music and long walks on the beach where he can discuss phenomenology, hermeneutics and essentialism. One day he hopes to get 1000+ followers on Insta (@soakaiser) or complete his MA... the Masters in Arts is looking more achievable though.