Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022 |
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KAPAA — For many newcomers, adjusting to life on this tiny island with one highway is a great unwind from the ever-humming hustle from whence they came. But for Donald Tarofmai, relocating to Kauai from his native Micronesia was a jolt, stirring up confusion, fear and extraordinary excitement. Just the sight of a stranger — all 65,000 of them — was foreign to him.
Tarofmai comes from Ifalik, a coral atoll thousands of times smaller than the Garden Isle. On Ifalik there are no cars and just one store, which sells little more than rice. The island, where relationships trump the power of money and subsistence living is the only way, has about 300 residents, according to Tarofmai. Most of them, he said, are related.
The first time Tarofmai came to Kauai, it was for a few months to visit his uncle who had recently relocated from Ifalik to Anahola. Eight years later, when Tarofmai was 13, he returned to Hawaii — this time to Oahu, where his father sought treatment for lung cancer. During that trip, Tarofmai’s father died. Tarofmai, who celebrates his father’s life with a religious tattoo on his arm, returned home to Ifalik in 2009.
Cancer and other diseases are unusually common in Micronesia, where the U.S. conducted nuclear testing in the 1940s and ‘50s. In 1986, the U.S. signed the Compact of Free Association, thereby gaining greater military control over a large part of the Pacific and granting residents of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Island the right to live, work, study and receive medical treatment in America.
When Tarofmai returned to Kauai in 2013 at the age of 18, it was to educate himself. He enrolled in a GED program, learning English along the way. Now 20, Tarofmai lives with his mother and uncle in Anahola. He’s studying to be an electrician at Kauai Community College. And he has a job renting out kayaks and paddleboards on Hanalei Bay.
Though it’s strikingly different than life on Ifalik, Tarofmai said he prefers Kauai living and plans to stay here, at least for awhile, while he furthers his education and works to support himself and his relatives back in Micronesia.
What was it like for you in 2008 when you traveled to Oahu with your family so your father could seek medical treatment?
We got there at 4 o’clock in the morning. It was blowing my mind. It was a good experience. I liked it. From the airport to where we were staying it was a kind of long drive and it was amazing to me to see a lot of buildings and a lot of people. It was amazing to see a lot of people that I don’t know. Where I’m from, I know everyone there. Everyone is like related to each other.
Did you know any English?
No. Barely. I freaked out when people talked to me, when American people talked to me. And I was scared to answer the phone, too. I was scared to talk to people. When I got to school my uncle had to stay with me in the class the first time. I tried my best in school. I still have more to learn, but I like talking to people because it helps me learn more. I still speak fluent Micronesian. I talk to my mom a lot in our language because she doesn’t speak English, so I have to speak her language to her.
What was the most exciting difference about Kauai as compared to your home in Micronesia?
The cars. When I was on a bigger island in Micronesia called Yap, they have cars. My cousins had cars. I really wanted to try when I went there, but I was young and they didn’t let me. Then, when I came here, I was older and I really wanted to try. My uncle told me to look for a driving school, so I went and looked. I was so excited. I finally found this guy and he taught me how to drive. And after that I really wanted to get a car. I worked my way up so I could get a car. I got it in July this year. Actually, I like it because it feels good when you drive the car. You feel like a captain. When I grew up I paddled a lot. So when I came here I put down the paddle and picked up the wheel.
Are there big differences in the food that you eat here and the food that you eat on your island in Micronesia?
In Micronesia, I eat rice because my dad used to buy me rice. I can make our local food like breadfruit and taro and fish, but I don’t really like to. Sometimes, but I’d rather eat rice and beef.
What’s another major difference between the culture here and your native culture?
We don’t use money, so we are helping people as family. When you need help, you call the people to help you. We had elementary schools and the teachers got paid by the government. Not everyone has money, though. Barely. You don’t need money to eat. We live off the land. We grow our own food. We catch our own food, like fish, all the time. We make our house out of the coconut tree and everybody helps. You just give them food to eat, but you don’t pay them. The coconut tree is the big thing to us. It is our medicine. We build our house from it. We make the rope from it. Everything is made from the coconut, so it’s a really important thing to us.
Was it strange for you to adjust to a culture where many things revolve around money?
Sometimes, when I’m tired at work, I think, “Oh, I wish I was back home so I could just sleep.” Here, if I like go fishing I have to get a boat. But over there, we have our own canoe or we can just borrow our uncle’s one. Here, you need to buy gasoline for the boat and you need to buy the boat first. That’s why everyone works here. Back there, not everyone works. It’s expensive here. I like it here, though. I’m proud to have my culture. I can do a little bit of American stuff but I can still have my culture.
Do you plan to stay on Kauai much longer, or do you want to move back to your island?
My uncle pushed me forward to finish my education here and get a good job so I can get my own place over here so I can help my people back there. The world is changing so much. Some of the islands, when it’s high tide, the water is coming up really a lot.
But we are still there. We will still have our culture back there but we are going to need more from the outside. There are 300 people there now, but in some years there will be 400 or 500 people. So I want to stay here and work and try to help them from here.
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