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Samoan Angeleno: Culture & Identity in Los Angeles

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Left to Right: 'This is the house my grandpa built for my mom and dad. He is standing there on the left in the white shirt. This is a picture of my great grandma Emma, my Mom and me. It was taken only a few months after I was born in 1988. We still lived on the island then.'

I am Faletasipouafe Angela Dimitrijevich

I met Pou online, on Facebook through a mutual friend. Our shared interests created a wonderful synergy online, I sent my students to her for advice, and I always enjoyed her posts, which led me into another culture I had a lifelong curiosity about. Last Sunday, Pou and I sat down at Alcove Cafe in Los Feliz, and I got the chance to ask her about being Samoan in a Western world. We both share similar experiences about assimilation and the pull of our heritage -- both of us a mix of cultures and ethnicities in a city of over 200 spoken languages, yet we shared the same boundaries placed on us by our differences. We spoke about what it is like to be of mixed race in Los Angeles and of the conundrum of what box to check when a form asks your race.

This is part one of a two-part series:

Ophelia Chong: As art students we are confronted with making art, and art schools on the whole don't encourage cultural art. How do we as artists reclaim that part of us that shapes the art that we are most passionate about?

Pou Angela Dimitrijevich: Human Profiling: n. the act or process or extrapolating information about a person based on physical and/or assumed features/traits; specifically the act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior, i.e. gender, skin color, facial or physical features, mannerisms.

This specific type of profiling is a term I coined to define the ideas and conversations of what some (i.e. art schools, professors and the art community alike) might consider "culture" but what is in essence identity. Living in a melting pot, we move about our space reflecting and mirroring one another, so as natural as it is to close our eyes when we sneeze, we habitually profile one another based on a so-called "cultural" assumption. A prime example that many Angelenos can relate to is the default Mexican. The assumption that because someone who is brown, they live in Los Angeles, and do not look white or black or Asian, is probably Mexican (I often get coined as being Mexican). With over 65 different ethnicities in this city alone, why are we so quick to categorize based on one characteristic?

Growing up with parents of multiethnic backgrounds the world I knew as a child was colored in with every crayon Crayola manufactured. My sister was black, my brother was white, my mom was Asian. We grew up speaking Samoan and English, and cursing in Serbian. There is no one culture that was ours. I wore an ie lava lava (a kind of wrap, men and women wear around their waist) when elders or a special guest came to our house as a way of showing my cultural respect. What is culture when it no longer can be categorized by an ethnicity or country?

As artists our reclamation comes from appropriating the word culture with the word identity. My art is a constant dialogue of my Identity as a Samoan-Chinese-German-Tongan-Italian-Yugoslavian-American women.

Human Profiling-Annex One, 2010.
Human Profiling-Annex One, 2010.

OC: In Hawaii, multiethnic people are known as Happas, half and half. In Chinese culture, children born outside their parent's homeland are called "Jok-sing" after the middle section of bamboo, not quite on one side or the other. How have you dealt with your identity?

FAD: In the Samoan language the word for someone who is multi-ethnic is 'afa-tasi,' which, literally translated, means half. Growing up there was never a moment I remember feeling I completely belonged to any one half.

And although I was born in the islands, I spoke the language, I knew the culture, I dressed the part and I never was accepted amongst my brown peers as being my Samoan half. Unlike my brother, who took after my dad's white skin and pointy schnoz, I had the strangest mix of deep dark-set eyes, wavy hair, rich brown skin and a pudgy but not flat nose that would never lead anyone to think of me as "white."

For the past three years my identity has been the keystone of my art. However such curiosity and frustration was relevant as early as grade school.

I remember coming home in tears one day from a family function. I was only nine at the time and the world had first shown me its cruel face in the form of taunts and teases. I ran into my mother's arms, hysterical, and through hiccups in my speech I made out that I did not know what I was, and I wished I was white like her and my brother, or that I looked more Samoan like my sisters.

My cousins never could accept my small figure next to their wide hips, or my quiet curiosity alongside their loud jokes. The blond kids in school did not understand that there was a middle ground between being white or being Mexican. And that not everyone who was brown spoke Spanish. Despite our indifference, despite ridicule, I wanted so badly to fit in; no matter what side it was, I wanted to feel like I was a part of something.

My mom, who by any standard resembles someone of Asian decent, said in a simple kind of way, "Do I look Samoan?"

I hesitantly shook my head. No.

She continued, "I don't look Samoan, but I am Samoan. You don't look Samoan, but you are Samoan. But we aren't just Samoan. We are Chinese, we are German, you are Yugoslavian, you are Italian. You are you. And that's the best kind of person there is. Just because you look a certain way or act a certain way doesn't make you something. What makes you, YOU, is what is on the inside..." My heart swelled.

This Identity, woven into my Samoan values and traditions are as pertinent to my art as my own unique being. "Culture," identity: It is not a profile. It is not a visual diagnosis, but rather it grows through experience.

Left to Right: 'This is one of the earliest pictures my mom (Leafaitulagi Valasi Euga) has of her childhood. She is the tall girl on the top left hand side. She said it was taken before her family sent her to the States. You can see the fale'oo in the background where they lived. It was taken in the late 1970's she was about 14 at the time. All 11 of her siblings are in this picture. This is a picture of my great grandma Emma Lesa. She is Chinese and Samoan, this was taken sometime in the 1970's before my mom left the island.'

To be continued next week. Part Two: Family Values

Pou Dimitrijevich Art
Pou Dmitrijevich Writing

Images: Courtesy of Pou Dimitrijevich

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog.

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