Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: We are not the same

Kahea, Story Gathering Fellow 2023

It wasn’t until middle school that I realized that people have dedicated different months to celebrate cultures. When February, Black history month, came around the school was filled with decorations and Black artists’ music.

This made me wonder if my culture had a month. Somebody told me that May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) month. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are shoved into one month—out of all cultures, we were the two that people felt went together. But Asian American and Pacific Islanders are both titles for the many, many cultures.

Why is it that we share this month with another culture? Why are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders considered one?

“It’s important to acknowledge the unique perspectives of our culture,” said Nane Moimoi, a Lindbergh high school student who moved to the US a year ago from Tonga.

Since moving to the US, Nane got to see firsthand the challenges and struggles Polynesians face. The lack of Pacific Islander support and representation. And how dismissed the culture is.

“This would ensure that our voices and cultural experiences are represented and celebrated during this month. This would involve highlighting specific aspects of our culture, history, and identity.”

If any other cultures had to share a month it would turn heads and upset people. No culture should be treated as more important than another one, but that’s what it feels like when cultures are given a month, and my culture has to share.

We learn about other cultures in school, so everyone is always very familiar with them because it’s what we are taught. It should be the same for Pacific Islanders. It all starts at school, what we learn in school is what sticks with students. It’s what sets students up for their future. Pacific Islanders should be able to also express their culture and explore what that means in school and in their own individual futures.

However, in my experience at Lindbergh High School, Pacific Islander representation at school is something you have to ask for. It’s not something they have assemblies or decorate for like they do with other cultures. Schools think they are being diverse and want to appreciate cultures, but diversity is considering every single culture population in schools no matter the amount.

There are ways we can import Pacific Islander culture into extracurricular activities. It’s almost a given that in schools you will find Black Student Unions, Filipino clubs, or Hispanic clubs, but very few schools have created a Pacific Islander club. In fact, not once in my 10 years of school have I heard anybody talking about Pacific Islander culture—even as part of the classroom curriculum. We learn about the stories and struggles and heroes of other cultures but Pacific Islanders also have a lot of history and heroes as well that have done impactful things that should be talked about.

“If schools want to be “inclusive” they should make sure to account for Pacific Islander students even if there is only one Pacific Islander student at a school. The culture should still be represented and shown,” said Dayna, the vice president of the Pacific Islander Club at her school, Kentridge High School.

Like Nane, Dayna has seen the lack of representation of Pacific Islander culture in her school and has been able to hear from her fellow classmates about the inclusivity of Pacific Islander culture in schools.

“Lack of reaching out for help because they are uncomfortable asking people who they don’t know or connect to. The Polynesians stick together because they are comfortable with each other, if there’s no support like that in the staff or school system they won’t turn to anyone.”

Staff support is a main factor as to why Polynesian culture isn’t represented in schools. As students we can only do so much, getting adults and staff involved to help make a bigger impact on Pacific Islander inclusivity in schools.

As we learn American history, lots of important moments we are taught about include some kind of ocean navigation, but we never cover Pacific Islander contributions to it. In history classes, we learn about voyages and famous men who traveled across the ocean. But they leave out the part about how Polynesians were among the first to start exploring and navigating the ocean, how our methods of navigation were unique and important then and now, or even how Pacific Islanders used the stars and the moon as a natural campus to guide their canoes.

“These early Polynesians were known for their seafaring skills and intricate knowledge of navigation passing it down through oral history from generation to generation,” wrote Amy Heemsoth, a chief operating officer and director of education in an article for the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation. “They are believed to be the first to navigate the open ocean.”

Are European explorers more important than our navigators? We should be talking about every contribution to ocean navigation and, eventually, American history.

I have always felt left out when there was nothing in school that interacted with my culture like the other cultures at my school. In middle school, I wanted to start a club for Pacific Islander Club and the teachers kept pushing the club with Asian Americans. They wanted us to make flags from Pasifika culture as well as Asian American. They made the announcements for famous Pacific Islander and Asian American figures together.

When I got to high school I had to reach out to teachers because there wasn’t a Polynesian club there either. In the process of trying to get that started, I found a lot of other Pacific Islander students who expressed that they had been waiting for a club that represented the culture.

We had all the students, but the one thing missing was staff and teacher support. We had asked 3 teachers to be the advisor in order to make our club happen. While each teacher said yes, none of them followed through with support. Every meeting was canceled because the teachers weren’t able to attend. Our club was no one’s priority except for the students that struggled to find their identity because of the lack of Pacific Islander representation in school.

A big struggle that many young Pacific Islanders deal with is finding their identity. As a teenager, you are already at an age where you are trying to learn about yourself and who you are—your identity. It can be hard to find where you fit in, how to act around others who don’t understand you or your Pacific Islander heritage. Sometimes it may feel like you’re living in two worlds, where in one you are comfortable being who you are and who you were raised to be, and the other you are the person that blends in the crowd.

Then add on trying to find or connect with your cultural identity. This can also mean a question of where I stand as a Pacific Islander in America.

Pacific Islander culture is something I had to learn to be proud of. Every single culture is unique, and one thing everyone shares in common is that we all have our stories and experiences. Every student is unique because of that and should all have an equal opportunity to celebrate that, to talk about it, as well as learn and teach others.

AAPI should be separated and recognized not for how they are the same but instead how they are different. More importantly, Pacific Islanders should be given the same appreciation and awareness as other cultures. I hope that when you read this article you realize the unfairness of categorizing 2 cultures as one. I have a lot of personal experiences with misrepresentation of my culture and I’m certain I will continue to have them. But by sharing my story, I hope to bring Pacific Islander struggles to not only my community but other cultures as well.


Kahea is a high school student at Lindbergh High School. She was a fellow in the 2023 pilot Story Gathering Workshop, a program that gave twelve students the opportunity to write and publish an article for our news outlet, Voices.

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