Aotearoa Chronicles: Week 3 "The Factory"

There are moments in life that remind me of things I've forgotten, like my parents immigration journey in intricate detail. "The Factory", the first Samoan musical was like finding the secret I knew best, my parents story.

My parents came to the U.S from their villages of Western Samoa on different occasions. They met in San Francisco and both of them barely had family or support in the states.

One of my father’s first job was at a car wash. He told me the change they stole from cars was more than their actual pay. He went into the food service, worked at Jack in a Box, Red Lyon, and Denny’s. It wasn’t until his cousin hooked him up with a job as the custodian for the Mormon church that it was a job he would keep that can almost provide for his growing family. As of last year, he was forced to retire and I surpassed my father’s pay. It is the custodian job that he has had ever since I was young.

When my mother came to America she didn’t have papers to work, and she kind of was the pulling force to get my dad to take his citizenship test so she could be a citizen. I remember her doing all the random jobs you could do. She would cook for people, watch all the random babies in the neighborhood, sell her Samoan recipes, in between she would take all of my siblings and I to pick up cans and bottles from the park, sew clothes for people, even organized a whole wedding, catering and sewing the dresses and making us decorate, and for a while she bought dolls from thrift stores and would sew fancy dresses on them because it was a trendy sell for old white women with money. 

I sometimes take the car I’m driving to a Car Wash in the Fruitvale district in Oakland. Really young folks washing cars, not saying a word in English, skin brown as leather, the place reminds me of my father. Except they’re not Samoans working here. It’s always been really difficult to explain my parent’s migration story to other Samoans in America because it’s a different story than the military migration, which is a good majority. And so its nights like this that make me grateful for my parents survival in the beast of America.

Yesterday I watched the first Samoan musical I ever saw in my life, “The Factory” based on the migration of Samoans coming for work in the factories of New Zealand. You know how good it feels to sit in a theatre with sprinkles of white people not knowing half of the script because it’s in your native tongue? It feels like a homecoming. Like a language, a story I’ve known for many years and try to explain to people but they never got it in America. That story gets lost and forgotten.

In the musical a father and daughter come from Samoa to work in a factory with other Samoans on work visas, I kept thinking how easy it would have been for my parents if they migrated here in Auckland with people who understood where they were coming from. But then, I think that we’re good. Even in America, “the show me what you got” country that forgets that my parents our still there surviving even if they don’t have barely anything to show you in an economic sense.

I think about my family a lot when I’m away doing what I do, my parents, my aunts and uncles, all of my cousins who I’ve had the privilege to bring their journey and stories with me to moments like this, watching a musical that talks about how humble our beginnings are. How, as much of the “me, me, me” culture of America tries to steal that island humility from us there are always good reminders that keep me in check. It is my understanding as their child watching them work hard, that the most important thing my parents have taught me about humble beginnings and the work we do is to maintain that until the end.

It's been a long hard road for my parents, but its the simple things I think about. My father sitting at Peets coffee house skimming through the New York TImes trying to recognize any english words he can, trying to figure out what the photos are about, my mother sitting in a hospital listening to a nurse tell her all these random big words, names of all the solutions to her dialysis, the rundown of the 20 or so pills she can't even pronounce. They come from the small villages of Falealili and Moamoa on the island of Upolu just chillin' in the beast of America and have managed to teach my siblings and I the importance of life without any words.

This is what happens when I watch a musical like "The Factory". Hopefully this important show comes the Bay Area so others with similar stories can see what I mean.


About Jean Melesaine

Jean Melesaine is a queer Samoan community activist, documentary photographer and editor with Silicon Valley De-Bug. 

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