When I moved to Hawaii six years ago, the most appealing aspect of my new home was its nearly unparalleled ethnic and cultural diversity. It still astounds me that Hawaii is one of only four states without an ethnic majority.

Particularly as an Asian-American, learning about Hawaii’s rich history of immigrants — from Korea, Japan, the Philippines, China and many more countries — exemplified the spirit of ethnic tolerance and openness that I believed was rooted in the local culture here.

However, a few months ago, I began to read a series of reports published by Chad Blair of the Civil Beat that featured the Micronesian community in Hawaii and the factors that have impelled their mass migration.

And as I began to inform myself about the painful history of U.S. neo-colonialism in the Micronesia region, I experienced a powerful realization: Amidst this perception of a culturally diverse and tolerating Hawaii, a certain group of migrants continues to suffer from stereotypes and misconceptions regarding their community.

Dancers performed during the Celebrate Micronesia at the Honolulu Museum of Art School in 2015.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Geographic And National Identities

First, the region of Micronesia, located in the Western Pacific, is comprised of over 600 islands and encompasses seven distinct island nations and territories: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, Kiribati, Nauru, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

People often confuse the Federated States of Micronesia with the broader region, thus confusing geographic and national identities. Even within the Federated States of Micronesia exists a multitude of island states: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae.

According to Kathy Martin, We Are Oceania’s case manager and a Chuuk native, “Different nations have their own cultural identities, speak different languages, and must speak English amongst one another.”

Martin’s job at WAO includes connecting visitors to English language interpreters and assisting clients with resume building, employment and housing opportunities, and health education. It was founded in 2015 and funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Keola Diaz, the social services manager at WAO, adds, “I think people see a larger group of people migrating to Hawaii. Instead of the various groups of people, they see one cultural group inundating the community.”

To Diaz, this perception of a singular Micronesian identity incorrectly “gives the local community a feeling of being ‘overrun’ by outsiders.”

Nuclear History

Additionally, one of the triggers behind this influx of inter-Pacific migration lies in the United States’ involvement in the Cold War nuclear arms race.

Beginning in 1946, the United States began a period of nuclear experiments in Bikini Atoll, an island chain located within the Republic of the Marshall Islands. During the 12 years to follow, the United States detonated a total of 67 nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands, displacing thousands of Marshallese threatened by exposure to radioactive fallout.

Even over six decades following the fateful detonation of the first Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb — a weapon over a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — residual nuclear contamination continues to plague the environmental vitality of some of the Marshall Islands and the health of its residents, as seen through an increase in radiation-induced diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

And today, the catastrophic effects of climate change have compounded with the environmental injustices inflicted on the Marshallese, contributing to the mass exodus of Micronesians as their low-lying islands succumb to rising sea levels.

The Compact And The Health Care Crisis

Within the past three decades, over 30 percent of the native populations of Micronesia have emigrated primarily to Hawaii and Guam in search of increased educational opportunities and improved health care, with some also seeking refuge from the dangers of nuclear radiation.

The reason behind this unrestricted migration to the United States and its territories is the Compact of Free Association treaty, which encompasses the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Since WWII, the Micronesia region has been a stronghold in the United States’ Asia-Pacific military planning, as seen through the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests of the 1950s. Approved in 1986, the COFA treaty was deemed the American government’s “full and final” compensation for the series of nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands and channeled nearly $200 million a year in direct aid.

Additionally, residents of the COFA nations would be allowed to emigrate freely to the United States and its territories. However, in exchange, the United States would be granted full strategic control over the Micronesian islands.

No group of people ever emigrates to a different country to feed off of public welfare.

As the United States pumped money into the Micronesian economy, what was once a subsistence lifestyle soon transformed into a cash economy. While many Micronesians traditionally relied on fishing and agriculture, a new cash economy resulted in a significant increase in the intake of processed foods and meats, thus introducing a host of non-communicable diseases and health problems previously unknown to Micronesians.

Dina Nishioka, a health care outreach coordinator at WAO, explains, “People think of Micronesians as ‘freeloaders,’ that they have a choice, that they are choosing to come to Hawaii and take advantage of the system when they actually don’t have a choice.

“A lot of them are here because they need health care, they need financial assistance — but that’s because of what the U.S. did to their islands, whether it’s nuclear testing or the effects of colonization.”

Finally, What Can You Do?

When asked the question, “What are some ways that Hawaii’s citizens can support the Micronesian community,” Martin simply replied, “Include them.”

She continued, “Invite them to your activities — if you have friends from Micronesia, ask them to share about their culture; by showing interest, you are ensuring that they are a part of this community.”

We Are Oceania, Partners in Development. 28 june 2016

We Are Oceania’s banner hangs outside of its one-stop center in Kalihi.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Josie Howard, director and cofounder of WAO, shares the story behind WAO’s mission to promote inclusivity: “As newcomers, there is a need for a structured and culturally appropriate process of transitioning to the new life in Hawaii. Through my own experience and experiences of my family, friends, colleagues, and the people that I served, I felt strongly about the need for a one-stop center.”

Educate yourself and others on the pervasive stereotypes that fuel local hostility toward this often misunderstood migrant group. Micronesians do not make up the majority of Hawaii’s homeless population; in fact, Native Hawaiians constitute the largest percentage of Hawaii’s homeless.

No group of people ever emigrates to a different country to feed off of public welfare. Micronesians pay full taxes, contribute to Hawaii’s economy, and want to become successful like everyone else. And despite paying full taxes, only a handful of Micronesians qualify for social services like Medicaid.

In order for Hawaii to fully embrace its distinction as a state without an ethnic majority, its residents should empathize with the problems faced by the state’s growing Micronesian population and seek to understand the historical injustices inflicted on this region, for all levels of diversity are utterly meaningless unless met with a willingness to embrace these differences.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author