My name is Fa’aumu Kaimana Elsea. I am of complex identities, a queer male, a university student, and the only known survivor of my immediate family that has died in part because of the belief that hard work yields prosperity.
Let me explain.
The Elseas are a long line of pālagi settlers along the western portion of Turtle Island. They fought in many wars, worked and invested in industries that encroached indigenous lands for resources, traveled around the world, taught in public schools, and did many other things that contributed towards the name’s reputation.
There is a story I know of a child born to an unmarried young couple who settled from Taiwan and went to school on colonized Coast Salish lands. While they were a toddler, their parents left them with an Elsea couple: a Thai mother, and a pālagi father. The child bonded almost instantly with the new couple, and after several years, the new couple adopted the child. This did not come very lightly, however.
The mother—a typical homemaker by Western standards—loved the child, but felt she was too old and in bad shape to take care of the child. “How are we supposed to take care of him?” she asked her husband one day, still shaken by her biological son’s death in Hawai’i ten years before.
“Ah, give him a chance,” said the father as he set off for work at the aeroplane factory.
He was dead wrong, and despite the love the couple have given to the child, the father died of poor health.
The mother blamed the child, telling them they were incapable of loving their parents. All the child wanted to do was play with friends and go to school. But the child eventually ceased to be their mother’s scapegoat, and so for the next ten years they both lived.
During a meeting of the Pacific Islander Club at my high school, students from the University of Washington visited. We worked on homework, but shortly thereafter boys began playing rugby on the studio ceiling.
I didn’t like the idea of messing around the ceiling with my peers, so I sat on the bench with the two visiting students.
“Hi, I’m Sia,” said a student. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Fa’aumu. Fa’aumu Elsea.”
“Fa’aumu?” Sia looked skeptical. “Do you know what that means?”
“Cheeeeooo!” I cried with determination. “It’s a warrior’s cry.”
Kids ran around the ceiling all crazy. It drove the adults nuts. A rugby ball fell from the risers. I didn’t offer to toss it back up.
“Okay, well, at least you know what it means!” said Sia.
For the next six years, the mother and child lived in relative stability. On the child’s 16th birthday, however, their family lost half of its only source of money. What to do, the child wondered, as they realized the world will never be the same.
All the child wanted to do was play with friends and go to school. But they knew they had no choice. The only child in the family figured that sooner or later, someone had to contribute money. So, they worked as a server at the noodle shop, plagued by the usual Western suspects of supply and demand. Nights and weekends, the child felt powerless, surely separated from the outside world. They became lethargic. It wasn’t too long before the child got sick and based on the bad mana they brought into the noodle house, the owners banned them for life.
The child remained jobless but stayed in school for as long as they could each day—much to their mother’s dismay. At school, the child quickly grew fond of fa’asamoa, and the local Pacific Island community welcomed them with open arms. They also learned about why their family continued to suffer from money problems and discovered their relationship to U.S. systems of inequality.
Determined to turn their family’s situation on its head, the child saw school as a path towards prosperity.
Meanwhile, the mother continued to suffer…
The fluke started as a phone call from Dr. Diaz. He said they haven’t found exactly what was wrong with my mother. As a holiday weekend admit, mum would not be able to have hospital tests done until the following Tuesday.
Something about that doctor’s name rang a bell though. Have I seen him at the local clinic recently? I didn’t waste time toying with that possibility, so I asked Dr. Diaz.
“Let’s see…And you are Bryan Elsea? I did see you at Sea Mar.”
“Yes! Gee, what are you doing at the hospital?” I asked.
“I work here on the weekends,” said Dr. Diaz. “So, I am looking at your records here…It says you would like to be called by ‘fa-ao-ma?’”
“Fa’aumu.” I said.
Okay, this wasn’t a big mistake. What was, however, is my failure to mention not to use my Sāmoan name in conversations with my mother. Guess what? Doctors began to use my Sāmoan name to refer to me in conversations with my mum.
Soon enough, mum took notice.
“Call yourself whatever you’d like. I’m done.”
I felt bad about what happened and knew I haven’t done enough to protect myself.
The dietitian, Dr. Rose walked in and wanted to have a word with me. I choose to have those words in private.
We discussed what the lung cancer could mean for my mother’s future.
“She knows from my dad’s experience that if she didn’t take any chemo like my father did, she would be able to live longer.”
Dr. Rose gave a slight nod. “That’s not actually a bad outlook,” she said, staring at my used tissues.
I mentioned how the name issue already strained my relationship with mum. “Sorry,” I said, “but I just totally blew it.”
“It’s alright. I’ll let the team know not to use your preferred name.”