Rachel Reppert interviewed Vanessa Welly, child welfare major at Oakland University about her family and culture.
Family and Culture Are a Big Influence in Vanessa Welly’s Life
Her mother, Jane, was from Pohnpei and her father, Kun, who passed away in November of 2018, was from the island of Kosrae.
Both of those islands are part of the Federation of Micronesia.
But she says that they didn’t meet each other until they both went to Guam, which is an American Territory, but still considered part of the Federation. This is also the island where Vanessa was born and spent her first birthday.
Once she turned one though, her mother and father decided to immigrate to the United States. She said they did this because they believed that there was a better opportunity and a better life for their children in America.
They first went to Hawaii, then traveled to the Midwestern states of America where they stayed in Ohio and Indiana before finally settling in Michigan. Today, Vanessa lives in Clinton Township, Michigan.
Vanessa said that this would have been about the year 2001 because that is the year her sister, Alwina, was born, and a short time later her brother, Kun Welly Jr. was born. Both were born in Michigan.
I asked Vanessa who the most influential people in her life were and she said that they were her family, and especially her parents. They instilled in her values that she carries to this day.
In her culture, the eldest child becomes the “third parent” in a sense. She started to help raise her younger siblings at the age of 12 because her parents were working extremely hard to give her and her siblings a life that they never could have back in Micronesia.
“From a very young age I learned how to be independent.”
A work ethic was instilled in her at a very young age, and she is grateful to her parents for that. They always pushed her to go to school, get good grades because they wanted her to have more than just a High School Diploma (which is what they had).
Early in her life though, she tried really hard to conceal her identity. She wanted to fit in with the majority, which is mainly white people. She wanted to be a part of the American culture and ignored her side of the culture. She is ashamed to say that she would at times not invite her parents to school events because they couldn’t speak English very well and that is all she did. She regrets that she hurt her parents in that way.
It wasn’t until recently that she began to fully embrace who she really is. She embraces both identities as an American and as a Micronesian.
Now she just wants people to know that her culture is vibrant, that they hold the value of hospitality as a badge of honor in a sense.
She told me that they even had family members stay with her for almost a year from the Islands before they were able to find their own home. Many people who she told that to were shocked, saying that they would most likely allow someone to stay for a week before they have to get a hotel.
Celebrations are also a huge thing in her culture. She said that back on the island they would hold huge feasts for things like birthdays and even funerals. “Of course there is time to mourn,” she said, but funerals are more of a celebration of someone’s life.
Even when at times she is annoyed by constantly having strangers in her home, because all are invited to a feast, not just family, because of lack of privacy, she still appreciates that her culture is community oriented.
I asked Vanessa if she has ever felt oppressed in any way and she didn’t think that she was as oppressed as many other cultures and ethnic minorities in society.
What she did tell me was about microaggressions of some ignorant people in her life. She explained two stories in particular:
The first one happened at her job. She started out her job as a dishwasher, and one day she was walking by the the Head Chef of the first thing he said to her were the words “What are you?”
She didn’t quite understand what he meant, and then the man standing next to the chef began speaking to her in Spanish. That was when she realized something was up and she had to explain to them that she wasn’t Hispanic and she had to explain to them what a Micronesian was. The chef still insisted on asking her what she was. Her initial response was “I don’t know, a person, what do you want me to say?”
“You can’t just go up to someone and say, what are you.”
The second story she told me was when she was with her sister in a nail salon. The nail tech, from her perspective, was acting extremely racist (though she insisted it wasn’t towards her). He too proceeded to ask her what she is, and when she explained his first response was “Micronesian? What the f*** is that?”
Welly believes that there is a better way to ask someone about their culture and heritage. She likes it when people are curious about where she is from, but saying ignorant statements like the two instances above are not the way.
Now, whenever someone comes up to her with a preconceived notion of who she is, she makes sure to explain to them right away who and what she is. She even goes as far as to tell them to “google” Micronesia if they don’t really understand, and then she walks away. She doesn’t allow stereotypes to control or affect who she really is. She tries not to, if the person talking to her is really ignorant, to stay with them long because she doesn’t want to give them fodder to use against her.
To Her Family
Welly really wants her parents to know that she is grateful for all they have done for her. She wants them to know that she is still working. That she is working hard at school, and is extremely involved in her church life. (Most of the time they see her when she is home, she is usually either sleeping, or watching TV, so they don’t know much about her life outside the home.)
All of the values that her parents instilled in her while growing up are still there, and she plans to teach those same values to her future children. She wants to carry on her family traditions.