“Catering to our own people”: On Micronesia Mart

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In Pohnpeian writer Emelihter Kihleng’s first book of poetry, My Urohs (Kahuaomānoa Press, 2008), there is a poem titled “Korean Stores,” which describes how the speaker and many other Micronesians in Hawaiʻi go to neighborhood convenience stores to buy food, snacks, cigarettes, clothes, combs, and phone cards.

At “Makiki Food Center Liquor and Grocery,” you can buy “Coke Sprite, Strawberry Soda / SPAM, pwoaten kou and Vienna Sausage” (in a footnote, pwoaten kou refers to “can of cow,” or corned beef). At “K and K Corner Market,” the speaker tells us that you can buy betelnut for $5, “‘fresh, frozen Pohnpeian sakau’ from Molokaʻi” for $10, and “the kind of donuts sold back home.”

The convenience stores are a portal through which migrant settlers can fill our needs for affordable foods like SPAM, as well as other cultural goods from “back home.” At the same time, “the convenience of retail 30 feet away / creates needs for” these imported products. A vicious digestive cycle.

While the majority of the poem reads like a map for new migrants (I visited “University Stop,” another store mentioned in the poem, for the first time after reading My Urohs), the poem ends with a reflection on the racial dynamics of the shopping experience:

many of us think of opening our own stores
catering to our own people
in the meantime, we keep giving the Koreans our
hard-earned money.

Even though it sounds divisive, it’s also natural for new migrant settlers to want to strengthen one’s own enclave and cater to our own people.

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In April 2013, the 1,100 square foot “Micronesia Mart” opened its doors at 1745 Kalakaua Avenue, on the corner of Kapiolani Boulevard, across from the Hawai’i Convention Center. Micronesia Mart is the retail outlet for Sarau Distributors Ltd, a wholesale company that exports products to Micronesia. The owners, Ceasar and Hiromi Hadley, are both from Pohnpei. According to their website, the store offers a “wide selection of items that will satisfy your cultural longings.”

I admire the bravery of the owners to name their store “Micronesia Mart,” considering there are so many racist and discriminatory stereotypes against Micronesians. The owners decided on the name because it expresses political and geographical unity. In an interview, Ceasar Hadley declared: “I personally wanted the name out there to show our critics that we are not what the media mostly portray us to be.” To him, the name means “something more than just merely a store—but rather a symbol of pride to many Micronesians who always remark with ‘our’ instead of ‘this’ or ‘your’ store.”

I also appreciate how the owners (in various marketing campaigns) include Chamorros in their conception of Micronesia. Even though Chamorros make up the second largest Micronesian population in Hawai’i, we are often not included in discussions about Micronesians (for many complicated reasons).

Despite the positive attitude and spirit of the store owners, Micronesia Mart has been the target of numerous attacks, including disparaging grafitti, people urinating on walls, feces thrown at the back entrance, attempted break-ins, and broken light fixtures, windows, and electrical cables. The most visible act of vandalism occurred when someone spray painted the words, “RETURN MY TAX DOLLARS” on a store window this past May.

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This is a common epithet for Micronesians, referring to the fact that the state pays for certain migrant assistance programs. However, if this tagger was truly concerned about misuse of tax dollars, he would have been better served writing “RETURN MY TAX DOLLARS” on every military installation, recruiting office, vehicle, weapon, and housing unit on island (imho).

My partner and I went to Micronesia Mart for the first time yesterday. It is, by far, one of the cleanest and friendliest convenience stores I’ve ever been in (way better than University Stop, 7-11, or ABC). We browsed the aisles, scanning the products for local flavors, for home.

Just like in Emelihter’s poem, I saw many different kinds of canned meats, sodas, candies, and cooked bentos featuring SPAM and white rice. Standing in the aisles at Micronesia Mart, you are confronted with unhealthy, packaged, processed, and imported foodstuffs from the US and Asia. In the freezer section: bags of frozen betelnut (imported from Vietnam) and imported meats. In a small corner of the store: a small selection of produce.

They also sell clothes in the store, including skirts, culturally themed t-shirts, and hats that read “Pohnpei Pride,” “Palau Pride,” “Samoan Pride,” and “Chamorro pride.” The hats themselves were made in Bangladesh.

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Even though I entered the store feeling the excitement and pride that you can only feel when entering an enclave of one’s own, I left the store feeling sad. I felt sad because Micronesia Mart is so true. It reflects how new migrants long to be seen as clean, enterprising, and valuable additions to the community. The ongoing vandalism reflects the seeming impossibility of this ever happening.

As we drove away, I also felt shame because I wanted to criticize Micronesia Mart for importing and exporting the very foods that are ravaging our Micronesian bodies. Deep down, Micronesia Mart is not to blame; they are simply catering to our colonized stomachs. Even as I write this, I still feel shame that I didn’t support Micronesia Mart by spending my hard-earned money there. To be honest: I am hoping that someday we can enter and feel pride in a store that caters, instead, to the health of our people.

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