Thursday, December 3, 2009

Our First Tongan Thanksgiving

29 ‘o Novema:
It’s Sunday evening and Thanksgiving weekend is almost over. In my former life this was usually a time to kick back, spend some good time with friends and/or family, maybe travel and take Friday off and have a four day weekend. It always marked the true beginning of holiday time. I remember vividly last Thanksgiving. I took Wednesday off and we traveled to Seattle for our first interview for the Peace Corps. Then on to a few days with Kathy’s sister and family on Whidbey Island, then to a visit with cousin Norma and Dale Hanberg in Edmonds. As it turns out this was our last time with Dale, who died a few months later at the age of 80. Dale and Norma were my family away from home during my college years, always welcoming, willing to lend me a car for a big date or be the place for Thanksgiving dinner if I couldn’t make it home or to watch a big football game. Dale was the very model of the guy we all wanted to live near because if anything needed fixing in our house he would be the one to hear about it and then show up on your doorstep with the tools to fix it. Everybody loved him, especially his numerous grandchildren, now mostly in their 20’s, all who were enriched because of his generous and caring nature. His favorite excuse for a road trip was to go help a grandkid with some project or another, or just to go take them out to dinner.
Well this year was totally different. I had to teach on Thanksgiving Day, which turned out to be my last day of practice teaching. As I mentioned in my last post, we had a big Thanksgiving dinner, and it was wonderful. Kathy’s pumpkin pies turned out great, we had turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing and green bean casserole and a bunch of other stuff. We ate the turkeys Tongan style, which means they weren’t carved, but rather we all served ourselves by literally tearing off chunks of what we wanted. As my mother is fond of saying, it was interesting. We all had a very nice time.
But Thanksgiving means nothing to Tongans. We tried to explain what the holiday meant; one of the trainees is from Plymouth and she told the story of the first Thanksgiving. But in a country where the culture expects a big feast for any old good reason the meaning as we know it is difficult to grasp.
We’ve been in our homestay for almost two months now, and next Friday we’ll be leaving. It’s been a decidedly mixed experience. We are most anxious now to finish up with our training and finally settle into our own place. Living in a 1200 sq. ft. house (+ outdoor facilities) with a family of 9 has been a challenge.
The family and the church are the twin hubs around which life revolves here. And because we are with a minister’s family we probably feel the church aspect more than many. However, this small village of maybe 500 people has 7, yes 7, churches (1 Siasi Uesiliana/Wesleyan, 4 varieties of the Siasi Tonga/ Church of Tonga, Mamonga/Mormon, and Aho Fitu/7th Day Adventist), all of which have multiple services on Sunday and early morning prayer services throughout the week. All of these services are preceded by bell ringing and drum beating (the Church of Tonga beats a “drum” made from a hollow tree trunk), beginning some mornings at 4:30 a.m. Why the bell ringing and drum beating you might ask? It’s absolutely necessary in a village where most homes do not have a clock. At our church on Sunday, the first set of bells rings at 5:00 a.m. for the prayer service. For the main service, the bells start at 9:00 a.m., reminding you that you have an hour to prepare for church. Then, again at 9:30 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. The final bells ring at 9:55 a.m., essentially proclaiming that you’d better get yourself to church!
“Our” church is the biggest in Tonga, Wesleyan Methodist. The curious amalgam of Tongan culture and fundamental Methodism is rooted in the theology of salvation, with constant attention to living a life of service and piety. But as is the case everywhere, humans will be humans, and we see significant problem behavior in our home stay families stemming from a parenting style emphasizing compliance and adherence to prescribed roles.
We have attended church every Sunday since we’ve been here, always the main 10 a.m. Sunday service. While we can understand little, we are usually able to have a hymnal and can sometimes sing along, although most of the songs are unfamiliar. We have been involved in a few services; Kathy has done the English Bible reading, and I have read a Tongan hymn or two. Tongans have someone read each verse, then it is sung by the congregation, then the next verse is read. This has been fun for me and has helped with my Tongan pronunciation, and I haven’t heard anybody actually laugh during my readings.

Kathy had been promoting the idea that we should sing a song in church with the girls (all four) of our host family. While all involved thought this was a great idea, getting them organized to actually do something was impossible. She finally told them that if this was going to happen it would have to be today, as this was our last Sunday here. We all decided to do “Silent Night” in English, with me providing guitar accompaniment. (I should note here that in Tongan churches there is usually no instrumental music of any kind; all singing is a capella.) We had our first “rehearsal” Friday night with three of the girls, but the oldest daughter was in a foul mood and everyone was distracted by the video game the boys were playing on a computer borrowed from a friend, so little progress was made. A subsequent rehearsal Saturday evening went a little better; we made sure there were no distractions, and we were having some success teaching the concept that some singing could be done at something less than full volume and with attention to creating a blend (not the usual Ha’apai singing style). Then our host father, the minister, decided that the boys (twin 17 year olds) had to sing, too, so at the last minute they joined our group, not very willingly (although it should be noted that they have the best voices in the family, by far). The youngest girl, Sofaia, has a sweet soprano voice, but is generally bullied around by her sisters, but Kathy wanted her to sing the first verse solo, then have everyone join in for verses 2 and 3. Having the oldest daughter keep her hands to herself instead of pulling her kid sister’s hair or otherwise punching her proved impossible. Nevertheless, we persevered. Kathy insisted on a uniform appearance for our ensemble which sent the household into a bit of a frenzy trying to find clean white shirts and black skirts for everyone. However, I must say we ended up looking pretty good, and our performance was just about as good as we could expect. Not a bad way to end our Faleloa church going experience.

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