Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Becoming Tongan

25 o’ Sanuali, 2010
(This post was originally an email from Kathy)

When you first enter a foreign environment, you are immediately struck by ways of being and doing that feel, well, foreign. Sometimes they feel foreign in a good way: the vibrant street life of Paris, for example. Sometimes they feel foreign in a less than good way: the way Tongan teachers treat their students, for example.
Your initial reaction to some foreign ways of being and doing may be one of amazement, incredulousness, or even disgust. It’s then that you remind yourself that you are living among people who do not share your culture or values.

From Making Sense of Tonga by Mary McCoy:
“Fish don’t see water. And most humans don’t see the culture they live in. The most basic elements of a culture are typically not in the conscious awareness of its inhabitants.
The situations we each think of as ‘normal’ are really sets of expectations molded and prodded by the culture in which we grow up. Manners, definitions of success, sources of guilt and shame—are all based on expectations imbedded in a specific setting and can vary widely from culture to culture.
In traveling from one part of the world to another, we tend to project the cultural expectations we are used to onto the inhabitants of the new location, forgetting that the ground rules in this new locale may be different. Coming to the realization that 2 + 2 might not equal 4 in the new locale is a first step in preparing yourself to understand the unique demands that different culture has on its inhabitants. If visitors cannot break out of the pattern of projecting their own culture onto places they visit, they will never come to embrace the variety and richness of the world. In order to escape the tourist bubble, you need a way to become aware of the local culture’s expectations of its members. Only then can you learn what makes each place truly unique.”

As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), it is especially important to “understand the unique demands” that Tonga has on its inhabitants, “break out of the pattern of projecting” my own culture onto Tonga, and “embrace the variety and richness” of Tonga, the Tongan people, and their culture.

It is with an element of surprise that I find myself actually adapting to Tongan culture in certain ways. Behaviors that, at first, I found intriguing, puzzling or appalling have now become a part of my personal retinue of behaviors.

The transition to dressing in the Tongan way came easily to me. During the preparation phase of our PC service, we received warnings concerning the conservative dress of Tongans. Women were cautioned to bring skirts that fell below the knee, shirts/blouses with sleeves (women may not show their armpits or knees), and no clothing that is revealing in any way. That suited me just fine since I have been in the habit of dressing primarily in skirts that fall below the knee for some time and, due to the fact that I am a woman over 50, I’m averse to showing my upper arms, including my armpits. Additionally, women in Tonga wear a decorative clothing item called a kiekie. Kiekies come in a variety of forms from solid woven mats to finely crafted artistic creations. Being a girlie-girl at my core, I embraced the kiekie as an additional skirt-type garment that allows me to put together outfits that border on costumes—always fun. So, in my dress at least, becoming Tongan has been a smooth transition.

Bicycling in the Kingdom
During my first few days in Faleloa, I noticed that very few children wear shoes: at home, at play, or at school. This concerned me to a certain degree but my concern went on “high caution” when I saw children riding bikes without shoes or while wearing flip flops. It goes without saying that they didn’t wear helmets; I believe that the ONLY bicycle riders in the Kingdom who wear helmets are Peace Corps Volunteers. As an avid bicyclist, I am all about caution. Rob and I typically wear appropriate gear from head to toe while riding our bikes in the States, including sturdy, hard-toed, Velcro-strapped bicycle shoes and, of course, helmets.
As PCVs, we are not allowed to drive motorized vehicles of any kind. Therefore, when we want to get from Point A to Point B for any reason—shopping, meetings, work, play—we ride our bikes. I am surprised to find that I am now more comfortable riding my bike in flip flops than I am in more sturdy/ appropriate/safe attire.
Becoming Tongan? 
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Sun, Sun Go Away: Tongans and Umbrellas
Another practice that I found unusual when I first arrived was the way Tongans use umbrellas/ fakauha. They are used to block the sun rather than the rain. Tongans will use almost anything to keep the sun from falling on them directly: a branch of a tree or bush, fabric (typically a lavalava), or even a cardboard box. In a country where light skin is preferred, it’s important to block the sun’s skin-darkening rays.

Last week I decided to walk to Peace Corps headquarters; a walk of about 1 ½ miles. Now that summer/taimi afu has arrived in earnest, the temperatures and humidity can be quite uncomfortable and the sun rather intense. I decided to stop by a China shop (as in a shop that’s owned by people from China) and purchase an umbrella since I was sweating/pupuha’ia profusely by the time I had walked just over a block. It worked! By blocking the sun’s rays, I was able to walk in relative comfort, still taking advantage of the breezes that made their way under the canopy.

There are, however, a number of Tongan practices that continue to concern (horrify) me; I hope never to adopt them.
Primary among these: Tongan eating habits. If you are a guest at a Tongan’s table, you will be encouraged to “Kaimate!” Literally, this means eat until you die. It is evident that many Tongans follow this exhortation since they have the highest BMI ratio in the world, along with very high rates of diabetes and heart disease (even higher than the U.S.) Tongans also find physical exercise anathema, which explains why there are two falekoloas (shops) on every block; Tongans simply will not walk a block to buy a food item. I do not intend to become Tongan in my eating or exercise habits.

Lotu…Lotu….Lots of Lotu
I also do not plan to become Tongan in my church-going habits. In Rob’s most recent blog post, he described the events surrounding Uike Lotu, the Week of Prayer which takes place the first week of every year. During Uike Lotu, the church bells ring at 5:30 a.m. and again at 5:30 p.m. calling the parishioners to attend prayer services. This week is by no means atypical, however, as in any given week services take place twice on Sunday, along with early morning prayer services beginning at 5:30 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There are, of course, many special events in addition to these regularly scheduled services which are also rung into existence by the ever-present fafangu/church bells. As Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing is still too much of a good thing.”

Beat Your Child With A Stick!
This week I have begun my work assignment as a Teacher Trainer at Nuku’alofa Government Primary School. As I described in an earlier communiqué, this is the largest elementary school in the Kingdom with somewhere between 600 and 700 students in grades 1 through 6 and 20 staff. I am approaching my assignment with characteristic optimism but also a certain amount of trepidation.

During my model school experience, I encountered teachers who ridiculed, berated, and belittled children. I also observed teachers slapping/paa’i and hitting/taa’i children with sticks for bad behavior. Additionally, children are regularly pinched and slapped for giving wrong answers. While we were assured in our training that it is against the law for teachers to employ corporal punishment, these Draconian practices remain.

Our more seasoned Peace Corps colleagues—who have had more time to adapt then we have and know more about what they can influence and what they can’t--say to “get used to it.” I will not. In this respect, at least, I refuse to become Tongan.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


"Beauty is about the improbable coming true suddenly." Charles Simic

7 o’ Sanuali, 2010

The holidays are over, Uike Lotu (Week of Prayer) is in full swing (church services every morning and evening), and every once in a while it rains a bit. In between it’s quite warm and humid, but not yet oppressive. With the warmer temperatures and moisture, there is more color popping out than we’ve seen before. Our little garden is producing orchids, amaryllis, bougainvillea and heilala, and on our walks around the neighborhood we see frangipani, hibiscus, camellias, poinsettias, Rose of Sharon, and others we don’t know the names of yet. Hedges and fencerows that previously looked like little more than dried thickets are now bursting into a riot of color: improbable…and beautiful.

This is the week we begin our primary assignments in earnest. For Kathy this has meant beginning to tackle the library/laipeli at Nuku’alofa GPS. Located in a small building that also serves as the principal’s office/puleako ofisi, storeroom for groundskeeping and athletic equipment, teacher work space and resource room, and copy center, her first task is to identify what library materials are worth keeping and then how to get rid of all the garbage/extraneous materials that don’t belong there. And because all the school officials are on their summer break and not available, she is somewhat limited in what she’s able to accomplish.

I also have been designated as the Librarian for ‘Atenisi, and I had my first good look at it earlier this week. These materials are more organized, at least by topic, but there is no catalog. Most of the books are dated, and many are in poor condition. Like most university libraries the best books that once were there are long gone, checked out or just taken, never to be seen again. (I vividly remember from my college days that the most relevant books were checked out to professors and residing on their office shelves). I’ll likely spend a few days in there before school starts to become familiar with what’s there and then propose some kind of strategic planning process with the university faculty regarding what the library needs to be.

So the bulk of my time these days has been spent getting familiar with on-line text resources and setting up my course outlines. Of course the big unknown is what the capabilities of my students will be, so I really can’t do much actual lesson planning until I meet my students and have the opportunity to assess their abilities. It’s been interesting getting back up to speed with teaching a subject that I haven’t worked with for almost 20 years, but the synapses seem to be restoring.

On one level I have a pretty good idea what to expect from my students, based on my practice teaching experience and conversations with people who have been teaching in Tonga for a while. As one college teacher expressed it, Tongans are taught that compliance is all-important. This is, after all, a feudal society at the heart. There is great reverence for the king, absolute respect for the nobles who control village life, and well prescribed rules governing relationships and responsibilities in the family. A Tongan doesn’t have to think much about important issues of family and village life, as the decisions are largely out of his/her influence.

Tongans are taught to be rote learners, and for the 12 years of their primary and secondary education they have been punished (often pinched, slapped, hit, and/or ridiculed) for wrong answers. You can ask your Economics students to explain the Law of Demand and they can give you the textbook definition, but if you ask them to explain what will happen to the price of a good when a famous athlete endorses it you’re likely to get blank stares in response, and if you're able to get them to write an answer to this question you’ll get some interesting answers. So it’s going to be a challenge to try to engage them in some creative or critical thinking.

My school, ‘Atenisi University, was founded as an institution of “classical” learning. It’s the only university in Tonga that is not run by either the government or a church. The founder, Futa Helu, is a local legend, and I encourage you to read about him: He is still alive and lives on the grounds of the school; I met him the other day as I was getting the lay of the land there. He is in his 70s and suffering from dementia and appears to also be in frail physical health.

As we phase into the Tongan summer and experience the blooming all around us we prepare to start encouraging the blooming of young creative minds; hoping for opportunities for the improbable to come true…suddenly.