In response to a few written requests, and millions more unwritten requests, the following is one young American's observations on modern-day Tonga, Tongans and Tongan culture (all written from first-hand observation or first-hand reports from others).
2. CLIMATE & WEATHER
3. MONARCHY & GOVERNMENT
4. DEVELOPMENT & INFRASTRUCTURE
5. RELATIONSHIP WITH FOREIGN COUNTRIES
6. TONGANS PHYSICALLY
7. FOOD/DIET & SUBSISTENCE LIVING
10. TRADITIONAL CULTURE & HUMILITY
11. HIERARCHY & RESPECT
12. COMMUNICATION & LYING
13. LAUGHTER & EXPRESSION OF EMOTIONS
14. MONEY, POSSESSION OF PROPERTY & MATERIALISM
16. TRASH AND WASTE
17. COMMUNITY & FUNDRAISING
18. WORK & ROLES
19. SOCIAL LIFE
20. TEASING & WIT
21. PRIVACY, ANONYMITY & GOSSIP
22. MUSIC, SINGING & DANCING
26. TIME, PACE OF LIFE, REST & MEMORY
27. ATTRACTIVENESS, DATING/COURTSHIP & MARRIAGE
28. GENDER ROLES, SEXUALITY & FAKALEITI
29. FAMILY, RAISING CHILDREN & ADOPTION
30. INSECTS, ANIMALS & PETS
32. SAFETY & SECURITY
34. RACE & PALANGI
36. PEACE CORPS IN TONGA
37. THE FUTURE OF TONGA
38. 100 FUNNY THINGS ABOUT TONGA by Matt Helmer (PCV, Tonga '02-'04)
39. AUTHOR'S NOTE
40. TONGA LINKS
For a history of Tonga, look somewhere else.
Tonga is a group of 170-plus islands, about 40 of which are inhabited, in the South Pacific. From south to north, the four major island groups are: Tongatapu (the main island, including the capital, Nuku'alofa); Ha'apai; Vava'u; and the two Niuas, Niuatoputapu and Niuafo'ou.The land of the inhabited islands, from an aerial view, is divided up into lush green bush (farmland/rain forest) plots, including ubiquitous palm trees. (Interesting side-note: Tongans living in Hawai'i are often hired for their ability to shimmy up coconut trees and pull off all the coconuts, out of fear that one will drop onto the head of an unsuspecting tourist.)
'EUA, an island 2 hours south of Tongatapu by boat, is well known for its caving, waterfalls, mountain-biking, and a host of other properties not found in the other islands.
TONGATAPU is as flat as a pancake and hence very pleasant for using a bike as a primary means of transportation, as I do. One can drive from the eastern-most end to the western-most end of Tongatapu in about one hour. [The maximum speed limit is 65 kph (40 mph), and the widest roads in Tonga are only two lanes.]
HA'APAI can be traversed from end to end in a long jog, as it is only 12 km (7 miles) long. Ha'apai probably fits the stereotype of a "tropical island" most closely, as it possesses the most stunning views and the most beautiful beaches of all the island groups.
VAVA'U: I have not yet been to Vava'u, but the Vava'u group is the "yacht-ty" island group, so a lot of tourists go through there, especially during yachting season. Allegedly the best place for snorkelling and SCUBA diving in Tonga is Vava'u.
NIUAS: The two Niuas are actually so far north as to be closer to Samoa than to Tongatapu. They are fairly far apart latitudinally, so they have no business being grouped together, yet they are anyway. The Niuas possess the least infrastructure of all the island groups, including no running water or electricity. Niuafo'ou is an inactive volcano. There are two other volcanoes in Tonga, one of which is active on rare occasion.Most of the borders between the Tongan islands and the ocean are not sand beaches, but rather coral reef, which makes for amazing snorkelling most places among the islands. There are also a few sand beaches in each island group.The islands are inhabited by about 100,000 Tongans, about two thirds of which live on Tongatapu. The capital, Nuku'alofa, is about the same size as the campus where I studied, the University of Maryland College Park, which is roughly circular and about 1 mile across. About 35,000 Tongans live in Nuku'alofa.
As a tropical archipelago, the islands in the Kingdom of Tonga are subject to very mild temperature changes throughout the year. The coldest it gets in the most southern-most islands during the winter (June-September) is about 13 degrees C (55 degrees F). The hottest it gets in the northern-most islands in the summer (December-March) is about 38 degrees C (100 degrees F).On Tongatapu, the island where I live, the widest range is about 55-90 degrees.
The humidity may go as low as 50% during the winter months, but normally hovers around 80%. Therefore, since there are no dryers, clothes and towels made of thick or plush material can take an excessively long time to dry.
Since the humidity is so high and the temperature so ideal, all forms of life flourish and thrive here, which can be both a blessing -- the land is very fertile -- and a curse (even the smallest cuts won't heal without special attention because bacteria thrives in the heat and humidity).
The hurricane season, or "windy season" as it's politely referred to, is from January-March. Tonga typically sees only one or two hurricanes per year. This year there was only one small one, in early March (which, since it was my first hurricane, was still pretty exciting). I have heard here that hurricanes, like hard times in life, are useful because they show you what is sturdy and what will blow away.
Most days here are what I would classify as beautiful spring days back in Maryland (USA)... the kind of days when you go outside, take a deep breath of fresh air and think, "Damn I'm glad to be alive!"
Tonga is the only remaining "constitutional monarchy" in the world. This means that the supreme ruler of Tonga is a monarch, and -- unlike Britain -- he maintains power over the government and the country, and his word is law. However, his (I am using the male pronoun because the current monarch is a king) power is bounded by a constitution, which was drafted and put into forcein 1970.
All the ministers in the government are appointed by the king, and almost all of them are of the "nobility" classification in the Tongan hierarchy (see "Hierarchy & Respect"). There is a parliament elected by the people, but my understanding is that their power is limited.
The current monarch is King Tupou Taufa'ahau IV. He is in his 80's and fairly feeble, and is periodically out of the country to receive medical treatment in New Zealand. He is very visible among the people, going to a large public Wesleyan church in Nuku'alofa most Sundays and regularly attending community and national events. I have seen him more times than I can count at different events, although I have not yet spoken to him. (I once saw him at four events over the course of one week.) I would be surprised if I don't find some opportunity to meet him over the course of the next two years.
I have heard from several sources that government officials all the way to the top take bribes, and that other forms of corruption and abuse of power are common. I have no personal experience to say one way or the other.
There is a growing sentiment among Tongans toward democracy and a political system more akin to the British system, which would mean significantly less power for the monarch. However, out of respect for the monarchy and the hierarchy which is deeply ingrained within the Tongan people and the Tongan culture, an interesting dichotomy develops: asking Tongans face-to-face about their opinion on whether the king's power should be reduced in favor of a democracy, most will either say "no" or give a carefully guarded neutral response. At the anonymous ballot box, however, the majority of Tongans choose representatives who are pro-democracy. It will be interesting to see how this develops. Personally, I expect that there will be some political changes, toward democracy, after the current monarch passes away... although what those changes will be, and how they will come about, I am not sure.
Tonga is one of the poorest of the South Pacific island countries, yet it is proud that, unlike most of the other island nations, it has never been colonized (although it was a protectorate of Great Britain until 1970). Development lags behind other island countries, like Fiji and Samoa, but is well ahead of the third-world countries which usually come to mind in regard to the Peace Corps.
Electricity is almost as reliable in Nuku'alofa and on Tongatapu (the main island) as in any first-world country. It is also reliable on the major islands, such as Ha'apai, Vava'u and 'Eua, but is supplied only by gas- or solar- powered generators on the smaller and more remote islands, such as the Niuas, Ha'afeva and Nomuka.
Running water is pretty reliable in Nuku'alofa, but less so outside of Nuku'alofa. Since rain is so plentiful, most houses have a concrete rain-water tank in their back yard. Rain water runs from the tin roofs into the gutters, and from there into the water tanks. In places where there is no running water, rain water is used for everything from drinking to showering to washing dishes. In Nuku'alofa it is generally used only for drinking and cooking.
Other forms of infrastructure exist and run smoothly, in contrast to my experiences in Kosova: main roads on Tongatapu, and the main road in Ha'apai, 'Eua, and Vava'u respectively, are well paved; I am not yet convinced of a sewage system, except perhaps in Nuku'alofa (most areas have outhouses); the postal system works -- so far almost all mail has reached me and all my outgoing mail has been delivered -- but is very slow and sometimes I receive letters out of order... i.e., a letter which was sent on June 16 might arrive before a letter sent by the same person on June 8; and most areas are fairly well-kempt. The government and social system function smoothly, even if they are not the most efficient in the world.
The number of cars in Tonga has been increasing steadily over the past two decades, but even at the height of "rush hour", downtown Nuku'alofa is not very congested with cars, especially when compared with big cities like New York, Washington D.C., or Cairo. On Ha'apai and 'Eua a vehicle passing by on the road is still occasion for people to glance out the window of their house. On smaller islands there are only a few, or no, vehicles.
However, Tonga is a country on the move. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who finished their service in Tonga thirty, fifteen, or even only five years ago often marvel at all the latest infrastructural developments and the rapidly increasing number of cars in Tonga.
Politically, Tonga enjoys a good relationship with both Western and Asian countries. Despite its warlike and empirical past (Tongans will gladly boast that they once ruled most of the South Pacific), Tonga poses no military threat to any country nowadays. Most of the major countries around Tonga, both in the west and the northeast (but not in South America, which is geographically closer to Tonga than North America), have some sort of international foreign aid projects underway in Tonga, whether in the form of volunteers or funding. Most commonly seen around town are volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Japan. Frequent donors for funding to development projects also include Britain, China, Canada and the EU.
About as many Tongans live overseas as in Tonga. Almost all Tongans have relatives in New Zealand, Australia, or the U.S. (Most are in New Zealand; Tongans in the U.S. congregate in Hawaii, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. There are very few on the east coast, which explains why I had never met a Tongan before joining the Peace Corps.) Despite the obvious monetary reasons for living abroad, Tongans love to marry white people (I'll speculate on the reasons for that in "Race & Palangi", below).
Tonga is dependent on income from overseas to sustain the economy -- both in the form of remittances sent home by family living overseas, and aid from foreign governments.
The Chinese present an interesting quandary. From 1987-1996, the Tongan government basically sold Tongan passports to any foreign national willing to cough up US$10,000. Many Chinese jumped at the opportunity, and as a result there are now a plethora of Chinese shops all around Tonga, competing with Tongan business owners. Due to this competition, there is resentment and racism among Tongans toward the Chinese -- never mind that Tongans are the ones who are buying from the Chinese shops -- and in at least one area, a new Chinese shop has been knocked down by Tongans who live in that area. This sentiment contrasts sharply with the government's positive attitude toward China.
Moving on now from "Tonga" to "Tongans", the first thing one notices about Tongan adults is that both men and women are, in general, big. Skinny or scrawny men are rare... this may be due to the fact that most of the men have spent significant time throughout their youth and adult life working in the bush. They also seem taller than the average worldwide. I have recently heard that, according to some study, the distinction for best male physiques in the world belongs to Tonga.
As the adult men are replaced by their younger relatives on the family bush plot, their massive calorie intake (see "Food/Diet", below), which remains constant, begins to catch up with them and they gain a lot of weight in the form of fat. The muscle is still there, but it is obscured with fat. [I reiterate that this page is only my speculation -- the reader should remember that, especially when evaluating proposed cause-and-effect relationships.] Moreover, the higher one's rank in the social hierarchy (see "Hierarchy & Respect", below), the sooner s/he eats at communal meals. Therefore, as men age, they get the first or second pickings at meal time instead of the third or fourth pickings, as children do, so the quality and quantity of their food intake increases.
However, obesity is not a cause for concern among Tongans. "Fat is Beautiful" definitely applies in Tonga. Fat is a sign both of a healthy appetite and access to enough food to satisfy oneself. Being skinny in Tonga is not good, to the chagrin of some Peace Corps Volunteers.
Women, although they do not usually work in the bush, tend not to be overweight throughout their youth and teenage years. This may be due to either genetics or the same third or fourth pickings at communal meals as their brothers. Their weight gain usually comes after childbirth -- but again, unlike the eating-disorder-promoting U.S. culture, it is not a cause for distress. Tongan women, especially older women, are perfectly happy being fat.
Tongans are Polynesian, which means that their skin is lighter and their hair less kinky than their Melanesian and Micronesian counterparts... most Tongans would probably pass for half-African American, half-Caucasian in the U.S.
There is little individuality in personal appearance. There are three different ways females keep their hair in public -- either in a braid, a bun, or a ponytail -- and probably upwards of 98% of Tongan females have long hair. Men have only two hairstyles: short on top with a fade on the sides, and short on top without a fade. That works well for me since that's similar to the haircut I have had for five years.
The Tongan diet is fairly healthy, if not very varied. Root crops such as taro, yam and sweet potato are the name of the game for substance and quantity... and although the quantity of simple baked root crop I can consume in one meal has increased exponentially since arriving in Tonga, I pale in comparison to Tongans, who are able to make an entire meal out of baked root crop. Tongans also eat a lot of fish & seafood, kapa pulu (tin corned beef), sipi (lamb), moa tonga (free-range chicken) and, on special occasions, puaka (pig). Everything except the corned beef is usually killed, gutted and roasted/cooked by the family eating it. Tongans do not like super-sweet things, so when I tasted Coca-Cola for the first time in five months, I was surprised at how excessively sweet it is. Tongans also are not very much into baking, so baked cakes and breads are treats here -- a fact that many PCVs, including yours truly, latch on to as something unique we can offer as gifts.
Fruits & vegetables are plentiful but season-dependent, unless one wants to pay a lot of money for imported goods. Harvested in Tonga are carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, corn, pineapple, guava, lemons/limes, passionfruit and, of course, coconuts. Coconuts are referred to as the "tree of life" because every part of it is usable -- including the trunk, leaves, husk, shell, meat, and juice (milk). Young coconuts are used for a refreshing drink (high volume juice, low volume meat), whereas mature coconuts are used for pretty much everything else (high volume meat, low volume juice).
Tongans will eat anything. The concept of something being "disgusting" bears little if any meaning to most Tongans... and it is not hard to imagine humans being included in that group, as they were to a small portion of Tongans only 150 years ago, prior to the arrival of the missionaries. Tongans regularly eat pig, cow, chicken and almost every sort of seafood -- as well as, on occasion, horse, dog and cat. I've heard numerous stories about Peace Corps Volunteers who go away for a two or four-week vacation and return to Tonga to find their pet dog or cat has been eaten (see "Insects, Animals & Pets", below). If an animal has to be killed, for any reason, it is usually eaten so that its death will not go to waste (see "Trash & Waste", below).
Tongan culture is very food-oriented, and food is always to be shared. If a Tongan sees somebody passing by while eating, it would be rude not to offer the food which s/he is eating. Accordingly, a lot of insults in Tongan have to do with food and eating: "kaipo" (hoarding food and eating secretively); "'alu 'o kai ho kui" (go eat your grandparents); "kaimumu'a" (lit., eat front; fig., wants to be better than everybody else); "kai vevela" (lit., eat heat; fig., stinging from being hit or beaten); etc. Therefore, I am always being offered food; and if I eat in public, people would consider me rude not to offer what I have to others.
Many Tongans do not pay for food. Rather, they live a subsistence lifestyle, meaning that the men go into the family bush plots and harvest their own crops, keep their own farm animals, and go fishing. My host father during Training, Sima, does this for a living. At first I didn't get it -- "You mean you do this instead of going to work?", I thought -- but gradually I started to respect the fact that he puts food on the table just as surely as my father in the States does. Thus, removing money from the picture almost entirely, it threw into question my understanding of how one makes a living.
I have gone to the bush with Tongans a few times, and went spear fishing with Sima in Ha'apai once, and it reminded me of a definition of Intelligence from one of my psychology classes: the ability to adapt to one's environment. The subsistence lifestyle sounds easy until one actually tries to do it. In the bush, Tongans can identify hundreds of different kinds of plants and their multiple uses; I couldn't tell a mango tree from a banana tree when I first got here. My skinny 13-year-old host sister can shimmy up a coconut tree barefoot and pluck off the ripe coconuts; I huffed and puffed halfway up one before calling it quits. Sima, armed with only a Hawaiian sling spear, a piece of rope with a buoy attached, a knife, a pair of fins, and a snorkel, can go out into the ocean for four or more hours and come back with enormous amounts of all different sorts of seafood; I swam around with him with a snorkel and Hawaiian sling spear and my only catch was a pathetically small fish (it looked bigger underwater!) which was inedible... and I was totally exhausted after only one hour. Sure, I can hold my own in a discussion about politics, religion, Piaget's theories on childhood development or the anatomy of the brain, but could I go into the bush and come back with enough food to feed my family?
The Tongan language is one of my favorite topics of discussion, mainly because I am good at it. I know of no similar language in the Western world, but it is similar to languages of other Pacific islands. Structurally, Tongan is the easiest of the languages I have learned. It uses only sixteen letters of the Latin alphabet plus one diphthong. Words are pronounced the way they are spelled, and the grammar is fairly straightforward. This simplicity, in my opinion, is due in large part to the fact that there was no written language in Tonga prior to the arrival of the missionaries in the 1850's... consequently it could be argued that written Tongan is somewhat artificially constructed, based on the spoken language.
Nonetheless, many foreigners who learn Tongan are befuddled by the paucity of the language. Whereas English has around 100,000 different words, including words which have only subtle differences in meaning from other words, Tongan seems to have only a fraction of that number of words. As a result, Tongans who are good English speakers often incorporate English words into their Tongan simply because they are better able to express themselves that way.
Every language has a number of words that were pilfered from English, words that have no correlate in that language -- usually technology words like "television" or "Internet". The number and type of words in Tongan which are "Tonganized" English words, however, is astounding... not only technology words like "compiuta" (computer) and "letio" (radio), but other words, like "sea" (chair -- pronounced "seh-ah"), "tipeni" (depend), "pepe" (baby) and "fämili" (family).
There is a special set of words which must be used when talking to or about the monarchy and God (the kings' language) and a special set for the nobles (see "Hierarchy & Respect", below). Although these are often referred to as different languages, they are in fact the same language, with some different words. In English we might say "her royal highness" instead of "she" in reference to a queen. The kings' and nobles' languages are basically the same idea.
English speakers, especially those who have never learned a second language before, seem to expect that every concept in English will correspond to one and exactly one word in Tongan, but, like most languages, it doesn't work that way. The number of words in Tongan which have several different meanings in English is amazing (i.e., "tau" means we, war, park, and army); and the number of different words in Tongan which all mean the same thing in English can also be confusing. The faka'aua (glottal stop), which is denoted as an apostrophe, is also considered a letter of the alphabet -- and hence "tau" has a very different meaning from "ta'u" (year), and "tui" (wear, believe, knee) is very different from "tu'i" (king).
Due to this plethora of multiple meanings, subtle jokes and innuendoes abound in Tongan culture. On the bright side, it is easy to make jokes based on a double meanings... conversely, it can be confusing and can make for serious faux pas, such as the time I was a guest at the minister's house for lunch on Sunday (which, of course, is the holy day in Tonga) and tried to use the word for "frog" but accidentally said "penis" instead. Oops!
A very strong Christian faith is one of the most cardinal traits of modern Tonga and Tongans. The missionaries -- which only started arriving a century and a half ago -- really did quite a job with Tongans. Churches abound throughout Tonga, even on the most remote islands. The largest sect are the Free Wesleyans (AKA Methodists), which lay claim to more than 40% of the population, including the monarchy. Also popular are Catholicism, Church of Tonga, Baha'i and Mormonism. However, for a reason which I have not yet been able to identify, the Mormons are somewhat looked down upon by many non-Mormons. I personally have no beef with the Mormons or any of the other sects.
In fairness to the missionaries, however, they should be credited (blamed? ... never mind, that's a philosophical debate) with bringing Tonga into modern Western civilization. Cannibalism used to be practiced by a small portion of Tongans prior to the arrival of missionaries, and they did not have materials or resources which Westerners would consider basic, like timber or iron.
Prayer is a part of everyday life in Tonga. Most Tongans say a prayer before every meal, at the beginning and end of every meeting, in schools, at work, everywhere. The more formal the occasion and the more distinguished the guests at a gathering, the longer the prayer. Going to church on Sunday is perhaps like a person in the upper middle-class in the U.S. going to university: one does not have to go but is expected to, and is regarded more highly in the community if s/he does.
Intolerance and ignorance can lead people to say similar things for different reasons. Intolerance is born out of fear and misunderstanding; ignorance, having never been taught or exposed to a different way of life, does not connotate the same sort of ill will and spite. As a Jewish person in Tonga, I have come to know that distinction well. All in all, my conclusion is that modern Tongans, whose knowledge and exposure with religions other than Christianity is very narrow (knowledge of Jews & Judaism is limited to the Old & New Testaments; knowledge of Islam might be limited to news snippets about radical Muslims; etc), are ignorant, but not intolerant. Many people do not know quite what to do with themselves when I inform them that Jews -- and I -- do not believe in Jesus. Nonetheless, once they move beyond the sad fact that I will go to Hell, they are very curious about Judaism (see "Curiosity and Inter-Personal Borders", below). What does it mean? Do Jews believe in God? Jesus? How do Jews pray? What are Jewish traditions and holidays? Are there any Jews in Tonga?
So far, I have rather enjoyed the opportunity afforded me, by living in a small tropical island in the south Pacific, to work so directly in my personal life against ignorance and stereotypes.... Yes, I am Jewish, and no, I don't have a big nose; yes, I have strong morals even though I am not Christian; no, I don't believe I will go to Hell; no, I am not embarrassed to be Jewish, I am proud of it; no, I don't come from Israel; no, all Jews are not stingy with money; yes, my parents and grandparents were born in America; etc.
Unlike America, where "newer" might as well be synonymous with "better", Tongans take pride in their traditions and culture, which are still a part of their everyday lives. For example, clothing (see Chapter 14) is traditional, and fund- raisers for youth groups (Chapter 16) often include "faiva"s, which are graceful traditional dances (Chapter 19). Personally I find Tongans' shameless incorporation of culture into their lives to be a refreshing contrast to most Western countries, where traditional culture is often shunted aside, relegated to performances for tourists in deference to the latest trends and fashions.
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish traditional Tongan culture from that imposed by the missionaries. For example, it is now unacceptable -- actually, illegal -- for either men or women to be shirtless in public, and bare-shouldered Tongan women are fairly rare (although a few can be seen in Nuku'alofa, the more Westernized capital). Prior to the arrival of missionaries, though, shirts were not worn by either men or women.
Traditional houses, "faletonga", are simple structures built of bamboo, palm fronds and coconut trunk, and wallpapered with tapa (traditional art). Some families, especially on the outer islands, still live in faletonga.
Tongan culture is also very humble -- another refreshing difference from my experiences in the boastful Middle East and Balkans. Bragging is simply not cool in Tonga, and people sometimes go to great lengths to avoid being singled out for high achievement. I once tried affixing the quizzes of my top-scoring students to a bulletin board inside the classroom, only to see that they had all been taken down by the embarrassed students the next day.
In the Tongan language there are words such as "fiepoto" (lit., "wants to be smart") and "kaiimu'a" (lit., "eats front", fig., wants to be the best), both of which are typically said in a tone of derision to keep ambitious and immodest individuals in their place. Sometimes I really do not know whether students like being praised in front of the class, or would rather I did not single them out for laudatory remarks because they are afraid of being ridiculed by their classmates.
In the Tongan culture there is a clear hierarchy: Monarchy - Nobility - Chiefs - Commoners. This hierarchy exists even nowadays, when many Tongans are more Westernized. One gets the impression that, no matter how "rebellious" an individual Tongan might be, challenging the traditional dress code, gender roles, or authority, for instance, it would not occur to him to challenge the hierarchy... the realm of challenge-able aspects of the culture does not include the hierarchy. I am unable to find an adequate comparison in American society: our Right to Freedom of Speech essentially means that, as far as challenges go, everything is fair game and nothing is sacred. Perhaps Britons' love for their monarchy might be a decent comparison.
Even within a level there are hierarchical divisions. No two Tongans are on the same level; rather, one is always slightly higher or lower than the other. This contrasts sharply with America both in theory and in practice: in theory, all Americans are equal -- the President has the same rights and civic responsibilities as any other law-abiding citizen -- and in practice, people are vaguely divided into a hierarchy based on social class, which is determined by money. In Tonga, on the other hand, the town officer can be (but rarely is) the most destitute man in the town, yet the highest on the hierarchy.
Most Tongans know the kings' and nobles' languages (see Chapter 8), but actual dialogue with nobles and the monarchy, especially on formal occasions, is usually entrusted only to the "talking chiefs". Talking chiefs are men specially trained in all the cultural and linguistic intricacies and nuances of dialogue with members of the monarchy and nobility. Peace Corps Volunteers, even those who can speak Tongan well, are advised to speak only English if an occasion to speak with a member of the monarchy or nobility arises, out of fear that s/he will accidentally use a word of the commoners' language.
Respect is an integral part of the Tongan culture as well. Respect for one's elders, teachers, and especially those significantly higher in the hierarchy is ingrained into children from the time they are young... it is this emphasis on respect in the Tongan culture which most reminds me of east Asia. People are expected to be respectful of those higher in the hierarchy than themselves, even going so far as to smile cheerfully and put on a veneer of good will to those whom one dislikes (see Chapter 13).
The way Tongan communication was once explained to me is: island life is very small and intimate. There are few people, and little area in which to live. An argument could poison a person's relationship with a neighbor for years... and since there are so few people, dual or triple relationships are common (i.e., one's neighbor is also the person whom she buys pumpkins from, and that neighbor's uncle is the town officer, etc.) As a result, the Tongan culture developed a way to effectively deal with inter-personal problems: avoid confrontation at all costs. The usual method of avoiding confrontation is indirect speech, which includes lying, the third-party approach, joking, and story-telling.
Lying in Tonga does not hold the same gravity as in the U.S., where a person who makes a habit of lying would quickly be labelled a "liar", "unreliable" and "untrustworthy" by those who know him, and consequently ostracized. Rather, lies are expected here. Oftentimes, a person will lie when both parties know full well that she is lying, and both parties expect that she will lie. For example, if I want to invite somebody to a get-together at my house, I might say, "Do you want to come over tomorrow evening? I'm having a get-together at my house." To say no, for any reason, would be considered rude. Therefore, the person will always reply affirmatively. Maybe he will come, maybe he won't, but this is a perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable form of Tongan communication.
Another way of avoiding confrontation is the third-party approach. In this case, instead of directly confronting somebody, one might tell a third person -- usually a relative or friend of the individual -- his/her gripe, implying but not expressly requesting that the third party take action. The third party then relays the information. For instance, when my host sister from Ha'apai was in Tongatapu for a week, I invited her over for dinner one evening. She and her cousin came over around 6:30 PM, and left around 9:30 PM. A few days later, one of the young male teachers who I am friends with -- a Tongan who grew up in the States -- reluctantly informed me that he had been nominated to teach me the rules of this extremely conservative school, which includes no young females over my house after dark while the boarding girls are on campus.
A third form of indirect communication is joking and laughter. Probably as common as lying, much is expressed through joking and laughter in Tonga. As a result, people are laughing all the time (see Chapter 13), but only a small portion of the laughter is a result of anything genuinely funny. For this reason, I have to be careful about the jokes I make. For example, before I left my homestay in Ha'apai, my host father asked me for a pair of socks. Laughing, I said, "Okay, but I'll give you a dirty pair." In typical Tongan fashion, this would be interpreted as, "I don't have any clean socks, but I am willing to give you a dirty pair." So my host family said, "Oh, that's fine, that's fine! Line can wash them." Confused, I said, "No, no, it was just a joke. I wasn't serious."
The final method of indirect communication is story-telling. In order to get across a point without being confrontational, one might tell a story which the listener is easily able to relate to the current situation. For instance, every Sunday I make and eat 'umu (a traditional Tongan meal, baked in an underground oven) with the minister's family. My second week with them, the minister told me, "When we lived in 'Eua, there was a Peace Corps who came over our house every Sunday and brought with him fish or meat, and we baked it in the 'umu, and ate together." .... Translation: "You are welcome to come over here every Sunday, but it would be nice if you contributed something to the 'umu." I took the hint and have brought fish with me ever since.
As a psychology major in university, one of the most interesting things to me is the expression of emotions in Tonga. In the U.S. we are encouraged to be genuine -- if you are angry, express your anger (in socially acceptable ways), let it out... but crying, especially by men, is seen as a sign of weakness.
In Tonga, on the other hand, expressions of anger, like yelling at somebody at the top of your lungs, are a big no-no. One commonly heard phrase is "'Oua 'e ita!" (Don't be angry!) Anger, perhaps like greed or jealousy in the States, is seen as ugly and un-becoming of a person. This ties strongly to the prohibition against confrontation in Tongan culture (see Chapter 12).
Yet humans are humans around the world, and must, somehow, deal with the same feelings as all other humans. One of the most common ways of dealing with negative feelings in the Tongan culture is laughter. Tongans laugh all the time. At everything. If something is strange, people laugh. If people are nervous, they laugh. Embarrassed, they laugh. Angry, laugh. Happy, laugh. Unsure, laugh. Excited, laugh. Hurt, laugh... etc. This is especially true in the presence of strangers. It took me about six months to start to be able to differentiate the feelings and the body language underlying different types of laughter. As mentioned above, it seems that only a small part of the laughter one hears every day is actually a result of something funny.
Crying is another curiosity. Tongans can cry on command. It's remarkable. At almost every speech I have seen, even at birthday parties, the speaker has gotten choked up... and the more distinguished the occasion or the guest of honor, the more choked up the speaker gets, even if s/he barely knows the person s/he is speaking about on a personal level. At the "fakafamili", the family meeting the night before I left my homestay family after six weeks of living with them, each member of the family spoke and each got choked up (except the six- and eight-year-old boys). On the other hand, crying in public for personal reasons is not acceptable. I have read some personal written works which suggest that crying from emotional anguish -- i.e., crying oneself to sleep -- is a personal matter and should be kept that way.
A lot of feelings are suppressed in Tongan culture, and, perhaps like Japan, the suicide rate is higher than in many other countries. Recently there were four suicides in Tongatapu in a short period of time, which made big headlines (any unnatural death makes big headlines here).
Again in contrast to the regions of the world where I have spent the most time -- the Middle East, the Balkans, and the U.S. -- money is uninteresting and unimportant to Tongans. I find this very refreshing. Unlike the Middle East and the Balkans, prices for items are set and there is no bargaining. People will sometimes go out of their way to show how unimportant money is. The reasons behind this may relate to the communal nature of families (see "Family, Raising Children & Adoption", below), and by extension, communities, in Tongan culture. A family is a unit. Not sharing money in a family would be like not sharing money between one's left and right hands -- silly. To a lesser extent, the same principle applies to communities and the whole country.
But a sense of communality and "we're all one unit" is not the only reason for the unimportance of money in Tongan society. It is also simply part of the laid-back, relaxed Tongan culture.
However, there are two sides to every coin. People freely share money, and expect that everybody else will share freely, too. Therefore, students frequently ask me for money or to buy them food. Usually in that situation I utilize Tongan communication (see "Communication & Lying", above) and regretfully say that I don't have any or ignore them.
The same sort of communality applies to possession of property. There is a certain fluidity of possession which one does not find in the U.S. For a person to say, "No, you can't have that, it's MINE," would not make sense. You like my necklace? Here, take it. You like that trinket? You can have it. This lack of attachment to things is also a good reflection of the clear focus in Tongan culture on human relationships rather than material things.
As a result of this, Tongans also do not get very excited about material gifts... It is customary to exchange gifts upon one's departure. When I left my homestay family, they gave me an absolutely beautiful ceremonial ta'ovala (see "Clothing", below) with my name hand-woven in large letters across it, as well as a shell necklace and a small kava cup (see "Kava", below). They also sent me an ice box full of fresh fish -- worth over a hundred dollars in the market -- a few weeks later. I was speechless at all these extravagant gifts and stammered out my thanks repeatedly. When I presented them with their gifts on the evening before my departure from Ha'apai, they said, "Malo" (thank you), and that was it. That is not to say that they were ungrateful, but rather that they simply don't get excited about material things.
For another example, see the writing of one of my students in my 2001 Form 4 (10th grade) class, unedited, by clicking here.
The traditional Tongan costume is still a large part of modern Tonga, even in the "Westernized" capital of Nuku'alofa. The standard for men who are dressed up, whether for work, school, church, etc., is a button-down shirt (no tie), a tupenu, a ta'ovala, and sandals. A "tupenu" is single unit of material, like a skirt, usually a single dark color, which is tied or clipped around the waist. It extends below the knee, and is not tight. Some have pockets. Respectable Tongans do not wear shorts outside the house, except to exercise or play sports.
A "ta'ovala" is a crocheted mat, usually beige or brown (as far as I know I am the only person in the world with a bright red ta'ovala), which wraps around the waist and is tied with a rope (kafa). The ta'ovala is usually a little over a foot wide and 2 meters long for men, smaller for young boys. It can get hot during the summer. The most valued ta'ovalas are the ones passed down from generation to generation.
Women going to work, school or church wear a dress, kiekie, and sandals. A "kiekie" (pronounced KEY-eh-KEY-eh) is also crocheted, with about ten crocheted strips hanging down from a rope. Women almost never wear shorts. Check out a picture of a ta'ovala and a kiekie.
At formal occasions, like a wedding or baptism, both men and women wear the more formal ta'ovalas, which are very, very big woven mats, usually brown or beige. At funerals everybody wears all black clothing and the formal ta'ovalas. If somebody in one's family dies, even in the extended family (which can be quite extended), all the relatives wear all black for a long time... up to a year for the immediate family. Sometimes one might barely even know the deceased, but is required to wear all black because s/he is distantly related. Therefore, there are always a considerable percentage of Tongans wearing all black at any given time. If a member of the royalty dies, everybody wears all black for a very long time.... Therefore Peace Corps Volunteers always hope and pray that no royalty die during their two years of service!
So far the only time I have worn all black was for about a week following the recent terrorist attacks on the U.S. Even though none of my family were killed, it felt like the right thing to do out of respect for my fellow countrymen who had not been so lucky.
"Fashion" does not mean very much in Tonga, and matching colors is not important. Masculine men (like my homestay father) have no qualms about wearing floppy floral pink hats to work outside. Little old ladies in mourning have been known to wear Tupac (an American rapper) shirts if they need a black shirt. Name brands are not important, which may relate to materialism (see above). Function over fashion!
Once again, in contrast to the so-called "throw away" mentality of American society, Tongans produce an amazingly tiny amount of trash. Since food products are organic and grown here in Tonga, there is little plastic packaging or wraps to dispose of. Everywhere in Tonga except Tongatapu, trash is burned because there is no trash dump... and because it's the traditional Tongan way of disposing of rubbish.
"Waste not, want not" can be taken almost to an extreme in Tonga, as whatever can possibly be reused is saved for a future use. Poster projects students bring in are drawn on the back of a previous poster project. Clothes are worn by various family members until they are absolutely unwearable, then they are torn into rags. Accumulated bottles are turned upside down and used as a border for a garden. Plastic bags are saved and reused again and again. Empty aluminum cans are used as ashtrays, well buckets, plant pots, and backwash depositories during faikavas (see "Kava", below). Because so much is reused, little is thrown away -- one reason for the almost negligible amount of trash. (During my homestay period, I was producing about as much trash as the other seven people in my homestay family combined).
As noted above, adults often get first pickings at meals, especially more formal meals. Then the older children, then the younger children. Whatever the children do not want is given to the animals -- pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, etc. Organic materials that animals will not eat, such as banana peels, are tossed into some sort of compost heap or into nearby bush land to decompose.
Tongans prefer to spend money on materials that will last for a long time, such as blackboards and textbooks, rather than on one-time uses, such as newsprint paper and markers. This is an issue that I am trying to convince my principal that we need to change -- while long-lasting resources are very important, we also need basic resources for teachers to use, like newsprint, markers, folders, paper, etc.
Community is an important part of most Tongans' lives. Tongans are not as mobile as Americans, and even if a Tongan has lived in Nuku'alofa his whole life, he will still state the community of his forefathers if asked where he is from. The "youth" of almost every community -- note that "youth" means young people who have finished school but are unmarried, including men and women into their 30s -- almost always have an organized youth group, which meets regularly, plans and implements community projects, etc. About half of the Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in the Kingdom are youth workers, assisting the youth groups with projects, grant writing, fundraising, etc.
Many villages also have their own sports teams, consisting of village youth, which compete against the teams of other villages. Such matches are cause for excitement, especially outside of Tongatapu, as hundreds of people flock to the matches, shops close, and families often make a picnic out of it. In islands so small and slow-paced that a vehicle passing on the road outside is occasion to make one peer out the window in curiosity, one can understand why inter-village sports are a big event.
Fundraising is also a part of traditional Tongan culture. Every Saturday a different youth group, or sometimes several youth groups, are out on the main road yelling "CAR WASH!" to every car that passes by. (Upon seeing me on my bicycle, they inevitably get a kick out of screaming "BICYCLE WASH!" as I pass by, and then erupting in fits of giggles.)A "koniseti" (read Tonganized "concert") is a youth group's large-scale fundraising effort, when ticket prices for dinner can go for 10 pa'anga (US$5, which is a pretty hefty price for a meal). Konisetis are fun events. There is always a light-hearted MC cracking jokes (in Tongan), making fun of the performers, and egging on the audience to be generous in their tipping ("pale") the performers. The village youth themselves perform, singing songs, acting out silly skits, and doing traditional "faiva"s (dances). In the Tongan tradition, audience members show appreciation for the performances they like by either tucking money into the shirt of a performer, or sticking it to his/her well- oiled body, if s/he is performing a traditional dance. The family of a performer, especially that of a lone "tau'olunga" dancer, will always heavily tip their own relative, to make sure that s/he is not humiliated that no one pale-ed. If the dancer is especially good, or if it's a palangi (such as a Peace Corps), the audience usually pale-s so much that the dancer can barely move for all the people crowding around to pale. (This, incidentally, is not so much because they love palangis so much, but rather as a way of reciprocating and saying "thank you" for the palangi's uncommon display of cross-cultural involvement.) Tongans are very generous with youth fundraisers, and a koniseti can easily pull in over US$1000.
There is a subtle, but substantial, social psychological difference in the concept of "roles" in Tonga versus those in the U.S. In America, an adult usually has two distinct roles in their day-to-day life: the one they occupy in their personal life, and the one they wear in their work life. Before coming to Tonga, I always preferred to make a strong distinction between those two roles and, in order to protect against "conflict of interest" -- especially when I occupied a position of authority at work -- not to mix them. When co-teaching a course at the University of Maryland, for example, I would become very uncomfortable whenever I ran into a student outside of class, and was almost allergic to developing a personal friendship with any of my students, at least until the course was over.
In Tonga, on the other hand -- perhaps because the population is so small (if I were to try to associate with a completely different set of people in my personal life as I do at work, I would have almost no personal life) -- it could be said that people have only one role, which predominates over every other dimension of their life. This is their social role: their place in the hierarchy and their familial connections. If a person is your superior in the hierarchy, you must behave as though she were your superior in every situation, even if you do the same job at your place of work. The American concept of "all people are created equal" does not apply in Tonga.
As a teacher and a palangi -- and hence without any familial connections except my homestay family -- my role is even more clearly defined: I am a Teacher of impressionable teenage girls, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. That means that when I go to sleep and when I wake up, I'm a Teacher; when I go out to a bar with my friends, I'm a Teacher; while I eat lunch, I'm a Teacher... and I must do all of those things in a way that befits such a role model and a respected and trusted member of the community. Having never taught high school in the U.S., I don't know if the same is true of teachers in the States, but I imagine that if so, it can not be to the same extent.
Since Tongans have only one dominant role, people often do not take work and student roles very seriously... which can be very frustrating when somebody (like me) is trying to get something done. If a Tongan is not inspired to do something, it simply will not get done. Thus, the biggest criticism foreigners have of Tongans is that, from a Western point of view, they can be lazy. (Note that this is a big generalization and does not hold true for all Tongans.) From a Tongan point of view, it's just part of the laid-back, low-stress culture: have fun, enjoy life, and don't take anything too seriously.
Social life in this so-called "sleepy south Pacific island" can be quite a challenge for Westerners who are used to a plethora of choices for entertainment and places to go and things to do. There are a handful of bars, nightclubs and video rental stores scattered around Tonga, but the average Tongan does not frequent them regularly. Social life is slower, and -- like in many other realms of Tongan culture -- the focus is more on inter-personal interaction than on an activity or thing. Traditional Tongan social activities include people-watching, playing games, faikava, lalanga, kaukau tahi, 'eve'eva, and haihaiane. Each of these will be explained below.
People-watching is always fun. To people-watch, simply find an unobtrusive place to observe a heavily trafficked area, and park yourself there for an indeterminate length of time with a same-sex sibling and/or same-sex friend (or two). This can be done in daytime or at night. While there, you are free to laugh, mock, gossip, call out to friends and relatives who pass by, catcall to attractive members of the opposite sex (as long as they are alone or in a group which does not outnumber yours) and say "Bye!" to any palangi who passes by.
Games include card games such as "Teni" (Tens), "Talamu" (Trumps), "Sipe" (Spades), "Haati" (Hearts), "Last Kaati" (Uno), and others. This is good family fun. However -- in contrast to Western society -- oftentimes the goal is not to win but rather to see who can cheat the most, or in the most creative ways, without getting caught. Not getting caught provides giggles and snickers for the guilty parties, whereas getting caught provides laughter for the whole family -- a win-win situation all around! A foreigner who decides to participate in a card game with Tongans must understand these "rules".
Faikava, a male activity, will be explained in further detail below (see "Kava".)
"Lalanga" (weaving) is a female activity. Women often gather in groups ranging in size from 3-10+, and weave traditional Tongan items like ta'ovalas, kiekies (see "Clothing", above), tapa (a beautiful form of art, displayed on ceremonial occasions), falas (mats), and handicrafts. Weaving is a lengthy process, in which a large piece of tapa or fala can take months to complete. It involves a number of steps -- all natural, of course -- from start to finish, including cutting the leaves from the tree, soaking them in ocean water for a week, drying them, weaving, sewing and painting. During weaving sessions women gossip endlessly.
"Kaukau tahi", going swimming in the ocean, is often a family activity, and is frequently combined with a barbeque or picnic, especially on holidays. It can also be a social activity with same-sex siblings or friends.
Going "'eve'eva", one of the most common forms of socializing, means meandering through the streets with one's friends. It is basically like a mobile form of people-watching. However, 'evas can be with either same-sex or opposite- sex friends, or with family. It is also frequently used as a way for a guy and girl who are dating to spend a little time alone, relatively speaking. People who see their friend on an 'eva with a member of the opposite sex will generally not interfere in their date, but will grill their friend for details the next chance they get.
Finally, "haihaiane" means to go "cruising" around town with members of the same sex, admiring members of the opposite sex and catcalling to them (only if, again, one's group outnumbers their group). It is all light-hearted and, from my experience, the emphasis is on having fun with one's friends, not on finding a "moa" (lit., "chicken"; slang, "boyfriend/girlfriend").
One notices that all of these traditional Tongan forms of socializing are all-natural and freely available, and none involve the transaction of money.
Tongans tease. All the time. This relates to the cultural disdain for expressions of anger, as teasing a friend is, in a way, a game of wits: the one who gets angry first loses. Sharp and quick wit is a prized and envied ability among Tongans -- both in ability to handle/deflect teasing and in ability to tease, which includes making subtle jokes that others understand but which the butt of the joke does not. (This last is a facet of the culture in which palangis are at a distinct disadvantage.)
For example, a teaser might make a very broad generality which everybody -- except the butt of the joke -- knows is directed at the butt. The truly sharp- witted butt, however, realizing that the statement is directed at him or her, might make an equally broad generalization in response to the tease. This often elicits a lot of laughter from the "audience", especially if it is unexpected (e.g., from a palangi). Direct affronts and name-calling are considered uninteresting, the domain of the dull-witted.
Tongans will also often act as the straight man for their friends, creating opportunities for their friend to show wit by asking broad questions in front of a group. For instance, if the topic of conversation is seafood, a person might ask, "What kind of seafood do you like?" (Seafood, obviously, being an analogy.) To this the friend could respond anything which alludes to the point or the joke s/he is trying to make. This is kind of like setting up the ball for your teammate to spike it in a volleyball game. Metaphorical speech, while prevalent in everyday life, is particularly ubiquitous during faikavas (see "Kava", below).
To show annoyance or anger when being teased is to lose the game, as well as to encourage more of the same teasing. (Note that this is all in regard to friends or people who know each other well, and are on about the same level in the hierarchy.) This created a quandary for me when my students discovered that I have a particular dislike for Jew jokes. Once they realized this, they latched on to it and would not let go. For a period of a few weeks, seemingly everything -- including asking a student to pick up a piece of chalk so that it wouldn't get swept into the rubbish pile -- became fodder for Jew jokes. "Oh, you Jew, eh?"; "Oh, this is anga Siu! (the way of the Jews)"; or even just, "Siu!" The more fed up I got, the more they squealed with laughter. (Note that they may not really believe the stereotypes that they were perpetuating, and may not say such things in other circumstances, but were only saying them to get at me.) I realized that all I had to do was ignore their remarks and they would soon stop... but that contradicted all I had ever learned about dealing with bigotry in the States, where ignoring bigoted remarks can amount to condoning them. Yet in Tonga showing anger only encourages more teasing. What could I do?
Finally I realized a possible solution: calmly and seriously inform the students, each time they made a Jew comment, that saying things like that is not okay, and I don't like it. To my surprise, it worked. The embarrassed students quickly stopped making Jew jokes.
I personally have never been a fan of teasing, and it has been very educational for me to be forced to learn how to handle teasing both good-naturedly and wittily.
One of the biggest social differences between the States and Tonga is that privacy in Tonga is almost nonexistent, relatively speaking. The community feeling extends well beyond greeting all one's neighbors. Rather, it is fairly safe to assume that your neighbors and family know who is going in and out of your house at all times, as well as where you are, where you have been, and where you are going. This can be reassuring, especially for women living alone (pälangis, of course... Tongan women are never alone), or it can be annoying to those who are not used to it. This lack of privacy is reflected in the common greeting, "Alu ki fe?" (Where are you going?)
Lack of privacy also works as a social mechanism to deter crime. Since everybody knows everything about everybody, or can easily find out, all one has to do is spread the word that his/her belongings are missing, and the missing item(s) will often show up the next day. Perpetrators of crimes are sometimes punished through the justice system, sometimes simply with shame/humiliation (gossip), if they do not right the wrong that they have committed.
Anonymity is also nearly impossible. Walking down the street or in the marketplace, people see and take mental note of whom they saw. People who know each other will almost always say hello, sometimes calling loudly across a crowded area just to say hi. Working in the "Queen's school" which has students from all over Tonga, as I do, means that there are 800 Tongan schoolgirls and 55 staff members who know me and who don't hesitate to congenially call out, "HI MAKA!" whenever they see me, anywhere in the Kingdom. This has happened in 'Eua, Vava'u, and even the tiny Ha'afeva (pop. 350) on my respective trips to each. After being in Tonga for a year, I was amazed during my holiday in New Zealand that I could sit on a public bench in downtown Auckland, with hundreds of people streaming by, and be noticed by no one.
Gossip, AKA "the coconut wire", is rampant in Tonga. Tongans are very curious about people. Who did what? With whom? Where? Gossip helps serve the sociological functions of keeping delinquents in line and disseminating important information, but it can also be very harmful, like anywhere in the world. Stories often get warped: one night during Training I went to the one ramshackle hulohula (dance club) in Ha'apai with other Peace Corps Trainees, and returned home around 1:00 AM. I found out the next day that, according to the coconut wire, I had in fact returned home closer to 6:00 AM.
There are ways to cope with the lack of privacy and anonymity. One way is to lie. Another is, simply, not to tell a secret to anybody. Many people make the mistake of telling a secret to one person, who then mentions it to just one person, who in turn puts an APB out on the coconut wire.
Music is a very important element of Tongan culture. I have heard (but I can not confirm) that all Tongans have Perfect Pitch, a musical quality which allows them to always hit the right note while singing. The Tongan genres of music do not seem to be very varied to the palangi ear, but then again most classical music would probably sound unvaried to the uninitiated.
The most common musical element in Tonga is singing. I have yet to meet a Tongan who is not a good singer or who is shy to sing. All students learn singing, every year of their schooling, and they enjoy it: it is something that all students are good at, it is a traditional part of the culture, and they sing traditional and religious songs, usually in Tongan.
Incredibly, though, another part of the Tongan culture is for older women to totally blow this beautiful harmony out of the water -- at church, fundraising performances, ceremonies -- by belting out the song at the top of their lungs (heaven help anybody sitting in front of them) with complete disregard for the proper notes. My belief is that they could hit the notes if they wanted to, but for some reason, in the traditional culture they shout out this travesty of singing instead. But a foreigner gets used to it, and now it sounds like perfectly normal Tongan singing to me.
Tongans also seem to be quick at learning musical instruments, especially the guitar. There are almost always a few people playing the guitar and singing traditional Tongan songs at faikavas (see "Kava", below), as well as at fundraising "koniseti"s. Probably due to monetary constraints, however, only the least expensive and least fragile of instruments -- namely, brass, percussion and some string instruments -- have made it to Tonga. I have never seen a piano or any woodwind instrument here. School bands consist of brass and percussion sections only.
Performance dancing (tau'olunga) is another important element of the culture (as opposed to discotheque-type dancing, which is a palangi concept). Unlike in the palangi culture, performance dancing has nothing to do with male/female relationships. Rather, there are male dances, female dances, and combined dances. All the female dances are very slow and graceful, meticulously choreographed and almost exclusively hand motions. There is no Tahitian-style hip-swinging (sorry, guys). The girl is dressed in a traditional tapa, and her arms and shoulders, which are bare, are well oiled, such that it is easy to stick monetary tips to her body. (I heard that if the oil drips off her elbows, it means she is a virgin... so therefore her female relatives will sometimes pour or spit a mouthful of oil onto her immediately before she performs, to make sure that the oil drips.) The girl's feet are together, knees bent, and wearing a huge smile throughout the tau'olunga, which can sometimes go on for 5-10 minutes. Her carefully scripted hand motions tell a story which goes along with the words of the song being sung and played by a group sitting behind her. No motions are improvised. Men can also do tau'olungas, but they are different ones, and usually not as graceful.
The male dances include adrenaline-pumping war dances, often with fake spears. The man is bare-chested and wearing a leaf skirt and leaves around his ankles, and sometimes feathers. His body is oiled, as well. Whereas the female dances are usually solo, the male dances are usually done in groups of about 4-8. There is a lot of spear spinning and fancy handling of the spear, all in unison. It's impressive.
The "ma'ulu'ulu" set of dances are sitting-down dances, which are often performed by combined groups of males and females. Usually everybody makes the same hand motions rather than having gender-defined roles. Again, the hand motions tell the story which is being sung and played behind the performers.
As in almost all South Pacific cultures, kava plays an important role in the traditional culture of Tonga. Kava is a light-brown colored liquid made by pounding the kava root. It bears a striking resemblance, both in appearance and taste, to dirt-water. It is addictive only to the same extent as alcohol (i.e., it is addictive only to those who have a predisposition to addiction). When drunk in large quantities, it has a mild relaxant effect. Unlike alcoholic intoxication, a person "kona" (drunk) from kava feels peaceful, calm, and sleepy. Perhaps this helps explain why one of the prevailing traits of Tonga is a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere.
The social aspects of drinking kava are, to me, far more interesting. There are three types of situations in which kava-drinking takes place: a faikava, a kalapu, and a fakapangai.
Faikavas are the most common and least formal type of kava-drinking. In a faikava, anywhere from three to about thirty men sit in a circle, legs folded "Indian-style", talking, joking, and singing traditional songs. Between songs, each man drinks a cup of kava from an "ipu kava" (kava cup, which is a carved- out, sanded and oiled coconut shell), served by the "tou'a", the only woman in the circle.
The tou'a only serves kava, she never drinks it. (Foreign women who try their hand at being a tou'a often make the mistake of taking a cup of kava for themselves.) She sits with her legs folded under her, quietly stirring the kava and ladling out cups for the men. An accomplished tou'a will smile serenely and exchange light conversation with the men on either side of her while deftly deflecting flirtations and/or verbal sexual harassment, depending on the tone of the faikava, and always retaining her cool and graceful demeanor.
Some people say that faikavas are where the real work of Tonga gets done. In faikavas, amid the talking and joking, men discuss quietly the issues and events going on in the community and the country. And although women run the high-powered rumor mill in Tongan society, rumors and stories are reviewed at faikavas as well.
The heaviest kava drinkers can stay up all night and drink for over 12 hours. Most men, on average, stay about 3-5 hours at a faikava. Men come in and leave whenever they please, so there is always a turnover of kava patrons. Men get up and go outside about once an hour to stretch their legs and relieve themselves. When I go drink kava, I usually stay only about 2 hours, and I bring my own ipu kava (an exceptionally small cup, which the men usually mock as being a "sepuni kava", a kava spoon).
A kalapu is the same as a faikava, except that it's a fundraiser, with each participant contributing 4 pa'anga (US$2). Kalapus are usually much larger, with 5 or 6 circles going simultaneously, and tou'as are guaranteed (usually by paying them).
A fakapangai is a very formal type of faikava. It is used when royalty, nobility or other very highly respected persons are involved, and the roles in a fakapangai are meticulously proscribed.
Tongans, like most Pacific Islanders, are very superstitious. They fear "tevolo"s (devils, spirits, or ghosts), and, particularly in the villages (as opposed to the city), shy away from going out at night, especially alone. It is widely "known" here that the dead, especially dead ancestors, can haunt and affect the living. This even includes the extreme of "puke fakatevolo", being possessed by a spirit or devil. Luckily for me, despite living here for over a year, I've not yet been possessed. (I thought I was once, but it turned out just to be bad gas.)
One of the most interesting superstitions involves the digging up of remains. The first time I heard of this tradition was from a very Westernized Tongan friend -- a girl who had only recently returned from 9 years in New Zealand. She casually mentioned that she had helped dig up her grandfather's remains earlier in the day. I expressed my great bewilderment, and she explained: In the Tongan belief, if roots or an improper burial are hurting an ancestor's skeleton, that pain will be passed down to the bodies of descendents, manifesting as shoulder or back pain, for example, until the body is exhumed and the problem resolved. When the body is exhumed, all the bones must be cleaned and oiled, all roots or other detritus removed, and the bones wrapped in traditional tapa cloth before being re-buried. This process is called "tangaki".
"Puke fakatevolo", or possession by a spirit, is a serious fear for Tongans. I have heard some first-hand accounts of such possession, but have yet to witness it. So far as I can tell there is no head-spinning, stigmata or speaking-in-tongues involved. The afflicted person is conscious but in an altered state, experiencing hallucinations and delusions. Remedies include application and drinking of some traditional medicines.
Consonant with the de-emphasis on materialism in this culture, however, one does not find the same sort of superstitions found in Western society, such as "lucky" and "unlucky" items. There also do not seem to be any superstitions about numbers or words.
In Tonga, appearances are supremely important. One's front yard must be swept, trimmed, and well-gardened. One's house must look clean at all times -- orderly, tidy and swept... People must appear to be clean: all clothes washed and ironed, clean-shaven (men) or hair in a neat bun (women)... never mind that close inspection might reveal lice in the hair and stains underneath the ta'ovala. Meals must be appetizing and plentiful... never mind that food-handling practices are often questionable and hand- washing rare. Can't see germs. (Glad I'm vegetarian!)
This is not to say that Tongans are dirty. They're not. Rather, the definition of cleanliness here is culturally different from that of Americans. Surely many Americans would consider lack of hand-washing filthy... and many Tongans would consider allowing an animal inside one's house disgusting.
The importance of appearances extends to work and social life as well. Publicly disagreeing with a superior -- say, during a meeting -- is completely unacceptable, whereas quiet disobedience is common. One will agree up the proverbial kazoo when discussing a matter, then might go and do something else. It took me a while to understand and adapt to this, as well as to figure out how to phrase questions in a way that will produce answers I can rely on, rather than answers I want to hear. The reliability of answers also depends on how well people know each other: strangers and new acquaintances almost always give the answer that appears good, whereas good friends are more likely to give an honest answer.
In accordance with the stereotype of tiny island-nations, time and the pace of life in Tonga are much slower than in the Western world. One of the hardest things for me to adjust to when I came to Tonga -- and sometimes I still struggle with it -- was how slow things are here, and how little, relatively speaking, people expect to get "accomplished" in a given day. In our day-to-day lives in America, we usually judge the success of any given workday by how many tasks we accomplished, whether at work, school or home. In Tonga, on the other hand, people seem to not particularly care how many tasks they accomplished. More important is whether one felt angry or happy, anxious or content, and what social interactions transpired that day. Like many other aspects of Tongan culture reviewed above, the emphasis is again on human interaction instead of activities or "things".
Another aspect of the culture which it took me a while to get used to is that people never rush. There is almost no conceivable reason to warrant the disruption caused by somebody racing around like a maniac trying to go places or to get things "done". The annoyance that a rushing person causes to the people around him might be perceived the same way as a loud person scurrying around a beach where people are calmly relaxing under the sun: out of place and annoying. There is a subtle sense that rushing people, often foreigners, are out of touch with, and outside, the Tongan culture. I was reminded of this when I returned from New Zealand -- where I had unwittingly sped up to the Kiwi pace of life -- and my friend who picked me up at the airport drove well below the speed limit on the ride home, simply because there was no reason to go any faster.
Along the same lines, rest is an important part of the Tongan way of life. People are very conscious of the need for rest, and won't hesitate to remind others. What is so important that you can't go have a rest? Take a nap! You're working too hard. The world won't come to an end. As much as I sometimes hate to admit it, they're right: nothing I do is so exceedingly important that it can't wait until later, no routine so life-threatening that it can't be skipped once in a while. It was a rather humbling realization for me.
Memory here is a curious thing. As one Tongan friend quipped, the Tongan people are 'atamai ngalongalo -- forgetful. Worried that an activity I was planning to do would hurt a student's feelings, I consulted a fellow Tongan teacher, who said that it's fine, the student will laugh. "But sometimes people laugh in public and then go home and cry," I replied. She shook her head. "By the time the students get home they will all have forgotten it." In terms of interpersonal relationships, people do seem very forgetful indeed, for both good and bad: holding a grudge and returning a favor are both rare.
In regard to non-social memory, such as academics, Tongans seem about comparable to Americans. The difference in memory for such things as upcoming events might be due to the lack of a "culture of writing" here. People depend on themselves and others to remember activities and responsibilities, rather than pen and paper.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Tongan culture is that of attractiveness. It is, bewilderingly, very different from Western archetypes. A ma'alahi (lit., very clean; fig., pretty) girl is one who is clean, well-groomed, smiling and a little plump. In stark contrast to Western ideals of emaciated supermodels, Tongan men genuinely seem to not consider the weight of a dating partner as particularly relevant to their attractiveness. (Perhaps it's because over 90% of women over 35 are overweight anyway.) The difference in the definition of attractiveness between here and Western cultures might be one reason why many foreigners marry Tongans.
Perceptions of physical attractiveness of men seem to be even more ambiguous... although the truth is, as a male, I am only rarely privileged to hear women's ideas on such topics. It seems that women look for basically the same characteristics as those listed above, except that they attribute even less importance to physical characteristics. Women are more concerned with behavior: Does he get drunk? Smoke? Does he stay home with the family or often go out? Will he be faithful? Is he religious?
One characteristic that is found attractive in both women and men is light skin. Tongans, especially females, are often seen walking around with an umbrella or a notebook to shield them from the sun, lest they become paku (burnt, like toast). This could be one reason why Tongans find pälangis (Caucasians) so attractive.
Probably the single most talked-about issue among acquaintances in Tonga is that of "moa"s -- that is, chickens. Not literally, of course; "moa" is slang for one's non-exclusive dating partner. People talk about moas so much, in fact, that I was growing quite fed up with it my first few months here... until I realized that asking about one's moa is like talking about the weather in the States... just a way to make small talk.
I have found it quite amusing that people, both males and females, expect each and every one of their moas to date only them. Time and time again, my students' journals relate their anger when they spot their boyfriend with another girl... "so I went and found my other boyfriend, and went around with him instead." (I've tried to show them the obvious hypocrisy in that, but to no avail.) The trick, apparently, is to have several moas but keep each one secret from all the others.
People not only keep their moas secret from their other moas, they keep them secret from almost everybody. In fact, almost all the dating that goes on here is done in secret. If two people are open about their relationship, that is almost as good as a public announcement of their engagement. Along the same lines, public displays of affection are exceedingly rare... furtive hand-holding on a public bus may be about the full extent one might expect to see. The same is true even for married couples. (Tongans find the shameless public displays of affection exhibited by pälangi tourists to be distasteful, if not offensive.)
There are two types of teiti (dates) in Tongan culture: formal and informal. The latter is much more common. An informal date can be held in almost any public place: walking on the road, at a bus stop, on a bus, in front of a store, at the market, etc. It can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. The girl usually has one or more friend -- female friend, of course -- with her, and sometimes the boy does, too. They talk, laugh and tease each other, usually until the girl has to go home (or says she does).
A formal date is when a boy comes to a girl's house and asks her parents for permission to speak with her. If the parents agree, they sit in the living room and talk. The boy comes over in the evening, maybe around 8:00, and leaves around 11:00 -- no later than midnight. Sometimes they are offered snacks and drinks. They have no privacy. The really traditional way of dating is a faikava (see "Kava", above) at the girl's home. The girl is the tou'a and her suitor sits on her side. If the faikava goes on past 1:00 AM, to 3:00 or 4:00 AM, then the suitor is expected to bring 'umu (food cooked in an underground oven) the next morning to the girl's family.
It is important to note that girls are rarely alone. If a girl is alone with a boy -- in the bush, at a beach, in his house, etc. -- it is understood that she has agreed to have sex with him. Conversely, if a girl is known to have been alone with a boy, under any pretense, people will assume that they had sex. Even my students make sure to drag a friend with them to any one-on-one activity with me, such as rehearsing a skit or after- school detention. At first I was offended that they didn't trust me, a respected teacher, but then I understood that this was as much to protect their reputation as to protect them from me.
Dating among the "commoners" is, for the most part, the choice of the youngsters themselves, although parents get veto power for their child's choice of marriage partner. (Marriages among nobles and royalty are arranged.) Women are expected to live at home and retain their virginity until marriage, even if they don't get married until they are in their 30's. Men are not.
Weddings -- that is, announced marriages -- are usually huge affairs with hundreds upon hundreds of guests. After the ceremony the reception is a massive feast, at which very expensive gifts -- often endless lengths of material or tapa cloth -- are lavished upon the couple. The period of time between the decision to get married and the wedding date is usually only a few months.
In the traditional way, a mother and aunt check their newlywed daughter's bedsheet the morning after the wedding, to make sure that she was still a virgin. Girls swear upon everything that is holy that virginity is of utmost importance to them (but nobody mentions the fact that Tonga has the highest rate of premarital pregnancy in the South Pacific, a fact which I find highly amusing). Girls who get pregnant usually drop out of sight. They are often sent overseas to live with their relatives for 6 months or more, then return to Tonga. The child is almost always adopted by relatives, particularly relatives who need or want a child. Brides who are not virgins often go overseas with the bridegroom for their honeymoon, to avoid the humiliation of no blood on the sheet the morning after.
I don't know the exact percentage, but eloping is not uncommon... either because the parents don't approve; because they can't afford a big wedding and a small wedding would be an embarrassment; or because the couple is eager to, as we social scientists say, boink.
Sexuality is high on the social consciousness in Tongan society, yet it is well understood that real sex acts that have transpired are kept secret and rarely discussed, even among the closest friends. Communication about it is often through jokes, exaggerations, implications and innuendoes, and the listener usually has to make an educated guess on exactly what happened. One's sexual history is never openly discussed with a member of the opposite sex -- even, I suspect, between husbands and wives (but I do not know for sure).
Gender roles are extremely strong in Tonga. Men are men, women are women, and fakaleiti are fakaleiti. Boys usually grow up doing only men's activities: farming, making the 'umu (traditional underground oven), building houses, drinking kava (beginning in the teenage years), mowing the grass, doing household repairs, working at a job, fishing, driving, preaching, etc. Girls generally do only women's activities: weaving, cooking, keeping the house clean, sweeping, taking care of children, laundry, ironing, etc. This is not strict to the point that it is dysfunctional: there is crossover if necessary. For example, if there are no women available to do laundry or cooking, men will do it; and if no males are available to mow or drive, a female will. But some activities, like weaving or kava-drinking, are strictly gender-based. The only males that participate in weaving are fakaleiti.
Fakaleiti (lit., "like a lady") are male-female hybrids unique to Polynesia. Biologically, they are male. But they dress and act hyper-feminine -- far more so, in fact, than most women. In some ways I think they represent an extreme sociological outlet for women's freedom of expression. If a woman dressed the way many fakaleitis dress, she would be derided as a slut, a shame to her family and disrespectful to the community: fakaleitis often wear very tight-fitting clothing, and shorts or a skirt so short that I sometimes wonder why their biological masculinity doesn't stick out. For formal occasions they often like to wear long, tight dresses with a very high slit.
The behavior of fakaleitis, especially in public, is often what could be referred to in the States as "flaming" or "super-campy". They are sure to swing their hips when they walk, gesture with limp hands, and their talk usually revolves around sexual innuendoes. Some of the public displays, I think, are mainly for entertainment purposes, so that people have something to giggle and talk about. Perhaps because this society is so small and relatively isolated, Tongans seem in constant thirst for entertainment and amusing stimulation. Fakaleitis seem to attempt to fill that void. (Note that all of these observations are from public -- I don't know how their behavior is in the privacy of their own homes.)
As for whether or not fakaleitis are homosexual, it is unclear. I have heard that some choose the fakaleiti lifestyle, whereas others are brought up that way because there are no girls in the family to do women's work. The official answer is that fakaleitis are definitely not homosexual... homosexuality being strictly prohibited by the Good Book, of course. Yet they definitely do engage in homosexual acts, often with heterosexual men in their communities -- some of whom are married, some of whom are not. I have heard a rumor, but cannot confirm, that most Tongan males' first sexual encounter is with a fakaleiti.
There is no female equivalent of fakaleiti. If male homosexuality is officially abhorred in society, then female homosexuality is a completely foreign concept. (There is a slang word for lesbianism, but one almost never hears talk of it. Even in regard to the all-girl school where I work, I have heard only a token few such remarks.)
The extended family is the basic structural unit of society in Tonga. Like most developing countries around the world, Tongans look out for their kin. Most people live with extended family (cousins, grandchildren, uncle/aunt, etc.); the nuclear family (father, mother and children) is a western concept not commonly found in Tonga. Most households have about 5-10 inhabitants. It is not uncommon for 2 or more people of the same gender, especially females, to sleep in a big bed, and for men to sleep on a mat on the floor (the traditional wooden pillow is called a kali). Newlyweds tend to live alone, or at least have their own room in the house of the man's family (or a shack on the property of the man's family) until they can build or find a house of their own.
One of the things I admire most about Tonga is that no one is outside of society. Everybody who needs assistance -- children, elderly, disabled -- gets it from their family. There are no orphanages, homeless shelters or nursing homes. There are a few beggars in downtown Nuku'alofa, but they generally prefer living that way to living with their family.
Within the home, roles generally are not divided into clearly defined chores, but there is a more fluid assignment of responsibility based on whoever is able and available at the time. The farther apart in age two members of the household are, the more interactions take the form of barked orders rather than polite requests. The man is the head of the household, though he usually respectfully defers to an elder if an elder is living with them. If somebody tries to give an order to someone older than themselves, they are usually ignored or ridiculed.
Children are raised with a firm hand and little say. On one hand, this does not allow for much personal freedom (although children can nag persistently and sometimes get their way if there is something they really want, for example to join an established group). On the other hand, children generally feel secure and part of the family, rather than alienated or estranged. Remember that Tongan culture is communal, whereas American culture values individuality. Children's basic needs are met, they are well-nourished and protected, and expectations of them are age-appropriate.
Discipline of children is definitely corporal, although as far as I can tell it is usually relatively moderate and rarely lashing out in anger. Threats of hitting, whether real or in jest, probably outnumber actual hits ten to one. A dignified parent or guardian would never chase after a child to hit them... and so many children avoid half-joking swats (which are very common) by ducking out of arm's reach. Verbally, guardians are quick to put children in their place, sometimes rather harshly [by Western standards]. But children seem to understand the intent behind the words: I once asked an 8-year-old I know well, "Does it bother you when they say bad things to you? Do you cry?" With typical youthful candor he replied casually, "No, only when they hit me."
Child abuse -- both physical and sexual -- does occur in Tonga, usually by men and usually when they are drunk. I don't know the statistics, but it is probably comparable to the States.
Pusiaki, or adoption, is extremely common in Tongan society. In most cases, it is because an unmarried girl got pregnant -- and of course no unmarried girl would be expected to raise a child alone -- or because there are relatives, especially older relatives, who have no children. By Tongan cultural laws, a man's older sister is his superior, so she has the right to ask for his children, as well as anything else of his. Adoption is usually with the agreement of the child's biological parents -- though not always -- and the baby is usually given over to the adoptive parents immediately at birth.
Everywhere, even in some places in the "big city" of Nuku'alofa, one can find pigs, chickens and dogs. Horses, cows, sheep and goats are also common, but are usually kept in the bush (farm/forest land) rather than in the yard. Pigs are usually penned in to a small area. Animals are well-fed and are in most cases are not abused. Almost all families have farm animals.
Almost all animals here are treated the same, without regard to "rights" or any other such Western concept. Tongans' perception of animals is totally functional: food, or useful as a tool, or both. Tongans eat all the animals listed above, as well as all types of edible seafood which are available. If an animal which has been kept is to be eaten -- usually pigs and free-range chickens; less frequently cows, goats, sheep, horses and dogs -- the family will kill it without a second thought. There are no official butchers, as anybody (usually males) can be a butcher. In contrast to America, where the meat consumer is several degrees detached from the original animal, Tongans are only one degree detached. They know exactly what they are eating, and it doesn't bother them one lick.
The idea of having a "pet" is a Western concept which has not gained much popularity in Tonga, although a few families have pets. With the exception of maybe a cat, animals are definitely not allowed inside the house (this is not inhumane because the outside temperature never drops below 55 degrees F).
In the lush tropical climate of Tonga, all different kinds of insects flourish. Mosquitos of course are the most annoying -- I estimate that before I leave Tonga I will have been bitten about 2500 times (and I will probably have killed an equal number ... I even kill them in my sleep, literally) -- but Tongans and long-term residents like myself get used to it. Window screens and a mosquito net are by far the most effective deterrents. Fleas can also be annoying.
The only other insect which bites is called a molekau, or poisonous centipede. Even the bite of a 2-inch-long baby molekau can hurt, albeit briefly. The bite of a vicious 6-inch-long adult molekau hurts like hell, and the bitten area can swell up a lot. It can continue hurting for up to 24 hours, and the two fang marks remain visible for a week or two. There is no antidote to the venom. With their tough armor molekaus are notoriously hard to kill. The only sure way is to decapitate the little bastards. Chickens love to eat molekaus, and cats like to play with them. Although I have killed about 15 molekaus in my house, I have only been bitten once, on the toe, as I walked home one night. It hurt like @$%&!
There are no major communicable diseases which constitute serious health threats in Tonga, such as AIDS or malaria. The biggest diseases most Tongans are likely to face are heart disease, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses. Exercise is not part of Tongan culture, although in Nuku'alofa more Western- minded Tongans can be found at the outdoor track and gym. The majority of Tongans, particularly outside of Nuku'alofa, do not exercise, and may consider it a strange, foreign concept (walking round and round in big circles?). However, the Department of Health here frequently runs public-service announcements on the radio and TV encouraging physical activity and good eating habits.
The king of Tonga seems to be proactive and highly supportive of good health among his subjects, as long as it does not conflict with a money-making scheme. For example, the king has instituted such progressive laws as the one banning smoking in all public buildings... yet he also recently announced the opening of the first tobacco factory in Tonga. Smoking is not rampant in Tonga, but many men smoke socially. Female smokers are less common. Smokers tend to be subtle about the way they smoke, such that a person walking by wouldn't even notice.
No one knows the actual incidence of STDs in Tonga because it is a very taboo subject. But the unspoken strong undercurrent of illicit sexual encounters, usually without condoms, makes one suspect that it must be high. The highly religious nature of the culture also sometimes poses an obstacle to publicly encouraging condom use, although the branch of Family Planning in Tonga does try to get the word out.
Traditional Tongan medicine is still very popular, including ointments, oils and drinks made from tree bark and plant leaves, as well as Tongan fotofota (massage). Many people prefer to try traditional Tongan medicines before seeking Western-style medical attention. I have heard Western-trained health care professionals complain that this delay is sometimes detrimental to the health of the patient.
The main hospital in Tonga, Vaiola Hospital, is a drab building which seems to generate a disproportionately high number of horror stories. (To be fair, I also heard from an Australian volunteer who worked there that their basic medical practices are fine.) They have basic equipment, including x-ray and ultrasound machines, but lack any advanced machines, such as CAT-scan, MRI or EEG machines. Serious medical cases out of the scope of Vaiola Hospital can only be treated in New Zealand, Australia or the USA, if the patient can get there in time. In complicated medical emergencies where minutes are critical, the prospects are often grim.
Perhaps like everywhere in the world more than about 70 years ago, the deaths of many patients, particularly elderly, are ascribed simply to "sickness". Differentiating between cancer, Parkinson's, Huntington's and other diseases, for example, may not be possible or even important to laypersons in Tonga, especially after the death has already occurred.
In terms of physical violence, Tonga is probably one of the safest places in the world. Any manslaughter or murder, and most fatal accidents, make headlines. The most common inter-personal crime that takes place is probably sexual harassment or light sexual assault of young women. It is not uncommon, especially in crowded public places, for young women to have a hand, arm or gluteus maximus grabbed by a stranger. This is not a traumatic occurrence; Tongan girls just shake off the offending hand and either ignore it or snicker about it with her friends -- remember that Tongan females are rarely alone.
On the other hand, girls who live alone (usually foreigners) long enough may be targets of young men (usually drunk) breaking into their house at night for attempted rape. Several young female Peace Corps Volunteers have, unfortunately, been in such situations. The only such stories I have heard have been attempts which were unsuccessful.
There are no gangs or groups of troublemakers which roam the streets in Tonga. But drunk Tongan males often seem to lose all self-control, and it is only downtown on Friday and Saturday nights, especially in and near the bars, that fist-fights are not uncommon. Unlike in Western culture, young Tongans seem to see little point in drinking alcohol unless one gets smashed to the point of insensibility. (Westernized Tongans, on the other hand, tend to adopt the drinking habits of Western culture.) This is a complaint I often hear from older and more mature Tongans, particularly those who emphasize the contrast between a person drunk from kava (sleepy) and one drunk from alcohol (rowdy).
Guns are almost nonexistent in Tonga. The only firearms owned by the government are those of the army and navy. The police do not carry guns. Armed robbery is extremely rare, although petty theft is more common. Criminals are usually unarmed.
The police in Tonga are notoriously lazy and biased and open to bribes. If the right person calls the police -- often a friend or relative -- about the right issue, the police may come. Otherwise, the chances seem low. I heard a story of palangi witnesses who stayed by the scene of a crime to give their reports to the police... and the police, when they came, then told the witnesses to go home and forget about it. The one time I called the police about an assault on my friend (who was unhurt), they told me to wait outside and a police car was on its way. They never came. As far as I'm concerned, it's better to just avoid potentially dangerous situations and not rely on the police.
The main prison is called Hu'atolitoli Prison. It's rather laughable. It is surrounded by bush and a waist-high fence, and is very easy to escape from. Nevertheless, escapes are uncommon -- maybe once per year. (Where would they go on this tiny island?) I heard that there used to be a sign which read: "All prisoners not back by 10:00 PM will be locked out".
The only animals which are likely to bite humans are dogs and molekaus (see above). Other natural dangers are hurricanes, cyclones and earthquakes. Hurricanes and cyclones usually hit only about once per year, and those causing massive destruction only hit about once every 20 years. Injuries and deaths from natural disasters are uncommon.
Education in Tonga follows the New Zealand system: kindergarten, primary school (Class 1-6), secondary school (Form 1-6), university prep year (Form 7), university (three years). In theory, only Tongan Studies lessons are conducted in Tongan, and the rest in English; in practice, however, almost all classes taught by Tongan teachers are conducted in Tongan, even English lessons. I do not think there is anything wrong with conducting classes in Tongan (except English lessons) but the tests should then be written in Tongan. They are written in English instead. So the result, as far as I can tell, is that some students may know the subject material well but fail the exams because their English is poor. I am sure that most students lose some points on exams because of this, but I do not know how many actually fail that would otherwise have passed.
There are two types of schools: government and church. All children are allowed to enroll in government primary schools, but at the end of Class 6 all children take a government exam which determines their academic future. The brightest enter government secondary schools; the rest must enter church schools or, for those with the lowest scores, government middle schools (Form 1-3). There are exceptions, church schools which are favored over government schools by some parents, such as: the all-girls Wesleyan "queen's school", Queen Salote College (where I work); the all-boys "king's school", Tupou College Toloa; and the Mormon, American-styled Liahona High School.
All students in Tonga except university students are required to wear uniforms. For girls, a white short-sleeve button-down shirt with a pleated dress below the knee. The color of the dress depends on the school. Hair must be in a braided ponytail or pigtails. For boys, a white button-down shirt and a tupenu with ta'ovala. The color of the tupenu depends on the school. Primary school girls wear a simple pleated dress, and primary school boys wear a white button-down shirt with shorts.
Final exams are usually used as the sole determinant of a student's passing or failing the subject for that year. While it may seem that an inordinate amount of weight is thus attributed to a single exam -- it seemed that way to me when I first came here -- there is one big advantage: teachers can be sure that each student did his/her own test. In this sharing, communal, laid-back culture, almost every classwork and homework assignment is copied from other students. Plagiarizing is fairly common. Tests, quizzes and exams will be copied, too, if the teacher does not crack down. Most students don't see that it's a big deal, nor do most teachers. This made teaching extraordinarily challenging for me my first year, but the second year I simply started quietly giving zeroes to all cheaters. Cheating dropped dramatically.
The resources available in the classroom (except at the Mormon schools) are usually very basic: blackboard, chalk, one bulletin board, and long desks with benches (2-5 students per desk). Students are usually happy to offer their slipper as a duster (eraser), if needed. Walls and floors are bare concrete, unadorned and usually unpainted. Windows are usually louvre style.
Textbooks are usually available, although there are rarely enough copies for students to take them home; they usually have to share. The quality and condition of the textbooks are variable, but generally pretty poor. Computer labs in schools are rare, although a few schools, such as Queen Salote College, which have received generous donations (usually from alumni overseas) have computer labs to rival any high school in the States. Regardless of most schools' lack of resources, students and teachers seem not to mind very much at all. It's just the way things are.
Discipline in the classroom is maintained almost exclusively through corporal punishment. (Before the reader's jaw drops to the floor, remember that it wasn't so long ago that corporal punishment was standard in the U.S. and other developed countries.) Hitting students in the classroom is officially illegal, but almost all teachers use it as a form of discipline, some more, some less. It is much more efficient than foreign ideas (such as detention) at immediately stopping or punishing the offensive behavior. If the hitting is excessive, however, a parent can report it to the police and the teacher will be fined and/or jailed. Most Tongan parents support and encourage corporal punishment in the classroom, just as they do at home.
The majority of foreign teachers, including Peace Corps Volunteers, struggle with classroom management because they don't want to compromise their morals by hitting students. Tongan students know this and usually start taking advantage of it within the first few weeks. It took my students a few weeks to get used to my method of detention my second year, but once they did, it was effective.
Students seem both more and less respectful of teachers than in the States: On the one hand, the institutionalized respect makes any sort of threat or violence against a teacher unthinkable. Teachers are above students. Students voluntarily move to the side for a teacher to pass in the hallway. On the other hand, students are much less formal with teachers on a personal level. They do not hesitate to tease a teacher about a suspected boyfriend/girlfriend, or laugh at a teacher who does something stupid.
The idea of race is very different here than in the States. I have started to realize that, compared to most countries around the world, Tonga is closer to the "norm" and America is in fact the exception. Like most countries, Tongans are homogeneous, predominantly one race and ethnicity; modern Western countries like the U.S. and Britain, with large and steady immigration -- and hence a very diverse racial and ethnic population -- are the exceptions.
There are only 100,000 people living in the Kingdom of Tonga, of whom probably 98% are racially and ethnically Tongan. First contact with white people occurred less than 300 years ago, so it is not surprising that all white people are still considered foreigners (mostly tourists) ... and for the most part it's true. There has been a lot of emigration, but very little immigration. There are some "half-castes" -- people of Tongan-palangi or, for example, Tongan-Fijian parentage -- but most half- castes (who usually appear to be Caucasian with a tan) live overseas.
In America, race is a very sensitive issue. People recoil at the idea of being judged by the color of their skin, in any way. Even talking about race in casual conversation can be explosive. In Tonga, on the other hand, people do not hesitate to bring attention to race or identify a person by their race. Päpälangi, or just pälangi, are white people. (People sometimes mistake the term to mean "foreigner", but I have never heard Tongans use it that way.) In normal conversation, a person might say, "You know the palangi who works there?" or "I met a new palangi..." Other races are similarly defined: Siaina (Chinese), Siapani (Japanese), Initia (Indian), Fisi (Fijian) and 'uli'uli or Nika ("black" or "Nigger", respectively; the term Nika, which people use without any derogatory connotation, is an artifact from American soldiers stationed in Tonga in World War II).
Nobody seems to find such racial labelling offensive, but, being American, it has irritated me on a few occasions. For example, one way to say goodbye informally is to say, "------, eh!", using the person's name. If the person's name is not known then any descriptive noun can be used -- usually tamasi'i (boy) or ta'ahine (girl). But when a child at the market saw me leaving and called out "Palangi, eh!" I stopped to tell him that it's not nice to say that, and that it would be better to call out "Tamasi'i, eh!" The kid just about shit his pants.
On first encounters with a palangi, the majority of Tongans seem to pander to the stereotype of the friendly islander: "Hello! Welcome to Tonga! How long will you stay?" with big smiles and friendly laughter. This is probably well suited to holiday tourists, but the longer I've stayed here the more I find it to be an irritating mask. New Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga -- members of the only foreign group here which emphasizes Tongan linguistic proficiency and cultural awareness -- usually prefer to struggle through Tongan rather than speak English. The response is usually a patronizing "Oh, you speak some Tongan words!" (in English). What I sometimes do now is continue to speak English with a Tongan I have just met, until another Tongan I know passes by, with whom I then speak fluent Tongan... much to the shock of the first person.
It is hard to pinpoint the feeling among Tongans toward palangi and other races. While everybody is welcome in Tonga ("The Friendly Islands"), really getting to know people and be considered a genuine friend -- as close as a Tongan friend -- can be difficult. Socially, people usually assume, perhaps accurately, that foreigners will be most comfortable among their own people. And Tongans generally feel most comfortable socializing with other Tongans. Furthermore, many Tongans are shy to talk to foreigners, perhaps insecure about their broken English or unfamiliar with the palangi culture. (How quick would you be to approach someone in your home country who looks, dresses and talks differently from you?) The language barrier usually poses a problem as well, as most Tongans communicate with each other almost exclusively in Tongan, and palangi who speak Tongan are rare.
For my first several months in Tonga I was somewhat baffled at how attracted Tongans are to palangis. Tongan women seemed to feel little or no embarrassment about telling me how attractive I am and asking me to be their moa (lit. "chicken", fig. "boyfriend"). I was not the only one; almost all marriageable age palangis, both male and female, seemed to be having the same experience. I wondered why palangis are considered so highly desirable in Tongan culture. The skeptic in me, of course, suggested that people see marriage to a palangi as a free ticket to a developed country. After living here for a long time, however, I realized that it is more complex than that: for some people that may be true; but many Tongans also believe that palangis are known for being honest and faithful in a romantic relationship. Also, light-skinned Tongans are considered more beautiful in Tongan culture than dark-skinned Tongans; whether this extends all the way to Caucasian-colored skin, I cannot say for not sure.
The only foreigners to whom Tongans seem antagonistic are Chinese. There are a number of Chinese falekoloa (little shops) throughout the main island of Tongatapu, and Tongans blame them for undercutting Tongan falekoloa owners and driving them out of business. (But I ask, who is buying from them?) Many Tongans, especially youth, are rude to Chinese as well as other Asians, whom they assume are Chinese (this can make life uncomfortable for Japanese volunteers and Asian-American PCVs). There have been a few reported cases of physical assault against Chinese. I wondered why the sentiment among Tongans would be so different towards palangi than the sentiment toward Chinese and realized that, regardless of politics, it's what people see on a day-to-day basis that influences their attitudes: they see white people volunteering in development and bringing money into the economy through tourism; while they see Chinese competing with Tongans for retail wealth.
The causes of death in Tonga are mostly health related. As noted above (see "Health"), heart disease and diabetes are common in Tonga. Cancer and other mostly old age-related illnesses also account for a significant percentage of deaths. Car accidents and other accidents probably rank next. Death from interpersonal violence is extremely rare, but suicides are slightly more common. The average life span is about the 60's.
In pre-Christian Tonga, Tongans practiced ancestor worship. They prayed to an object, kept in their home, which they believed represented their ancestor.
The Tongan social script to follow when a death in the family occurs nowadays is fairly clear. It seems to be a mix of Christian and Tongan traditions. First, the body is usually kept in the hospital morgue for a few days to allow time for relatives from overseas -- there are almost always relatives from overseas -- to arrive. Family members start wearing all black clothing (see "Clothing", above) as soon as they are notified of a death. The closer the relation, on either parent's side, the longer one wears black. For immediate family members, the standard is one year. Most deaths are also announced on the radio in the evenings, to quickly spread the word to affected family members around the kingdom.
Interestingly, as a sign of respect, in death all commoners become nobles. So, for example, while one would use the word 'alu to mean "go" for a commoner, the word for a deceased commoner who is being taken from one place to another is fakahä'ele, the nobles' word for "go".
On the night of the wake, the body is transported in a long, slow convoy from the hospital to the house where the wake will be held, usually arriving between about 9:00-11:00 PM. The coffin is wrapped in layer after layer of huge, fancy pandanus mats and tapa, which more than a dozen pallbearers hold on to when carrying the body.
Inside the house the coffin is placed on the floor and the closest relatives stay with the body, seated, to receive wave after wave of visitors. Visitors usually come in a big group with others from the same acquaintance; for example, all the workmates come together, all the village members come as a group, all the fellow churchgoers, all the representatives of the alma mater, etc. Everybody going to a putu (funeral) wears all black. In one night hundreds or even thousands of people may come to the wake.
After a group has entered the house, and everybody is seated on the floor, one person from the group, a minister if possible, says a prayer for the dearly departed, lasting about 20 minutes. Then a matapule, a talking representative of the family, sitting at the back of the room, gives a thank you to the group which has come, lasting about 5 minutes. Then each person in the visiting group, starting from the highest in the hierarchy, approaches the body. The person approaching is humbly bent over low, as a gesture of respect. He kneels down to the body and does a fe'iloaki (Tongan greeting kiss, cheek-to-cheek and a sniff, no kissing sound) and may mumble something to the deceased: "Goodbye" or perhaps an apology for having wronged him/her in the past. He then proceeds outside where there are tents and long tables and benches set up for a "tea". Drinks and pre-packaged Tongan food are distributed by younger relatives of the deceased. The wake goes on all night for the mourning family, and burial takes place the following morning.
Specific roles are prescribed by Tongan custom to specific relatives of the deceased. The role of fahu, or chief of the funeral, is designated to the eldest sister of the father, if she is still living. She is the boss of all arrangements for the funeral. The liongi, the family of the mother, have their own roles to perform. They are easily identifiable because it is the only occasion when Tongan women are expected to wear their hair down, and usually very frizzy.
Spontaneous wailing is not uncommon at funerals, although the skeptic in me can't help but wonder if there is any public-performance aspect -- i.e., showing everybody how distraught one is -- mixed in with the anguish.
One other interesting note: for those who barely know the deceased at a wake, such as youths in a village at an elderly person's funeral, the all-night wake can be a great socializing opportunity -- an excuse to stay up all night hanging out with friends and meeting new people. Subdued joking and teasing are acceptable during the tea, especially among those who are not closely related to the deceased. Out of curiosity I wonder how many married Tongans, if asked where they first met, would reply, "At a funeral!"
The U.S. Peace Corps, an American federal agency promoting technical assistance and cultural exchange in developing countries, has been sending Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to Tonga since the late 1960s. The Peace Corps established a presence in Tonga only a few years after its inception by President John F. Kennedy. Since then, the focus of the technical assistance provided has shifted from rural, agricultural, tourism-promoting and business development work to its current foci of education, youth work and the environment. About 70 PCVs work in the Kingdom at any given time; roughly 45% of those work in education, 45% are youth workers, and the remaining 10% work in the areas of environment or business. There is often overlap between these areas well.
Service in the Peace Corps is a 2-year commitment for qualified American applicants. Peace Corps does a good job of looking after the safety and security of the PCVs in Tonga, as well as all medical needs. PCVs with urgent medical issues which cannot be solved in Tonga, whether physical or mental, are evacuated to the States, with the possibility to return if the medical condition is completely healed.
Almost all PCVs have a Bachelor's degree, though not necessarily in the field in which they work (I, for example, have a degree in Psychology but was assigned to be an English teacher). Some, especially older volunteers, may not have a Bachelor's degree but have years of experience. PCVs with Masters and Doctoral degrees are not uncommon.
The PCVs in Tonga are mostly in their 20s and 30s, with a few scattered 40- and 50-year-olds, plus a handful in their 60's who have retired. The PCVs come from literally all over the U.S., from California to Maryland, from Texas to Montana and everywhere in between. The vast majority are Caucasian, but there are some African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American PCVs, too. Since many Tongans assume that other countries are as racially homogeneous as Tonga, they are often surprised to meet a non-Caucasian PCV. Most of the PCVs are Christian or have no religion, but there are a token few Jews, Hindus and Muslims.
As the longest standing international development organization in Tonga, almost all Tongans under the age of 40 have had a PCV teacher at some point in their education. The term "Pisakoa" (Peace Corps) has become synonymous with "international volunteer" to most Tongans. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a Tongan to say, "There was a Pisakoa here from Japan..." or when I introduce myself as a PCV, people sometimes say, "Oh, you're a Pisakoa? From where?"
The U.S. Peace Corps is the only organization in Tonga -- probably one of the few in the world -- which places a strong emphasis on linguistic and cultural competency among its volunteers. The three-month in-country training prior to the start of service, living with a Tongan family and learning the language and culture as well as technical skills, gives PCVs a huge advantage over other international volunteers (mostly from Australia and Japan) in integrating into the Tongan culture. And in a culture where one's effectiveness at work can potentially be greatly helped or hindered by the personal relationship with one's colleagues, it can be a big advantage in work as well.
Peace Corps Volunteers have a reputation in Tonga for being culturally sensitive and making an effort to integrate into the Tongan communities in which they live. The administration is keen to maintain that reputation, and threatens expulsion to any PCV who displays extreme insensitivity or breaks the Tongan law. On the other hand, I have heard several cases where the Tongan youth prefer the PCVs (usually youth workers) who smoke, drink and curse rather than the goody-two-shoes PCVs. (The older generation, as may be expected, usually prefer the latter.)
In the past few years Tonga has been moving quickly, relatively speaking, toward a loosening of the traditional ways and into more "modern" ways, especially among those living and working in the capital of Nuku'alofa. Women can sometimes be seen wearing tight, revealing clothing; Tongans who return from overseas may bring with them many of the pälangi ways of life, including such foreign ideas as "customer service". Nonetheless, many aspects of Tongan culture will probably remain unaffected for decades or even centuries, particularly among those living in Tonga as opposed to overseas. Admirably, Tongans tend to hold strongly to their culture and will most likely continue to do so.
Strict traditional laws, such as the one banning all forms of work and public noisiness on Sundays, are gradually being loosened. If the Human Rights and Democracy Movement manages to gain power from the monarchy after the current monarch dies, there will likely be more drastic changes.
Barring some natural or man-made disaster, the population will probably remain fairly constant at 100,000, with the amount of emigration, deaths and births about equalling out. I do not foresee a large influx of immigrants from any country, whether China, Fiji or otherwise.
There has also been a sharp upswing in the number of vehicles on the roads, even in the past few years. This will probably continue to increase, but the government will not make much improvement on the roads until the streets are choked with traffic and it becomes a hot issue for the public, which is still years away.
Computer literacy will also continue to climb. Tonga has the highest rate of educational degrees per capita in the world and will probably remain well educated.
The level of infrastructural development in the country, assuming current trends are maintained, will continue to slowly but surely rise in the Tongans' own steady, unhurried way.
The pace of life here might get a little faster, particularly in town, but overall, Tonga will remain a slow and peaceful place where people can enjoy a simple, uncluttered, religious Tongan life.
[Editor's note: Matt lives on a small island called Ha'apai. Some of the items below do not hold true on the main island of Tongatapu. -- ML]
I realize many of things I have written below could be considered negative. Trust me, many of these things are the things I love the most about Tonga. I'm simply trying to convey how remote this place is and how different the culture is as opposed to our often too busy and materialistic society in America. Tongans, above all, are good honest people with good ethics, little anger, great family values, and who will welcome you into their family in a second. They are amazing musicians, wood carvers, craft makers, fisherman, and farmers.
1) A brother and a sister can never be in the same room alone as it implies incest.
2) The day after a couple is married, the groom's female relatives take the sheets off of the couple's bed and take it to the groom's parents. They show the sheets to his parents and if the sheets are stained with hymen blood, then they know she was a virgin.
3) The first question out of everyone's mouth here is 'alu ki fe? Where are you going? I hear it at least 20 times a day. It's another way of saying hello.
4) You can't go swimming on Sundays and all stores are closed for the Sabbath. You can get arrested for swimming or doing laundry on Sunday.
5) Tongans won't walk in the bush at night because they're afraid of the devil (ghosts).
6) Just talking with a girl or being alone with her implies that you're together. Hence, I have about 30 girlfriends according to the Tongans.
7) Tongans enjoy beating things. Husbands beat their wives, parents beat their children, teachers beat the students, and everyone beats the animals. This is no lie, dogs are so used to getting beaten here that they are quite vicious and try to attack strangers. But, all you have to do is bend down like you're picking up a rock and they run.
8) Girls usually do not wear anything above their ankles or show their shoulders.
9) Some guys are always drunk on kava from morning until night and even the some ministers get drunk before church. Somehow this is ok but I can't go swimming on Sunday.
10) Tongans bathe regularly, but their favorite way to bathe is in the rain.
11) They make their own liquor out of sugar and yeast - it can make one go blind if not kill them.
12) Any illness that cannot be explained is attributed to the devil. Sometimes when someone gets sick they think it's because their dead relatives are upset so they go dig them up and clean their bones.
13) Mothers feed their babies by chewing up food and spitting it into their mouths.
14) It is not uncommon to see 1-2 year-old babies wandering the streets alone since there is little traffic and no real danger. Three-year-olds will be left in charge of one-year-olds.
15) Two-three year-olds play with bush knives (big machetes).
16) If you have a child and your older sister wants the child, you have to give it to her.
17) Marriages are sometimes arranged by the parents.
18) Tongans sleep on the floor and often use a brick or a rock as a pillow.
19) They believe everything they see in American movies. A lot of them think if they go to America they will be shot. They love Jet Li the most.
20) If a family has a lot of sons and they need a daughter, but the next child is another son, the boy is raised as a girl (fakaleiti).
21) Legally, the husband has complete rights over the children. Women can never have custody or own land.
22) Tongans give you everything you need and make you part of their family, but they like to borrow things without asking and never return them.
23) Its pretty acceptable for boys of any age to smoke.
24) The Tongan government sold passports to the Chinese a few years ago and now the Chinese have a large representation here and the Tongans don't like them too much -- in fact they mock them daily.
25) The favorite foods are: fish heads, pig heads, canned beef, and mutton that is imported here because it is illegal in all first-world countries.
26) Possession of marijuana laws just changed. For any possession, it's either TOP 250,000 (US$120,000) fine or 25 years in prison.
27) On that note, prison is not really prison. You can pretty much go and come as you please as long as you check in every two days.
28) Animals are not kept in cages or fences so there are pigs, chickens, horses, and goats running everywhere and thus it is impossible to go one day without stepping in shit of some sort. Also, the babies roaming the streets defecate where they please.
29) At the bank, you not only have to wait forever but Tongans will walk right up to you and look at your bank book over your shoulder to see how much money you have.
30) The Tongan word for masturbation is hoka niu (husk a coconut)
31) I live 75 miles from the capital and it's either a 45 minute plane ride or an 8-16 hour boat ride depending on the boat schedule
32) It is illegal for both men and women to have their shirt off in public.
33) The minister always, every time, cries during his sermon.
34) There are many Mormon missionaries here. They always travel in groups of two and can never leave each other's sight for two years, in order to make sure the other one is not sinning [they are not allowed to swim and it's HOT here].
35) Some Tongan men shave their arms and legs.
36) Dogs are often eaten as well as horses.
37) Cows are tied to trees with about 4 feet of rope.
38) If two Tongans are walking but only one has shoes, they'll each only wear one shoe.
39) Tongan albinos look just like really pale Caucasians.
40) Tongans can't believe that there are Black and Asian Americans.
41) They have no concept of distance and the size of the world or the size of America. They ask me where I'm from and I say around Chicago because they know Michael Jordan. But then they ask, is that near the same VILLAGE as Katie (another Peace Corps Volunteer). She lives in Virginia. State, village, whatever.
42) Most don't know that Bob Marley, Elvis, or Tupac are dead. One guy thought Elvis lived in Iraq because he saw a picture of an Iraqi woman in a market selling an Elvis painting.
43) The big social gatherings are at the wharf when the boats come in, which is usually 2 or 3 in the morning. This is where you can find a girlfriend/boyfriend.
44) The Internet just arrived on my island 2 months ago.
45) The Tongan kids think it's cool to come over and use my toilet for some reason.
46) The liquor that's actually sold here is the most vile thing you can imagine. The beers have stuff floating in them a lot of times.
47) Tongans love to look in each other's windows.
48) You will see 3 or even 4 kids on one bicycle.
49) Tonga has to be the capital of the world for seeing dogs stuck together. If you don't know, dogs sometimes get stuck together for a while after sex.
50) All Peace Corps Volunteers have had a child under age 9 and as young as probably 4 or 5 tell them to Fuck Off or Fuck You. More American movies.
51) It is customary to kiss the corpse at funerals.
52) Peace Corps Volunteers are usually the only ones with both refrigerators and stoves in their homes.
53) Tongans, per capita, are the largest people in the world.
54) The main road on my island runs right through the middle of the airport runway and has to be shut down when a plane is landing.
55) One of the worst things you can say to somebody is mata 'usi (ass face).
56) You cannot show your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse affection in public. You will never see them hold hands, much less kiss.
57) Women can't drink kava, they can only serve it.
58) The King's grandson gets McDonald's flown to him from New Zealand a couple of times a week.
59) The King reportedly has over US$200 million. The Gross Net Product of the country each year is about US$25 million.
60) The King's word is law.
61) The Tongan word for blow job is kai 'akau (eat wood).
62) The word for "mute", noa, is the same as the word for "zero".
63) I know a guy named Vaipulu (beef water).
64) Tongans are never alone and if you want to be alone to read or do whatever, they think you're homesick or unhappy.
65) If you go into a house with a girl and close the door, it is assumed you're having sex and thus people come stand outside your windows.
66) People who are suicidal are a lot of times put in handcuffs and thrown in prison.
67) If the King dies, people wear black every day for 6-12 months.
68) They don't have fishing poles. They use a spear or tie some fishing string around a beer bottle and use that as a reel.
69) One of their favorite jokes is to swerve their car at somebody walking on the side of the road.
70) They have fundraising carwashes like we do at home. Except, they don't wash your car, you just give them money while they hold a sign that says "carwash".
71) Everything that is good is described as 'ifo (delicious): food, sex, sports, swimming, watching movies, music.
72) The weather report is one of two things, either fair or rainy.
73) The Tongan radio can play Kenny Rogers and then follow it up with Eminem then to ABBA then to Patsy Cline then to Eminem then to UB40 then to The Doors then to Eminem. They also have these interesting mixes that Tongans have made, like a Creedence Clearwater song mixed with Tupac or a Frank Sinatra song mixed with Tupac.
74) The one Tongan television station shows movies occasionally. But if the scene is about to show people hug, hold hands, or kiss, the screen changes to a picture of the ocean with elevator music in the background.
75) The newest and nicest buildings are the Mormon churches and schools.
76) The tallest building in all of Tonga is 5 stories high.
77) Tongans raise their eyebrows to indicate yes. They put a finger diagonally across their forehead to indicate you're crazy.
78) A friend from home sent us a porno DVD as a joke. The Mormon principal borrows movies from us. One day she returned the porno to us. We didn't know she had taken it.
79) The King once had a jester, but the jester stole US$20 million that the King had entrusted to him to invest.
80) The King bought two boats to bring his own personal oil supply from the Middle East then realized he was using more oil on the boats than he was having shipped.
81) Young Tongans will come to a foreigner's house and just stare at them without saying a word. Or they will look over your shoulder while you read.
82) Some are taught that cyclones and natural disasters are good things because then they get more foreign aid.
83) Most of the shops have no set hours. They open and close as they please.
84) There's a church on every corner -- no kidding.
85) Tonga was where the Mutiny on the Bounty took place.
86) Dogs, random children, and anyone else is welcome in the classroom at schools.
87) Men and women who are married sit on opposite sides in church except at the Catholic Church.
88) They like George Bush and call him Bushy even though I have personally guaranteed to them that he has no idea where Tonga is and probably has never even heard of it. They do say that they like Arnold Schwartanegger better though and wish he were president.
89) They're amazed that I have no brothers and only 2 sisters. Very small family to them.
90) They also like to feel the hair on my legs and arms.
91) This one kid licked my feet and said he loved the smell of Americans' feet.
92) Yes I wear a skirt everyday, but it is very unrestricting and freeing.
93) You eat with your hands here for the most part which is fun.
94) The rain is collected in large cement tanks which is then used for drinking water.
95) There's no hot water, so when the temperature drops into the 60s, I heat my water on the stove and have a 'bucket bath'.
96) Pornography is illegal.
97) Some women never leave the house except to go to church.
98) Most of the laundry is done by hand.
99) I've only seen lightning once here in 14 months.
100) I have a lot of free time as you can see.
If you have read through all of the above, I thank and congratulate you. For those living anywhere other than the South Pacific, you are probably now one of the leading experts on Tonga in your region.
I have not made many changes in the above chapters after I wrote them; therefore the reader may notice a subtle shift in my bias from the beginning to the end, reflecting a change in my own attitudes toward Tonga throughout the course of my 2-year service. My first year in Tonga I was mainly painting rather glowing portraits in my writing: I was full of enthusiasm for everything Tonga and Peace Corps; Tongan life and culture was new and exciting; and I felt somewhat the need to defend Tonga from light-hearted derision by friends and family back home. As I continued to live here, however, the rose-colored glasses gradually came off and I was able to provide a slightly more objective view, trying my best to show, without being ethnocentric either for or against Tonga, both the strengths and weaknesses of life and culture in Tonga, or at least an unbiased factual description.
I hope you have learned something from my humble Description of Life in Tonga, and have found it useful and enlightening. The purpose of writing this description was to freely disseminate knowledge about the Tongan culture, particularly to those living in developed countries. Therefore, if you enjoyed or found useful what I've written, please tell other people about it and refer them to this website. Thanks!
Justin & Rebecca in Tonga - A well-maintained website of the Tonga adventures of PCVs Justin and Rebecca (Tonga, 2002-2004), stationed in the remote island of Nomuka.
Government of Tonga - The official site of the Tongan government.
Finding Tonga - A summary of the basics about Tonga from Moon Handbooks.
Lonely Planet: Tonga - Information about Tonga from the renowned guidebook publisher.
Infography Travel - Kingdom of Tonga - Expert-recommended links to Tonga.
DC101 "Elliot in the Morning" clip - Hear me talk about Tonga on DC101's popular morning show before going to Tonga. (12/2001)
The following are emails I have received from people who have read and appreciated my Description of Life in Tonga. To add your own message, please email me through this blog.
Kalita Liu - Sydney, AUSTRALIA MALO E LELEI, What can i say? I thank you so much for writing such a remarkable piece on life in Tonga. Now I can finally get the words to explain to old and new friends the Tongan culture and life, as I've made so many attempts to make explanations on certain Tongan traditions, especially courting, and they just fakahila'i me like i'm some fakasesele!!! A big THUMBS UP to your website! Now, i just refer them to your site!Malie siana! The whole piece is great and I am getting stitches from laughing left, right and centre!!! You have definitely nailed it! 'Otua 'Eiki 'Ofa atu kae tau mai!!!
Mia - Auckland, NEW ZEALAND What an awesome site, very interesting. I went to Q.S.C a few years back so it was good to get an update on what the school is looking like these days, kei fai pe laupisi e tamaiki?? Some things never change but I enjoyed reading all your essays too and as you mention I laughed my way through 'em all, it's just the Tongan way, kata 'uhinga and kata ta'e 'uhinga... they were all very true, so great observations on your part. Well thanx for sharing and wish you all the best for the up and coming new year.
Lorraine - USA You have wonderful site and an interesting life!
Ta'ahine Tofoa Nofo'ova - Hawaii, USA Just had to tell you that your comments about "Tongan relationships" are right on!! I enjoyed reading the piece because it's amusing when you read about something you really do, but written by someone else. The relationships one had me rolling!! (Trust Tongans to laugh at themselves for no good reason.) I mean the part about getting paku in the sun is so true though! I read the whole thing. It's AMAZING. Great work!!!
Renee - California, USA I'm very impressed with your writings about Tonga!
Randy - Nuku'alofa, TONGA Great overview -- really helpful in getting a handle on Tongan society.
Gennady & Elvira - Vancouver, CANADA Your website is a really good one. I am serious! Your information reminds me of an antropological work, it is very deep and detailed.
Lance Mau - Washington State, USA Fantastic website. As a Tongan-American raised by the American side of the equation.Getting a view into the daily life and rituals of the Tongan people has been priceless. I really appreciate the insight and window you opened for me. Someday iwilll travel to see the islands first hand. Thamks again.