How I did something REALLY inappropriate!

During Breakfast Saturday, my host sister told me that we were planning to go to another village called Taoa which she described as a long way. We made a very short trip into Neiafu, the main city here in Vava’u and came home to pick up my host mom for the trip. As we were getting ready to leave, Diana, my host sister, tells me that I need a tupena for Lotu, which is Church. I said for tomorrow? She said, no, for Taoa. That was my first indication that we were going to church. The drive to Taoa was beautiful and was my first chance to see any of the island. During part of the way, I could look out over the Pacific as we were driving. I was most impressed by how this country has remained unspoiled. We get to Taoa about 10:30am and the first thing I hear is do you want to eat. This is just two hours since I ate a really big breakfast. I declined and then was told I needed to eat. I was led into a town hall next to the Church and there were about eight ministers and other leaders sitting around a table filled with all kinds of food like whole pigs, fish, chicken, sausage. The table was not just covered in food, but food was piled on top of food. My host mom and sister disappeared and I was put directly across from the minister. After I sat down, the meal begin. The minister shared his lobster with me, making it the second time for me to have lobster here. (I now understand why the Peace Corps didn’t want to send me here if I had a lobster allergy.) I tried to eat small portions and we didn’t even come close to eating all the food in front of us.

After this meal, the church leaders got into a Kava circle and they invited me to join them. So far, my Kava drinking has always been at night. It was only about 11am. Here is where I did probably the single most inappropriate thing I have done since I’ve been here. The minister, in English, asked me how long I was going to be in Tonga. I replied F—K You. Of course I didn’t say that, but I held up two fingers, palm inward to indicate that I would be here for two years. However, that is a very obscene yesterday and is the same as giving someone the middle finger in the United States. I immediately realized what I had done, jerked down my hand and answered in my best Tonglish (Tonga-English) two years. No one sitting at the Kava circle gave any indication that they were offended but needless to say, I felt horrible. Our training has stressed how important it is to be culturally sensitive to our host country residents and I not only did something really insensitive, but I did it to a minister.

At 11:30, we moved to the church. I was expecting a regular church service, but I soon figured out it was either a wedding or funeral. It soon became apparent to me that it was a funeral as people were crying, an old lady was taken to the front of the church and people started presenting here with gifts. Soon, I felt like I was at a telethon. People started taking money up to a small table and then they started taking more money. The fund-raising went on for almost two hours. My host mom took a beautiful mat with tapa to the front of church along with what appeared to be thousands of dollars. She was crying as she did it.

Finally, they took all the gifts and the total amount raised to the old woman who said a few words. I assumed she was the widow. I had read that it is customary for people to give gifts when someone dies and that the gifts are eventually distributed back to the families friends. As soon as the service was over, this extremely festive music began playing from the hall where I had eaten earlier. There were women dancing in the streets and people singing. I entered the hall and could not believe the amount of food that was prepared there were mats lining the floor overflowing with food and drinks. My host mother motioned for me to sit on the mat. As I was sitting down, one of the church leaders led me up to the head table and motioned for me to sit. Now imagine this. There are probably 150 people sitting on the floor and I’m at the head table with 10-12 people. What I thought was a lot of food before doesn’t even compare to the spread now. I have an entire whole pig just for me not to mention all kinds of other food. People start making speeches, some crying, some joking and then music with women dancing. The man I was sitting next to did not speak English but was kind enough to speak very slowly so I could understand what he was saying. Finally, it was over and everyone got up, but there was enough food left to easily feed 300 people.

It was quite a cultural experience, but as I soon learned things are not always what they seem. I was telling my language teacher about the “funeral” later and she told me it wasn’t a funeral but the annual church fundraiser. If someone has died in the past year, the families all collect money to give to the church at this time of the year. The people who were carrying up the gifts were all people who had lost a relative. She told me my host mom’s mother had died in the past year and that is why she was there. When I told her they had put me at the head table, she told me that was a very high honor. I told her that I had understood that. However, what I had not understood is that the “appropriate” thing for me to have done was to get up and make a speech and thank everyone for allowing me to sit at the head table and providing the food. That thought never entered my mind. She said it would have been fine for me to have said thank you in English, but that I should have publicly thanked everyone for the high honor they had afforded me. So that was my second inappropriate thing for the day. However, she assured me that it was fine since I didn’t understand.

I’ll close this story by adding that when we got home, my family was ready to eat again. I had bread and some rice. There was no way I could have eaten again after all that I consumed.

Now on to life in Vava'u

Jimmy Buffett sings a song called “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”. Its title couldn’t be more fitting. We’re living in a new latitude and there is certainly a new attitude among our group. Gone are the care-free days of living in Fu’amoto where everyone spoke English, everyone had modern plumbing and the Internet was just a short walk away. Reality has set in that the next two years are not going to be like that. I’m lucky in that I’m living in a really nice house with running water and terrific host parents. Not everyone is as lucky. One of the married couples only has water a few hours at night when it gets turned on. Another trainee is living in a house with no fan and it is very hot here. English may be understood but is not widely spoken and we have all given up the comfort of having another volunteer living with us. If we want to talk, it is pretty much going to be in Tongan. We are also not together. The 33 of us are living in three different villages so we don’t see each other as often either. Not having regular access to the internet also makes us feel a bit more isolated from our homes and families. The Internet is available in the main town but we have to either hitch a ride or take a bus to get there. (And for those of you who have sent me e-mail, I will get it eventually, but you won’t get the same quick response you got from me in Fu’amoto.)

And speaking of buses, on Friday, all 33 of us got together for the first time since arriving in Vava’u. We had school in a neighboring village. At the end of the day, we took a bus, but less than a mile from the school, the bus had a flat. The driver had no spare and no cell phone, so we all just walked home. It was nice to get the exercise, but of course, it was raining.

It’s easy to see that this is all an important part of our indoctrination to our culture. I’m impressed with the way the Peace Corps has eased us into this. I think if we had come here on day one we would have had a lot of people drop out. So far, all 33 of us are still here and I’m really hopeful we all stay together. I do feel like I’m communicating a bit better in Tongan now. Learning the language is pretty much my top priority now and the isolation gives me a lot more chances to study and to practice.

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  1. I am so proud of you! Steve, I also posted another one on here about the time thing---reminded me SOOOOOO much of my home island, Key West!!!! You are inspiring me to try to join the Peace Corps---but Russia of course! Rusland, homeland of my ancestors! lol

  2. Steve.. sounds like you all are doing great. I'm sure the Peace Corp has the transition for ya'll down to a science and won't leave you high and dry.
    Even after living and growing up in another culture there are still things one learns... committing fauxpax is normal and usually the people you are around are very forgiving.
    You spoke of indoor plumbing... so I assume there is still pluming available where you are at... Have you had to pump your own water yet?

  3. Steve...glad you are enjoying yourself and find the whole experience riveting...I truly enjoy reading your's like we're all visiting the South Pacific with you...BEST! Roberto

  4. Steve's friends will be very interested in reading this month's (November) issue of National Geographic Magazine that icnludes an extensive article on Tonga