Peace Corps Videos

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Family, Food and School

The concept of family in Tonga takes some explaining. Yes, the families are very large but the relationship between family members is quite different than what you would find in most American households. There is no such thing as a cousin in Tonga. What we would consider cousins in the U.S. are called sisters and brothers in Tonga. That means that the children of every Aunt and every Uncle are your brothers and sisters. Perhaps you have five children in your household, your father’s brother has five and your mom’s sister has five. That means you have 14 brothers and sisters. Tongan children also call their parents by their first name and the parents are not always the birth parents. Confused? In the household where I am living, there is a three year who is being raised by our hosts. However, he is the son of our host’s brother who lives nearby. Adoption is pretty common here and it is not always by immediate family. If you are adopted you count your biological siblings and your adopted siblings as your brothers and sisters. Now imagine this scenario over multiple generations and you begin to get the idea of the size of most Tongan families. I’ve met many of the relatives and the children and it is hard to keep everyone straight. Often a new face shows up in the house and it’s just another relative we get to meet.

If you want to be confused even further, in the Tongan language, brothers call their brothers one word and sisters call their brothers another word. The great part of all this is that you can seemingly go anywhere in Tonga and meet family. My housemate Justin and I have certainly been warmly welcomed into our family here and are starting to feel at home. Unfortunately we have to say good-bye on Tuesday but I am confident we’ll remain in contact with our hosts during our service in Tonga, regardless of where we both end up working.

Food is a HUGE part of life in Tonga. Tongans eat all the time and they eat a lot. I doubt I will ever go hungry here. On Wednesday, Justin and I took a walk down to the beach after dinner. On the way back, we walked by a house where we didn’t know anyone. They called out to us “Come Eat” as they were eating their evening meal. We’ve heard this is pretty common. If you see someone, even if you don’t know them, you are invited to come share a meal and they will be happy if you join them. We did not join them but I have no doubt we would have had a great time. In the morning, we usually have toast and tea or instant coffee. Occasionally we will have eggs. The toast is hand-cut from a loaf of bread and piled on a plate. I doubt we could even come close to eating all the toast that is put in front of us. We often have fresh fruit like bananas as well. At school, we have a morning tea, lunch and an afternoon tea. The lunches are big meals and always include root crops like sweet potatoes, yams, and taro. We also get breadfruit almost daily. In addition, we’ll get fish, chicken of li, which is taro leaves with canned beef cooked in coconut milk. My favorite lunch has been curry chicken which was delicious. We get watermelon with almost every meal and often with our morning and afternoon teas. When we come home, our hosts make another big meal. My favorite food so far has been raw fish marinated in coconut milk with onions and tomatoes. The teriyaki chicken is also delicious. We get root crops with every meal and occasionally rice. I’ve liked everything so far and can’t believe I’ve eaten as much as I have. I’m learning to limit my portions so I don’t end up gaining lots of weight. Other than walking everywhere, I’ve had little chance to exercise due to the busy schedule.

School takes up most of our days. We start at 8:30am with a community meeting which is conducted by several of the trainees and it can be on any topic. That’s followed by class until 5pm. We take a two hour break and go back for one hour at 7pm. We have about two hours of language training every day plus the one hour at night. The language is my favorite part of the day even though I don’t feel I’m progressing as well as I should. Of course when I remember we’ve only been here for two weeks and I can carry on conversations at about the level of a four year old, I guess that is not bad. We are being encouraged to talk in complete sentences now instead of just learning new words and giving single word answers. There are more than 100 pronouns in the Tongan language and remembering all the rules can be difficult. Here are two confusing differences. In Tongan, there are pronouns for single, dual inclusive, dual exclusive, and plural. If you are talking about two people you use one set if you are one of the two people, a different set if you are not one of the two people and there is a different set if you are talking about three or more people. Also, there is one pronoun for he/she/it instead of the three we have in English.

The rest of the school day includes sessions on health, safety, culture and business. Because our group includes both education and business volunteers, we split up for these sessions and go to a different building. The business information is fascinating. It’s clear that profit is NOT the motivating factor for many Tongan business owners. On Monday we are getting to visit a small business and see how it runs which should be exciting. The Peace Corps staff is also starting to give us some information about the types of jobs we may be doing. While we haven’t gotten anything specific they are asking us to rank our preferences based on some job descriptions. We are supposed to find out November 13th where we will be assigned. That gives us a month to prepare before we are sworn in as volunteers and start working.

We leave for Vava’u, another island north of here on Tuesday. We are going by ferry and it takes 22 hours to get there. Today (Saturday) we all had to jump in the water. We probably were in the water for close to two hours, treading water, towing each other and swimming 100 meters in two minutes. We also learned how to survive in open water as a group. All of this was done without life jackets but we had guys from the Tonga Navy close in case any of us got into trouble. I think we were all surprised that is was much more strenuous than we had expected.

Finally, a few miscellaneous things worth noting.
· Many in our group walked in a in a Breast Cancer walk this morning through the main city.
· A special “shout-out” to the families of Stan, James and Justin who I hear are now reading this. James and Justin both got care packages on Wednesday which made the rest of us jealous. (HINT..HINT)
· A friend e-mailed and asked me about the mats I was wearing in one of the pictures. The mats are worn over the tupenas (skirts) that we wear every day. Think of the mats like you would a tie. You might wear one to work depending on where you work and you would always wear one to a formal occasion. I don’t own one, but have borrowed a mat from our host family when I have needed it, like to go to church.
· The US Ambassador for Fiji and Tonga, who is based in Fiji met with us Wednesday as did Deputy Secretary of State Christopher Hill. Both were in Tonga attending the Pacific Forum meetings happening in Nuka’alofa this week. Hill is a returned Peace Corps volunteer.
· Several of the trainees have gotten sick and a few are dealing with infections from cuts. So far, I’ve only gotten mosquito bites and haven’t had any illnesses or infections. We have a very competent medical officer who is looking out for our needs.
· Friday we had cooking classes and I’ve uploaded several photos from that. I learned how to make the raw fish mentioned above. Also a couple of other photographs are there now too.
· http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2007-11/tonga/toensing-photography.html is from National Geographic on Tonga.
· I don’t know when I’ll be able to update again or answer e-mails as I don’t know what the Internet situation will be on Vava’u. If you don’t hear anything for a few weeks, don’t worry.

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