21 November 2010

Reality Island

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

With all its problems, still Tonga was a good place to be. Meleline and I didn't care if we never returned to the United States. I wrote, of all things, since it was my least favourite musical genre, a hip-hop song in an attempt to capture some contemporary Tongan social and political issues, yet end on a note of pride. I considered that a distinctly Tongan flavour might be achieved by weaving in stanzas of traditional songs that 'Ilaisa Helu led in the Friday evening faikavas, and 'Amanaki Fifita taught in Tuesday-Thursday afternoon classes on Tongan dance.


Who among us hasn't sinned
The church bells' constant din
Tells us day out and in
How much we need to pray

Screaming yellow zonkers
The 4:30 bongin'
No one sleeps in Tonga
Not too late anyway

Limp home late from kava
She's pounding out the tapa
Faka faka faka!
Then nap during the day

The barking of the dogs
The squealing of the hogs
There's no sleeping like a log
Not in Tonga anyway

[traditional song]

Hens cluck and roosters crow
Cars cruise 'cause they don't know
The house where they should go
No street signs point the way

And so they showed up late
And so you had to wait
On the world's Line of Date
Tomorrow is yesterday

Since nothing's right in Tonga
Nothing's wrong in Tonga
That'll be five pa'anga
Malo e lelei!

[traditional song]

We don't fear global warming
With fifty years of warning
The ferry leaves its mooring
And then we really pray

Depletion of the ozone?
Tsunami or a cyclone?
Text me on my cell phone
High ground's not far away

Burn Nuku'alofa?
Wake me when it's over
'Ofa 'ofa 'ofa!
And let love win the day

[traditional song]

In the Land Where Time Begins
The future isn't penned
But is there a way to win?
Has our chance been pissed away?

From Sydney to Salt Lake
Just looking for a break
A future we can make
Should we go or should we stay?
Ko hai 'ilo?

If I cross the Date Line
Where Time Begins is still mine
I'm at the end of all time
As Tongan as today!

[traditional song]

I'm at the end of all time
As Tongan as today!
I'm at the end of all time
As Tongan as today!
I'm at the end of all time
As Tongan as today!
I'm at the end of all time
As Tongan as today!

Among other projects such as my dissertation, I continued to collect popular music about outer space, a project I had begun in early 2009 purely for the enjoyment of Meleline, myself, and whoever else might be interested. I had now accumulated nearly 70 hours of material that I considered listenable, and there was more in the reject pile. Particularly interesting to me was Soviet era and modern Russian music as a window into the culture of the other longstanding human spaceflight nation. I had organised my collection chronologically, and I had interspersed three hours of voice clips from manned missions to give the music historical context. With the 50th anniversary of manned spaceflight coming up in 2011, I wondered whether there might be a business opportunity. I asked Michael Cassutt, a long time friend who was a space historian, science fiction author, and television writer and producer, whether he had any contacts in the recording business that might be useful. His response was disappointing, but it made sense. "My guess is that a space-themed project is going to have a relatively narrow slice of the audience at that.... look at space-related books in the book world."

Based on the trends I was seeing in my music collection, I wasn't surprised. In his blog, Keith Cowing had recently asked, regarding the lack of public response to the cancelation of Constellation, "Where's the outrage?"

I described the music trends to Michael "The chart shows the hours of space music I have accumulated, by year, by three categories: USA, USSR/Russia, and the rest of the world. This is an indicator of the music component of 'space culture.' First, note the similarity between the USA trend line and NASA funding. Second, note that the rest of the world passed the US in space music production in 2002 and has left it far behind. Not only that, but for the first time ever, Russian space culture is passing the US in music production. The centre of space culture has moved outside the US, so if there is any outrage over the killing of Constellation, one must look for it outside the US. I think the US just became a second-rate space-launching nation, and it's because not enough Americans give a damn."

Mike wrote back, "Before you can ask 'where's the outrage?' you have to ask, 'who knows about Constellation in the first place?' In the past six years or so, I have never met a SINGLE person outside the space community -- that is, astronauts, contractors, commentators -- who ever HEARD of the damned thing. I spent a year trying to pitch a series about the next step in [human spaceflight], beyond the Shuttle, to some very smart folks at AMC.... and they were amazed, flabbergasted, confused and otherwise totally ignorant of the plans that existed, pre 2010. The same goes for family, business acquaintances, etc."

It was a reasonable hypothesis that the vitality of a nation's space endeavours flowed from its culture. In a nation where human spaceflight was off the public's radar screen, where else could government funding go but into oblivion? The Soviet/Russian space experience had suffered from communist mismanagement, low tech, and economic collapse, but never, it seemed, from lack of will. I suspected that what I had so far discovered of the Russian musical culture of cosmonautics was only the tip of the iceberg due to my limited facility with the language as well as the probable relative dearth of Internet sources compared to the totality of that culture's production. I wanted to explore these issues further, but I needed help. I opened my pet project to the Society and Aerospace Technology Technical Committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Vadim Rygalov, a professor in the University of North Dakota's Department of Space Studies, was happy to join the project. Vadim had known about my project since late 2009, and we had exchanged some music. He would certainly fill in my weaknesses with regard to knowledge of Russian language and culture. Additionally, I thought that it be helpful to have a musicologist, preferably one who had some knowledge of the history of spaceflight, on the project. We needed more co-researchers. Meanwhile, I helped Meleline write a short article on the subject for the AIAA's glossy magazine Aerospace America.

One day I wore a T-shirt that I had had custom made from one of my high school pencil drawings. It was from a famous photograph of Edwin Aldrin looking at the various experiments he and Neil Armstrong had deployed at Tranquility Base, and it included the American flag and the Lunar Module Eagle in the distance. I wonder whether our visiting instructor in mathematics, Noah, was having a bad day of miscommunication, was being deliberately obtuse, or was joking, because it was hard to believe he was really that ignorant. He asked me what was on my shirt and I explained my drawing to him. "So you were there?" he asked. Well, weren't you? Weren't we all? But then Noah and Meleline chanced to have a short conversation about the paper she was writing for presentation at the AIAA's upcoming Space 2010 symposium, "The Rise of the Transnational State: Space Logistics, Sovereignty, and Diaspora off the Earth," and he remarked that it sounded like science fiction. Nothing else he could have said would have been more insulting to her.

Thomas Gangale's Song Lyrics and Free Verses
Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

01 November 2010

Fantasy Island

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

Now the semester was over. Except for Meleline and me, all of the palangi in the faculty had plans to travel out of Tonga during the three-week semester break, at least as far as New Zealand; Maikolo flew to Oregon. Firitia stayed put as well, but having long ago become a Tongan citizen, he hardly counted as a palangi. Meleline and I didn't have the money to travel, nor did we have the desire, having been in Tonga only four months.

Besides that, the weather was just getting better and better. Winter was closing in, and one could almost smell the Antarctic ice sheets on the southern breeze. By the middle of June, there were the occasional nights when one needed a light blanket in bed. Nevertheless, the hardy Tongan mosquitoes soldiered on through these cold snaps. Shortly after our arrival in February, I read that the Tongan media never included temperatures in their weather reportage; it was either going to be sunny or rainy, or in the case of a tropical storm, exceedingly rainy. I described it this way to Gail at the end of June, when the winter solstice had passed, expressing temperatures on that quaint Fahrenheit that we backward Americans insist on clinging to:

It's in the 80s here. It's always in the 80s here... except when it's in the 90s. But that would be summer, and it's winter now, so it's in the 80s here. But winter or summer, 80s or 90s, it's always humid. Sometimes we get a nice breeze, sometimes we get a tropical storm.

Actually, it did seem a bit drier now, and it certainly was cooler, which meant that the tropical storm action had shifted north of the equator.

Before Maikolo departed to enjoy a few weeks of Oregonian summer, he wanted to take Meleline and me on an excursion to Fafa Island. It's a tiny but upscale resort island several kilometres north of Nuku'alofa, where one can go on a day trip for a nice lunch, nice cocktails, nice walk on the beach, nice massage. He was emphatic that the weather must be perfect: no rain, not even a cloud, and on a Sunday. Several Sundays in late May and early June slipped by before nature was able to comply with Maikolo's exacting specifications. Fortunately, 13 June, the last Sunday before Maikolo boarded his flight to the USA, promised to be such a Sunday. He picked us up in the morning and drove us to the wharf. We embarked on a boat that was filled with about two dozen passengers. Maikolo fairly gushed as he confidently predicted that the passage to Fafa would take exactly 35 minutes, and he insisted that I note the departure and arrival times to confirm this. Why this was at all important to him, I have no idea. During the passage I periodically checked our compass heading, just out of curiosity, given that I had trained as a navigator in the U.S. Air Force, and my digital watch just happened to include a compass.

Upon arrival, we made our lunch reservations. The restaurant was on the northwest corner of the island, near out debarkation point. Maikolo advised that we schedule the reservations for the latest slot, 1330 hours, to give us time to walk around the island. At first we walked inland (southward) to examine the conference centre, library, and other facilities in the resort complex, all designed in the traditional Polynesian style. As we passed through this area, Maikolo verbalised in inordinate detail his fantasy of how the 'Atenisi campus would look if money were no object. As we continued southward, we passed the row of guest cottages, also done in the Polynesian style, but with the important difference that they included air conditioners; unlike us, upscale tourists came to Tonga expecting to be comfortable. In Maikolo's fantasy, these cottages would be the campus housing for 'Atenisi students. But would they be able to ring up room service?

In places the path took us through rain forest, which as far as I could tell, had gone unmodified by the human hand. Upon reaching the southwestern corner of the island, we found the shore to consist of coral formations that would not make for a pleasant walk, so we retraced our path to the restaurant and strolled eastward along the northern shore of the island, which was a pleasant beach. I have yet to see waves breaking on the beach; rather, they break on the reefs far offshore, and the beaches are as still as a swimming pool; very unlike California. We rounded the northeastern point and headed south until we reached the southeastern point, where we once again encountered hard coral. Apparently most or all of the southern shore was coral. From here, Maikolo hoped to find a trail coming out of the bush and strike inland. There were no such trails. We were on the windward side of the island, so the island's owner had built no guest cottages or anything else out here. Yes, the beach was nice, and this particular day was quite calm, but what paying tourist wanted granulated coral blown in his face when it wasn't so calm? Once again, it was necessary to reverse course. We trekked north, rounded the northeastern point once more, to find the long, northern beach stretched before us. Maikolo continued to seek a path inland, still thinking that this would be the most direct way back to the restaurant. I pointed out the restaurant in the distance; the beach was now the shortest path. "You're with a navigator," Marilyn reminded Maikolo. Cripes, my grandfather had taught me that much navigation on family camping trips in the Sierra Nevada.

We returned to the restaurant with more than half an hour to kill, having wandered the length of the 45-hectare islet. Not a hardship; we ordered drinks. I had a Campari and soda in anticipation of my upcoming lunch of chicken over pasta. With lunch itself I had a chilled glass of white wine. After the dishes were cleared away, Maikolo excused himself to retreat into the library and work on some papers he had brought with him. Meleline and I broke our laptops and spent the next couple of hours on the Internet. No one was in the mood to swim; we were pleasantly full from the meal and relaxed from our respective couple of drinks.

We re-boarded the boat at 1630 hours, returning to Nuku'alofa shortly after 1700 hours. Once again, [sigh] about 35 minutes. Meleline asked Maikolo how many times he had been to Fafa. He replied that this was his 19th trip. I remarked that I would have been surprised if he didn't know that the transit time was 35 minutes. When I got home I decided to do a simple navigation exercise, which I explained in email t Maikolo the next morning:

From satellite imagery I estimate Fafa to be 3 nautical miles from the wharf on a true course of 023 degrees. Transit time of 35 minutes makes our true speed about 5-1/4 knots. Since average magnetic heading was about 350 degrees, and magnetic declination in these waters is 12 degrees east, making the true heading about 002 degrees, the cross current correction was about 21 degrees, so I estimate that we had a westerly cross current of roughly 2-1/2 knots.

Had I noted the sustained heading on the return trip as well, I could have estimated the north-south component of the current, if any. In any case, I hoped not to hear about the passage time to Fafa or any other minor details of navigation in Tongan waters in future.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

09 August 2010

Coming of Age in Tonga, Part 2

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

Next on our social agenda was a wedding. There is some perversity in human nature that makes adversity and absurdity more interesting to write, and probably also to read, and I have certainly filled many of these pages with such tales, but I would be remiss were I to allow 'Ilaisa Helu's wedding go by without comment simply because it was neither a fiasco nor a festival of the bizarre. It was, in fact, a splendid affair. Well, yes, 'Uta did indeed nod off in the church, but that is quintessentially Tongan.

After the ceremony, I got to meet my doppelganger at last. Back in February, Sisi'uno Helu had walked beside me in her father's funeral procession for several blocks, then she had done a double take and exclaimed, "I thought you were the Prime Minister!" I had been combing my white hair straight back at that time, it having been several months since my last haircut, having been in the kingdom less than two weeks, I had no idea who the Prime Minister, much less what he looked like. Now, outside the church nearest the Helu home, I was shaking Dr. Feleti Sevele's hand. After introducing myself as a doctoral student and an instructor at 'Atenisi, I said, "I'm told that people have mistaken me for you, so if in future you face going into a tough situation, I could stand in for you." Anything for a paesano. After all, perhaps his family's name was Tonganized from Savelli, the name of a Calabrese comune a few kilometres from my paternal grandfather's village. It would account for the uncanny resemblance.

As it happened, I had dressed like a Calabrese for 'Ilaisa's wedding; 'Uta and Tai expected me to be the Godfather and the look the part: a charcoal grey suit, black shirt, white tie, and of course, black wing tips. Years earlier, dressed thus, someone had asked me if I were a priest. "You could say that my work brings people closer to God." Once I had even visited a cousin in the county lockup in my "native dress." The sheriff's deputy had asked if I were his lawyer. "No, I'm a rocket scientist." I had in my wallet my current membership cards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and from the British Interplanetary Society in case the deputy cared to pursue his line of inquiry.

But I digress. It was only a few blocks from the church to the 'Atenisi campus, where a large tent had been set up, and underneath it four rows of tables and benches. Here we had a traditional Tongan feast: more chicken, pork, manioke (a.k.a. tapioca or cassava), kumara, and breadfruit than anyone could possibly eat. Up in front many mats were placed on the ground, where sat the bride and groom surrounded with their wedding presents and facing the King's niece, who sat alone and silent at a small table with a bottle of wine that remained unopened throughout the feast. Being royalty surely must have its perquisites, but at times the job must be only slightly more interesting and less interesting than being a night watchman, whilst requiring the extraordinary discipline to appear genuinely interested in one ceremony after another. Everyone around her had a fabulous time eating and drinking and talking. I hope that the young princess enjoyed the traditional Tongan singing and dancing, although perhaps not as much as Meleline and I did, for it was all a new experience to us. There were lines of dancers in traditional dress, men and women performing separately. A few people extemporised; 'Atolomake the opera diva, dressed in her grass mat tavala, boogied her way down to the little waterway that bordered the university's grassy and danced for a minute or so in ankle-deep water.

At the end of the day, a few members of the Helu dogs pack volunteered their services on the cleanup crew, deftly disposing of stray scraps of food as they policed the grounds. When I greeted Lesi with my usual enthusiasm, he curled his lip at me. It might have been that he was edgy from all the activity in his usually serene domain, or it might have been his astonishment at discovering that his best friend was the Godfather. In any case, when I saw him again the following day, he was happy to receive a breakfast cracker.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

19 July 2010

Coming of Age in Tonga, Part 1

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

Meleline went all out to organise my 56th birthday party. She composed a colour invitation, printed copies, and handed them out to faculty, students, and neighbours. She bought mats so that people could sit on the floor; the little furniture we had would be taken quickly. And she cooked and she cooked and she cooked.


In addition to the traditional European trappings of a birthday celebration, including chocolate cake and the blowing out of candles, Meleline had invited guests to hold a faikava on the back patio. There was much singing, orchestrated by 'Ilaisa Helu, who knew all the traditional songs. Between regularly held faikavas and Sunday church services, Tongans are very well practised singers. Firitia was the first to get up and dance, and after another song or two, 'Atolomake and 'Ilaisa also performed. 'Ilaisa explained to me that the hand movements were from a martial arts discipline. Yes, watching them had already given me that vague idea. 'Ilaisa also explained that many of the songs were sea chanteys, songs about navigation.

"There are those who claim the land and call themselves nobles, but navigators are lords of the sea and the sky," I told them. "We go where we will."



Around 2100 hours, one of the 'Atenisi students began announcing periodically, as though giving us regular status reports from Mission Out of Control, "I think I'm getting drunk. I might be getting drunk. I've gotten drunk." Eventually he leaned over a fence and graced the vegetation with a launch of consumed fluids. Roger, we have liftoff. For a time, he appeared to sober up, but during the later faikava singing and dancing, Meleline saw him crawling off the back patio with his backpack on his back. Four or five girls finally showed up in a car and dragged him away.

About the same time, another student began falling about the place, which was of no small concern to the many guests who were sitting on the mats on the patio. I observed, "Now what we have here is a failure to navigate." Not immediately, but within a few minutes, the student said something that sounded offensive. "Motafaka?" I asked. "Did you say motafaka?"

"Faka" is etymologically related to the verb "fai," to do or to make happen; these Tongan words are intriguingly similar in sound and in meaning to the Latin verb "facere," from which are derived the Italian "fare" and the French "faire," and have in certain contexts similar sexual connotations. In the present case, however, I believe that its usage was more credibly explained by the student's familiarity with American popular culture.

"Motafaka!" he slurred as he staggered forward to get in my face.

As he followed me I backed up to a wall, more amused than threatened; this punk could barely stand. "You don't want to do this," I said in a very calm and low tone. Despite the inches he had on me and one-third the years, using the wall as a backstop I would have had little trouble shoving him across the patio, where he probably would have landed on top of Andromeda. That wouldn't have been my first choice; I hardly imagined that the other men present were going to let this brewing altercation get out of hand. My confidence proved itself as 'Ilaisa, Vesai, and a couple of others gently forced him back. Meleline I went to her tool bin and got her bus tow rope with the two steel hooks on the ends. She told belligerent boy's friends and cousins that they would have to tie him up if they could not get him under control. She clinked the two steel hooks together for emphasis. "No, Meleline, we have him under control." And, sure enough, they got him to go to sleep on the living room floor mat.

Then, there was our dignitary drunk. Being the youngest adult son of one of the island's most famous deceased men cannot be an easy role. He is a person to be revered, but has no real status. In his home, his three sisters have more say-so than he does, although he is a talented and an educated thirty-something, world-traveled. He could easily be a diplomat for the Kingdom. He got massively drunk in his own quiet way, but all he seemed to want to do is listen to selections he requested from our music collections and eat, upending the leftovers from the kitchen table. It was astonishing that this slender man of average height could eat so much.

There were other navigational failures as the night progressed, and peculiar to Tongan culture, such failures can result in inanimate items losing their way. Late in the evening I saw a guest wearing a shirt with red and white checked sleeves and "CROATIA" across the front. "That's and interesting shirt," I remarked. I didn't get much of a response. It didn't occur to me at the time that the shirt was one of the presents that the Runquists had brought. Of course, I knew that Nada was from Croatia, but the idea never entered my mind that someone would open one of my presents and brazenly wear it.

As the party was winding down, the student who had passed out on our living room floor suddenly came to life from a dead sleep. We found the distinguished thirty-something standing over him with a belt, as though he had been whipping the sleeping boy. We don't know why. As the younger man arose to his feet a physical struggle erupted. Friends and retainers on both sides intervened, separated the combatants, and escorted them out of our house. Jonathan was one of those on the scene to ensure that situation didn't get out of hand. By then the night was reminding me of a Three Dog Night song, and it was my own party.


The blurring of borrowing and stealing in Tongan culture and the fact that it is a consumption culture as well (eat and drink everything now because tomorrow there may be a famine) and the number of guests that we had could have been a powder keg event. 'Uta averred that it wasn't a good idea to have Tongans in our house with so much alcohol. We also received all sorts of post facto advice from palangis who had attended the party. "Oh, I would never open my house to Tongans. Even the Fijians lock everything up when they hear that the Tongans are coming." One put it this way: in terms of risky behavior, having a house full of Tongans was like having unprotected sex with a bisexual hooker on Castro Street on Halloween. Not politically correct, but it got the point across. Maikolo expressed his belief that because the food and drink had been so good and plentiful, we have now endeared ourselves to the Tongans. The following Tuesday, one of Meleline's students told her at the beginning the statistics class that he and his wife were struck by the fact that we did not act snooty at the party like many palangi (and Tongan nobles) would have. We were "just folks."

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

27 June 2010

First Contact

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

Around the middle of May, a large, white dog began hanging around the Lolo Masi Building on the 'Atenisi campus. Sometimes I would catch him napping on the second storey, outside the office. He would follow one of the Helu humans, either Tevita or 'Atolomake or 'Ilaisa, over to campus from the nearby Helu residence. I asked Tevita Helu, the university's office manager, if he knew the dog's name. His name was Lesi, and from other sources, as well as from direct observation, I came to understand that he was the alpha dog of the Helu clan. He was the one who had stood his ground a couple of months earlier when I had loudly chastised the Helu dogs for harassing a pig. At that time I had taken his unwillingness to retreat to be an act of defiance. Now I took the opportunity to get to know Lesi. I talked to him a little bit each day whenever I saw him. He seemed to listen to me attentively, perhaps with some confusion. Why is this human talking to me? I had not observed Tongans to talk to their dogs. They were simply fixtures of the environment, like the trees and the foxbats. Early on in my attempts to establish a bond with Lesi, I moved to pet him whilst he lay on his side. It startled him; he snarled quietly, bared his teeth slightly, and made a slight motion of his head toward my outstretched hand, all just enough to communicate effectively to me. Message received and understood. Lesi had numerous scars on his face and notches in his ears. One ear was healing from a recent fight. One day there was an uproar in the street, and I stepped out of the Lolo Masi classroom to see 'Atolomake throwing coral missiles to break up a fight between Lesi and another dog. I joined Andromeda's police action by baying deeply and loudly; perhaps in a moment of distraction the combatants might wonder what larger and more dangerous was about to enter the fray... and on whose side. I had not walked much of the distance from Lolo Masi to the street when the combatants disengaged, whether due Andromeda's tactical missiles, or my projected threat of an approaching strategic response, or the combination of our peacekeeping efforts, or simply that Lesi's honour was satisfied and his territory successfully defended. In any case, I doffed my metaphorical blue helmet and returned to Lolo Masi to resume teaching my international relations class.

Meleline decided to bring breakfast crackers to campus for Lesi. We had bought these thinking that they would be the sort of slightly salty or herby or garlicky cracker that goes well with a small slice of cheese; instead they were slightly sweet. Lesi didn't mind that at all. We offered him breakfast crackers now and then in the course of the next couple of weeks, which he accepted graciously, and he came to look forward to them, greeting our arrival on campus with a wagging tail. Tongan dogs have not forgotten how to wag their tails; they simply have little occasion to do so. Meleline and I continued to talk to Lesi, and he continues to regard us with questioning eyes. One day he saw us working in the computer lab on the second storey of Lolo Masi, and we invited him to visit with us. This went against the natural order. A Tongan would no more allow a dog indoors than a pig or any other animal. Lesi crossed the open threshold. That was one small step for a dog, and one giant leap for canine kind. We fed him breakfast crackers and talked to him, and by now he was used to being stroked on the head, snout, jowls, and neck. In subsequent days Lesi returned to the computer lab to visit with us.

"When Futa Helu died, Lesi lost his best friend," Maikolo said. "They were close. If there is a dog on this island who has a high level of consciousness with regard to human beings, it's Lesi." His comment was an interesting contrast to an earlier reflection that years earlier Lesi's pack had "torn him up," and he had had to see a doctor to get stitched up.

By late May, other dogs of the Helu pack began venturing onto campus and seeking us out. Meleline named one Annabelle. One day I asked Losi Helu what name they had given Annabelle.


I pointed to the alpha male. "I thought his name is Lesi."

"They're all named Lesi."

And all of the faculty in the Philosophy Department of the University of Woolloomooloo are named Bruce. I had read that Tongans were not above having the palangis on. The story from 'Aliasa Helu was that he didn't think the family had given Annabelle a name. That was probably the truth. A couple of weeks later we asked 'Atolomake for names. She said that the children had names for some of them, but when we asked her daughter about one of the dogs, she didn't give up a name.

Sometimes one or two other dogs would show up and wander around outside of Lolo Masi. None of them wanted to enter the classroom, but they would come right up to the threshold. I sat upon the cement outside the classroom so that we could enjoy each other's company for a while.

Then on 30 May 2010, Meleline and I were astonished to see Lesi appear with six members of his pack. How had this come about? Why would so many dogs, some of whom we had never seen, come to us? It seemed that Lesi had some ability to round them up and make them follow him to us, but why would he do that? Seven dogs stared at us. One of my cousins commented on the image that Meleline took with her cell phone, "So alert! Are you holding a steak?"

"One would think so! Actually, I was only holding a cracker. Maybe they're Catholic and they massed to receive communion. Church culture is big here in Tonga, bells ringing day and night. I wouldn't be surprised if the dogs have picked up some bad habits from the humans."

There was an alertness in their manner, a curiosity in their eyes, perhaps a light of hope for communication. It was as though we had set down in a starship on their lawn.

Are these humans different? Are they as aware as we are? Do they understand that we are a people, a collective of beings, different from them but deserving? Do they know that there was a time when the world was ice, when we realised that we could cooperate with them and that together our struggle to survive would be easier? To cooperate in the hunt was the height of being. Two species bringing down prey and sharing the kill: that was communion. Then they lost the art of the hunt and therefore so did we, so now what good are they to us and we to them? Here we are now in a place where we are dependent, useless, disrespected, and sometimes eaten. The ancient contract is broken and we have grievances. Would they throw coral at us, and would they eat us, if they understood that we would die to defend them? This was the pact: that we would fight together to survive. One team, one fight.

Meleline and I shared our breakfast crackers with the seven dogs. We celebrated communion. Receive from us these wafers as a symbol of the body of our shared kill, amen. It seemed to us that we went some way toward redeeming the pact. We await whatever may come from this.

For certain, more money spent on crackers will come of it. We don't have to kill for those crackers, nor does the proprietor of the falekaloa where we purchase them look like he's making a killing. We're all just living the quasi-good life here in quasi-civilisation.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

07 June 2010


Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

Maikolo could teach French, but he wasn't qualified to teach biology, so in his hands the course would morph into environmental studies, with more emphasis on social issues. The thing was that he didn't need anymore on his plate; he was already working some weekends on the money chase for the University. Firitia had taught chemistry in 2009, but he didn't want to do it anymore. He was happy to perform his administrative duties as assistant dean, teach one math class, and run his Internet business. I averred that I could probably teach chemistry, but I'd need a little time to ramp up. I had last studied chemistry in 1973. I was fairly certain that atoms and electrons hadn't changed much in that time, although a few neutrons might have decayed spontaneously. I remembered the periodic table, atomic numbers, atomic masses, mass defects, isotopes, electron shells, energy states, oxidation reactions, reduction reactions, chain reactions, covalent bonds, ionic bonds, multiple bonds, junk bonds, bail bonds, James Bond....

"What's your undergraduate degree in again?"

"Aerospace engineering... a shit load of math, a shit load of physics, and some chemistry. I have a semester of basic chemistry and a semester of qualitative analysis.

Firitia was far from ecstatic over the prospect of picking up Marten's chemistry class. He showed me the textbook he had taught from the previous year. I asked him how far he had gotten in the book, he showed me, and I thumbed through the table of contents for a couple of minutes. "There's no problem here," I declared. I had learned the material in high school; it certainly didn't come close to qualitative analysis, which is where I had left off at the university level. 'Atenisi was, after all, a school of humanities and social science, not one of engineering and physical science. As Maikolo drove us back to 'Atenisi for the faikava, I continued to peruse the chemistry textbook that Firitia had loaned me. "Relax. This isn't rocket science."


During the uneventful week, in addition to assisting in the economics and modern global history classes, and teaching international relations, I taught chemistry. On an island full of new experiences, dusting off those neurons from--oh my god, 1973!--was just one more. But one hasn't truly lived the good life until one has had to deal with an American bank whilst residing in a Third World country. The whole world loves America. American culture is becoming global culture. Everyone is watching American movies (even if they really are shot in Canada) and listening to American music, and even local music is imitating American forms, from jazz to pop to rock to hip-hop. But what really pisses off the world is having to actually deal with America, because Americans think that everywhere else in the world is like America, more or less. That is a grossly erroneous assumption, or at best, if current trends continue for a few more decades, a rather premature one.

The present case in point is the Bank of America. On Friday, I spent two hours on the phone in a failed attempt to arrange a wire transfer. The Bank of America had set up their system so that the only way to accomplish a wire transfer was through it online interface. This wouldn't have been a problem if Internet access were high bandwidth and reliable; however, here in Tonga it takes geologic epochs for the web browser to load the Bank of America's web pages because of all the security routines running in the background. Also, it wouldn't have been a problem if the settings on my account were set properly; however, for some reason they weren't. This wouldn't have been a problem if I had dealt with a competent customer service associate on the telephone to correct the settings on my account; however, this fool kept telling me that she couldn't verify my identity because I was giving her the wrong answers to the personal information questions she was asking me. Neither she nor her supervisor had the intelligence to question whether they were looking at someone else's personal information, that I was exactly who I claimed to be and that they were screwed up. It also didn't help, that in not atypical Tongan fashion, the Internet was particularly slow and unreliable that Friday.

I began the phone call to the Bank of America in the faculty computer lab at 'Atenisi, about 40 minutes before Maikolo's modern global history class. It was wildly optimistic of me to believe that I could get the problem solved in so short a time, but despite the cynicism with which I express myself with the written word, this is who I really am deep down inside. We live in hope... and die in despair. In 40 minutes, the customer service representative and I had made no progress toward resolving the various technical issues, when Maikolo stood on the campus's grassy quad and bellowed for me to come to his class. With the cell phone at my ear, I stepped outside. "I'm trying to work a financial transaction. In my view, this has higher priority." Maikolo went quietly to his classroom, in full appreciation of the fact that 'Atenisi would receive no tuition from me until I effected this wire transfer. Soon after this interruption, I concluded that the Internet access at 'Atenisi was too slow to work the problem. I had to try an Internet café downtown. I packed up my laptop, and rather than end the phone call and then have to deal with a new customer service associate, I strapped the cell phone to my helmet and continued the conversation whilst I biked to Cafe Escape, about ten minutes away. Once there, I discovered that the Internet speed was no better; Diginet, the Internet service provider, was having a bad day. At that point, it was futile to continue the phone call; I simply had to wait for Diginet to get its act together. The Internet speed improved marginally whilst I was halfway through a leisurely Coke, so I decided to try again, and this is when the ultimate indignity occurred; I was not who I said I was, and I was told that repeatedly for about 40 minutes as I was handed off from a befuddled customer service associate to her supervisor, placed on hold for ten minutes in between, then handed off to yet another supervisor after being placed on hold for another ten minutes, during which time I was treated to the Bank of America's cheery litany about its "higher standards."

The Bank of America. The name could hardly be more appropriate.

Earlier I reflected on Tonga's half-assed nature, but the United States is every bit as half-assed in its own ways. The difference is that America is hegemonically half-assed; in other words, since the US is the global hegemon, the sole superpower, its own peculiar brand of half-assedness is legitimated as being the global standard. I don't like it, but I certainly prefer it to what I anticipate that the next generation will have to deal with: some other hegemon's half-assedness. The previous superpower in the vainglorious parade of history was the British Empire, whose unofficial motto was "Muddle through."

After a total of two hours on the phone, which had accomplished nothing other than to make me miss two classes and to work me up into a froth, I biked home. Meleline had arranged to go out on a shopping expedition with Tai, and had expected me to come along and help out. That was the last thing I wanted to do with my afternoon. Instead, Tai and Meleline dropped me off downtown at Friends Cafe, where I spent the next few hours recovering my serenity. There was a notice at the counter: "VB, buy 3 get one free." I had to ask, "Does that mean than I must buy three at once? I've seen how Aussies drink." They laughed politely... silly American.

I had once heard the expression "Aussie drunk;" that's when you puke on your own shoes. And I had seen the concept in action one night in Mackay, northern Queensland, one night in 1984. I was there on a scuba diving vacation with a brother Air Force officer. As we walked along the sidewalk from the restaurant where we had dined, a bloke staggered up and asked, most inarticulately, for directions. I think we actually knew the place he was looking for, and he staggered away at least as happy as he had been a moment before. "Man, that guy was drunk off his butt!" my fellow Air Force captain exclaimed.

We hadn't noticed that the automobile we were standing next to contained an occupant in the back seat. Apparently believing that the remark had been concerning him, he announced his presence with a convulsed "PIZZOFF!" as vomit dribbled down the side of the vehicle. We reflected on the words of Premier Pizov on a number of occasions during the remainder of our vacation, and after our return home.

Whereas I, by virtue being lulled by Polynesian music whilst consuming a couple of Victoria Bitters, was ably navigating a sea of tranquillity at Friends Café. When Meleline returned from three hours of shopping, I was just being served my third VB, which was perfect timing since that made the free one hers.

During my relaxing afternoon, glancing at what men will glance at whilst taking their ease in a public establishment, I reflected on an article that I had chanced upon earlier in the week as I searched online for commentary and opinion about Tonga that might be of interest to my students. It had been written by Moana Uluave in March 2007 whilst a student at Brigham Young University. She began by acknowledging the aesthetic pressures to which the popular media subjects everyone--be young, be thin, be desirable--but also, be white:

As a pre-teen I would let my hair down believing it looked beautiful, until one day at school my friend told me, "You're hair is so thick and frizzy. Did you brush it?" She chuckled. I never left my hair down again. Accompanying that memory are those of older Tongan women telling me, "Stay out of the sun, you'll get darker than you already are." Then I would cover my face in envy of those who possessed the "correct" qualities. At times I would sit and wish my dark skin would turn fair, my near black eyes turn hazel, and my frizzy black hair--kelo and straight. Of course this had to be beautiful. This was the accepted definition.

This was the hegemonic aesthetic, and as Uluave pointed out, it was little different than the Aryan aesthetic of Nazi Germany, except that no one was going around exterminating the untermenschen these days. However, the spirits of entire peoples were being exterminated as less fortunate races forsook their embarrassing heritage in a futile quest to look more European.

But my struggle for self-acceptance was silent. My mom would tell me, "Keep your head in the books and out of the mirror. Intelligence is beauty." So I received the accolades of academia and pushed everything else aside.

Uluave was saved by an epiphany, perhaps because she was so dark and frizzy, whereas her Caucasian contemporaries at BYU and elsewhere might continue to slave under the hegemonic aesthetic:

I, then, saw for first time the beauty in my Tonganess. I recognized beautiful Pacific Islander young women stripping themselves of their inherited ethnic characteristics and eagerly adopting the majority ideals of beauty: light skin, light hair, light eyes, thin noses, thin bodies, and straight hair. And I was disappointed in myself and others for buying into materialism, imperialism, and capitalism.

How was it that forty years after "Black is beautiful," people of colour were having to wage the same old battle? Why must every woman in the world look European to feel beautiful? A few weeks earlier, a student had come to campus with her hair down, wild and free. My first thought had been, why didn't she wear it like that more often? My second thought was that I was glad she didn't; it was too damned sexy. The same old battle is being fought--black is beautiful, brown is beautiful, you can't be too rich or too thin or too white--because the commodification of the human image has escalated in the past forty years in a war that is being waged against humanity itself.

As a young man I developed a theory of beauty. There are three parts of beauty. First, there was natural beauty. Of course, that is in the eye of the beholder; essentially it is socially constructed. The second component of my theory is even more susceptible to being hijacked by hegemonic aesthetics: contrived beauty, "God hath given you one face and you paint yourselves another," as Hamlet chided the fair Ophelia. Some women want to, and know how to, accentuate their physical attractiveness. Probably some don't care, and I don't have a problem with that. There's a hell of a lot more to life than worrying about attracting a mate. It's not like I worry about that every day, but then, I'm 55 and I have ambitions other than conquests in my bed, such as the conquest of a few distinct corners of the universe of knowledge. Finally, there is self-conceived beauty. There was a Star Trek episode called "Mudd's Women," the upshot of which was a line delivered by William Shatner: "There's only one kind of woman: you either believe in yourself or you don't." That sounds like two types to me, but far be it from me to quibble with scriptwriters for a character who kissed more women on camera than I ever hope to.

Anyway, those are the three, and I always figured that most women could manage high marks on two of the three, in which case they were beautiful. Some call it chemistry, or more accurately, biochemistry. The truth lies somewhere between DNA playing a game on itself in order to reproduce, and the human imagination's ambition to create a single, perfect moment of quantum reality for two. Even so, Uluave pointed out that beauty transcends mere sex appeal:

... [M]y definition of beauty cannot be reflected in any mirror. Beauty /'byu-te/ a noun: A woman who knows who she is and where she's going; who is conscious and selective in decision making, yet teachable; who serves others and lives life with intention and passion.

Could Gloria Steinem have said it any better? Sadly, a young woman felt the need to write this forty years later. Happily, the spirit to write this has still not been exterminated.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

17 May 2010

Drowned Princess, Drag Queens, and Faikava

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

I hadn't come to Tonga for my health, although I was eating less and getting more exercise. I hadn't come for the waters either, although Tonga had water in abundance. Six months before Meleline and I had arrived here, the Waters of Tonga had proved to be decidedly unhealthy for 74 people. The Pacific Ocean has swallowed them in the night as the Princess Ashika was suddenly swamped and pulled under. This was why I had come to Tonga: to study the public reaction to the accident, write a dissertation, and earn a PhD. As the first paragraph of my dissertation introduced the research project:

The 6 August 2009 sinking of the MV Princess Ashika is one of the most controversial events in the Kingdom of Tonga in recent years. A millennia-old island culture scarcely can be a stranger to maritime tragedies, yet the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ferry have provoked considerable public outrage. In the face of 74 lives lost, have Tongans forgiven--or will they forgive--parties involved in bringing on the disaster? On one hand, there is the lenient Polynesian attitude of forgiving faults and mistakes; however, on the other, there has been sharp criticism of the ruling class for two decades. Also, do Tongans accept the findings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Sinking of the MV Princess Ashika in Tonga with regard to its determination of the parties to be principally at fault? Given the rising resentment against the Tongan elite, if the Commission's finger of guilt points too low in the hierarchy, it is possible that its findings may have limited credibility among the people. Another question is the role that the media have played in informing the public and in shaping opinion with regard to the sinking.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry's work was now completed. It had submitted its official findings to His Majesty, George Tupou V, on 31 March 2010. The pubic release of the Commission's findings was expected the following week. Over Easter weekend, people were wondering whether the King would ask for the Prime Minister's resignation; some even speculated that he might sack the entire cabinet.

Although not strictly necessary to the subject of my dissertation, nevertheless, I would have liked to have observed a day or two of the Commission's proceedings. Unfortunately, the demands that I already had on my time on campus had made it infeasible. But, there was more drama to come; central figures in the disaster had already been indicted, so perhaps I could sit in on a few days of the trials. I wondered whether the Tongan lawyers dressed up in black robes and white wigs as they did in Britain.

At Cafe Escape, an effeminate man occasionally waited on Meleline and me. In fact, Meleline had assumed that he was a woman. All the employees dressed alike in tropical shirts and tupenus (wrap skirts), so that was no clue. "No, that's a man," I said. "Look at the flat chest and the narrow hips. Look at how he walks. Look at the bone structure of his face, the straightness of his arms when they're extended." I've learned a thing or two living in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life.

In the course of conversation with 'Uta and others, Meleline and I came to learn that it was not uncommon for families having too many boys to raise one as a girl so that there would be a young member of the family to help with the housework. Whether these fakaleti ("make a lady" is my guess at translation) become homosexual or simply remain transvestite, who can say, and frankly, no one seems to care. It is an accepted part of Tongan culture. When Tai and 'Uta took Meleline to a hairstyling shop on Vuna Road, sure enough, the two hairstylists were fakaleti. Even in the social sciences, some things appear to be more or less universal constants. It is said that heterosexual women enjoy associating with fakaleti because it's like having a male acquaintance and a girlfriend in one package. They tend to be very witty; I can understand how they might view other facets of human society with a unique sense of irony. 'Uta used to carouse with fakaleti in her youth. There's an annual drag queen contest called "Miss Galaxy" held at a downtown establishment, and Futa Helu often served as one of the judges. If it was radical, Futa jumped on it with both feet. Yet another reason why local church leaders called him "demonic."

Some said that the fakaleti were a recent phenomenon, having their advent in the 1980s or thereabouts. Meleline suspected that the fakaleti had a deeper root in Tonga culture, and that it was merely their open association with each other, their sense of community, that had developed as they learned of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) communities in other countries. Meleline pitched the idea of studying this phenomenon to one of her students. It was the sort of study that only a Tongan could do well, and it would be cutting edge. Her student had concerns about being taken for a fakaleti if the research project were to become widely known, so he wanted a certain level of information security. It would be a classified project. He also came up with a method of operational security, anticipating that he might be able to rely on a female friend on some occasions. I labelled the study "Project F." Unfortunately, the student bailed out of the project a week later. He wasn't ready to be on the bleeding edge of science.


Meleline was adamant about not attending that evening's faikava, in part because she was tired and in part due to the irritation of having this sprung on her at the last minute. "I haven't researched kava to find out what the effects are." Some sources say that it's a mild hallucinogen. Maikolo claimed that the Australian Northern Territory had outlawed it. I had seen some students show up for class somewhat the worse for wear in the aftermath of a faikava, which could last until 0300 hours. Meleline would make the excuse for our absence that we had a conflicting engagement; this became a retroactive truth when 'Uta invited herself to dinner. At about 1920 hours, as Meleline prepared dinner, Maikolo phoned from the faikava to remind me that my bike was still at Lolo Masi Hall... unsecured. Well, I had to go get it or it might not be there the next morning. Meleline admonished me not to get dragged into staying for the faikava but to come straight home. I set off on foot in the darkness just as 'Uta and Mata arrived from next door.

The faikava is a traditional male social event; the men sit around and drink kava, sing, and tell stories until nearly dawn whilst being served by a few women. Yet another thing that Futa Helu did to infuriate traditionalists was to invite women to participate as equals, although the servers remained exclusively female, I believe. As I arrived to find the faculty represented by Maikolo, Firitia, and Virginia Helu, and then myself. 'Elaisa Helu was also there. Students included Feleti, the two 'Ofas, Tevita, Muna, and Paia. All the men sat at the large table at the front of the classroom, whilst the women sat at other tables. That night I supposed that this arrangement was in deference to Tonga taboo against unmarried men and women sitting together, but at future faikavas I saw men and women sit together.

Maikolo insisted that I sit on his left at the table. It didn't take but a moment for the male 'Ofa to ask me whether I would like some kava. I was sitting next to the dean, and it was in my contract. A cup was ladled full from a huge bowl, and I was immediately reminded of the initiation ceremony in the 62nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in which we newbies had won our flying scarves. As the cup was passed to me, Maikolo informed me that I was expected to drink the entire cup in one gulp, exactly like in the 62nd TFS. "Roger, I know the drill." I drained the cup and then placed it upside down on my head. Tevita then told me that that was not allowed, and that I had incurred a five drink penalty. OK, so their customs were a little different from the 62nd TFS. "Can I negotiate a reduced sentence on account of this is my first infraction?" I turned to Maikolo, "Do I know how to plea bargain or what?"

He nodded in agreement. I didn't see Maikolo drink any kava, although he claimed to have had twelve before I arrived. "It tastes like Tide detergent, doesn't it?"

"More like Axion, with just a hint of Comet." That and it looked like miso soup.

As I was given my second cup, I noticed that my mouth was going a bit numb. "That's about all you're going to feel," Maikolo said. "This is pretty tame stuff." As a student at Brandeis in the mid 1960s, he had done about all that there was to do. "Na'aku 'osi 'i ai, na'aku 'osi fai 'a e me'a koia. Been there, done that."

"Sono stato la, ho fatto quello. I'm sure not seeing any bright colours exploding in my head."

"And you won't."

"Well, that's a bummer!"

A conversation ensued regarding 'Atenisi's heyday, when Greek and Latin were part of the curriculum. Maikolo sounded out the students about reviving theses studies, but the response was muted. "I don't know any Greek, but I know a bit of Latin. Italus sum, ergo, Romanus sum." I am an Italian, therefore I am a Roman.

To which Firitia responded with something every schoolboy knows, "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres."

What gall! No one quotes Gaius Julius Caesar to me with impunity. "Alea iacta est. The die is cast." I treated him to a couple of my original epigrams. "Dei omnes laudamus si existunt." Let us praise all gods if they exist. I think that one might have amused Futa Helu. "Quod ad Pompeium incidet ad Pompeium se tenet." What happens in Pompeii stays in Pompeii.

"What happened in Pompeii?"

"Oh, that was a rockin' little town in its day, and whatever you did there, you didn't tell anyone about it when you got home. You know, like Las Vegas? The phrase has a double meaning now. What happened in Pompeii is still in Pompeii."

One of the effects of prolonged, heavy use was reported to by dry, scaly skin. 'Ofa and Tevita had mentioned this one day while explaining why 'Ofa was wearing sunglasses in the classroom; heightened sensitivity to light was another side effect. "Are you turning into a lizard?" I had asked 'Ofa then. So now I asked him, "At what point do I turn into a lizard?"

"Do you want to turn into a lizard?"

I turned to Maikolo, "I seem to recall I already did that once."

"You probably did," he nodded.

"Sort of the Franz Kafka trip, but not the praying mantis."

As the evening progressed, the more experienced participants instructed me in the finer points of faikava etiquette. One grasps the cup by the edge with the thumb and a couple of fingers, rather than holding it from underneath. Once drained, one gives the empty cup a quick flick over the shoulder, then flicks the cup across the table in a spinning motion back to the grog bowl. This I did repeatedly and with considerable accuracy.

Around my eighth or tenth cup of kava 'Elaisa broke into song, and the other Tongan men joined him in perfect four-part harmony. It was very impressive. It immediately brought to mind the reference to barber shop raga in This Is Spinal Tap. Not that I ever intend to belittle or trivialize something so beautiful as this traditional Polynesian musical form; rather, it's a shorthand description, however inept. Maikolo stepped outside briefly to take a call on his cell phone whilst the men sang, and when the song was over, he told me, "That was Marilyn. She just ordered you home."

As I mounted my bike, I left the faikava with one final Latin phrase, "Gubernaturi te salutant. Those who are about to drive salute you." It was a fitting farewell. Although I wasn't feeling much of an effect from the kava, and so there was no danger due to being impaired, the back streets of Tufuenga and Longolongo were poorly maintained and even more poorly lit. I was about two-thirds of the way home when I rode straight into the deepest crater on the route. The bike shuddered to a halt as the front wheel collided with the upside of the crater, whereas I still had my full measure of 1/2 mv2, so there was no question that the bike and I were now on distinctly separate trajectories. I rolled right to disengage from the vehicle, and as near as I can reconstruct the sequence from my superficial injuries, I executed a six-point roll, coming down first on my right foot and both hands, then on my right knee and right elbow, and finally on my right flank. Couldn't have done any better than that right out of parachute training. I hadn't rolled off a bike in 15 years, but if it weren't for the satisfaction of learning that I could still do it, I would have just as soon skipped the whole thing. I picked up my bike, ascertained that the vehicle was still operable, and I was home about a minute later, washing the gravel out of my abraded knee and elbow. I suppose that sympathy for my road rash saved me from a tongue lashing from Meleline, but as to which of these fates would be the more painful, it is not my purpose to speculate.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

28 April 2010

The Waters of March

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

On the afternoon of Friday, 19 March, the rain returned. "This is now the rainy season in Tonga," Maikolo explained. Funny, when Maikolo picked us up at the airport in early February, it was raining. Since then, we had weathered two cyclones, and in six weeks I had seen more rain in Tonga than I had seen during my entire time as a student at the University of Southern California. But now we were just getting into the rainy season. Was there really a dry season, that is, one that would be recognisable as such to a Californian?

‘Uta comes over to chat, and without any intention of giving offence, much less having any inkling that she is doing so, and right in my own living room calls my hometown "Frisco." I need your help, Herb Caen! Explain, with your tact and disarming wit, why that grates so much. I'm not quite sure why. After all, Angelenos themselves call Los Angeles "L.A." My father was born in L.A. It didn't discomfort me to say that. I went to college in L.A. See? That didn't hurt a bit. But I was born in San Francisco, so was my mother, so were both of her parents, and so was my mother's mother's mother. We say "San Francisco," and no one better say anything else. Well, I suppose "S.F." would be acceptable.

After explaining this lineage, I like to tell people that my son was born "back east," by which I mean Oakland. It is, after all, on the East Coast of San Francisco Bay.

Genealogy is very important in Tonga. I'd swear that everyone on Tongatapu knows the genealogy of the entire island. Certainly ‘Uta knows it. Just give her a name: "Oh, yes, he is...." or "Oh, yes, she is...." Meleline listens to all of this with her anthropologist hat on. Anyway, there are some hereditary lines of authority that run through the male line and some that run through the female line, which makes for a nice balance. But of course, primogeniture is still the rule. For instance, the position of ‘ulumotu'a, or head of the clan, is inherited through the eldest male line. Now, that got me to thinking. I'm an only child. My father was the elder son. My grandfather was the elder son. My great-grandfather was the eldest of four sons. And so it goes, as far as I have been able to trace, back to my fourth great-grandfather. As far as I know, I'm the capo of the Gangale from Cotronei, Caccuri, and Castelsilano. I can't think of a better argument than that against hereditary claims of authority.


From ‘Uta, Meleline and I have learned a little about the politics of xenophobia in Tonga. We have heard that most palangi are American, followed by Australians and New Zealanders, and I've often heard French spoken at Café Escape. The Tongans don't seem to be concerned so much with us white folks as they are with the Chinese. Before we came to Tonga, Meleline and I read about the various ill-conceived revenue-generating schemes of the previous king, George Tupou IV. One such scheme was to sell Tongan passports to Hong Kong subjects of the United Kingdom who didn't relish the prospect of becoming citizens of the People's Republic of China. That scheme made some money for the Tongan government, I suppose, but at the expense of the indigenous population's growing disquiet about there being so many Chinese in their midst. Actually, I haven't seen that many Chinese--I've seen far more round-eyes--but where one does find the Chinese is behind some counter, doing business. A lot of the falekaloa, the tiny cinderblock stands that dot the neighbourhoods--the Tongan analogue of the 7-Eleven--have Chinese proprietors. I needn't dwell on their legendary penchant for entrepreneurship. Rob Beck, a Peace Corps worker who is teaching economics at ‘Atenisi, remarked to me that he was worried that the concept of optimising the outcome of a transaction wasn't sinking in with his students. "It could be that the Tongans still consider transactions, even those involving money, as exchanges of gifts, and it would be ungracious to try to optimise an exchange of gifts," I ventured to theorize, based on what I had read of Tongan culture. Such a culture would be at a severe competitive disadvantage compared to a culture that retained its ancient understanding of commerce despite several decades of brutal Maoist attempts to eradicate it. From ‘Uta, we understand that a lot of Chinese businesses were burned out during the November 2006 riot, and a lot of Chinese subsequently left Tonga, which explains why there are few to be seen in Tonga today despite George Tupou IV's scheme. I wondered why Narattam, an enterprising Indian, had such a voluminous store, essentially in a warehouse, located in the boonies of the light industries area several kilometres east of downtown Nuku'alofa; his store used to be downtown, but it was burned out in the riot. In a few months, he planned to be back downtown; saffron is another of those colours that doesn't run.

It's a tired old story; when the tinderbox of discontent is sparked, take revenge on the disciplined and enterprising Other in one's midst. When white cops get away with beating an African-American motorist, burn out the Korean shops. When Arabs fly airliners into skyscrapers, shoot a South Asian in a convenience store. In May 1998, Indonesians rampaged against their Chinese minority and murdered thousands. Every night is Kristallnacht somewhere on this planet. Get with the pogrom.


In biking nearly every day for five weeks between home and campus, and sometimes downtown, my legs had become considerably stronger. I had stated out taking about five minutes to get to and from campus; now, if I kicked it into full AB (afterburner), I could get to or from campus in 2.5 minutes. Despite this, I was still unsteady on stairs, needing to grasp a handrail. The knees were just shot to hell, and the gout was no help. La vecchiaia... che farai? Old age... what are you gonna do? I had sort of expected to be dead by this age, having been given to doing more than a few dangerous things in my youth, as most youths do, so the gout and the worn out knees were the rewards of unexpected survival.

As it happened, Meleline and I didn't need to buy a clothes washing machine, no more than we needed to buy an automobile. ‘Uta volunteered herself and Mata to do our laundry, once again demonstrating the primacy of the social network in Tongan culture. Equipment such as washing machines and cars might be privately owned, but their owners made them available to family and to friends, along with their time and labour to operated them.

The concept of time itself was communal in Tonga; I don't know that they had an idea of "personal time." For this reason, Meleline and I had to adjust to the fact that ‘Uta would occasionally come to the door while we were watching a movie, and stay to chat for the rest of the evening. This was a bit irritating at first, but on further reflection, how were we inconvenienced? It wasn't as though the program was coming in on the airwaves and then was gone; we could resume at another time. Indeed, had we been absorbed instead in quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, we should not have objected to a tapping at our chamber door. The one immutable priority was that I had to have sufficient time for schoolwork, and nothing could encroach on that.

I had developed something of a taste for Tongan cuisine. In addition to tapioca root and breadfruit, which I had come to think of as South Pacific potatoes, ‘Uta occasionally brought us lu, roasted pork or chicken wrapped in talo leaves. Sometimes the local fauna found their way into Meleline's culinary triumphs. One morning I bit into something crunchy in the soup. It had a strange taste as well as an unusual texture. I decided to remove whatever it was from my mouth with my spoon and to inspect it. It was a cockroach, about 3 centimetres in length. It wasn't on the menu, it was the catch of the day. I took it as a good omen that nothing worse would happen to me that day, which turned out to be so.

Wasps had been a continuing problem on the ‘Atenisi campus. They had built a nest in the ceiling of the first story classroom in Lolo Masi Hall. Disposition of the nest had to be agendised for and discussed in a Faculty Senate meeting before action was decided upon. Marten Runquist, the biochemist, was tasked with removing the nest. There was some delay in accomplishing this, during which time he and his two children, Felix and Ines were stung. Marten removed the nest from the ceiling with not much further delay, but the wasp attack hadn't occurred in Lolo Masi Hall. The larger problem was that the wasps lived all over the campus, perhaps in the mangrove in particular. There were times when I shut all the windows in the computer lab on the second story of Lolo Masi Hall, despite the oppressive heat, to keep out the wasps and to work undisturbed. One day I was compelled to interrupt Rob Beck during his economics lecture and to alert him to the danger. "Be advised I have three targets, eleven, twelve, one o'clock high." I had managed to avoid being stung until the unavoidable happened. As I sped along the road onto the campus, I felt a sudden sting on my left temple, a couple of centimetres from my eye. I had taken a wasp strike. Compared to what a kilogram of highly kinetic flesh and feathers could do a cockpit canopy or a jet engine, I counted myself lucky. Nothing worse happened to me that day.

On 23 March, Tai returned from the New Zealand Immigration Office in tears. She had applied for a visitor's visa so that she could attend her daughter's high school graduation ceremony in Wellington, where she lived with her father. The clerk at the immigration office had harassed her with a lot of intimidating assertions and personal questions, on the one hand accusing Tai of attempting to enter New Zealand on a ruse with the intention of staying in the country permanently, whilst at other times questioning whether Tai were still married to her husband, given that neither had visited the other for several years. Being a Tongan herself, the clerk had to know that there was nothing unusual about this, given that more Tongan subjects lived outside the kingdom than within it. Meleline and I were outraged over this "insolence of office," as Hamlet termed it, and that evening Meleline addressed a stern letter of complaint to the clerk's supervisor. The next morning, armed with Meleline's letter, Tai and ‘Uta descended upon the New Zealand Immigration Office. They issued Tai her visa, and she was in the air that evening. Her daughter's graduation ceremony was the following day.


An issue that has come up regarding my international relations course was the amount of reading I was assigning; 60 pages per week was not a large increase over what my predecessor had assigned, and it was well below the 100 pages per week that I counted up in a Stateside syllabus, but at the same time it was well above what other instructors at ‘Atenisi assigned. Which led to a discussion between Maikolo and myself. My bottom line was, that if this university desired to be internationally respected, it must teach to an internationally respected standard. There was just no way around that. On the other hand, there was no K-12 public education in Tonga, and the private schools (nearly all, if not all, religious, I understood) didn't do the best job of preparing their students for a rigourous academic environment. Well, big deal; from what I had seen, neither did American K-12 these days. True, there was also a language barrier to deal with here; but roughly half of San Francisco State University's international relations students had been foreign, so I wasn't buying that argument, either. Now, throughout my life I had known that I was a slow reader, and after leaving SFSU I finally got around to having myself tested for learning disabilities at the College of Marin. My reading speed is 38th percentile. In other words, nearly two out of three American adults, regardless of education level, could read faster than I could. So, if I could read the readings that I assigned to the students (and most of the time they were new readings to me), they bloody well could, too! Especially since I had told them the secret to student survival: cooperate and graduate; form study groups, distribute the workload. After some discussion, Maikolo decided to sit back and watch my teaching experiment; if I got good results, other instructors might begin ramping up their courses as well. As I saw it, academic excellence was an indispensable leg in ‘Atenisi's strategic triad, along with independent governance and international funding. ‘Atenisi's star was on the rise. Student enrollment was up nearly fivefold from two years earlier, and funding was coming in from New Zealand, Australia, France, and Canada. Meanwhile, the only other university in the kingdom was crashing and burning; because of the odium of Fiji's military regime, overseas income streams were drying up for the University of the South Pacific, and its satellite campus on Tongatapu, which The World of Learning had downgraded to a college, was now reduced to offering only "distance learning" courses. ‘Atenisi was the only game in town, and we must carpe diem.

My student ‘Ana asked about career paths for international relations. I didn't discuss an academic career with her, given the horror stories I had heard, and sometimes seen. In his thesis and methods class at SFSU at the beginning of the Spring 2005 semester, Sanjoy Banerjee had asked his students what they were planning to do after earning their master's degrees. I stated that I might pursue a doctorate. He laughed, "You'll never work again!" That's how America deals with its intelligentsia. I did advise ‘Ana about possible careers in government and in nongovernmental organisations. Also, a knowledge of international political economy (IPE) certainly would serve well operating in the business sector in the South Pacific, given all of the small nations and their economic relationships with Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan, China, and the "Asian tiger" economies of Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Not to mention the fact that I had used my knowledge of IPE to nearly double the value of my investment portfolio in the previous 12 months. Not that it was a particularly large portfolio; nevertheless, the fact was that I was sitting on the beach, earning 97 percent. Yippee ki yay. A damned good thing considering that according to Sanjoy I'd never work again.

Sometimes I sat in the rain, of course. On Wednesday we had light rain, on Thursday we had heavy rain. It rained all through Easter weekend, often torrentially. It really was the rainy season; I only thought it had been raining before. Sometimes it rained so hard that I just had to step outside and watch... and listen... in awe. It was so loud that it drowned out the church bells. The pigs, dogs, and roosters took cover under trees and houses and were silent. Roaches of all sizes silently invaded the house in force in the hope of escaping watery death and instead met their end on a chemical battlefield.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

18 April 2010


Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

When I encounter such phenomena as the lack of street signs, the poorly marked street maps, the rubbish that went two weeks without pickup, the customs run-around, the lumber bumble, and the frequent Internet dropouts that can last for a day or more, it’s difficult not to form the harsh assessment that Tonga is half-assed. Sooner or later, things get done in a way that more or less suffices. Just don’t insist on conformance to exact specifications, or on compliance with a strict schedule. Things don’t seem to work that way here.

Half-assedness comes to Tonga as imports as well. China has a reputation for exporting the shoddiest manufactured goods. The palangi know it, the Tongans know it. ‘Uta told us that the Chinese computers break down in six months. Before we left the United States, Maikolo advised us to ship our American-made bicycles; the Chinese bicycles sold in Tonga fall apart in six months. That was hard for me to believe. How can one screw up something as simple as a bicycle? Nevertheless, we shipped our bicycles. Then we got to Tonga and saw the Chinese idea of a corkscrew. Yes, they screwed up something as simple as a corkscrew. One design was so bad that nearly all of Narattam’s stock was broken in its original packaging. But their “Freedom” plates don’t break; the Chinese break freedom in their own country before exporting the plates. Perhaps Chinese companies figure that they can sell half-assed products here in Tonga, and, as with Hamlet’s madness in England, ‘twill not be noticed.


It really irritates me when I hear a pig squealing and I look around to find that dogs are harassing it for their idle sport. This happened on campus one day, right outside the classroom, while Melelini was in the middle of teaching a class. I stepped to the threshold and issued one short but very loud bark; a half-dozen dogs froze in their tracks and stared at me. What the hell is this human saying to us? Other humans don’t talk to us in our language! I then bayed at them like a huge hound, and all but one of them turned and fled. The one standing his ground continued to stare at me, and I stared back. “Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you!” I said, pointing my finger at him. I took him to be the sentinel of the pack. After a few seconds, he turned and walked away in an unhurried gait, thereby demonstrating to any of his fellows who might be looking on that he was unafraid of me.

Meanwhile, my international relations class kept expanding; now ‘Ana wanted to add the class. A grand total of four students wouldn’t appear to be a challenge to teach, but I needed to ponder how to handle teaching three levels of students--100, 300, and 400--In the same classroom; ‘Atenisi functions rather like the old one-room schoolhouse. Actually, we have three rooms, but you get the idea. Two more students joined the class. One was ‘Ofa the grad student, not to be confused with ‘Ofa the undergrad who had been the first to add my class. Rather than asking to join my class, as all of the others had, ‘Ofa the grad student just showed up one day and announced that he was in my class. That was news to me. Muna, on the other hand, asked my permission, which I gave gladly; she was an obviously Westernized, smartly-dressed young woman, sporting painted fingernails and lots of rings, who claimed that her email address was , although I kept getting a bounce from it.

As I had more of an opportunity to look over the course material that I had inherited from Marcus, the previous international relations instructor, two things struck me. To begin with, the first assigned reading, a 1998 Foreign Policy article by Stephen Walt, presented a remarkably detailed overview of the world of IR theory, naming dozens of other authors in the field, with many of whom I was familiar; however, the other readings in the course reflected the work of very few of these authors. Also, the course as it was currently structured spent a lot of time on Kant, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and cripes, all the way back to Thucydides; excellent historical background in the field of international relations, to be sure, but the planet has taken a few laps around the sun since these guys. I wanted to get some of the latest stuff by some of the best-known theorists into my students’ hands. The problem was that I didn’t have the resources for doing this that would be available to any run of the mill university instructor; I didn’t have access to a four-story library that subscribed to all of the important journals, or that subscribed to the online journal article repositories such as JSTOR, EBSCO, and Ingenta. I explained my situation to Sanjoy Banerjee at San Francisco State University, under whom I had studied international relations theory at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and within a couple of hours he began emailing me the latest journal articles that he was using in his IR theory classes. When I informed my class on Tuesday that the download was in progress, they fairly cheered. As ‘Ofa the undergrad explained to me after class, the students didn’t want to dwell on Thucydides and Machiavelli and Hobbes and Kant and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points; they wanted to read the latest stuff, they wanted to understand what was going on in the world today.


One morning I rose from bed and walked into the living room to find a roach moving across the floor at an unusually slow pace. On the other hand, its speed was quite remarkable considering that it was on its back… and quite dead. Its pallbearers were a contingent of myrmidons. This was one time that I wasn’t going to spray them with window cleaner; I was quite happy to see them performing this service for the roach… and for me. They carried the roach out the front door, at which point I lost track of them. I suppose that they had to chop-shop the roach to take it inside their colony.

I might also mention, while commenting on the wildlife in our domicile, that the lizards emit a loud chirping sound, usually a rapid sequence of five to seven. We assumed at first that we were hearing birds; then we triangulated on the chirps, which seemed to come from inside the house. We had long become used to the sight of lizards on the walls and on the ceilings, but it took some time to associate the lizards with the chirping. It’s fascinating to hear birdlike sounds coming from lizards, but then, both have a dinosaur in the woodpile; a taste of Jurassic Park in the comfort of our own home. I imagine that the lizards feast on life-forms that Melelini and I would prefer not to have in the house, such as the myrmidons; thus, both for their utilitarian and for their aesthetic values, they are welcome in our house.


The weather was not the best that week of 14 March, and perhaps that explains the absence of the dogs. Cyclone Tomas (I love that name) had organised about a thousand kilometres north of Tongatapu, initially headed west, then turned southwest to hit Fiji’s main island dead on. Tomas then turned south, passing to the west of Tongatapu, and veered gradually southeast, describing an arc around us, all the while sending us blustery weather as well as occasional heavy downpours. (By now we were on the Australian High Commission's email list, so we got regular warnings of impending natural disasters, complete with images.) Even the edges of a cyclone were enough to bring down the Internet for brief periods, and also the electrical power. Not to complain, however, for at last it was blessedly cool. By Thursday, it was calm again, the rain was gone, there were patches of blue sky, and still the temperature was pleasant, although warmer. Summer was coming to and end. Maikolo had warned us that because there was nothing between us and Antarctica, we could expect winter in Tonga to get quite cold, all the way down to the 50s Fahrenheit; in other words, like summers in San Francisco. I should prepare myself for that god-awful 19th Avenue weather that San Francisco State students and faculty must endure.

Whenever the Internet on campus is cranky, or when Melelini and I just want to enjoy a good meal in air conditioning, we hang out at the Café Escape downtown on Taufa’ahau Road. We haven’t gone through the entire menu yet, but so far we’ve been quite happy. The bagel and lox is outstanding, as is the smoked salmon and cream cheese toasted sandwich. The hamburger sandwich is at least a large as an American would expect. (In my brief travels along the Australian east coast in 1984, there was not a hamburger to be seen; the meat pie was the fast food.) The samosa is not authentically Indian, being more of a spicier than normal mini meat pie, but enjoyable nonetheless. (I imagine that the nearest authentic samosa might be found in Fiji, where Hindustani has become one of the official languages.)

The milk shake, however, is nothing that an American would recognise as such. I have only two data points, Café Escape in Nuku’alofa and some place in Sydney 26 years ago, so it would be risky to extrapolate from these and to state that there is such a thing as a South Pacific milk shake that is distinct from the American one; nevertheless, I’ll refer to the South Pacific milk shake as a general concept, both for the ease of narrative and so as to avoid affixing blame for this atrocity on any one national culture. To state the problem plainly, the South Pacific milk shake seems to be genuinely a milk shake, i.e. shaken milk. Apparently, one mixes some flavouring into the milk, froths it up in a blender, and there you have it: a milk shake. What could be more straightforward, more self-evident? But the American asks, “Where’s the ice cream? It has to be thick enough that trying to suck it through a straw is a painful exercise in futility.” Well, you didn’t call for a bloody ice cream shake, did you mate! So, based on what I encountered in Sydney, I wasn’t entirely surprised at what Café Escape offered up; on the other hand, Café Escape’s clientele are mostly palangi, and most of the palangi are Americans, so why doesn’t the place make American shakes? They have ice cream on the menu! If you ask me, what passes in the South Pacific is no great shakes. It may be whole milk, but it’s half-assed.

As I write this, we have just had our first Tongan earthquake. Nothing to write home to California about, but I’m doing so anyway. That scene in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story in which the locals continue to calmly order their decaf non-fat double mochas while the planet shakes apart isn’t much of a stretch; Californians are jaded when it comes to earthquakes, as we are about many other things. In October 1987, I sat in my office at Los Angeles Air Force Base (actually in El Segundo), and I looked up to observe the dust shaking down from the acoustic tile ceiling. Another captain opened the door with an air of urgency, stuck his head inside the office, and yelled for everyone to get out of the building. I continued to lean back in my chair. “Five point nine, maybe six,” I replied. That was the Whittier Narrows quake. Tonga stands on a ridge, and just east of that ridge is a trench where the Australian tectonic plate is moving north against the Pacific Plate. Today’s tremor in Tonga was perhaps a 4.5, if the epicentre were fairly nearby… no great shakes. But, if the epicentre were hundreds of kilometres away, that would mean that it had been a stronger quake, and a tsunami would be a concern. I turned on the radio, listened for a half-hour, but heard nothing remarkable.

About the quake, that is. Several times, the announcer attempted to build up audience excitement about a traffic report for Nuku’alofa in the Australian/New Zealander format coming up in a few minutes. Being a veteran of several thousand combat missions on the thoroughfares of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area, I could barely contain my anticipation. I only gave the traffic report a half-listen, not least because Tai came to the door just before it started, but I did hear the remote reporter with the crackling voice, I don’t know, pretending to be in a helicopter, for I can’t imagine that a local radio station could afford the expense of a real helicopter. I suppose it was an attempt at radio theatre in a news format, like an invasion from Mars. In a Kiwi accent, the reporter described the traffic snarls at the major intersections, which are all roundabouts (there isn’t single a traffic light in the Kingdom), so naturally there are traffic snarls getting into downtown Nuku’alofa in the mornings. A few dozen vehicles are enough to jam them up. The Kiwi did a passably professional job, until he blurted, “… whatever the real name of that street is supposed to be.” In my judgment, the traffic report was more in the New Zealander than in the Australian style, and not simply due to the reporter’s accent; an Aussie would have referred to “that bloody street.”


Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga

07 April 2010

The High Ground

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

On Saturday, 27 February I took a bike ride around town, taking care of a few light errands we hadn’t accomplished the day before. A vehicle from an intersecting street made a right turn in front of me and came to a dead stop on the other side of the intersection. Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to move on, I pedalled around him. “Sorry, mate!” the Tongan called out.

“No worries!” I replied.

The Tongans have learned their English from the Aussies and Kiwis, which is a bit amusing to the American ear. But back to the left-hand traffic pattern, it’s a bit unnerving. All my life-long conditioned responses are wrong, so I look at all directions of at an intersection… maybe two or three times. On day when riding to campus, Melelini departed a couple of minutes ahead of me, knowing that I would soon catch up with her. I found her riding down the right side of the street. “Gyet on tha lyeft, yeh bloody Yank!”

Around dinnertime Tai came to the door and asked us for something to eat. Out of the blue. Our reading on Tongan culture had prepared us for this. No one in Tonga goes hungry; no one has to humiliate himself by holding a cardboard sign at a major intersection. Tai had just missed the potato salad as the first course. When she says she’s hungry, she means she needs to eat right now. I suspect that she’s borderline diabetic; obesity and diabetes are rampant among Tongans. So we apportioned the remainder of our dinner three ways instead of two. Joy, ‘Uta, and Mata came by as we were halfway through the main course. Mata stayed to watch a few episodes of Fawlty Towers with Melelini and me when the others left. We were, I believe, more hospitable than Basil.

At 0330 hours on Sunday morning, ‘Uta knocked on our door and chanted in a conversational tone, “Melele. Melele. Melele. Melele. Melele. Melele.” We had read that Tongans are apt to do this at any time of day or night, although I didn’t believe that ‘Uta would interrupt our slumber for light and transient reasons. Far from it. ‘Uta had come to warn us that a magnitude 8.8 earthquake had struck Chile; a tsunami was travelling across the South Pacific and was scheduled to hit Tonga at 0738 hours. ‘Uta suggested that we avoid the rush to high ground. Tai, Joy, Tapuaki, Tai’s son Siosifa, and Mata were waiting in Tai’s van in front of our house. Melelini and I got as much up off the floor and onto shelves or furniture as we could manage in a couple of minutes, packed up our laptops, knee boots, and a few pillows, and headed for Tai’s van. There were a few clouds, but otherwise the sky was full of stars. Our house faced to the south, so when I looked up, I saw the Southern Cross for the first time. I thought of the dozen or so Chilean Gangale whom I had befriended on Facebook and with whom I corresponded occasionally. Had the earthquake claimed some of them?

Tai drove us to Mataki'eua, near the King’s estate, about 20 km west of Nuku’alofa. As we approached, vehicular and foot traffic choked a narrow dirt road. I was reminded of the usual traffic snarl getting into the parking area for a Grateful Dead concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre, not far from NASA’s Ames Research Centre. Whilst I knew full well that no one would appreciate the humour, still I couldn’t resist sticking an upheld finger out the window of the van. “Need a ticket! I’ll be your best friend!”

If what passed for high ground on Tongatapu was more than ten metres above mean sea level, I should be surprised, but that was what we had the work with. Once Tai found a place to park that satisfied her, there was nothing to do but wait. Most of us slept at one time or another. At one point Melelini roused enough to realise that either Tapuaki or Mata was picking through her hair for lice. There was something instinctually comforting in that 10 million year old hominid ritual, and Melelini drifted off to sleep again. Several hours later, in the full light of morning, I realised that there was not a single dog in sight. I later saw one, but his unhurried stroll in the midst of the chaos of humanity marked him as a resident of one of the nearby houses. The evacuees had left their thousands of dogs to the whims of the Fates. The people in the car parked next to Tai’s van gave us four bread rolls, which we apportioned among the eight of us. In so many ways, from the sharing of food and the transportation from danger to the grooming for lice, these people seemed somehow more human. The one exception was the place of the dog in their culture, and that wasn’t much of a place at all. In the course of the ancient island-hopping that had brought their ancestors to Tonga, the dog had lost its rank and station, or perhaps the dog was a stranger to Tonga until transported there by Europeans. In any case, in Tonga they were partners in neither the herding of sheep nor in the hunting of game, nor were they companions; at most they warded off intruders, which was precious little responsibility and stimulation. They had been reduced to welfare bums, living off scraps they had not earned nor were given with affection. The children of neglect, they were listless and incurious. They had not been carefully taught. I am also told that some Tongans eat dogs. But, take this distinct culture of a hundred thousand people for all in all, for one is not apt to see its like again once it is swept from the face of the Earth, as Tevita foresees, by the 21st century tsunami of strangers.

Maikolo phoned about the time the tsunami was scheduled to hit. He wanted to find me in the flood of humanity and talk about the methodology for my dissertation while we were marking time, waiting for the “all clear”. I couldn’t believe it. It was like trying to find a guy wearing a tie-dye T-shirt at a Grateful Dead concert. I told him that I had no idea where we were (I figured it out later as I noted the route that Tai took home, and checked it against a map). Maikolo said he had a Tongan soldier with him, and he wanted me to hand the phone to a Tongan speaker so the two of them could compare coordinates. I handed the phone to ‘Uta. After the phone call, ‘Uta explained that she had described the colour of Tai’s van and had given the license plate number. I went back to sleep, supremely confident that Maikolo would fail to find us. After an hour, he phoned to inform me that he was giving up the project. “What, you couldn’t find me? I was the guy wearing the tropical shirt!”

By then, the radio station had reported a 20-centimetre surge in New Zealand, and the Cook Islands had seen no wave at all. Maikolo advised that he was heading back to his house in Ma’ufanga, a few blocks from the waterfront. One by one, vehicles departed. There had been no official announcement that the danger had passed, and Tai was reluctant to abandon the high ground, but everyone else was in favour of returning home, so we did. ‘Uta assured her that she would keep the radio on throughout the day and that we could always return to high ground if a new threat arose, perhaps as a result of an aftershock. The tsunami warning was finally cancelled at 1230 hours.


On Friday, economics class got more interesting as we started delving into game theory. Also, the miracle of the Internet came to ‘Atenisi, and I stayed on campus for more than an hour after my last class to take advantage of this unexpected boon. But all good things must end; Tai pulled up in her van along with ‘Uta and Melelini. Melelini want me to go with them the Pacific Timber and Hardware on Taufa’ahau Road while she bought timber and hardware to put up shelves in our house. Why my presence was required, I have no idea; however, it furnished an occasion to observe how things get done in Tonga. In the U.S., we could have walked into a hardware store, chances are that pre-cut shelving lumber would have been available in stock, and we would have been wheeling our purchase across the parking lot in a few minutes. At worst, we would have had to stand by for five minutes or so while an employee cut the lumber to order on a circular saw table using a guide fence. Not in Tonga. Instead, one man wielded a hand-held circular saw while two men held the opposite ends of a 6 x 8-foot sheet of plywood parked on top of a crate. The results were spectacular. Three men, working for half an hour, managed to craft the most ragged exposition of shelving material that I have ever seen in this or any other hemisphere. According to accepted economic theory, one mixes labour and skill with raw material and capital to create a value-added product; in this case, however, I have to seriously consider whether these men, labouring none too skilfully, and, it must be conceded, without the benefit of adequate capital investment in equipment, didn’t actually subtract value from the plywood sheet.

I have described some things that I hope convey the sense that the traditional Tonga culture is still very much in evidence; yet, under the influences of Australian, New Zealander, and American culture, Tonga is drifting into the 21st century. This is not entirely due to the work of palangi educators, for we are very few. Other palangi have come here to make their living in various other ways, and although they are not here to change the world, their entrepreneurship and standard of living provide an example of life beyond pigs and chickens. Aid trickles into Tonga from the ANZUS countries and from the European Union, and generosity often comes with a few strings attached. On the whole, the major influence for change is probably the Tonga diaspora; the many thousands who have emigrated to the ANZUS nations to seek their fortunes, have become enculturated there, and whose remittances back the family back in the old country account for about half of Tonga’s economy. As happens with so many immigrants, their children have lost their ancestral tongue, and those who come here to visit extended family are often foreigners in their parents’ land. Indeed, I am told that a number of ‘Atenisi University’s students hold foreign passports. A nation of little more than a hundred thousand people doesn’t possess the means to stand against the social, cultural, economic, and political forces of globalisation; it is only a few, difficult to find dots in the vast ocean of water, of time, of humanity. Where can Tongan culture run to find high ground?

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga