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

01 April 2010

International Relations

Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Gangale

On Saturday, 20 February, I pumped up the tyres on one of the bicycles that we had unloaded from the crate and took a ride across town in the middle of the day to pick up a half-kilo of white snapper at the office of Maikolo’s favourite fishmonger, which was in the light industries area. I didn’t feel any hotter for the exertion, creating as I did my own airflow as I rode. “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” I was especially cautious at roundabouts, being unused to the left-hand traffic pattern. I was amazed at how many people waved and said hello as I passed by. This is not America.

In the afternoon, Melelini washed clothes by hand and I did most of the wringing as she pinned them on the line. It was labour-intensive. I once heard that the average American household had appliances that performed the equivalent labour of a hundred slaves. One view of international political economy holds that the average American household is supported by the starvation-wage labour of the Third World, and thus our appliances are the captured and converted value of the labour of our Third World slaves. Some call this “free trade,” others regard it as a raw deal. Now, Melelini and I felt keenly the absence of the slaves we had left behind in America. Our domestic chores had been thrown off rhythm, before we had had the chance to establish a rhythm really, by the funeral, the cyclone, and the fiddling about regarding the delivery of our crate, so we ended up doing a lot of laundry in one day. Maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad the next time, but I did remark to Melelini that we might want to consider buying a washing machine in future. Whether we get our own Internet hook-up will depend on how good the wi-fi is on campus and whether that will satisfy our needs.


My legs were a bit sore in the evening, which was not unexpected since I had taken a rather long ride for a first day out on the bike. The timing was unfortunate, as these normal aches and pains masked the development of a damned good bout of gout in my right foot. If I don’t recognise the symptoms of gout in the first hours and take medication, I suffer and hobble around for a few days. Of course, compared to having no medication at all, that’s a piece of cake; I used to be on crutches for weeks at a time before I was diagnosed and treated. But hobbling I was on Sunday morning, and I anticipated that I would be hobbling around campus the following day, providing a painful symmetry to my academic career, for at the San Francisco State University graduation ceremony for my master’s degree, I had been on crutches with what I would later realise had been my first attack of gout. A 15-minute walk to the ‘Atenisi campus would become an ordeal of perhaps as much as an hour; however, I didn’t see that the gout would impede my riding a bike to campus, which I calculated I could do in five minutes. I couldn’t help but wonder whether in the coming months there would be times, and how often they might come, when I would question whether this south seas adventure was better suited to a younger, healthier man. Perhaps so, but the proof of that would be a long and hard experience. On the other hand, in time I might become accustomed to the exertions and inconveniences that Tongans take in stride, to the point where I might ride my bike the four kilometres to the Reef Café simply in the hope of a chance encounter with a colourful character who had just sailed into port from another world.

Dogs occupy a very different place in Tongan culture. I don't see that they are treated as pets, not in the Western way, anyway. Nor are they used as workers, such as shepherds or hunters. I haven't seen people interact with them much at all. They hang around the neighbourhood in considerable numbers (as I wrote earlier, they are left to breed out of control), not doing much of anything, entirely ignored. They must think that humans are retarded and boring, only loosely part of their society, if at all, and then only because humans are food providers. Their big thrill is to strike up a chorus with the roosters several times a day... or night... and then the neighbourhood rings with more voices than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We have a solo performer right across the street, whose breathing control is so remarkable that I am inclined to believe that he studied at the ‘Atenisi Performing Arts School, for he can belt out a phrase on one exhale for about half a minute. We call him Elvis. Thank you… thank you very much.

In addition to the ambient sounds of dogs and roosters, and church bells that boom rather than ring or peal, well before dawn and at various times throughout the day, is a constant drumming. Tap tap tap tap. My first thought was that some construction or home maintenance was occurring a block or two away; however, the sounds come from no specific direction, they’re all around us as are the dogs and roosters. Tap tap tap tap. I believe that it is the sound of women pounding the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree into tapa, a cloth that is used for everyday clothes, wedding clothes, dancing costumes, blankets, home decorations, and gifts at weddings and funerals.

There seem to be a lot of funerals in Tonga. Melelini and I attended one the first week that we were here. Moreover, ‘Uta and Tai are always wearing black, and every few days they tell us of yet another funeral they have attended or are about to attend. It’s possible that they know most of the families in Nuku’alofa and go to most of the funerals in the city. They have been known to return from a wake as late as 0345 hours. Death is an important part of life in Tonga.


Tuesday afternoon was taken up with a reception at the Helu house, adjacent to the campus, for Marcel Monet, the French ambassador to Fiji. As usual in Tonga, the plans for this event changed right up to the last minute, and, as usual anywhere, there was the ten percent who didn’t get the word on whatever plan was current at the time they should have received it. As instructed by Maikolo, Melelini and I had come to campus wearing black, and in fact I was in Tongan dress, as I had been for Futa’s funeral. Unfortunately, Nada and Morton showed up on campus dressed in bright colours rather than in black, but Melelini and I could fix that. The Runquists had a car, so we hightailed it back to our house, and outfitted them in black as best we could. For Marten, this turned out to be the tupenu that ‘Uta had lent Melelini, and a black T-shirt silk-screened with an intricate Celtic design that I had bought at one of the Scottish Games held annually in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, picture, if you can, a tall Swede (naturalised French) in a Tongan wrap skirt and a Celtic T-shirt, not looking the least bit ridiculous; that’s the kind of place Tonga is.

Problem solved, we returned to campus, and awaited the pleasure of the gods. First, the faculty was to have walked with the Helu family and the ambassador to Futa’s gravesite, but the plan got changed. “Don’t believe anything you hear….” We cooled our heels while the family escorted the ambassador to the gravesite, using the time for an impromptu faculty meeting. When the ambassador arrived, we shook hands in a sort of reception line on the campus quad. We were politely surprised to discover that he was some flavour of Southeast Asian, perhaps from formerly French Indochina, whereas we had naturally expected to greet a European. Nada later remarked that this was an example of the openness of the French system. At the Helu house, there were plenty of chairs, yet everyone remained standing. My gout was killing me, but there was nothing for it but to play through the pain… and perhaps drink a bit more New Zealander chardonnay than the others. ‘Atolomake Helu, daughter of Futa, and ‘Atenisi’s instructor in music theory and Spanish, introduced herself to me. In the Tongan observance of her father’s passing, she had cut her hair short. “My father Europeanised my name as Andromeda, the Trojan princess.”

I explained, “I received my bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern California, and we are the Trojans, so you are my princess.”

Melelini and I engaged Ambassador Monet in a discussion of international affairs. I began by telling him that Thomas Jefferson said, "Every man has his own country and France." I explained that I was teaching international relations at ‘Atenisi University, and the ambassador mentioned that he had also taught international relations, but preferred serving in the diplomatic service, that he liked being a politician. “Where the rubber meets the road, as we say in America,” I said. I asked him for a personal message that he would like me to deliver for him to my class.

“Tell the truth.”

Interestingly, we learned from the ambassador that the Russians are seeking to gain more influence among the Pacific island nations. The bear is on the prowl again. It doesn’t matter in the United Nations General Assembly that these nations are tiny, for each casts one vote.

Ambassador Monet remarked on our American accents; he could tell that we were not New Zealanders or Australians. “Oi ken sayownd loik en Ostrahlyen if yeh loik,” I responded.

The ambassador cringed as though the sharp sounds offended his delicate French Indochinese ears, smiled, and replied, “Thank you, that will not be necessary.”

“Well, then, the next time you come to Tonga, I will speak to you in French. I regret that I cannot do so today, but I am studying French this semester.”


After my Friday classes, Tai and ‘Uta picked up Melelini and I at school to run errands together. Our top priority was to go to the Immigration Office and check on their progress in processing our work visas. But first, I poked my head into Paola’s barber shack for a quick hello and a handshake, and I didn’t notice that disagreeable smell from a week earlier. Then, to the Immigration Office next door; they had given the Runquists an awful run around, but we got lucky; we walked away a few minutes later with work visas valid until May 2012. Finally, we were street-legal.

Thomas Gangale's Tales of Tonga