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