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