Paynesville Press - February 1, 2006

Guest Column

Expectations from adults; fun with kids

By Dan Starken

A rollercoaster of emotions seems an apt way to describe my Peace Corps experience here in Tonga. It seems one moment will be a beautiful connection between myself and someone from a different cultureŠand then the next moment I'll be biting on my tongue hard enough to draw blood because of some maddening thing a Tongan has said or done.

Interestingly enough, almost all the redeeming moments come with the children and the maddening ones invariably come from interactions with the adults.

Take last evening for instance, I went to the evening Sunday Wesleyan church service, which wasn't the usual service as it was largely spent singing. The lady who was running the service has returned from a different island group to Vava'u for the holiday season. When the service was almost over, she proceeded to call out my name and in broken English told me "To come give testimonial and tell what plans I will do for the Ha'akio." Or something very close to that.

I believe she wanted me to give some sort of "testimonial" to the Lord as the Tongans routinely do for just about everything; however, being a reserved Midwesterner I conveniently chose to selectively forget that tidbit.

This whole scene grated on me for the several minutes in between the time the lady volunteered me to give an oration in front of the church congregation, and the time I rose to give my broken Tongan address.

Notwithstanding the fact that I've given little speeches many times about what my work here in Tonga will consist of, I was still salty at this woman. Number one, probably because I don't like being volunteered to speak in front of a fair number of people with about two minutes to think about what to say.

That's a minor one; the major thing that got my goat was the fact that this woman, who hasn't lived in the village during the time that I've been here, was demanding that I tell what my purpose was to everyone irrespective of the fact that the people who actually LIVE in the village are already well aware of what I'm doing there.

This is accompanied by the fact that earlier in the day at a feast that most of the village attended, our town officer, like a mayor, stood and gave a speech during which he stated specifically what the village wanted me to do. The lady was of course in attendance at this feast but seemed determined to have me get up and tell people the exact same thing.

At any rate, I fought the strong urge to make some trite comment during my speech to point out how ridiculous it was for me to explain to a church full of people what they already know. Peace Corps Tonga is teaching me how to bite my tongue if nothing elseŠprobably a good thing.

Then there's the happy side. Given the fact that I understand very little of what's said in the Free Wesleyan church service, which I attend regularly, since 90 percent of my village is Free Wesleyan, I don't feel too guilty about not paying attention. Last evening, for instance, there was this little girl maybe four-years-old sitting a few rows in front of me who kept staring in my direction. It's not that uncommon since I think most kids here that age are not used to being around people that don't look like them. This little girl must have been from another village just returning for the holidays with her family.

So after she stared at me for awhile I made a face at her and stuck out my tongueŠshe looked at me sort of stunned for a few seconds then started giggling profusely. She then proceeded to look back at me about once every 30 seconds for the rest of church, giggling every time.

Thankfully it's moments like these that balance the maddening ones. These two scenarios are an appropriate microcosm of the life of a Peace Corps volunteer here in Tonga. The adults want something from you, and the kids and youth just want to be friends and get to know you.

Starken is a 1996 PAHS graduate who joined the Peace Corps in July and went to Tonga in the South Pacific.

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