Paynesville Press - September 21, 2005

Guest Column

More observations from Peace Corps trainee

By Dan Starken

(Dan Starken lived in a village homestay in Tonga as part of his Peace Corps training. These are excerpts from his journal during his homestay experience.)

Going to Church
The village of Mangia revolved around church and church-related activities. There was only a Wesleyan church in Mangia, but almost everyone in town went to church whether or not they were Wesleyan. Church services were at 5:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, with Sunday services being at 5:30 a.m., 10 a.m., and 4 p.m. Most people attended at least two of the Sunday services, with many attending the morning service as well along with the weekly ones.

Tongans are very religious which is reflected in the culture that is almost certainly the most conservative in the Pacific region and I'd venture to guess one of the more conservative Christian cultures in the world.

Needless to say, going to church was important for us as Peace Corps trainees to show our respect to the community and our families. This led to some of the more hilarious moments of our homestay experience. Tongans love to dress up for church and love to dress up their Peace Corps trainees even more. The Peace Corps guys got off relatively easily with just wearing a long sleeve shirt, which we already have, and a tupenu (man skirt) and ta'ovala (woven mat) over the tupenu.

The Peace Corps gals on the other hand had a far different experience. First of all, girls and women in general are very protected in Tongan society and aren't given all that much freedom to act as individuals. Because of this, gals are often compelled to follow orders of their parents and since the Peace Corps gals were treated as daughters in their Tongan families they were expected to do what their parents said.

This was especially prevelant when it came to dressing up for church. The two Peace Corps gals in Mangia, Carol and Diana, showed up for the first Sunday church service wearing some of the most awe-inspiring hilarious dresses ever made. Diana showed up in church wearing this ridiculous gold shiny dress with huge puffy shoulders. It was painful to look at, and it must have been even more painful to wear, but nonetheless I cackled loudly about it and still laugh every time I think about it.

Carol suffered an even worse fate. Carol showed up in this humongous pink dress with even bigger puffy shoulders, mind you Carol is not overweight by any means, but in that dress it looked like she'd put on 150 pounds overnight.

I remember being woken up from a nice nap around 3 p.m. one Sunday and vigorously implored to get ready for the 4 p.m. church service. I was extremely bitter at having been woken up and didn't want to go to church again. Yet I bit my tongue and acquiesced and went off to church with the family as usual.

My bitterness was strong, and it was probably the most unhappy moment of my homestay experience, so I went and sat down in church...then I see a behemoth out of the corner of my eye ackwardly navigating a pew and sitting down right in front of me. It turned out to be Carol in her huge monstrosity of a pink dress, and I couldn't help laughing out loud until Carol told me to "shut up!"

Whenever you think you have it bad, just look around...someone's got it way worse.

Sicknesses The village of Mangia has a population of maybe 125 and so most everyone knows everyone else's business. Privacy is very rare here, both because of the size of the village and the Tongan culture in general, which is very communal and non-individualistic. Tongans in general very rarely will ever seek to be alone. There's always someone around. It's one of the more shocking things to my western individualistic sensibilities.

Getting sick in the village is big news. I got a chest cold, fever, and cough for a week or so, and the whole village knew about it instantly. So everyone's first question was no longer, "How are you?" but "How's your sickness?"

That's not so bad. Then I came down with a case of food poisoning or something thereabouts one day, which involved a nice bout of diarrhea. So the first question everyone asked me was no longer, "How's your sickness?" rather "How's your diarrhea?" A lovely topic of conversation! At any rate, self-consciousness is something I'm learning to lose every day here.

Back to my cold, Tongans love to diagnose exactly why you get some particular sickness. In my case, I got sick because I was showering at night time when it was too cold, at least that's what my family insisted. It was usually 75 degrees still when I would shower at night (I showered in our little cement showerhouse in the backyard), and it was far from being cold as far as I'm concerned.

At any rate, the hilarity comes from the fact that there were people sick everywhere around me in the village, coughing and sneezing on me. Most people don't cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. So despite being constantly exposed to all sorts of germs, I got sick because I showered at night.

Mohe'uli Tongans are very conscious of bathing and avoiding smelling foul. This led to a recurrent theme in my family's home. There's a word in the Tongan language, mohe'uli, which means literally to sleep dirty. More or less it implies going to sleep without bathing, and it's a sharp jibe considering that Tongans are so conscious of their personal cleanliness.

Tongans, though, don't like to shower at night because it's "too cold." So basically every night, at least one member of my family wouldn't bathe before going to bed and the rest of the family members would heckle them constantly about sleeping dirty! They'd follow it up by telling the offending person to "go and sleep on the toilet!" (Our bathroom was a little cement structure out in the backyard right next to the shower structure.)

Tongans also like to make this sound when they don't like something, which sounds sort of like a cat hissing. They do it when they walk by stray dogs and the dogs will take off because they've heard that sound so many times before and it was followed by a rock being thrown at them.

It was almost always Ula, my father, heckling other members of the family about sleeping dirty. Ula was kind of a bully and very demanding, especially of his family. One night I just went into my room and was laying down to go to sleep, and I heard my mother, Taaufa, who's an incredibly sweet woman heckle Ula about sleeping dirty ...then I heard Ula make the hissing noise and I started to cackle out loud.

The rest of the family heard me laugh and started to roar with laughter...everyone except for Ula of course. It was especially hilarious because Ula was getting a taste of his own medicine for once.

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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