Friday, February 8, 2013

It Takes Some Getting Used To

It's difficult to describe the typical goings-on of a normal day here- most days are not filled with anything spectacular. Especially now during the school break, our days have been simply filled with daily efforts to get used to life here, occasionally trying to help our neighbors in little ways, but much more often getting helped by them. Thus, in an effort to give you a clearer picture of our daily life, I've decided to describe a couple "Tongan cultural phenomenons" that really do illuminate some of the near impossible task of describing our lives to friends and family.

Eva pe (pronounced ay-vah-pay)

When walking anywhere in Tonga, the first question one is typically asked is "alu ki fe"? (where are you going). To a westerner, this may seem like an outright rude invasion of privacy, but, believe me, there is absolutely no private life in an island village. A perfectly acceptable and very common answer to this question is "eva pe" which roughly translates "just wandering around".

We learned this phrase back in the States from our language introduction packet, and I remember thinking to myself, "why in the whole world would I need to say this?". We now realize the important social function of this seemingly strange act of aimlessly wandering through the village.

One can eva pe at any time of the day, but Alissa and I have deemed the hour and a half before the sun goes down (around 6:00-7:30) as "eva pe time". This is the time of day that the village comes out to mingle. Most activities take place at the center of town, where adults play nightly games of volleyball and netball, children play any number of games, and groups of people sit down to chat and gossip. For us, this time has become an invaluable time of being present in village life and further integration into the culture. We also like to eva for the simple reason of reconnecting with certain folks in the village. If we haven't seen someone in a while, the solution is always, "let's eva to their house".

Another important point to make about eva peing is the speed at which one evas. As Joey, one of our teammates, likes to point out, a true eva pe is done properly at a veritable snail's pace- something that overly-stressed Americans have to consciously work at. We are, after all, living the "island life". An eva pe around town that involves nothing more than a few conversations with some neighbors, could very well take up a significant portion of one's evening.

Ui mai (pronounced "oo-ee-my")

The word ui means "to call", and when I first learned this word, I figured that it meant to call someone on the phone. I was quite wrong. This second cultural norm is just another concept that took some significant time to adjust to. Coming from a world where if you want to hang out with someone, have a meeting, or simply ask a question, you either call them on the phone or set up an appointment. Never would you, at any time, intentionally inconvenience someone or encroach on their personal life. This is not the case in a Tongan village.

If you need anything from anyone else here or if you just want to sit down to chat, you simply go to their house and "call to them". What this means, much to our surprise, is that you approach someone's house and repeatedly, in a loud voice, say their name. I don't mean call out a few times, and if they don't answer, you come back another time. I mean that you stand there and literally shout that person's name over and over again. Like 20-30 times.

More than a handful of times, we have been awoken at 6:00 am by someone's piercing voice saying "Ma'ake", "Ma'ake", "Ma'ake", "Ma'ake", and so on... This was tough to get used to, but as with eva peing, this form of connecting with people is just another cultural norm that just makes sense in the context of village life. You don't call someone on the phone. You don't set up a meeting. Why go through the trouble? You just go to their house when you want and repeatedly shout their name. Naturally.

And here I am now, needing to talk to someone or borrow something, shouting their name 20-30 times outside their house. When I want a friend to come tell me when kava is going to start, I say "ha'u 'o ui mai!" ("come and call to me!"). It's funny when things that once seemed strange, start to make complete and total sense when you allow yourself to adjust to a different way of life.

- Mark

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