Sunday, April 21, 2013

Social skills

I have been thinking a lot lately about my social skills. Mainly, how life in Tonga has changed them, how to remedy my own awkwardness, and how long post-peace corps I will remain socially awkward.

Mark and I are significantly more removed than the average volunteer working in Tonga. We aren't an easy walk, or bike ride, or taxi ride into town. Our cell phones don't work on our island, except for maybe a random text here or there. Our options for conversing with people are pretty much limited to Tongans in our community, or each other. While both of our Tongan has improved these last few months, differences in culture and frameworks of viewing life, as well as language challenges, keeps most of our Tongan conversations short and shallow.

This means that I have Mark, and Mark has me when it comes to talking about the "meat" of life. Here's a fun fact for those who might not know. I am an external processor. This means that things like my journal, my every conversation, and even this blog, to an extent, are my tools for understanding and forming my ideas and thoughts about life and my place in it. Now my husband, he is not an external processor. In fact, he thinks and rethinks and mulls over every little thing before he chooses to share it. Another fun fact, he is also not the best listener. I love love love Mark, and he is so willing to support me emotionally in ways so many guys are unwilling to do. But, as I am used to rehashing my every thought to at least Mark, my mother, and three other friends....we have noticed an often maddening and hilarious difference in my need to talk, and Marks ability to listen. (at one point, me mid-sentence, mark picked up a book and started reading....this really happened....)

What all of that means, is after a week and a half, or two weeks on our island, we are lonely. We are desperate. We have spent hours upon hours mulling over the ants, the sound of the wind, re-planning our first meal in America, talking about our lists (seriously, a weeks worth of hours talking about what we will buy in town, how we will spend our Internet time, what few precious things we will google, whether or not we will have a coke or a beer for our first cold thing to drink....hours. I write it all down. Then we talk about times-what time the boat said it will leave, what time we think it will really leave, which boat we are going on and which one has what motor so we know how long it will take to get there, how long we will have in town, where we should shop first in town to maximize our time and minimize the amount of time we have to carry all of our heavy groceries. It is pointless, endless plans, endless lists.)

Desperate. Desperate for a new perspective, information from the rest of the world (or at least the rest of Vava'u), for a new ear to listen, for new stories, deeper conversations, for friends. Man, desperate to hear from friends.

And usually, we have 5 hours, 5 little measly hours, in town. After we (literally) run and get our groceries, and at least download new email, we're down to two hours. So for two hours we will sit over diet cokes and bacon cheeseburgers (meat! Yay!), and talk as fast as we can to our fellow volunteers, our friends. And always, mid-sentence of one persons story, another person cuts in, and then I interrupt them, and then we circle back to the first story. It is chaotic, endless chatting. Sometimes about funny stories, sometimes about challenges, sometimes people are laughing and sometimes they are crying (okay, thats usually me!), and sometimes both things are happening at the same time. It is good, and I'm so thankful for those precious lunch dates, but man, it sure is overwhelming.

This last week we had another training in Tongatapu. The first night all 15 of us met up for dinner. And....I was lost. So much talking, so much stimulation, so many palangis, so much English. I just had to sit back for awhile and adjust. (the same thing happened when we arrived to Tongatapu- the "city". There were so many cars and big buildings, and people and restaurants and stores. It's strange to remember that when we first saw Nuka'alofa we marveled at how quaint it was. I think I'll be scared when we visit America, it's all just too much.)

Then after the rush of a two hour conversation, or even the barrage of conversations/information after a week of training in the city, we head back to our island. Where, time literally slows at an exponential level. A "city" minute is like an island day. The readjustment is harder the longer you've been gone. You have to slow the very beating of your heart to mesh back in. Over the next few weeks on the island, we'll retell the stories we heard. Rehash the lives of our friends. We'll wonder what they did about such and such thing, we'll talk through possible scenarios of PST for group 78, etc etc. Then it starts all over again. The arrival to town, the onslaught of communication, being overwhelmed, return to the island head spinning and heart racing, and then the gradual slowing as we settle into island life.

I'm telling you, my social life is making me weird!

Friday, April 12, 2013


Hey friends,

Remember those notes you all wrote us during our goodbye party? Well, Mark and I have been so, so very grateful for the laughs, memories, encouragement, and wisdom on those cards. Thanks! They continue to bless us.

Two of you, two in particular over-achievers, wrote us an entire little book of awesome tidbits. It has meant a lot to me, and I thought you should know, one quote in particular completely resurrected my spirit of serving here.

It had been a hard few months. We had not seen much, or any, fruit of our labor. I wondered if I had this in me, if I could keep my two year commitment. It was just....hard, different, unsatisfying.

And I stumbled upon this,

"A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to you." Henri Nouwen

Thanks, friends. It was the reminder, the truth, that I needed. I (still) don't always know why we are here, but I do know that there is a reason, and we have much to learn from this challenging and growing and unique opportunity.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


We expected Easter to be a big deal, as most of the events here on one's social calendar have to do with church. There were school holidays on Good Friday and the following Monday, and we made sure that we were here for the whole weekend. We were ready to experience everything that a Tongan Easter had to offer. Typically with big events and holidays, we choose to see what's going on at the Wesleyan church, it being by far the biggest, with many families that we are close to.

Leading up to it, a few folks had told us that every Easter, the Wesleyans have an "Easter Camp" for the kids that lasts the entire weekend. Having both grown up in Oklahoma, Alissa and I are pretty well acquainted with the idea of "church camp". It's not our first rodeo. So, we were intrigued with what the Tongan equivalent would hold for us.

First of all, let's get straight what is meant by the word "kid" in Tonga. By cultural definition, a kid is anyone who is not married. So, the festivities of Easter Camp would be the same for toddlers and 25 year old dudes (which still really only means about 30 people). We see this funny cultural difference as another one of those things with a good side and a bad side. It makes for a neat sense of togetherness and non-discrimination based on age. But clearly, the needs of a 20 year old and 5 year old, especially spiritually, are vastly different.

Anyways, for the most part, most of what went on was pretty typical for a normal weekend. Just a whole lot more of everything. There was obviously a bunch of church services: every day of Easter week plus three per day on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There was skit practice and "action song" practice (picture pseudo-sign language done to pre-recorded cheesy Christian music) which also happens most nights of the week. There was a lot of feasting, which I like, if only because it means I am guaranteed a chance to eat meat. And there was, of course, lots of kava drinking with the youth and men at sporadic times during the day.

However, there were a couple of unique things that happened that especially stood out. The first was what was called the "'a'ahi ki he kau vaivai" (visit to the weak people). I'd never heard this term before, and it turned out to be pretty cool. Basically, the whole crew of church "kids" walked around, visiting, singing songs, and sharing bible verses with the old and infirmed members of the church in their homes. It was a neat thing to experience, and we ended up meeting a lady -the mother of one of our neighbors- who we didn't even know existed until a week ago. She's in her 80s, and too weak to come to church, or really, leave her house. She was really sweet, and it was a cool blessing to get to meet her.

The last unique aspect of Easter Camp- really the one thing that made it truly a "camp"- was that everyone slept together, in a central place - the girls in the church, the guys in the Wesleyan hall. There was, of course, the typical kava circle going at one end of the hall, and around bedtime, the mothers showed up with their boys with mats and blankets for them to sleep on. The kava circle continued late into the night, as it always does, as the boys, 4 years old and up, enjoyed their sleepover at the other end of the room. My mind drew funny comparisons to worried American mothers dropping their kids off at sleepovers with sleeping bags and overnight supplies.

The Tongans loved it, and kept remarking "fakalata" (which means contented or satisfied). Whereas an American might feel this way snuggled into their couch with a movie and pizza, the communal mind of a Tongan see it as this: the more people there are, the better everything is. Sleeping at home in your own bed? That sounds ok... But sharing a room with dozens of people? Yes please!

A final funny memory that sticks out to me was the choosing of one of the oldest youth boys to be the "polisi" (police). This basically meant they were in charge of making sure that the kids were quiet and not doing anything naughty during the night. I thoroughly enjoyed recounting to them my experience of being the polisi - school lock ins and camp with my middle schoolers came readily to mind.



We've talked a lot lately about how we wish we could upload more pictures or videos of the daily goings on of our lives - Words often fail to fully capture what life is like here on a daily basis. We really haven't been able to do much of it since we've moved to our site. One of the reasons for this is because we don't have Mandy and her nice camera with us at all times like we did during training. But mainly, we just feel uncomfortable with the stigma of being the rich white folks flashing their camera around. But hopefully, as time progresses and we and our neighbors become more comfortable with each other, we'll eventually have time to take and upload some more.

For the time being, here are a few of the many things that I wish I could capture by way of pictures or video:

- Kava. The atmosphere of a kava circle, the process of passing the bowls, the joking, the music, the hand-rolled cigarettes.

- Church. Hymns veritably yelled in perfect harmony. The men sleeping through the pastor's screamingly loud sermon because of their pre-church kava. Everyone sweating bullets in the humid heat as they are wrapped in gigantic, woven tau'ovalas.

- Feasts. The spread of food presented with pride. The tear-filled speeches of people doing nothing more than acknowledging the pastor, noble, and town officer.

- Dancing. Almost every night of the week, there is some sort of traditional Tongan dance rehearsal. Sometimes, there's not even a performance in the near future. It is done simply because it is the village's nighttime entertainment.

- The center of town during the evening. The guys trash talking each other as they play volleyball or rugby. The women gossiping on the stoop of the fale koloa.

- Swimming by the wharf during a rainstorm (every Tongan youth's favorite time to swim)

- Men (or boys) riding horseback returning from the bush with a load of root crops or fruit.

- Boys running around, playing with complete and utter freedom. Want to go jump of the wharf? Climb a coconut tree? Throw rocks at a bee hive? Play rugby? Explore the bush? Dig for crabs? Sure. Absolutely anytime. No supervision necessary. I'm convinced that in many ways, this would be the best place for a boy to grow up and just be a boy.

- Everyone chatting and waiting at the wharf for the boat to be ready to leave. So far, our record is an eight hour wait time.

- Riding the tractor, the only land-faring vehicle in the village, from the wharf to our house.

- Our neighbors. And when I say neighbors, I really mean our whole village. When you live in a place with only 30 houses, everyone feels like your neighbor. We have finally gotten to the point where we pretty much know every person in the village. Though the language barrier is always there, we feel more and more connected to them every day. We wish we could show you a picture and tell you about each and every one of them.