Friday, June 18, 2004

Unsolved mysteries

Residency occasionally implies expertise. Our houseguests in Chicago often asked us about local political affairs or neighborhood socioeconomic trends despite our relatively limited academic studies in these fields…meanwhile, visitors to Tonga bombard us with questions about monarchy and agricultural logistics. On many occasions, simply investing in one’s community and listening to others’ stories can afford such knowledge. After nearly a year of calling Vava’u home, I understand the central complaints of the pro-democracy movement, the preparation process for community feasts, and countless other components of daily life in Tonga. Nonetheless, certain mysteries remain unsolved regardless of how many months one might call someplace home. The following bullet points represent those mysteries that continually baffle me no matter how long I live here.

• How does a Tongan tell which pigs and chickens are theirs?

Our backyard is a veritable petting zoo. At any given moment I can count thirteen baby piglets, several large sows, multiple dogs anxiously awaiting kitchen scraps, and countless roosters attempting to deny me peace and quiet. We’ve somehow grown accustomed to constant oinks and crows. We’ve even accepted the overabundance of pig crap out back. Here’s what we can’t figure out: if everybody here has pigs and chickens and everyone’s pigs and chickens roam freely throughout the community…how do you know whose pig or chicken you’re killing when feast time rolls around? As best I can tell at this point, possession is 9/10 of the law. If the rooster’s entered your yard, it’s miraculously become your chicken. But I’m pretty certain some law suits have arisen here over adjacent households’ pig disputes. Maybe there’s some computer chip they implant in the animals’ ears or wings; but if folks here aren’t innovative enough to build fences around their yards, then maybe microchips remain slightly out of their league.

• Why don’t people here treat dogs more nicely?

Tongans throw stones at dogs pretty regularly. If an innocent and na├»ve palangi (such as myself) inquires as to why these stones are constantly being pelted toward wandering canines, Tongan neighbors are likely to explain that dogs are rabid and vicious and antagonistic towards people. What particularly amuses me about this homosapien-canine stand off is that no one bothers to question why palangis’ dogs nicely rub against their owners’ legs while Tongans’ dogs angrily dig into their owners’ calves. Could this trend perhaps indicate that much as Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate when bells rang, Tongan dogs have been conditioned to vehemently defend themselves against the strangers who insist upon hurling rocks at them? You see, if you feed dogs as opposed to beating them, they miraculously begin acting nicer toward you. I have yet to convince Tongans of this logic. So I’m baffled at locals’ refusal to treat dogs kindly and locals remain confused regarding why Peace Corps volunteers’ dogs are so much nicer than their own.

• Is quantity of food always more important than quality of food?

Simply put, YES. In Tongan “cuisine,” quantity always trumps quality. So when our youth centre holds a barbecue fundraiser that charges T$4 for freshly grilled chicken and sausage and a nearby store offers cold and soggy breaded fish for the same price, people always opt for day old fish nuggets. Why? Well, there’s more of it, stupid. Let’s be honest. If people here cared about how their food tasted, they wouldn’t subsist on diets composed entirely of bland root crop. Why eat root crop? There’s lots of it. Why eat pig? There’s lots of them. Why eat tinned corn beef that didn’t meet the quality standards in New Zealand and Australia? There’s also a lot of it. A French restaurant would clearly not do well here. Some waiter with a funny accent would serve baby carrots and a tiny cornish hen for T$100, and every Tongan customer would umu the French guy’s dog instead. Tongan food reviewer would be an incredible gig, though. “That restaurant’s good because they serve lots of food, but the restaurant next door is bad because they don’t serve as much.”

• Where are the books printed in Tongan?

Our dedicated American website readers would probably answer the above question with a sarcastic “Maybe at the bookstore or the library!” Very witty, but unfortunately those local establishments are more likely to offer bad harlequin romances in English than anything printed in the Tongan language. In terms of books printed in Tongan, you got your Bible and your Wesleyan hymn book and…um…did I mention the Bible? The thing is Tongans don’t really read all that much. I can’t say whether this particular behavior stems from low demand or low supply. Meanwhile, the King loves claiming his people have the highest literacy rate in the world…the equivalent of boasting about a nation where everybody has pilot’s licenses but nobody has planes. I mean, I’m all for reading the Bible, but at some point shouldn’t one of the Tongans living overseas start translating “A Tale of Two Cities” or “The Brothers Karamazov” into Tongan? Even “The South Beach Diet” would be a start at this point. Tongans that get educated overseas love sending money back, but I’m desperately waiting the day when they start sending books.

• What’s wrong with long-term thinking?

Were I to ask a Tongan about long-term thinking, he or she would likely inform me that we would be better off asking about long-term thinking later...“later” would probably remain rather undefined, eventually the conversation would end up indefinitely postponed, and then after a while we would both wonder why neither of us developed a long-term plan for discussing long-term thinking. The youth office frantically fundraises every month right before bills are due. Our neighbors never fix the loud grinding noise emanating from their car each time it starts, despite the fact that someday their engine will be damaged beyond repair. People leave on vacation without delegating their responsibilities or considering what information their co-workers might need during this absence. If carpe diem/seize the moment were applied universally and without exception, Tongans would flourish. They never miss the present moment…it’s just every moment that follows the present which comes as a complete and total surprise.

So there are some Tongan mysteries for your consideration. In July we will have called Tonga home for a full year, but thankfully we’re still just as confused. It’s something to be grateful for…because if we knew everything already, what in the world would we do for the next year?