Monday, October 19, 2009

Letter to classes in America

The Peace Corps has a program where Peace Corps Trainees (which I am now and throughout training) and Volunteers can be matched up with classes in America to share experiences about their country of service and hopefully relate that to the classwork that's going on in America. I'm teaming up with Cindy Arnold's AP Human Geography class, so I'll be sending them a letter or email about once a month about things that are going on here. Since her Human Geography class sounds like it covers just about everything, I think/hope it'll be a great way for kids to get some second-hand (but very personal!) experiences that relate to their studies. Here's the first email I sent them:

Hi everyone and malo e lelei from Tonga! I've been in Tonga for almost two weeks now. I came with 26 other Americans in the Peace Corps, and we're living for the next 8 weeks in one of the island groups called Ha'apai. For these 8 weeks, we're learning about the Tongan language, Tongan culture, and how we will work in our communities. We each have our own host family. My family consists of: Ana (28, a mat-weaver), Kale ([Kah-lay] 38, fisherman), and Valu (2). I'm learning a lot by living with them and experiencing the Tongan way of life everyday.

In our classes, we talk about culture, among other things, and why Tongans are the way they are. In general, Tonga is a very traditional country. For instance, hierarchy in society is very important. Understanding the Tongan hierarchy is essential to understanding Tonga.

Tonga has three classes: Royals, nobles, and commoners. Almost everything in Tonga is determined by where you rank, either between these classes, or within these classes. Many mechanisms are in place to demonstrate the difference in rank. For instance, the king has his own language, and people can only talk to the king in this language. For another thing, people can never walk in front of the king, other royalty, or other nobility. In Tonga, there are men called talking chiefs, people who speak for the king, royalty, or nobility. At a ceremony, for instance, the honored nobleman doesn't speak, but rather the talking chief receives gifts and thanks guests. This is to show that the person of a higher rank is too important to speak with lower people.

Even among commoners, rank is very important. People are stratified by age, gender, and family. This can affect all areas of life. For instance, at a meeting, lower ranked people will start the discussion, but once the highest ranked person in the room has said his opinion, the discussion is over. Even if his opinion is not logically "right" (by American standards), in Tonga, it is more important to respect the hierarchy than challenge it.

Our first weekend in Tonga, we went to a church service in the capital city, since religion is a very important part of Tongan culture. Some of the Peace Corps people went to a Free Wesleyan church, and who, of all people, was there too? The king of Tonga. At the church, he sat in an area by himself, slightly elevated than the rest of the congregation. Even in church, the king is separated from the rest of the people because he is a higher rank.

Rank is very important even within a class. My first dinner (and every meal since) with my host family, I was the honored person. Guests are very respected in a Tongan home, and my family showed me this respect in ways that surprised me. They sat their two-year-old daughter on the floor to eat, to show that she was below me. When I (in my sad Tongan) tried to suggest we all eat together, they sat at the far end of the table to give me space. Some meals I eat by myself, since that is another way to show respect. Just as the king is separated from the crowd at church, I am separated from the family at meals.

Through the next weeks of classes and training, I'm sure I'll learn more about the hierarchy within Tonga, especially how to work within it. To get any work done, it's important to go to the right people for their opinions, even as a courtesy call. I've heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer who didn't ask the governor for permission to do something (though she would certainly have been granted it), and the governor went out of his way to block her steps to achieve her goal. Obviously, it's very important to understand who ranks where in a society where everything functions around the hierarchy.

I'm enjoying my time here so far. I'm in Fangale'onga, Foa, Ha'apai island group, if you'd like to look it up. Or visit. My mom found some information about the area which sounds very true, except for the horses thing. No horses for transportation. And there's also a one-way road that connects the two islands; whichever direction the car on the road is going is the direction of traffic and everyone else has to wait until that car is off the bridge. Furthermore, the airport we landed in takes up the whole width of the island. It cuts the main road on the island in half, so when a plane is landing or taking off, perhaps twice a day, gates come down to block traffic, much like railroad crossings.

Like I've said, we've got language and training classes for the next 8 weeks. The way the Tongan language is, you can never have two consonants together, and the letters B and R don't exist. Alas, the name "Blair" is quite difficult for Tongans. So, we've changed my name to a Tongan-appropriate one: Pele. Pele is a Tongan name; it means "beloved one" and also "playing cards." Go figure.



  1. blair, excuse me, PELE i'm so proud of you!!! You are so brave and such an adventurer. you're a royal in my books so i expect that baby on the ground at every meal.

    please take care of yourself. te echo de menos y pienso en ti mucho!!! un beso fuerte!!!!!!!

  2. A few musings:

    1. How can you be so sure that the seating arrangement is because you are respected and not just because you smell? Pshh. Arrogant American.

    2. I like the idea of seating children on the floor. Please pass that along to the king.

    3. I miss you.