Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kava

Kava is the national drink of Tonga; it’s a plant, a relative of pepper, ground up and then mixed with water. It looks like muddy water and tasted only a little better. It’s supposed to have a numbing effect, but that depends on the mix, I suppose.

Our first day in Tonga, the Peace Corps held a formal kava ceremony where everyone got to try to drink. Usually, however, kava is only for men. The only time a woman is allowed to drink kava is on her wedding day, once, before the feast begins. (After my one experience, once is sufficient.) The only time a woman is allowed to go to kava, is to toua (doe {like the deer} -ah). That means she gets to sit there and fill up the kava cups for the men while chatting and deflecting their flirtations. Only unmarried women can toua, and, from what I had heard from the PCVs (and most Tongan women too) who have done it, it’s not a fun experience.
They say they sit around a lot, not understanding what’s going on, while these gross dudes hit on them. And as they drink more and more kava, sometimes it gets more obnoxious. Of course, there’s also the whole “how sexist that they would only let a woman go if she would serve the men” thing, too.

Despite others’ objections, I decided to try it out anyway. Kava is, after all, a traditional part of Tongan society, and I came here to be a part of that society, so I should at least know how kava goes. Besides, Sione and I were invited to kava on Sunday, not the “crazier” kava on Friday or Saturday night (or pretty much any night). I had a fellow palangi there with me, so I was more comfortable as I went into my first toua experience. (When there’s no woman to toua, the youngest man has to do it. Sione has been that person when he went to kava another time, so I got some tips from him before going in.)

So how was it? Boring? Sexist? Nope, I had a great time!

There were about 12 men sitting around the circle with the faifekau, or minister, at one end of the circle, and me across from him. I recognized only a few of the guys, so it was a great opportunity to get to know more of the men in the community. There were a handful of men in their 20s, and (since men are seated according to rank and age) they were seated near me. There’s only ever one toua at a kava circle, and the younger, unmarried men are allowed to sit by her, you know, for the wooing. So there were the standard questions I get asked by Tongans when I first meet them, in order of appearance:

1. Are your parents already dead?
2. Do you have a moa, a chicken or boyfriend/girlfriend, in America?
3. Are you looking for a Tongan spouse?

I don’t think Tongans ever listen or care about the answers to questions 2 and 3, since they always seem to want to show off their own/a friend’s greatest marriage-worthy qualities. (The one I heard at kava that day was, “This guy knows how to cook cake really well!” I’m not sure if that was a euphemism for something I don’t understand, but his cake-cooking abilities were brought up numerous times that day.) Even so, it was fun to joke (as best I could in horribly broken Tongan) with the group.

Afternoon church started after an hour or so at the kava circle, so Sione and I left. Though I was having a good time, it was good to leave on a high note. So here are my reflections on kava:

1. Like the PCV in Ha’ano before me said, it’s a great way to practice your Tongan. Since I’m eager to say what I want to say and not be limited by what I can say, I think that’s almost reason enough to get over objections.

2. It was a great way to meet people I’d probably otherwise not have much contact with in the community. I spend a lot of time with the women, but this was probably my first quality contact with the men.

3. It was a great way to show people in the community I’m multi-dimensional. Most of the conversations are around safe subjects: my family in America, how I like Ha’ano, what my favorite Tongan food is. But at kava, we joked about moas and getting drunk off kava (and promply passing out. “Tongan family planning,” one guy told Sione.).

4. I didn’t mind ladling kava into men’s coconut cups. I was in charge of how much everyone drank, as touas always are. For the older, more respected men, I gave them an appropriate amount. For the one guy who was heckling me (I can only assume he was heckling me – he spoke too fast for me to understand anything, which was probably his point), I gave him a completely full drink. (The men drink the kava all at once so the next person can use their cup too, so imagine gulping down a glass of dirt-water fast.)

5. The worst part was how often my feet fell asleep. We’re all sitting on the floor, but the men are cross-legged. Women are supposed to sit with their legs to one side, so I did that, but I kept switching the side to regain bloodflow to my legs. After I shifted a couple of times, the men all welcomed me to sit like them. That was a relief.

Moral of the story: I can see myself toua-ing a number of times in the future. I think I’ll get a lot out of it in terms of Tongan-language and finding that Tongan husband they keep talking about. I’ve really enjoyed the community-oriented activities with a fixed start-finish time: kava, church, kaipolas. It’s nice to be able to let the community know I want to be a part of it all, but also go back home and rest when I’m saturated with Tongan for the day. So kava seems like another way to do that.

11 comments:

  1. awesome posts blair my dear!! you're such an entertaining writer. best line: "you know, for the wooing."

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  2. Wow that sounds so exciting! Nice to know you had fun going there! But to me it seems it would have been kind of akward going there!
    -Karen C.

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  3. Hello blair, my names martha and Iam from W.T White. Iam in Mrs.Arnold class and she told us to blog back to you. Talking to you will be quite fun for me. So this kava drink sounds interesting, it would be nice to plant one my self! Even though i would have to get married over there. I don't like the part of when the women have to serve the men kava drink. It's interesting how you say men are seated as rank of age. Is church different over there then over here? Are there alot of religions, or is there only one? Are men always suppose to sit crossed legs? That must be tireing to sit always to the side, my legs wiould be asleep all the time haha. What kind of activities are used there? Is it much alike here? And how is the king with the people? Well I hope we can communicate later on with everything thats going on over there. Thanks for taking time to read this and I hope everything keeps on going well. Well got to go, class is almost over!:)
    your's truly,
    Martha Escamilla

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  4. hey blair!! im karely from mrs.arnolds class and i think that even though that kava thing is totally sexist im glad u had a great time!:) in a wierd way cuz i hate sexist guys i think i would like to try it out because it sounds like fun even though i would quickly get tired of that off to the side position i think that i couyld do it right without spilling kava on anyone n im so happy that being a girl that serves u get to decide how much they each get to drink so thats cool well i have to go i hope u have great expierences in tonga and that u can share them with me:)

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  5. idk how you could drink that kava stuff and plus i was wondering how you can get drunk off of it and even pass out while drinking it if its made from a pepper like plant or is it made into a liquor. but it does sound interesting to try sometime.
    well we all hope your having a good time.

    Nofo a or 'Alu a.

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  6. I hope your having a good time back in Tonga Blair!!!! From dallas.

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  7. wow that's really interesting. i didn't know about that. i think some of the experiences you encounter are pretty cool.

    _Elizabeth Tran (mrs.arnold's class)

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  8. Wait, so you were giving the Heckler lots of Kava because it tastes like dirt?

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  9. Hello, my name is Diana Cervantes, from W.T White I'm in Mrs. Arnolds class. I bet this day was a great expirience to get to know the Tongan culture, and a bit of the fun side. The kava drink sounds intersting,and maybe a thing to try in the future. I found it very intresting how everyone has to sit in a circle. Why do men have to sit in rank of age?
    This celebration sound to me like a way to pary but with coconuts, which sound pretty cool to me! :D! The only things I didn't like about this was the fact that the women have to serve the men, I know I would not do that.haa!
    Also the fact that when the men get drunk they try to hit on you, I'm pretty sure I would've felt very uncomfortable around them. When this happend did the men try to flirt, and was it uncomfortable for you?
    Now that you have been there for a while, are you kind of dominating the Tongan Language or has it been hard for you to be able to learn it.
    Well this is all for now Hope the rest of your days in Tonga are wonderful! Take care! And keep writing your adventures in Tonga, they are very intresting! :)


    One last question, is Kava the drink and the celebration or just the drink? Because I asked Mrs. Arnold and she didn't know either.

    -Diana Cervantes!

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  10. Dear Blair,
    I'm Stacey Lopez and I'm currently in Mrs. Arnold's second period. I would like to let you know that I've had a great time reading your letters. I'm really interested in all of your stories and would like to know a lot more! It sounds like you're having a marvelous time experiencing a numerous amount of new things. I am still curious as to what kava tastes like. I can't wait to hear about your other experiences and all the stories you have to tell.

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