A few months ago, I went to Pangai with people from my village to perform a square dance organized by the Mormon women’s group. These women, the Fine ‘Ofa, have quarterly activities – the square dance being one. Last Friday was the next quarterly activity: a discussion on health, enjoying a balanced meal, and then exercising.
Though this activity, the Balanced Meal they called it, was for only the Mormon women in my village, I was still invited to participate. (Any time there’s food, I’m always invited. And this one involved a balanced meal! How could I refuse?)
I went to the Mormon church that night and listen to a very brief lesson on healthy foods and why healthy foods are important, then it was time to eat.
I had doubted the healthfulness of the food I would see. At Tongan eating events, there are usually root crops the size of my leg and pigs glistening with fat. What would Tongans do to a healthy meal?
The eating was on the basketball court. Each family would sit together around a little piece of fabric and eat whatever food they brought themselves. As I walked to my friend to eat with her, I saw plastic to-go boxes of, honestly, quite healthy foods. I saw bananas, apples, papayas, chicken, and modest size chunks of root crops. Though I’m sure it was prepared by one family for themselves, someone still gave me a box.
It was delicious! The chicken was cooked flavorfully with peppers; the traditional Tongan foods were lacking their usually dehydrating amounts of salt; and everything was in moderation.
As I enjoyed one the box of food, other people from other families brought me some of their food too. I got baked papaya, whole baked coconut, octopus, shellfish, and all kinds of other things. They were all pretty healthy it seemed to me, though now I felt obligated to eat a lot of each one of them, which threw portion control out the window.
I should have known that, even if the food would be healthy, it wouldn’t be in modest amounts: I saw one family bringing their food in by wheelbarrow.
I was sitting with a friend who had cooked her own food too, though. Of course, she shared this with me. But, I don’t think my friend really appreciated the healthy aspects of the meal, since she brought basically all the regular food I see in Tonga: fatty pork, fried chicken, sapsui, and those limb-sized root crops.
After eating enough to make even a healthy meal unhealthy, it was time for exercise. All the women (all 10 of us) stood in a circle ready to begin. The group leader then said, “Ok, Pele, go in the middle and lead exercises.” I had a look of horror on my face, I’m sure, but I got in the middle and did a couple of things before gradually slipping back to the outside of the circle.
Another woman took charge and led the women in toe-touches, jumping jacks, and a kind of body-twist that I’ve never seen Jane Fonda do. The music was blasting, and I noticed that our entire workout lasted less than a song. That was probably about all the women could take; they were huffing, puffing, and “oiaue”-ing within 3 minutes. (Oiaue is a Tongan exclamation for just about anything: excitement, surprise, sadness, and, as was the case here, general exhaustion.)
I got sent home with my to-go box and other bits of food I’d acquired throughout the dinner. After that it was time to lie down. That was the healthiest Tongan-prepared meal I’ve probably ever had in Tonga, but I still felt like I had just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.