Here on my island of 350 Tongans, there isn’t much anonymity for a palangi like me. Correction: there isn’t any anonymity. Back in December, after being on the island only two weeks, fellow-PCV John was in Ha’ano and we took a walk down to the end of the island. Kids who lived on the other end of my island, where I hadn’t been yet, called out to me, “Hi, Pele!” I turned to John and said, “I’m surprised they don’t already know your name too.” Pause. Pause. Then we heard, “Hi, John!”
I don’t think word of my every move travels as fast as back then when I was still a novelty, but people still know far more than I tell them. “You went to the Wesleyan church today?” “What were you doing at Mehi’s house?”
A few weeks ago I went to the little shop in my village. I had used up all my oil, and I wanted to have another bottle on hand, in case I got the urge to do something that required oil. I returned home, oil in hand. About an hour later, a neighbor came over. “Did you buy oil? Can we use some to fry some fish that we (all of us) will eat?” As quickly as it had come, the oil was gone.
In a country the size of Tonga, with only about 110,000 people, there’s hardly anyplace that doesn’t know what everyone else is doing. And they’re especially interested in what the foreigners are doing. A PCV friend who lives in Vava’u on an outer island similar to mine told me how, for about a week, every time he cooked, his neighbors knew. They would smell the food and quickly come over with hopes of being offered some exciting and different palangi food.
My activities are not only well-known on my own island, but also on the main islands in Ha’apai, Lifuka and Foa. People there know less about my day-to-day habits, but they all still know who I am and where I live. The people who work at the bank, the principals and teachers at the high schools, many kids, and people I swear I’d never seen before in my life will ask me how am I, how’s Ha’ano, and am I eating a lot of fish?
The Peace Corps says that one thing that PCVs deal with when they return to America is not being the center of attention all the time. Back in America, who knows if you bought toilet paper today? Who wants to talk about what you ate for all your meals last week? Maybe it will be difficult adjusting to that when the time comes, but sometimes, right now, I’d kind of like to go where nobody knows my name.