AN AMERICAN IN TONGA: ‘I AM STILL TONGAN’

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By Moana 'Ulu'ave

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Pacific Eye, August 2007) – I sit and faintly listen to the drawl of the elders’ voices—a pattern of ups and downs curl around distant sounds. My memory tries to discern these beats and tones as jazz or maybe rap. Unable to comprehend, I become possessed by the images that surround me. Shacks made from scrap metal and plywood, doors that barely shut or open, cracked windows and no windows at all juxtapose their paradise backdrop. "Do you understand what I’m saying?" my grandfather’s brother pauses from his monologue to admonish me in Tongan.

I smile in false affirmation and reply with a thick American accent "Io."

My incompetence fuels a thought, "I am still Tongan." However, one generation removed from my ancestral island, I can no longer converse with members of my own family. What were my expectations coming to Tonga anyway? I expected to have this all-encompassing-soul-searin’-singin’-in-the-rain moment when I arrived that shouted from my spirit, "GIRL, YOU ARE TONGAN!" Instead, I felt only shame. I was ashamed because I no longer spoke the language and I was not worthy to be in the presence of such humble people. Within that shame, a dichotomy of emotion occurred: I never felt the least Tongan and the most Tongan in my entire life. This paradox ran through my body. I could hear the call of the ancestors’ drums with each crashing wave but my American drum responded in sound waves as alien as a French horn.

My identity struggle differs from those who fluently speak Tongan and live in Tonga. I am American and Tongan. The duality conflict, not biracial but bicultural. I was born and raised in the United States. And going to Tonga made me realize that I hold claim only to Tongan genetics and distant relics; I cannot say I am completely part of Tongan culture. I know more about George Washington than Queen Salote; I know more about Miss America than Miss Hailala.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote on the struggle of identity yet undeniable link between race and nation in his book The Souls of Black Folk. Although his circumstances were different, the internal conflict was similar. He writes: "One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (5). Du Bois like many Tongan-Americans could not deny his heritage, however, recognized himself as an American (whether Americans claimed him or not).

This identity conflict has become more prevalent as a result of globalization. I am the generation that must bridge this "two-ness" into some sort of hybrid identity. Whether you’re a first generation American, Canadian, New Zealander or whatever, you like I must look in the mirror of understanding and ask, "Who am I?"

I am a girl who never really wanted to be Tongan until her first year in college. I believed that Western epistemology was the only epistemology since it was the most economically viable. I didn’t want to learn my mother’s ignorant tongue, my father’s broken ways, my grandparents’ foolish traditions. I did not see its worth. I would rather be something else like black or Italian.

Yet when I reached the land of my ancestors, I felt reverence and nostalgia for Tonga. Every long story and joke I had heard over the course of my lifetime made sense in this Tongan context. While standing on my grandfather’s plot of land in ‘Eua, I felt the word manatu’i, remember in Tongan. Tears began to well up in my eyes and I understood that I cannot deny blood. This liquid gold that rushes within my veins, a pulsating reminder of the infinite waves upon the shores where my ancestors lived and died—lives within me. Call it a Lion King moment but I swear I could hear the Tongan version of the Broadway Musical "He Lives in You." This feeling that I was removed from the place but that did not detract from my identity; it only enhanced it. My perspective had been skewed and invalid. How could I have demeaned my heritage without demeaning myself? So as I validate my heritage, I validate myself.

I am compiling my hybrid identity—where my Tongan and American epistemologies in some demented fashion become merged within me. My voice yearns to join the chorus of Pacific Islanders; intellects and artists, farmers and singers, learners and teachers, movers and shakers to come to the knowledge of their own truth. I cannot speak others’ truth but I can describe the path in which I strive to find mine.

My truth is that I am American with Tongan ancestry. I am racially Tongan but I am more culturally American. What solidified this truth for me is my grandfather’s choice at the age of eighty-three to become a citizen of the United States of America. He understands that he lives in America, enjoys the rights and privileges that it has to offer and so does and will his posterity. And because he and my parents, who speak Tongan, have lived in Tonga and still embrace their heritage, pledge allegiance to the American flag, so do I.

That shame I initially felt quickly turned to gratitude. Being Tongan I always come to that end or stepping stone—this all-encompassing-soul-searin’-singin’-in-the-rain feeling of gratitude. A divine appreciation for those who came before, they who left the land they loved—this earth that held the bodies of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on; this land that sang their stories; this ocean that gave them life—for what?

Me.

Then I ask myself am I paying it forward and backward to my grandparents and parents who gave so much of themselves?

No, not enough. There is a need for me to resolve to do better, to be better and to write my story as an American and a Tongan.

So I plead to the Pacific Islander youth, "For what did they bring us here? For what—"

The seeds The waves beat We carry them Upon our ancient backs To a land of milk and honey And We cry As the seeds grow Remember Remember Remember

Moana Uluave is currently attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, double majoring in English and Sociology. She was selected as a winner of Oprah Winfrey’s National High School Essay Contest and is a recepient of the Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship.

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