Overseas Born Youth Face Challenges In Tongan School

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Benefits of coming home exist if process properly managed

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Jan. 18, 2016) –Encouraging overseas born Tongan youth to spend some time in Tonga and to attend schools in Tonga, through a properly structured program, could help to foster stronger connections with second and third generation offspring of migrants, a new report recommends.

But the report completed by Professor Helen Lee last year also warns that this could be a positive thing only if managed properly. "Many of the students interviewed had positive experiences in Tonga but often this came after a period of struggle and difficulty," she said.

Currently, little attention is given to overseas born Tongans attending school in Tonga within the education system and government youth policy. The report reveals that for students having little or no preparation for a change of lifestyle, settling in to high school is very challenging and can even be dangerous.

"A structured program would also help promote the experience in a positive way and reduce the perception that going to Tonga is a form of punishment for youth experiencing problems overseas…

"As this report shows, these students have particular needs that could easily be addressed in ways that would also benefit local students and the schools," she said.


Helen, a Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, noted that there has been very little research conducted into the practice of overseas born youth returning to their parents homelands for Tongan or other Pacific migrant populations. Some earlier studies have recorded feelings of alienation and hardships.

Her new study presented to the Tongan Parliamentary Social Services Committee in June 2015, shows that overseas born Tongans sent back to Tonga to attend high school suffer a huge culture shock due to a lack of knowledge of the Tongan culture. The negative experiences students go through can lead to less involvement with Tonga when they return to their homes overseas.

Helen found that many of these students are sent by their parents to attend school in Tonga because of concerns about their behaviour and belief that spending time in Tonga is a way to "straighten them up" and help them "learn the culture".

"Other students choose to live in Tonga to learn the Tongan way (anga fakatonga) and experience the culture."

"One student commented that he was in Tonga to learn the hard life and the Tongan tradition and know how to pray, know how to work, know how to cook", said Helen.

Her research project was conducted during 2012-14 with the assistance of local researchers Ebonie Fifita and Rebecca Tauali’i. The research aimed to understand the practice of Tongan migrants’ children attending school in Tonga in order to understand the impact on the children, their families overseas and in Tonga and on Tongan society. It also aimed to give voice to the young people themselves. The indentities of the participating students were protected in the report that reveals much unhappiness within their current experiences.

Culture shock

The danger of unmanaged exchanges was apparent.

Students who speak little or no Tongan are often the target of criticism and ridicule in schools, and the intense inter-school rivalry that often ends up in violence is a major concern.

The most extreme example was one overseas born Tongan who ended up in hospital and needed surgery after being attacked on a bus by boys from a rival school. The boy was new to Tonga and at the time could not speak Tongan, so was unaware of the danger of being alone on the bus with other students. As a result of the experience he later became involved in the inter-school violence himself as a way of fitting in with peers.

"He laughed about it as if to downplay its significance. Learning to laugh about violence is one of the lessons the overseas youth learn as part of a wider process of learning to manage their emotions in ways appropriate to Tongan expectations," Helen found. "It becomes part of their acceptance and mastery of ‘the hard life’ in Tonga," she said.

That ‘hard life’ includes the violence they may experience at home, and it comes as a shock to some of the overseas born students that relatives other than their parents feel free to administer physical punishment, particularly aunts and grandmothers.

Violence in schools

Violence in the form of physical punishment administered by teachers and sometimes by prefects comes as a shock to overseas born Tongans brought up in an environment where violence is not tolerated and against the law.

Another issue is the perception that overseas born students are wealthy resulting in considerable pressure in the form of bullying and intimidation from peers to hand over money or goods they receive from relatives overseas.

The students find many aspects of life in Tonga hard, particularly the challenging conditions of everyday life. In boarding schools, amenities are very basic and students may have to cope with cold showers, poor quality food served in inadequate amounts and other aspects of daily life that contrast with the relative comfort they are used to overseas.

Many complained about lack of privacy or personal space, which they had come to value in their lives overseas.

Many also complained about things like the heat, ‘the dirt’, and the ‘bugs’ of Tonga, especially mosquitos and fleas, which often left them with infected bites and the resulting scars.

Some students do not settle into school or life in Tonga and return overseas earlier than planned, due to becoming distressed being in an unfamiliar environment away from their families.

The report also highlights the negative perception local Tongans have towards overseas born Tongan youth, claiming they bring with them bad behaviour and also negatively influence the local youth – many associate the negative perception of deportees (criminals) to be the same as those sent here to school.


Despite all the problems and challenges they encountered, many of the students spoke very positively about their time in Tonga, Helen said. "They particularly liked being able to get to know their extended family, particularly their grandparents. … They spoke with pride of leaning aspects of Tongan clulture and mastering the language.

"Many come to realise that in contrast their lives overseas were ‘easy’."

Helen believed that the local Tongan youth and the country can benefit greatly from second generation (and subsequent generations) of Tongan migrants by ensuring overseas born students feel accepted, develop a sense of belonging and loyalty to Tonga, and return overseas with strong connections to a culture they claim as their own.

"For all their differences, many of the students agreed thay had been changed by being in Tonga. For many it was about a change to a ‘better attitude’ – a term that was used repeatedly as a sign of their transformation. Learning respect was also crucial and all the students spoke about its importance," Helen said.

Among the recommendations of the report were that overseas born youth who will be going to school in Tonga should be given information before they go about what to expect and how to behave, and that each student should have an initial counselling session to establish the situation that they are in.


It has been shown that remittances drop off in second generation Tongans and implementing a well-structured program could reverse the trend for a key economic factor in Tonga.

"There is the potential for more remittances to flow in from the children of migrants if they get chance to live in Tonga for a while and if they have a positive experience," said Helen.

The report titled ‘The Lucky Ones’? Overseas born Tongan youth in Tongan high schools was funded by the Australian Research Council and approved by the then Tongan Minister for Education, Women’s Affairs and Culture, Dr ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki.

"I appreciate the support of Dr Taufe’ulungaki and the then Director of Education Mrs Emeli Pouvalu…and grateful to the principals of each of the six high schools who gave permission for the research to be conducted in their schools," said Helen.

Participating schools were Beulah College, Liahona High School, Queen Sālote College, Tonga High School, Tupou College and Tupou High School.

Helen’s doctoral research in the 1990s was presented in a book Becoming Tongan: an ethnography of childhood, and she has published widely on migration and transnationalism with a particular focus on the children of migrants.

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