Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Tonga

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Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Tonga
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with their host countries, Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences. See also:

In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Tonga, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Tonga.

What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misperception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Tonga are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Tonga, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States, political discussions need to be handled with great care, and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Contents

Overview of Diversity in Tonga

The Peace Corps staff in Tonga recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Tonga has a traditional, patriarchal culture. Although women have achieved high rank in government ministries, people at the community level have not had much experience with women who take on professional roles or who live independently of their families. Most women in Tonga do very little on their own and generally travel with at least one other person. This does not mean that female Volunteers cannot live or do things on their own, but they need to be aware that the community in which they live may view their behavior as strange at first.

Many Tongans have large, robust figures, which are considered desirable in many cases, although perceptions are changing. Slender women may be told they are too skinny, while larger women may be told that they are fat in what is intended as a compliment.

Female Volunteers in Tonga often receive an inordinate amount of attention from Tongan men. Flirting, ogling, catcalls, and a certain amount of protective behavior by host family and community members are common. Females are often asked about their marital status and whether they would like to marry someone locally. Most of the attention is good-natured and can be fended off with humorous replies.

Tongans traditionally do not engage in friendships with members of the opposite sex, so it is culturally inappropriate for a female Volunteer to entertain a man (or men) alone in her home, whether the man is a Tongan or another Volunteer. Her community is apt to see such a situation as a romantic or sexual relationship. Female Volunteers in Tonga have occasionally had people peep in their windows or appear in their homes without warning.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Some African-American and Asian-American Volunteers have been annoyed or frustrated when Tongans tell them that they “just look like we do.” An Asian American may be called mata’i Siapani (“Japanese eyes”) or mata’i Siaina (“Chinese eyes”). Increasing immigration of Chinese to Tonga has created some social tension. However, when Volunteers become known to their communities, being of color has not negatively affected their ability to serve effectively. African-American Volunteers are sometimes referred to by Tongans as “Nika”. The word "nika" is a direct translation of the word "nigger", a term that was brought to Tonga by American soldiers during the 1950s. Most Tongans will also assume that Black volunteers are from Fiji and will have a hard time believing that they are American. This can be very frustrating but Black volunteers must be prepared to explain their nationality in a regular basis.

Some Asian Americans may hear "Siaina" mixed with some mock Chinese words called out to them from across the street. They might also hear "Siapani" or mock Japanese whispered to a friend standing two feet away. To Americans, this is rude, obnoxious, and is a sign of ignorance. The name calling can be ignored, but the deeper issue is a sign of ignorance. There is a problem with racial prejudice in Tonga against the Chinese immigrants. This problem has been exacerbated in recent years by certain Tongan private business interests, culminating in the arson and looting of Chinese businesses and home, during the Nuku'alofa riot on November 16, 2006. Most Tongans cannot distinguish between the Chinese immigrants and Asians from other countries, so all Asians, including Asian-Americans, tend to be grouped with the Chinese immigrants. This makes them potential targets for racially motivated crimes. Bars that might be acceptable for other Volunteers might be more unsafe for you. Above all, use common sense.

To be an effective Asian-American Volunteer, it is necessary to integrate yourself into the community. Let people know what a Peace Corps Volunteer is, that you come from America, and what your Volunteer work is. Adopting the native attire will also immediately identify you as not being a Chinese immigrant (Chinese immigrants typically do not wear tupenus, ta'ovalas or kiekies).

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Respect and courtesy are extended to both male and female seniors in Tonga, and senior Volunteers are likely to be given places of high honor. However, senior Volunteers may find that they are one of the few Volunteers, if not the only Volunteer, of their age in their training group.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Tongan sexual mores are fairly strict. In Tonga, there is a concept called Fakaleiti, whereby boys are raised as girls and take on the appearance and social responsibilities of women. You will learn more about this cultural phenomenon during pre-service training. Generally, this issue is not associated with homosexuality. [This section is grossly misinformed and in need of a serious edit by a knowledgeable person. Beneath the layer of public appearance there is a whole other Tongan sexual reality and volunteers should be made aware of this.]

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

The overwhelming majority of Tongans are Christian, and attending church and observing holy days are important activities in every community. On Sundays, for example, recreation is forbidden by law. Regardless of their own faith, many Volunteers choose to attend church to show respect for local customs and to develop relationships in their community. The Peace Corps encourages Volunteers of every religious persuasion to recognize the church as an important community institution and to participate accordingly. Volunteers who are worried about the religious/spiritual nature of this participation can consult with their peers or Volunteers from previous groups on how to tactfully work in a church-dominant society while maintaining one’s own religious/spiritual beliefs.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

Tongans generally treat people with disabilities with respect. The main challenge will be that the accommodations you are accustomed to having in the United States may not be available locally. Nevertheless, the Peace Corps/Tonga staff will work with you to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, and job sites to enable you to serve safely and effectively.

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