The inner trials of life abroad: when your adopted culture couldn’t care less about what the first article of your nation’s Constitution reads. And it’s your business to accept it and adapt. No one else’s.
Pictured above, the Royal Tombs – and this sign: “forbidden to eat curry”. In my very first days in Tonga, it taught me two essential words: ‘tapu’ as ‘forbidden’ and ‘kale’ as ‘curry’. For those who wonder: I knew ‘kai’ already. It is the same word across the Polynesian world. Isn’t it beautiful? (hint: check this BBC article). It took me a few more days to discover what the Tongans refer to as “curry”. Definitely not something resembling a South Asian dish. Kale moa (chicken curry) is the cheapest dish available in the kingdom, making it a favourite take away order at nearby 24/6 budget restaurant Talahiva.
One thing leading to another, this sign has always given me the awkward feeling that the poorer eaters were directly targeted by the very particular restriction of this order. This misled feeling likely has everything to do with the excessively specific wording of the prohibition. Needless to say no food at all is permitted on the highly tapu (‘taboo/ sacred’) Royal Tombs ground. Actually, nothing and no one apart from the very few designated caretakers of the tombs is allowed there. A matter of respect to the revered passed kings and queen resting there.
This is but one tiny sample of what is tapu in Tonga. A lot of things are tapu, but let’s stick to what has immediate effects on my experience of what could otherwise be a nice, peaceful Sunday evening in the centre of Nuku’alofa: it is a noisy, boisterous evening. Because as much as doing mostly ANYTHING is tapu by law or practice on Sunday (working, swimming, fishing, exercising, sweeping, doing the washing, playing games, playing non-godly music…), churches seem unaffected by the Sunday ban on loudness.
This is entirely fine by me when it means beautiful hymns sung in unison that can be heard across a whole neighbourhood. Churchgoing is the thing to do –which is to be expected in a Christian at the core country- and the Tongans have wonderful voices. My problem right now as I am getting my caffeine fix from the only non-Asian restaurant open on a Sunday has nothing to do with a church building, but the main public square across the road being turned into an extremely loud place of public worship.
I have lived many years outside of France but I have never felt such friction with my upbringing, in a country where secularism, strict separation of religion and the Republic, is established in the first article of the Constitution. Sure, France has an issue or two to resolve with its definition of laïcité (or “secularism”) but I can never imagine a church leader preach in the middle of the street and not get in deep trouble for that. In Tonga not only does that happen every Sunday in at least one central spot of town, but also every Friday night right where people walking to the bars can’t avoid hearing a priest call them sinners in a microphone. And on what could otherwise be a calm, relaxing Sunday, you can’t go through town without having to deal with a loud brouhaha of preaching and singing. You can’t get coffee and actually relax (but maybe I should be grateful for the one coffee shop that is open?).
Nothing against Church or worshippers. But in my French eye there is a place for collective prayer, and it is called “church”. In the same spirit, school is for education, not churching, not dancing, not sweeping. But that’s probably me “not understanding Tongan culture” – as one of my co-workers at the Ministry of Education and Training once informed me, when I had said that the problem that needed to be addressed first in order to raise the level of quality in education here was classroom time vs time spent on school precinct.
Back to the title of this article: my rant against loud churching in the middle of town on Sunday afternoons and evenings has an awful lot to do with me being French and therefore easily getting uneasy in front of public displays of faith. By no means do I think I am right and the priest and his followers on Digisquare are wrong! I am no one to judge the situation. This is however a very good example of the many things that can make choosing to live abroad trying at times: having to respect and adapt to elements of local culture that go against all what your native culture holds as acceptable behaviour. And fully taking it on as part of your new home reality.
My choice, my coping with all its direct and indirect consequences.
Just sharing the awkward experience, as a reminder that cultures can clash on certain aspects and that choosing life abroad exposes you to that kind of awkwardness (and to cyclones!)
Yet still no regrets about the choices I’ve made!