Monday, December 22, 2008

From Ted to Tonga

It's beginning to creep me out how many of my blog entries start with, well, the aging body and its ailments. One hopes the writing doesn't stop there -- one hopes this seemingly inevitably burgeoning body of material (so to speak) will lead, like all decent material, to other considerations, deeper understanding, connections to others, and humor (okay, wry, dark and absurd).

Well, here's another one. It starts with Ted's colonoscopy last week and takes me back 32 years to Tonga. It turns out this potent life experience of mine, that intense two years in the South Pacific, is not so far in the past after all.

I was sitting in the endoscopy waiting room at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, waiting for my husband to wake up after his procedure. I'd already had the pleasure of regreeting our ace colonoscopy doc, Oren Zaidel, who came out and cheerfully said, "It's nice to see you on this end of things!" Must be hard saying anything that's not a double entendre in his business, but who doesn't need a chuckle when skimpy smocks, exposed derrieres and long tubes are the order of the day? Anyway, Dr. Zaidel said my beloved had done a fine job of cleaning himself out (this is the kind of thing that gives us oldsters a renewed burst of self-esteem). He said Ted had one mere polyp and was blissfully sleeping off the blessed dose of demerol.

I settled back to read my New Yorker and check out the others in the room: a sweet, fretful silver-haired lady , whose befuddled husband was being admitted after his test, a trio of 30-somethings waiting out their father's procedure -- they looked upwardly mobile and were chatting alternately in Spanish and English -- a bilingual virtuosity I greatly envy. And then there was another couple -- a honey-skinned, stocky duo, a man and woman who looked to be in their 40s. I wasn't paying much attention until I started recognizing a word here and there: "Io." "Ikai." "Mahalo," "Oiaue," I once knew that vocabulary well: it was a language I once adored for its delightful blend of consonants and sliding, sensual vowels. They were speaking Tongan.

In Michigan there aren't many Tongans -- and I hadn't heard the language spoken by a native for years. At first I simply sat back quietly and took it in, my memory rushing back to 1976, when I first landed in the overwhelmingly exotic and noisy Kingdom and tried to make sense of the language while surrounded by it. It was an exciting, infuriating and deeply satisfying time. Finally I couldn't resist.

"You're Tongan!" I said. They looked up mildly and said yes. I quickly spilled out a bunch of commentary -- how I had been a Peace Corps volunteer long, long ago, and how I loved the language though I'd forgotten it all, how I was deeply changed by my two years in their country, how I met my husband there, how I still dream about it from time to time, blah blah blah.

I am such an American, always talking, always talking about myself.

The two sat quietly, smiling. They said they had left Tonga after high school, 17 years ago, and had never been back. They said yes, they'd heard about the riots and fires in Nuku'alofa, the capital city, two years ago. They said they liked the U.S. better because, the man said, after all, Tonga is just a little island and there isn't any opportunity. Eventually they told me they were Mormons -- not a surprise, considering the long-standing influence of Mormons in the Kingdom.

I continued my Yankee gushing. I said how much I loved the Tongan proverbs, and managed to spit out two of my favorites: Longolongo pusi kai moa (It's the quiet cat that eats the chicken) and Kai lu fa ihe tu'unga u -- Eating the "lu" (a Tongan delicacy, a sort of coconut and taro leaf tamale) found by surprise in the pit after the feast. That last one stands for serendipity and plucky hope to me -- you never would have guessed there'd be anything left in that pit, but you looked anyway and eureka! Food!

The woman smiled again at my probably awkward pronunciation and repeated both proverbs. She and the man exchanged a few phrases in Tongan. Then I babbled what a beautiful country they came from: how I'd gone up to Vava'u, one of the northern island groups, and loved it. How I'd hitched a ride on a boat to the islands of Kao and Tofua. They admitted they had never been to Vava'u themselves -- nor Kao or Tofua -- that they stayed close to home on the main island of Tongatapu.

Then, in a classic Peace Corps conversation, the woman and I determined that we had lived within blocks of each other, and that she not only knew my Tongan father, Sione 'Osamu, but vividly remembered him and his kids in Ma'ufanga, the neighborhood where I lived. I mentioned the crotchety grandfather, Pasikala (Bicycle). When I said "Man, that guy didn't like Americans much," the woman said "Don't worry -- Pasikala didn't like anybody."

I explained my husband and I had met on New Year's Eve in 1976 at the King's palace, and the two murmured pleasantly. Then I remembered I had a bunch of Tongan kava music on the very laptop I was toting, and within a minute I had opened iTunes and had the sweet sounds of Tonga filtering into the overly warm little room.

"See?" I said. "See how much your country still stays with me?"

The man and woman continued smiling, and in the Tongan way, maintained a dignified reserve, declining comment -- never volunteering their names or many details about themselves. Certainly I would not press: that would be rude. I began to feel like a big floppy dog, so happy to be talking about Tonga, but after all a little bit embarrassing. But one never knows. I hope they found my interest entertaining, at least. Who knows what they think about their little South Pacific homeland? Who knows what they think about Peace Corps? Who knows why they have never gone back, or how hard their life in LA might be? Who knows if they've experienced racism or poverty? A whole vast set of possibilities remained unsaid, and an old, familiar Peace Corps guilt crept in. I remember how one of my Tongan colleagues used to make fun of the U.S. volunteers -- noting that all we wanted was a little hut and a black British bicycle -- naively ignorant of how VERY dissatisfying those minimal expectations were to the Tongans themselves, who wanted concrete block houses, big cars and, in many cases, an escape route out of there.

Eventually somebody came and told me Ted was ready to go, and when I said, "mo nofo a, eh?" (you two stay, right?) the two smiled even more broadly and said, "she remembers" and answered "alu a, eh?" (You're going, then?) and then there was Ted, upright and only a little discombobulated, and we went out into the rainy LA afternoon in a present that was rich with the past.


Anonymous said...

You write very beautifully. I work for the hospital. May your every visit be gentle and positive.

Macy Swain said...

Thank you so much for reading and responding! I hope Dr. Zaidel eventually see this blog and the other one I wrote after my own colonoscopy last summer.

Macy Swain said...

I meant, of course "sees" this blog. Sheesh! You'd think it was me still cleaning out the demerol.

Gillian Swart said...

Great story, Macy. I'm sure the couple was thrilled you were there.

greg rappleye said...

A lovely piece.

Megan said...

Just beautiful. I love how much you love Tonga, and I love it even more when you write about it.

Macy Swain said...

Thanks for the responses, Greg and Megan. Tonga certainly continues to resonate for me, and it's helpful to write about it. And of course, it's good to have good friends who want to read about it.

Jaqueline Niit said...

You write fantastically :)
I recently discovered you and am now trying to get a hold of your book :)
I grew up in the kingdom and moved to Europe to pursue my education, but I dream about home everyday :) And like you, I just can't stop talking about it! haha I've convinced most of my friends to one day take a trip to Tonga :)
It's great to read about how much you love Tonga and that you appreciate the things I love about it.
Is your book available in Tonga?