Ikale Tahi luncheon adorned with random red-and-white objects, such as this, the inexplicable "Pandora's Box"

After two years of livin’ life large in the Kingdom of T, here’s ten cultural, humorous, endearing and/or or otherwise baffling customs Sam and I have found of interest:

1.  Tongan Pop Radio Tonga is famous for its conservative values.  Indeed, old-school Christianity is the prevalent religion here, which is a whole other point perhaps worth noting subsequently.  But for this one, let it be said that it is befuddling thing to find yourself in a car, listening to the tunes of Tonga’s pop radio as conservatively dressed men and women slowly walk around town or perhaps meander to one of their numerous church meetings.  The hint of shoulders or of a knee is rarely seen in the older lot, and public displays of affection (beyond a little hand-holding amongst the younger crowd) are more or less unheard of.  But on the radio, everyone lives a double life. Because in Tonga,  “Top 40” means songs that would make a sailor blush in the good ol’ US of A.  I’m not even sure where some of these ballads come from, but I’ll wager they’re from copies of foreign-purchased CD’s emblazoned with a rating sticker I wouldn’t buy for … probably anyone. For example (and this is by no means an isolated incident — I’ve heard songs delineating all sorts of sensations, persuasions and talents), the other day I drove to town for some sundry item, lost in the beauty of Vuna Road’s crystal clear water view, when after a few moments, I realized I was listening to a catchy little jingle that painstakingly provided me with instructions on how to perform, er … an act involving my mouth.  I couldn’t believe it at first — I mean, it was really quite informative — but still, I quickly rolled up my windows so that the four nice ladies fanning themselves as they strolled down the road toward church wouldn’t hear.

Person swimming under umbrella, Ha-atafu Beach, Tongatapu, Tonga

2.  Rain Tonga is a relatively rainy country, averaging 63 inches of rain a year.  Now, in most places, that would mean a well-stocked supply of raincoats and umbrellas, maybe even a pair of golashes or two.  But in Tonga, umbrellas aren’t used for the rain, they’re used for the sun (like the woman under the umbrella in the picture here).  That makes a lot of sense, actually, because the sun here is wicked direct, so that’s not the bewildering part.

Swimmin' in the Rain, American Pier in Tongatapu, Tonga

The bewildering part is that when it rains, everyone comes out to play.  The sea front is filled to the brim with divers and swimmers.  In fact, the harder it rains (up to a limit — I don’t think I saw anyone out during the last cyclone), the more people swimming.  And it rains hard here, none of that Seattle drizzle!  Even if swimming isn’t in order, the perplexed visitor will note the many citizens of Tonga serenely strolling down the inundated roads, rain splashing all around, and here’s the other weird part: somehow, no one looks all that wet!

Even their shirts don’t look all drippy, instead, they look calm, self-possessed and pretty much ready for anything.  Maybe it’s because no one here particularly cares if they’re wet, I don’t know, but I do know that when I try the same feat, I come home looking like a drowned rat.

3.  Saying “Bye!”

I love this one.  But it took a while for me to catch on.

I still remember our first full day in Tonga: we’d arrived the night before on a Saturday.  That Sunday, we spent the day strolling about town until we found a Chinese restaurant that was actually open and then retired somewhat early, still a little dazed by jet lag.  Around six or so, Sam was suddenly called in to help a volunteer who’d gotten into some sort of accident.  The nurse came by and picked Sam up, offering me a ride into town so I wouldn’t be sitting all by my lonesome in our strange, new house for several hours.  I accepted and, after being dropped off by the Peace Corps office, I walked the block down and over to a bakery I’d heard was open.  All along the way, I passed groups of young men strolling about in the increasing darkness, and as we crossed paths, I found myself consistently greeted with “Bye!” followed by a round of low giggles.

Now, I was probably a little grumpy from lack of sleep and a greasy lunch that refused to digest, but after the fourth time this happened, I began to suspect I was being made fun of.  I speculated on reasons.  Maybe it’s because I appear to be the only girl walking by myself, I silently considered, or, maybe it’s because I’m not dressed right….  Well, I resolved to say “hi” and then act as if I didn’t notice, which worked well enough to get me to the bakery and back, complete with one meat pie.

But by the next day, I realized my jet-lag paranoia was way off.  Because unless the entire island of Tongatapu had decided to make fun of the new PC contractor and his wife, the logical conclusion would be that “Bye” was used here in the same way that “Hi” is used in the states.  This made even more sense upon an introductory language course, whereupon it was explained that, in Tonga, a common way of greeting someone in passing was “‘Alu ä” when someone is leaving and “Nofu ä” when someone is staying.  Now, this could have nothing to do with the Hi/Bye conundrum whatsoever, but the explanation I’ve chosen is that, because we’re passing folks on the street and not staying in one place, the English translation of that would indeed be “Bye.”  So there. And now, two years later, I find myself smiling and waiving “Bye” to pretty much everyone I see.

Procession at King George Tupou V's Funeral, Nukualofa, Tongatapu Tonga

4.  Funerals Tongan Funerals are pretty cool.  None of that go-to-church-and-cry-with-friends-and-relatives-and-then-get-drunk-at-a-wake kind of thing.  No, ma’am!  In Tonga, we do things right. I’m not even a little bit of an expert, but from what I gather, the status of the person deceased determines the level of pomp and circumstance at the funeral as well as the length of mourning required.  If the deceased is a close relative, then mourning could ensue for a year.  If the deceased is royalty, the same observance may be made on a larger scale, to wit, by everyone in the kingdom.

And by mourning, the mourners in question dress from head to do in all black, buildings, trees and fences are draped in purple and black cloth, women relatives of the deceased lop off their hair, and everyone dons the status-appropriate mourning accouterments of a ta’uvola (woven mat) and sometimes the fakaaveave (meaning “like asparagus,” a skirt made of pandanus strips).  Choosing the right ta’uvola and fakaaveave can be a rather complicated affair, as the style of each is dependent upon the relation between the deceased and the mourner and can very easily be transgressed upon by a well-meaning foreigner.

For example, when his late Majesty King George Tupou V passed away last year, it was originally decreed that everyone in the Kingdom would observe mourning formalities (all black clothes, no loud music, no sporting activities and other requirements) for a period of at least three months.  This was later rescinded for a much more forgiving period of a few weeks, but even so, many devout citizens wore all-black and their class-appropriate ta’uvolas for months after.

Tending a Graveside along Vuna Road, Nukualofa, Tongatapu, Tonga

Not only do Tongans cheerfully observe mourning through clothes that look incredibly uncomfortable in this toasty climate, they are also devout in their graveside vigilance.  Woman relatives sit by the gravesides of deceased for varying amounts of time, but I’ve seen one grave along Vuna Road with attendees every evening for the past two months.  Elaborate quilts are hung by the grave, sort-of like a one-sided tent, and flowers, bottles and other decorations festoon the area.  I’ve read this last custom hails from the olden days, when relatives left goodies by the grave for their loved one’s enjoyment in the other world. It’s moving to see the attitude taken here towards death.

Other things that I am too lazy to write about in detail now …

Police Band on Tonga TV at Christmas

5. Tonga TV where the police band dons Santa caps to serenade us with Christmas music each year — so great. (Please forgive the picture: this was actually the screen quality of our television!)


6.  The fact that everything at the market costs either two, three or five Pa’anga, each item sold by the bunch, and if you try to ask if you can only buy one gigantic cucumber instead of three, you are met with a bewildered stare. (Sometimes, an enterprising vendor will acquiesce.)


Gearing up to hit the church gas cylinder (headphones recommended!) Tongatapu, Tonga

7.  The sleep-depriving reality that, amongst an island with a population of approximately 70,000 (which is 70% of the kingdom’s entire census), there are almost as many churches.  And each church has a bell, or a gas cylinder, or some other metal object that is used as a gong that is devoutly beaten loud and repeatedly (as in, five continual minutes!) several times a day starting at four in the morning.  Which leads me to one of my favorite past-times here:

Not now, come back ... when I'm awake! Vendors snoozing at the Nukualofa Market in Tongatapu, Tonga

8. Napping!

Tongans know how to do it.  It seems folks can pass out anywhere for a hearty snooze, whether on a wind-and-wave-lashed ferry ride, under a tree by the main road with traffic huffing by, or … and this is my favorite, I think, rolled up in a mat like a hot-dog and snoozing anywhere that will have them.  There’s been more than one occasion when I’ve been walking along, speaking to a friend or on the phone, when I realize that the mat rolled up on the ground beside me cocoons a sleeping human!  And then, of course, there are the awkward moments at the market when you stop by a stall to purchase something, only to find the owner deep in a snooze.

Beautiful Miss Sunshine" at University of South Pacific Ikale Tahi Luncheon

9.  Rugby!  

No “Curious Customs” post would be complete without mentioning rugby.  It is practically a religion here; if there’s a professional game being played somewhere in the world, chances are, it’s on Tonga’s public television, too.

Ikale Tahi Fan Bus in Nuku'alofa, Tonga

And each late afternoon except Sundays, every patch of green (and some parking lots) are filled with young men engaged in Tonga’s favorite sport.  Tonga’s own team, the Ikale Tahi, are demi-gods amongst the populace and seemingly random mini-parades heralding their honor are found in the most unexpected of places.

Twilight Rugby in Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Ikale Tahi Team Members at University of South Pacific Tonga lunch

In 2011, when the  Ikale Tahi’s went to the world cup, the town of Nuku’alofa was a veritable mad house awash in red and white (Tonga’a — and the team’s — colors), especially when they beat France (sadly, their only world cup victory).  Cheers and roars could be heard throughout the entire town, almost as if a riot had broken out.

Last, but certainly not least:

Fakaleiti at Ikale Tahi Luncheon, USP Nukualofa, Tonga

10. Fakaleitis.  Even in a super conservative country like Tonga, Fakaleitis serve as an undeniable example of Tonga’s penchant for  eclectic dichotomies.  Meaning “In the manner of a lady” or “like a lady”, Fakaleitis are what most Americans would consider third gender individuals — but only as it applies to males identifying themselves as females, not the other way around.  Unlike most places in America, Fakaleitis are fairly common to see, and seem to enjoy freedom of expression unparalleled in most first-world countries.  For example, many Fakaleitis go to work in makeup and women’s clothing and when one goes out to eat or shops at a store, one very often is waited upon by a Fakaleiti so dressed.  It just isn’t a big deal.  Pretty cool, actually.  But here’s what really makes things different: often, in Tonga, Fakaleitis — even open ones — are married, child-rearing leaders in church and political society (one and the same here, really).  Either way, it seems open to debate as to whether Fakaleiti’s are in fact transgender or simply cross-dressers or even straight men who have been reared by families of all male-offspring to perform the chores that, had a daughter been born into the lot, a female would have performed.

Thus concludes this roundup of top ten curious customs in Tonga, but I know it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.  I suppose like anywhere else, Tonga is a complicated and nuanced place, rich in culture and customs.  I think I could live here for the rest of my life and still learn new things about this fascinating country.

3 thoughts on “10 Curious Tongan Customs and Quirks”

  1. Had a great time reading your webpage about Tonga. I’m half tongan but have no clue on customs and the “norm” of things. This was very interesting!! Thanks.

    1. Hi Julie,

      Thanks for visiting! Tonga is certainly an amazing and complex culture, and even thought the post you refer to was written in a light-hearted tone, my husband Sam and I found our two years there filled with meaning. It also proved an education in terms of learning about ourselves as much as about the world around us. If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it!

      Malo aupito!

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