Kate Asleson and her husband Brett are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (“RPCV’s”) who served in the island group of Ha’apai from 2008 to 2010. They now live in St. Paul, Minnesota USA where Kate works in Marketing for Target’s corporate office and Brett teaches at an all immigrant/refuge English Language Learners (ELL) program high school. Kate has also authored a unique guidebook on Tonga based on insights from individuals such as herself who have not just visited the Kingdom, but have lived and worked there as well (a link to her book is in the post). Today, Kate has graciously agreed to answer some questions and share a little about her time in Tonga. So, with that, Kate, take it away!
Name: Kate Asleson (and served in Peace Corps with husband Brett)
Place of Origin/Residence: St. Paul, MN
Current Location: St. Paul, MN
Peace Corps Location: Pangai, Ha’apai, Tonga
Peace Corps Time-Frame: 2008 – 2010
Before you joined the Peace Corps, what was your educational and professional background?
I graduated college in 2005, and worked in advertising at Carmichael Lynch for three years before quitting to join Peace Corps. My husband worked at GE in St. Paul before we both quit our jobs to do this. We wanted to live overseas and had been involved in previous volunteer work, so we wanted to do this before buying a house and having kids (we now have a one-year old daughter, she actually has a Tongan middle name given by our neighbors in Tonga)
What was the process like when you joined?
It was a year-long process with the application, interviews, medical clearance and waiting to hear on placement, it takes longer usually for married couples to be able to find two jobs in one location.
Were you placed in a location and/or field you had indicated an interest in? If not, what were you thoughts on that?
Yes, I was placed as a business advisor and my husband as as teacher which we had interest and experience in, and we were lucky with the location of our placement.
What was your assignment while there?
Business advising volunteer. I was assigned to two different jobs actually at once, both being part-time. One was a computer training center, and one with MAFFF, the government ministry of agriculture, food, fisheries and women.
Did you engage in a secondary project? If so, what?
Yes, I also worked with the tourism bureau on computer skills and a website.
Were you posted in a remote or urban setting? Near other PCV’s? What challenges or rewards have you experienced because of this?
We were in a more remote island group, but in the main “city” on that island with access to the airport. There were a handful of other volunteers on the same island or within close travel distance . We liked being somewhat remote but still being close to some volunteers.
What were the health concerns, if any?
Better access to medical needs and evaluation, one of our neighbor boys died from a broken arm because it wasn’t set right and wasn’t treated in time. Also obesity/diet, a coworker’s 30-something husband died of a heart attack.
What was the greatest need, based on your observation?
I’m sure there are many different answers to this question, and really no great need as far as we saw, people weren’t hungry, family and communities were strong and cared for each other, education was a priority, etc. There could be needs for better medical attention/facilities, and environmental concerns such as coastal erosion and pollution/garbage.
Is there a particular experience that stands out in your mind related to your volunteer work at your post?
One experience that stands out for me in working with the ministry of agriculture was a normal everyday experience for the women there. They usually just asked for my help on computer problems or programs. When they didn’t need help they told me to go home and rest. I insisted on staying and helping/working, on this day the women were doing dirty gardening work, so I got down with them and helped weed and plant, showing them I’m no different and can do labor/everyday work just like them. They held up the “palangi” foreigners as above that kind of work, but this put us on the same level. I went to help share my expertise where I could, but also to build relationships, help change perceptions, and learn more of a different culture and community.
What was your housing like? Did you live alone or with a family? What challenges and rewards did you experienced from this?
We had our own house, on a government compound with shared yard/common outdoor space. It was right on the beach, shaded by a big tree. We had a rainwater cement tank attached to the house gutters, and running (non-drinkable) water, and electricity most of the time. There were many animals on the compound – pigs, chickens, dogs, all noisy, along with 5 neighbor kids who became a part of our house as well coming over to play and practice their English. We also ended up adopting one of the puppies on our compound, and later having her shipped over to the US (it was a complicated process, but after we navigated it other volunteers followed with their pets as well).
What did your diet typically consist of?
Fruits in season, root crops, fish, canned meat or sometimes chicken, pasta, white bread only on the island, and for a short season a few vegetables
What was the area like when you first arrived? Have you noticed any changes since that time?
The coast was constantly changing from storms and earthquakes, from the time we arrived to when we left we could see effects of coastal erosion.
What were your hobbies or activities you engaged in during your free time?
Snorkeling/swimming, reading, watching TV/movies downloaded or shared between volunteers, having group dinners together with other volunteers and foreigners/friends on the island, biking, camping
What was your favorite place to go?
One of our favorite places was Uoleva, the island just south of where we were, we went there to camp or stay at one of the beach-hut small “resorts” on this uninhabited island. We either hired a friend’s boat, hitched a ride on a local boat, or walked across the reef between the islands. We packed light, ate over campfires, snorkeled and spear fished for some of the meals, and truly just got away on our own island (in the off-season, in the tourist season this island was getting more busy)
What other places did you visit while there? What were your favorites?
We had training in Vava’u and on Tongatapu both in Tonga, and we also took a vacation to New Zealand (north and south islands), and spent a couple weeks in Australia. Within Ha’apai we traveled to a handful of outer islands.
Do you have a favorite restaurant? If so, what, where, etc.?
Not a favorite restaurant, but for any visitors/tourists in Tonga I recommend getting off the main island or at least out of Nuku’alofa the main city, to see more of the real village life and culture. Ha’apai for beaches/reefs, Vava’u for scenery/tourist establishments, ‘Eua for hiking.
What are you doing presently?
I am currently working in Marketing at Target corporate, on the Baby category. My husband now teaches at an all immigrant/refuge ELL high school, where there are over 25 different countries represented and the week after he started they actually got their first Tongan student. We still keep in touch with friends in Tonga through email, skype and mail. And we plan on returning to visit, and have met up with friends/RPCVs from Tonga.
Did you have difficulty re-adjusting to life post-PC?
Yes, there is definitely reverse culture-shock that can be harder than the initial culture shock going to a new country. Everything from environment, availability of food/supplies that you didn’t have access to, hot showers, music on the radio, and sense of community/isolation in western culture.
If visitors were to come to your volunteer location, what highlights would you recommend?
I actually wrote a travel guidebook on Tonga with the help of a few other volunteers, through a newer publishing company called Other Places Publishing which publishes travel books all written by former Peace Corps volunteers. This gives the reader a much more in-depth look at the country including insider locations/tips, and more information on culture.