Polynesian youth aren’t the only group of people in the world who struggle to meet the cultural expectations put upon them by their parents and families. Youth struggle with a topic we can all relate to which connects all people to each other – personal and social problems.
I’m the first to point out my problems and struggles because it’s important for whoever i’m talking to know that I can relate to them. My struggles are difficult but out of my struggles spring hope. My life is lived under public speculation and historic figures such as, Princess Diana, have inspired me to take the attention I am given and focus on something bigger than all of us.
Before writing this article, I wanted to talk about the difficulty of surviving the ever present gossip line Polynesians have come to know as the coconut wireless. After much thought and discussion, it occurred to me to bring a few issues that affect our youth to light.
The most disturbing issue is tongan youth have one of the highest suicide rates in New Zealand. According to statistics from Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand (SPINZ), the number of Pacific Islander suicides since 2007/2008 until 2012 has increased from 24 to 31 suicides per year. These facts should be known by all because it is of great importance. Upon hearing this news, I fought back tears wondering what could cause my people so much pain that they would decide to end their life? What pain could they be going through that I couldn’t help them with?
One of the issues I experienced and could be effecting our youth is not being able to speak freely about problems in their personal lives with families. Having been brought up in Tonga and overseas, I found the idea of dating is frowned upon in the Tongan culture. One isn’t supposed to date without a chaperone unless they are willing to risk their reputation with the Tongan community. I try not to be too hasty to put the blame on cultural expectations and the limitations on the youth. Our cultural beliefs play a part in making communication and confidence harder to maintain. In Tongan families, it is the youth’s responsibility to maintain the family’s honor as any action in public display is a reflection of the youth’s parents. Youth find it harder to become a confident person by trying to fit into a mold of what is acceptable and what isn’t for Tongans.
WHY LIFE, a government supported group made up of members of the Auckland tongan community, are dedicated to tongan youth vulnerable to suicide in New Zealand serving with the motto, “Because you’re worth it”. My sister Hon. Lupepau’u, is a member of the WHY LIFE group. Eighteen youths have died of suspected suicide between May 1, 2011 and April, 30, 2012. (Clinical Advisory Services Aotearoa/ CASA 2012).
Pauline Tupouniua Taufa, a WHY LIFE member, speaks plainly on the high rate of Polynesian and Tongan youth suicides in New Zealand, “current prevention strategies are predominantly westernized and therefore do not reflect Pacific world views and realities of the Pacific Community”. There are established groups which aim to council polynesian youth but communication is a struggle. The groups aren’t made up of many poly or tongan people who understand the customs and pressures a youth goes through growing up away from the Kingdom of Tonga. Taufa and Hon. Lupepau’u found after talking to youths, they found that the age ranges from 8 to 24 years old are who had contemplated suicide, communication is a problem. Their parents are part of a generation of immigrants who moved from Tonga to New Zealand seeking a better life for their families. A parent generation who were brought up in Tonga, surrounded by common values, and common beliefs. An older generation that moved to New Zealand trying to bring up their children with the same values and beliefs they were raised with but in a foreign world with foreign values.
New Zealand faces a challenge with attempting to communicate with not only the Polynesian and Tongan youth but also the leaders and dominant social groups of the Pacific Island and Tongan Communities. I take my hat off to the members of the WHY LIFE group who face adversity in trying to stop and decrease the rising rate of Poly and Tongan youth suicides in New Zealand. Every Tongan or Polynesian community has its own issues with their youth, even in the Pacific Islands.
In Tonga, a concern today with our youth is the spread of pornography amongst high school students through mobile phones. Churches, teachers, community leaders attempt to stop to this problem but with the access to the internet and mobile phones, this is an arduous task. I am very happy that leaders in the Kingdom of Tonga and the communities within it are addressing the problem instead of ignoring it.
An issue facing Polynesian youth is finding one’s identity and being confident with it. Polynesians do not make up one of the largest populations on this earth which at times causes one to try and fit in with what is the most dominant of identities. Local Tongan youths aren’t aware of the high calibre Pacific Island and Tongans who are known and loved internationally, but will be inspired to succeed in this world as a Tongan and as a Polynesian.
In a world where individuality and inner strength is vital for survival; conforming to what is the most acceptable Tongan is a difficult task.
The youth have two very different worlds pulling them different ways, one that is the Western/Modern world and its ideals versus the old Tongan world with its traditional beliefs.
This pull between the Western and the Tongan world our parents and grandparents grew up in is just as present in the Kingdom of Tonga as it is anywhere else. I experienced the pull between the modern and traditional Tongan world growing up in Auckland, New Zealand after attending school in Tonga. It was difficult to feel confident enough to ask questions and be expressive. Staying quiet and being obedient at any time is the best way to be in Tonga but, in New Zealand I found it very hard to relate to my schoolmates who were quite outspoken and in my eyes very adventurous. After spending years overseas, I was deemed “too liberal” in my family and would go against most of the traditionally acceptable ways of conducting one’s self. Even writing is a threat to some members of my family. In their eyes, I’m bringing attention to us which isn’t what is entirely desired as my opinion isn’t shared entirely with them. However, I see my exposure differently, instead of living my life in a traditionally acceptable and somewhat “closed off” manner, I would rather make my own choices and decisions, whether they are right or wrong, and be accessible to the people through this medium. My choices make me my own person, a person anyone in the world can relate to. Being able to connect with people I would never have had the opportunity to meet is one of the greatest gifts God has given me because I am fulfilling my duty, as well as, my parents, as it will be honoring them.
It is possible to be your own person and meet your cultural expectations at the same time. This is the idea that I want the youth to believe and carry with them. Our culture shouldn’t limit us or make us feel restricted. I have come across so many restrictions as my nature isn’t well suited for the Tongan culture but I have always found my way around these restrictions. In order for a culture to survive it must change and adapt to suit the world around it and to those who give it life. But in order to have your culture suit you, you must understand it thoroughly. Those who don’t are the ones who feel it limits their way of life. One either discards it or allows it to hurt them to the point of harming themselves. I am not ignorant of nor do I like our culture limiting self growth. However, I am disappointed at how it nurtures hypocrisy in some cases. No one knows anyone as well as oneself. As a member of the Tongan royal family I am supposed to emulate and epitomize the ideals that make up the Tongan lady. But being the perfect Tongan lady makes one quite dull and Tongans would prefer someone with a little personality. Being the perfect Tongan lady limits me with my duties to the people. I couldn’t be a part of Pasikala Nuku’alofa which promotes cycling and healthy living because of the bicycle riding it entails and promotes. I couldn’t be a part of the Breast Cancer Association as talking about any part of your body and women cycling aren’t proper according to Tongan custom.
My older siblings Hon. Lupepau’u Tuita and Hon. Fanetupouvava’u Tu’ivakano are my role models in making our culture suit them. Hon. Fanetupouvava’u was the first to join groups like Pasikala Nuku’alofa or take part in gym activities and simply being involved in community events. Hon. Lupepau’u has been the patron of the Tonga Leiti’s Association for Tonga’s gay and transsexual community since the age of 16. They bring issues such as health and acceptance to light which is what I and my younger siblings are attempting to do. Our freedom is limited because of the public eye. One of my goals is to make my family and myself relatable so that our youth can find strength in us as I did with some of the women in my family. If we have to live our lives publicly then why not be a little more interactive with the public? Maintaining one’s distance from people maintains distance with one’s people and how can anyone love and respect someone they do not know?
In all respects, I understand that there are still many Tongans who only understand and actually prefer more “old school” cultural practices which is inevitable. There are so many facets of our culture that make me extremely proud to be Tongan. Almost all interactions are community based, such as the national Tongan dance the Lakalaka which is made up of entire villages and our culture of exchange and respect.
Love, tolerance, kindness and acceptance is inherent in the Tongan and Polynesian culture. Utilize these values for the benefit of the generations that already have to survive and adapt to a strongly westernized world. I consider myself part of a team of people who exist within and outside the Kingdom who have overcome obstacles and aren’t afraid to talk about how we achieved that.
It is possible to be a strong and loved person without having to conform or lose one’s ethnic and cultural identity. It is our responsibility and that of Pacific Island communities around the world to show the youth the Pacific Island culture is not a restrictive one but an empowering one which fuels our people to be successful and do good for the whole world. Our youth only need to acknowledge their culture as a light to follow to lead them passed the individuals that make it seem like a shadow and towards their greatness.
Article Written By: Hon. Frederica Tuita