What It's Like Growing Up Tongan in New Zealand

One people, different cultures.
Edmond Fehoko. Photo by Todd Henry Photography.

This article originally appeared on VICE New Zealand

Being a New Zealand-born-and-raised Tongan, I learned to speak Tongan as a child. But I eventually lost most, if not all, of my mother tongue as English became the primary method of communication in my education. The Tongan values and religious beliefs I had learned from my parents and my grandmother remained but as my educational journey progressed, I realised that those too were weakening as a result of western ways of life. In the classroom, for example, I was told that if I wanted to get clarification on something I couldn't understand, to ask the teacher. However, I found there was conflict and tension when I thought about applying this mentality at home; I knew that I would never talk back to my parents and elders.


Today, there is a great deal of anxiety among Tongans in the diaspora communities—particularly of the United States, New Zealand and Australia—with respect to the sustainability of Tongan culture. Just like I could feel happening in my own young life, those fears include the loss of language and the weakening of Tongan values like respect, nurturing relationships, humility and loyalty. Diaspora Tongans risk losing their identity in a rising tide of increased technology, social media and issues like drug and alcohol problems, gambling addiction, and suicide and depression.

However, just like the other cultures with which Tonga shares the Pacific, Tongan culture continues to change and evolve with time and generation. In my own life, the pillars of the traditional institutions like home and church as spaces of learning and reinforcing culture, helped me to maintain my connection to my culture.

My grandparents and parents played a tremendous role in the teaching, transferring and preserving of Tongan culture in my family. Every morning, they would wake up at 5AM and reinforce the importance of staying true to Tongan values and beliefs in their morning prayers. The church provides an important spiritual space for Tongans, providing communalism, love, care and support—pillars that encapsulate and embody a sense of Tongan identity.

As I got older, the ASB Polynesian Festival—affectionately known as Polyfest—allowed me to showcase and demonstrate my pride in my cultural identity and heritage. When it came time to do my PhD, I focused on New Zealand-born Tongans participating in kava culture (faikava), through which I have reinforced and maintained a sense of belonging and cultural identity. Kava, and the socialising, talking and singing that comes with it, creates a space of harmony, belonging and familiarity for one people with different cultures.

I was participating a kava circle at a local church with some of the boys and elders, talking and singing away, when one of the boys said to me: “So what now bro, how is the faikava going to earn you a living?”

Before taking the cup of kava, I held it one hand and replied back to the circle: “This is what we are and this is what makes us different from everyone else. Kava has and—if we continue doing this in the future—will contribute to defining us as Tongans. If we swap the cup of our culture and ancestors with a bottle of Steinlager or Lion Red, we are nothing. If we swap the faikava—a place where we can act, talk, sing, perform, cry and dance Tongan—for the local pub, we are nothing.”

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