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Archive for August, 2008

My Political Self…

Friends have often described me in one word — political.  The description is an accurate one, but I must say that during an election cycle, I am more aptly described as “intensely, passionately political.”  It runs in my blood.  I just received a letter from my 87 year-old grandmother.  She is a life-long Democrat, and wrote that “98% of her time now is spent on following the current U.S. Presidential election.”  My mother (who volunteered for her first campaign at the age of eight) keeps me abreast by sending me all the latest “you tube” clips via email.  My Aunt worked on the ground in Ohio in the 2004 election, and will be heading off to the DNC shortly.  And here I am, sequestered on a Pacific island, during what I perceive as an absolutely crucial Presidential election.  I fantasize about the convention I would have attended, the weekends I would have spent registering voters, and the salary that would have allowed me to make something more than paltry campaign donations.

My time here in Tonga has not been entirely apolitical.  As an American living in the States, I had often heard about our tarnished reputation abroad.  Tonga is in fact a tourist destination for Australians, New Zealanders, and Europeans.  During my the past ten months here, I’ve had many conversations with these travelers.  Within a second of finding out I am an American, the conversation always turns political.  Their responses to my American citizenship are always quite similiar.  To put it bluntly, they are horrified by the actions of the US government over the past eight years.  Our need for diplomacy with our former allies cannot be underestimated.

I must admit, I’ve become more patriotic since living in Tonga.  I miss my country.  I miss being in a nation that values religious pluralism and I miss being in a nation that embraces diversity.  I am proud to be from a country that values free speech, electoral democracy, and the rights of women.  Yet I feel at this time in history, so much of what I love about my country is in jeopardy.  As I’m sure you have realized by now, I am 100% supporting Obama in this election.  I truly hope voters take the time to learn more about what is truly at stake in this election.  In terms of women’s rights, here is some information of McCain’s previous voting record (available from NARAL).

*He voted to terminate the Title X family planning program, which provides millions of women with health‐care services

ranging from birth control to breast cancer

*He voted against funding teen‐pregnancy‐prevention programs and ensuring that “abstinence‐only” programs are medically accurate.

* He voted to de‐fund the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an organization

that provides family‐planning services – not abortion – for the

world’s poorest  women.

As you can gather, all of these votes infuriate me. All I can say about this one is that John McCain has obviously not spent any time in a nation like Haiti, where denial of family-planning services reinforces crippling poverty, and incredibly high rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, and children under the age of 5 dying from malnutrition.

*He also voted to take $75 million

from the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant to
establish a new “abstinence‐only” program

that censors information about birth

He has obviously not visited any schools/homes for unwed mothers, like Florence Crittenton in SC.  I worked as a teacher there.  My youngest mothers were twelve.  I also had students that had given birth to children, as a result of rape and incest by their own paternal fathers.  McCain voted to prohibit federal  Medicaid funds for abortion services in any case, including rape and incest.

He obviously was unaware of their trauma and their emotional scarring that will never go away.

The realities of McCain’s voting records are apparent.  I just hope that voters take the time to really research this candidate, and that they also take the time to educate themselves on Obama.  Obama’s leadership during his time in the Senate on women’s rights and poverty has been impeccable.  I would be proud to be a part of his vision for America, and ecstatic for his leadership in a nation I eagerly anticipate being my home again:)

It isn’t always easy…

I hope this post doesn’t come off as me venting up a storm…  But an integral part of the Peace Corps goals include sharing one’s experience with Americans back home.  If you have been reading this blog, you know that Scot and I were transferred back to the main island of Tongatapu.  I went from teaching at a sleepy little Primary school on a remote island, to a large, urban high school.  Because my actual teaching certification is at the Secondary level, I welcomed this change!

The school is very blessed to be under the leadership of a fantastic  Principal.  ‘Ungatea is Tongan, yet studied abroad in New Zealand and Australia and received her PH.D in Applied Linguistics.  Listening to her perspectives and experiences has been highly helpful to me.

I cannot stereotype all of my students, because (like any school) there is diversity in goals, backgrounds, achievement levels, etc.  Yet I have to say, this school is the sixth school in which I have worked as a full-time teacher.  The number increases if I include substitute teaching and short-term volunteering.  I have never seen such poor attendance and student apathy as I currently am in Tonga.  My grade book and attendance sheet are full of zeros.  It is not uncommon for a student to saunter into a class that is almost finished, after missing the last two weeks.  Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any sort of attendance policy because these students pay school fees.  Which is really quite sad, to consider that someone is supporting their educations– and a huge number of my students could honestly care less.  Quite frankly, they have no idea how lucky they are.  Tongan students can easily have their ENTIRE college education paid for by the Fijian, Australian, or New Zealand governments.  China is now also offering full scholarships to Tongan students.

The lack of respect really becomes challenging to deal with on a daily basis.  Of course I do have some students that are hardworking and respectful, but it is truly the most challenging teaching environment I have ever experienced.  And those of you who know me, remember that I taught pregnant and parenting high school drop-outs in the States!  What really set off this blog post today has to do with my World Geography class.  Previously I blogged about the fact that there were no world maps available to help instruct the class.  A friend of mine who works for the Lands and Survey office generously printed up two gorgeous maps for me to use.  One was of the world, and the other was of the Asia/Pacific region.  I was so excited to bring them to class, and lectured the students to please respect the property.  One day after hanging them up, they were written on and stolen.  I managed to get them back (now incredibly crinkled), yet no one would admit to who stole them.  It is just such a shame when there is such little regard for personal property or educational materials.

On a lighter note,  I can’t say everything about the past week or so has been a struggle.  It was a beautiful weekend, and we headed out to the island of Pangai Motu for a little rest and relaxation.  This past week was also the “Miss Galaxy” pageant.  It was one of the finest drag shows I’ve seen in a while.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this culture’s views towards sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation.  Despite being such a Christian conservative nation, Tonga is wildly accepting of transgendered males who live/present as women.  For example, if a family has all boy children and wants a daughter– they may chose to raise a boy as a girl.  I am fascinated by the subject, and still have a lot to learn!  Pictures of Tongan drag queens will follow, I promise:)

Heilala, the Coronation, and the USS John McCain Warship!

We haven’t been able to blog lately, because the past few weeks have been incredibly busy with ongoing festivities!!!  I am almost unsure where to start…  Last week marked the annual “Heilala celebration.”  This joyous annual event celebrates the birthday of the King.  However, this year the celebration coincided with the coronation of the new King.  The two events exploded into two weeks of non-stop parades, parties, performances, etc!  Honestly, we were quite lucky to be in Tonga during such an exciting time.

My favorite Heilala event was probably the “Block Party.”  The theme was “One World- One Tonga,” and people came out in the thousands.  I often think of Tonga as having a very homogeneous population, but the block party reminded me of the diversity on this small island.  The Chinese, Japanese, and Philipino communities all set up “villages,” which showcased their traditional cultures and cuisine.  There were plenty of Autralians, New Zealanders, Americans, and of course Tongans representing their cultures as well!

A massive stage with a booming sound system hosted hours of performances.  I loved watching Tongan women in traditional Tongan costume, performing traditional dances to the thumping beat of electronic techno music!  It was totally wild…  Actually, the past couple of weeks have been full of traditional dance performances.  Children from all of the primary and secondary schools performed Tongan dance for the King in the massive rugby arena!  I promise, photos will soon follow this blog post…

Yesterday was the actual coronation.  Although we were watching from outside, it was still a totally surreal experience.  A fellow PCV likened it to being in “Alice in Wonderland.”  Yet dignitaries and royalty from around the world attended, including the crowned Prince of Japan, the Maori King and Queen, and Princesses from Bhutan and Thailand.  We stood outside with thousands of energetic spectators, as Scot filmed the event and I snapped away dozens of pictures. The mood was festive, and marching bands from Australia, New Zealand, and the USA all performed for the event.

The day culminated in a bizarre surprise.  The US Navy ship the “USS John McCain” (named after the grandfather of the current Pres. candidate) had a diplomatic presence in Tonga for the coronation.  They graciously invited all Peace Corps volunteers and staff to attend a “flight deck social.”  We had no idea what to expect, because (surprise, surprise), I’ve never attended a military party.  I have to say, it was SUCH a blast!  We stepped on to the ship, and the helicopter landing deck was transformed into quite the stylish social gathering.  Under the tents, we listened to jazz music while mood lighting illuminated an ice sculpture of an Eagle, two open bars, and an unbelievable buffet of food!  About forty PCV’s attended the event, and we inhaled the shrimp, roast beef, spring rolls, and (my personal favorite) bacon-wrapped scallops, while chatting with the officers and military crew aboard the ship.

If I sound overly excited about the food, it is because most of the PCVs here in Tonga have eaten NOTHING that even resembles such delectable treats during the months and/or years of our time here.  Honestly, it made me feel quite patriotic to realize that my government and culture appreciates and values the joys of red wine, Frank Sinatra, and turkey slow roasted in a white wine and garlic sauce!

I must say, the entire experience was incredibly surreal.  We toured the ship, and learned that hundreds of missiles were on board (of course).  As I snacked on homemade chocolate-chip cookies (so American!) a guide described the military capabilities of the ship.  Whoa.  I never imagined in a million years that I would attend a cocktail party on the USS John McCain battleship, while stationed in the South Pacific.  I could not resist asking our guide, “When was the last time this ship deployed missiles?”  He informed me that the ship was an integral component of the 2003 “Shock and Awe” campaign in the Persian Gulf.

I was (and still am) without words.

In talking with the servicemen and women on the ship, I was really taken by the extent of their services and sacrifices for the military.  Most of them were stationed continents away from their families, and had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  I was eager to learn about their backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, and I thanked them profusely for their commitment.  We got to meet the captain of the ship, and learned that the Commander of the Pacific Fleet was also on board!

As I left the vessel, the song “Waiting for the World to Change” by John Mayer echoed through the air.  Once again, all I can say is that the experience was entirely surreal and festive- yet thought-provoking.  Photos will follow:)

I hope to write a blog post specifically on the political trajectory of Tonga– following the coronation of this new king.  He seems to be enthusiastic about the Democracy movement here in Tonga…  Yet the hierchachy of the royals and nobility is so entrenched into the mindset of the people here.  For now, I will simply honor his majesty by saying.. Long Live King Tupou V!