Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tongan Culture 101: Showing Love

When I was little I knew my mom loved me. I knew it because she'd tell me it every day (and still does!), but I also knew it because of what she would do for me, my sister and my brother. 

She hugged and kissed us, did our laundry, she sometimes (okay, most times...) made our beds, she wiped our fingerprints off the windows, and cleaned up the tornado messes we'd leave behind wherever we went. And over time she helped us to become more responsible by giving us more to do.

How did I show my mom love in return? 

I let her do all those things, I'd hug her back, tried not to grumble when I was told to do something, and tried not to be a bad kid. I think, if you asked her, she'd say that she liked to feel needed (and I know that sometimes we took advantage of that).

The same can be said for my dad, too.

And recently I've spent a lot of time thinking about love and how it manifests itself here. 
How do you show love? 
How do you receive love? 
How do you feel loved?

It looks so different here and, in many ways, very similar.

Yesterday when church finished one of my neighbors invited me over for Sunday lu (meat/coconut/onions baked in taro leaves and put into the ground to cook). She has 3 children (with a fourth on the way). When I sat down in their house, she sat down next to me and the kids got right to work. The kids! The two oldest boys went out to the 'umu (underground oven) and brought in lunch and served it to us. The 3-year-old girl grabbed a piece of fabric to use as the table on the ground and grabbed plates for us to eat on. And mom? Mom sat and patiently waited. The kids did all the work!

I was talking recently with some friends here who relocated from America in the late 1970s. One of them mentioned that many years ago they adopted a local teenage girl into their family. During her first year living with them the girl was pretty miserable and seemed to be very angry all the time. My friends didn't understand her disposition until one night when one of their Tongan friends was visiting after dinner. The father of the family was doing dishes and the adopted daughter was trying to push him out of the way. When that didn't seem to work, she crossed her arms and stood glaring at him. The father looked to his Tongan friend and asked "Do your daughters treat you this way?" The Tongan man responded, "No. I let them respect me." And it clicked. The way the Tongan girl had been taught to love her family was through helping - she wanted to feel needed. And in feeling needed, she felt love from her new family. As soon as my friend let her have control of the dish washing, laundry, and sweeping, the situation greatly improved.

What I've noticed throughout my time here is that in order to feel loved you need to feel needed. There is a smaller emphasis on words of appreciation and more on acts of service. 

For some of us we feel love when people use their words. For others it's through gift giving, intimacy, or quality time. But what I've noticed here in Tonga is that love is almost always given and received through acts of service and it starts at a very young age.

I think there is something really powerful about paying attention to the people in our lives and the ways in which giving and receiving love change - from culture to culture and from person to person.

"Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor... Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting."
- Mother Teresa

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