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Under the Tongan Sun

Tina Martin
Tonga

I lived in a tiny hut made of bamboo and coconut leaves and lined with dozens of mats, pieces of tapa cloth, and wall-to-wall children. When I sat on the floor with my back against the back door, my feet almost touched the front door. There was no electricity or running water, so I used a kerosene lamp and drew water from the well. There were breadfruit trees and avocado trees around my hut, and if I wanted a coconut, the children climbed a tree for me.

The kids I taught were always with me, and I loved them even more than I once loved my privacy. I always wanted to have children, but I never thought I'd have so many and so soon. These were the children I would like to see back home -- children who had never even seen a television set and didn't depend upon "things" for their entertainment because they didn't have any things. For fun, they taught each other dances and songs, and they juggled oranges.

They woke me up in the morning, calling through my bamboo poles. They took my five sentini and got me freshly baked bread from the shop across the lawn, and they helped me eat it. Some of them watched the ritual of my morning bath-water drawn from the well and heated on my kerosene stove and poured into a tin, then over a pre-soaped me. They sometimes braided my hair and helped me get dressed for school. Then they walked me there, where I used the oral English method we learned in training -- acting out the language so there's no need for translation.

"I'm running! I'm running!" I said as I ran in front of the class. "I'm running. I'm running!" I took a child by the hand.

"Run!" I said, and eventually he did. The goal was to have a running paradigm, which usually ended. "I running, you running, he/she/it running." We did this for all verbs. English was the link between Tonga and other land masses. And English was the exercise that kept me scrawny, the worst physical defect a body could have in the Tongan culture, where fat was beautiful. I tried to compensate for my lack of bulk by being very anga lelei (good-natured), which was their most cherished personality trait.

After school the children would come home with me and stay, singing Tongan songs and the ones I'd taught them.

Then I tried to help them prepare for the sixth grade exam that would determine their scholastic future. And they helped me prepare whichever vegetable was to be my dinner.

The children never left until I was safely tucked into bed under my canopy of mosquito net on top of tapa cloth. Then I blew out my lamp, lay down, and listened to songs from a kava ceremony nearby. Sometimes there was light from what a Tongan teacher told me was now the American moon, since we had put a man there. On moonless nights, I fell asleep in complete darkness. But I fell asleep knowing that I would always wake up under the Tongan sun.

Tina Martin (Tonga)

Tina began her career in English as a Second Language as a teacher trainer in Tonga, then went on to teach in Spain and in Algeria. She is now an ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.

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