Skip to main content
US Flag An official website of the United States government

Connect with the Peace Corps

If you're ready for something bigger, we have a place where you belong.

Follow us

Apply to the Peace Corps

The application process begins by selecting a service model and finding an open position.

Peace Corps Volunteer
2 years, 3 months
Log in/check status
Peace Corps Response
Up to 12 months
Log in/check status
Virtual Service Pilot
3-6 months
Log in/check status

Let us help you find the right position.

If you are flexible in where you serve for the two-year Peace Corps Volunteer program, our experts can match you with a position and country based on your experience and preferences.

Serve where you’re needed most

Navigating Identities in Tonga

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and intercultural sensitivity among Volunteers and within their communities to help integration and achieve successful service. As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible both for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (yours and other Americans’) with your host country national counterparts, and also for learning from your host country’s diversity.

To ease the transition to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual, and will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these limitations. During pre-service training, staff will provide training on how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture, and will be available for ongoing support.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers with disabilities to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. Tongans generally treat people with disabilities with respect. The main challenge will be that the accommodations you may accustomed to having in the United States may not be available locally.

Gender role considerations

It will be important to absorb and attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in Tonga. During pre-service training, Volunteers will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country, and will take time to examine their own thinking about gender roles and their impact. Volunteers will also learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in their host community and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what women and men may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.

Tonga has a traditional, patriarchal culture. Although women have achieved high rank in government ministries, people at the community level have not had much experience with women who take on professional roles or who live independently from their families. Most women in Tonga do very little on their own and generally travel, even if it is just to the corner shop to buy flour, with at least one other person. This does not mean women and Volunteers presenting as women cannot live or do things on their own, but they need to be aware that the community where they live may view their behavior as strange. Many Tongans have large, robust figures, which are considered desirable in traditional Tongan culture, although perceptions are changing. Slender women may be told they are too skinny, while larger women may be told they are fat, which is intended as a compliment.

Women and Volunteers presenting as women in Tonga may receive an inordinate amount of attention from Tongan men. Flirting, ogling, catcalls, and a certain amount of protective behavior by host family and community members are common. Women are often asked about their marital status and whether they would like to marry someone locally. Most of the attention is good-natured and can be fended off with humorous replies. Because Tongans generally do not engage in friendships with members of the opposite sex, it is culturally inappropriate for a woman to entertain a man (or men) alone in her home, whether the man is Tongan or another Volunteer. Her community is likely to view such a situation as a romantic or sexual relationship. Women Volunteers in Tonga have occasionally had people peep in their windows or appear in their homes without invitation or warning.

LGBTQI+ considerations

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations, and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Many countries where the Peace Corps serves have more restrictive cultures with regard to sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive. In every country, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives.

Some LGBTQI+ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community. LGBTQI+ support groups may be available in-country, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQI+ community.

In Tonga, there is a concept called fakaleiti, whereby boys are raised as girls and take on the appearance and social responsibilities of women. This is often done in households that do not have a daughter to help with chores around the house. Fakaleitis in Tonga may or may not be associated with homosexuality, though gays are usually associated with fakaleiti. Men who engage in typically women-dominated chores in Tonga are often met with laughter and called fakaleiti. Such laughing and joking tends to be harmless, as fakaleitis have long been an accepted part of the Tongan culture. You will learn more about this cultural phenomenon during pre-service training.

Tongan sexual mores are fairly strict, and unmarried men and women are kept relatively more separated than is the norm in the U.S. Same sex relationships are very discreet, though not totally uncommon. Same sex relationships in Tonga are not well researched and documented, but the frequency and explicitness of jokes and references suggests a prevalence that has not been openly acknowledged. Though not necessarily connected, many Volunteers observe Tongan men to be comfortable with holding another man’s hand or walking down the street with their arms around another man’s shoulder. Lesbianism in Tonga is nearly invisible. (People may say it is nonexistent.) Discussions of it are often responded to with derision or disbelief. This can pose unique challenges for gay women serving in Tonga, especially related to effectively coping with the cultural norms around sexuality.
While cross-dressing for men is acceptable, there are laws against sodomy, so having a same-sex partner can cause issues with friends, colleagues, and even possibly the law. It is best to be discreet about this until you can better assess the mood of the community.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Because of limited exposure, some Togans will expect all U.S. citizens to be White, and are unaware of the racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a community member to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the community member. All Volunteers, including White Volunteers, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to fellow Volunteers.Some Black and Asian American Volunteers have shared frustrations when Tongans tell them they “look just like we do,” and may not see them fully as Americans. A particular challenge for Asian Americans includes being assumed to be Chinese, as there are Chinese immigrants in country. Also, an Asian American may be called mata’i Siapani (“Japanese eyes”), mata’i Siaina (“Chinese eyes”), Siaina, or Siapani, mixed with some mock Chinese words called out to them from across the street or whispered to a friend. Unfortunately, ethnic prejudice against Asians in Tonga is complex. Being grouped with the Chinese immigrants also makes Asian American Volunteers potential targets for ethnically motivated crimes. Bars that might be acceptable for other Volunteers might be unsafe for Asian Americans. A number of Chinese immigrants have worked hard to adopt the Tongan language and to integrate effectively.

Black Volunteers are sometimes referred to by Tongans as nika, but without the offensive connotation associated with the similar American slur.

Peace Corps staff are committed to working with all Volunteers to support their successful service and navigation of challenging situations.

Age considerations

Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. But pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older Trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job.

Younger Volunteers in their early and mid-20s may need to work harder to establish themselves as a professional in the eyes of their counterparts.

Religious considerations

The overwhelming majority of Tongans are Christian, and attending church and observing holy days are important activities in every community. On Sundays, for example, recreation is forbidden by law. Regardless of their own faith, many Volunteers choose to attend church to show respect for local customs and to develop relationships in their communities. Volunteers of every religious/spiritual persuasion are encouraged to recognize the church as an important community institution. Volunteers who are worried about the religious/spiritual nature of this participation can consult with their peers or Volunteers from previous groups on how to tactfully work in a church-dominant society while maintaining one’s own beliefs. Many Volunteers who have been particularly concerned about this aspect of serving in Tonga have observed that attending services is a way of showing respect for local customs and helps develop relationships in their communities.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Couples often face pressure from community members to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Community members will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how one’s partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of the relationship should be adjusted can help reduce stress for both.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Tonga staff are trained on ICDEIA topics and are trained to be a bridge between the American and Tongan culture when it comes to sensitive issues. Peace Corps staff realize the challenges that Volunteers may face in Tonga related to ICDEIA, and continuously do their best to maintain openness and support our Volunteers. Programming and Training Staff, and Language and Culture Facilitators are all trained before pre-service training (PST) and interacting with new Peace Corps Trainees during their 10-week PST. Additionally, Trainees will receive cultural awareness sessions during their PST to better prepare them for the cultural perceptions of Tonga to build mutual understanding. In recent years, since the COVID-19 pandemic, staff have taken part in numerous ICDEIA trainings.

Additionally, In June 2023, Peace Corps Tonga held an ICDEIA event through Courageous Conversations with the theme of “Giving Voice and Power to Marginalized Groups in Tonga.” This event was held with numerous key civil society leaders in Tonga to highlight the commitment to promoting inclusion for all. United States Secretary of State, the Honorable, Mr. Antony Blinken was present for this event, bringing even greater visibility to the commitment that the United States Government and Peace Corps Tonga are working alongside civil society leaders to increase efforts for marginalized communities.