In 2012, I called my dad to ask if he knew anyone who taught Tongan language classes. He said: “Why’d you want to do that?” He had the same tone as when he asked me why I’d leave my job in advertising to do a master’s degree in poetry. I didn’t really know how to explain, so I studied te reo instead.
Te reo had presented itself as an opportunity through my Pākehā boyfriend. His stepmother’s family was teaching at a Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in South Auckland, and he was learning Māori there. When he invited me to join him, I thought: Probably I should learn Tongan first. Honouring my bloodlines and all that. Hence the call to Dad.
I liked the reo classes — they felt good. The class was small, with three other Pākehā and one Māori woman, who was very quiet. She stopped coming after the first couple of classes and it was just me and the Pākehā, one of whom, my friend, talked a lot about white guilt and girly-swotted to the top of the class.
The others, an older couple, struggled with basics like how to get “o” to sound more like “or” and not “oh”. New vocabulary was a challenge, but I had a head start from hearing Tongan spoken around me growing up, which helped with vowel sounds. I loved karakia and the wideness of Māori concepts like ora and whānau. I felt a lightness I hadn’t felt when trying to learn Tongan, free from the fetters and bonds of identity.
Then came the pepeha class. It was hard. I had to admit I had no maunga and no awa. I had no tribe. “Just write down Ngāti Pākehā, Ngāti Tonga,” the teacher said. It felt satirical and inadequate.
We were marked on them, though, so I made a sticking plaster pepeha that named Owairaka as my maunga. It’s what you see turning out from Fairlands Ave on to Great North Road, so I think of it as the view from my home in Waterview, where I grew up. I called Kaipara Harbour my awa, not even knowing where it was or if I’d swum in it, just that Dad fished there.
It felt awkward to me, but it hadn’t fully landed yet, how loose my connection to everything was when seeing the world through te reo. It hadn’t dawned on me that te reo is more than a language.
A few years later, my dad got sick with cancer and his ability to communicate started to fail. His oncologist said: “His brain is reverting back to the things he knew as a child. He may struggle with English.” My brother, filled with a kind of manic enthusiasm, threw himself into Tongan words. Mātu’a, he called Dad, falemālōlō is the toilet. Fiekaia — are you hungry? Mahino — understand?
My brother’s pronunciation sounded pretty good to me, but it never got beyond keywords here and there, wielded with righteousness and a need for them to mean something more — the way inexperienced poets drag out words at open mics. Style without substance.
It bounced off me. I didn’t try and speak to Dad in Tongan then. It was too late. I had no Tongan language inside me, and no will to try. A kind of a numb muteness set in. It protected me from my brother’s goading. It’s too late for everything, I thought.
After Dad died, I did all sorts of things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I left my job and went to Tonga — to Vava’u with a volunteer team on an aid expedition. We sailed in a trimaran taking medical supplies and training to villages on remote islands, like Hunga and Matamaka. Helping kids with skin infections and preparing locals to deal with minor illnesses and accidents like machete wounds.
I was the only “Tongan” in a group of Pākehā, blogging a selective view of events, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, slowly recognising what I came to understand as White Saviour Complex.
I was on the trimaran near Mariner’s Cave in Vava’u on Father’s Day when a ship called Tavake called us. It’s my dad’s name. The birds he was named after flew overhead the first day we sailed out.
Perhaps, because I felt his presence, I didn’t realise I was still mute until a Pālangi paramedic joined us and introduced himself in Tongan to the volunteers we were teaching. He butchered the words and it embarrassed me. Part of me wished he hadn’t tried. Another part was ashamed that I hadn’t. I knew my pepeha, I knew how to introduce myself in Māori and in Tongan, so why not try?
Later, I flew on from Tonga, unexpectedly alone, after a travel buddy pulled out, and wandered through Southeast Asia looking around, volunteering at not-for-profits, and writing furious self-improvement notes in my journal.
What I saw shocked me. The indigenous people stuck inside tourist traps, bars, hotels, and beauty therapy salons. Western wanderers with plastic cards, great tans and yoga butts, keen to do good while taking selfies or just getting pissed on the cheap. I felt my white privilege even as locals in Bali, Thailand, and Cambodia noted my skin was the same colour as theirs and asked where I was from. “My father is, was, from Tonga,” I’d say.
Wherever I went, English was enough to get me through, with some simple words of the local language, just as politeness really. I felt defined and diminished by my colonial privilege. Less authentic than the leggy Europeans — the Germans, Dutch, French and the rest, who spoke their own language as well as English.
It was the connecting language between travellers, so I could understand everyone as they spoke to each other in various flavours of broken English. Malaysians spoke to Thai people in English, Dutch spoke to Cambodian in English, Indonesian spoke to German in English.
And there I was, listening and speaking freely and easily, wherever I went, with my one language. Even though I’m a poet and English is my love, I felt cheap and glib. A direct beneficiary of colonisation.
English had never felt more like a dialect of colonial domination, and yet, it was all I had.
is the only language I speak
my mother’s tongue
in my mouth
(An extract from a poem I wrote on the road.)
My Pālangi mum was always asking my dad to “teach the kids Tongan”, and he’d say: “They can learn by listening.” It’s true. I know what Tongan sounds like. When I hear Tongan being spoken, I feel a wave of kinship with the speakers and drift closer to them, whether we’re at a sports field or in a Bunnings carpark. As if I could listen in, as if I could pick up meaning from the inflection in their tones.
I like the sound of Tongan. It’s familiar and homely for me, like the song of a tui. It’s not just the sound of the words. It’s the softness of the voices, the delicate swallowing of aspirated consonants which makes my surname, Kaho, sound like a bird’s nest, something known and welcoming.
In my mouth, it’s just a bunch of sticks. Never quite right. It’s so frustrating, not to feel capable of saying my own name as it was designed to sound, and has been spoken through centuries.
I’ve tried to learn Tongan, and I’ve tried to be Tongan.
When I was 12, my sister was sent to Tonga to cool her heels and get away from a bad crowd. She came back a year and a half later, transformed from a pale Goth to a bronzed goddess with flaring curls, a ‘90s crop top, and an American accent.
She regaled me with tales of the American Wharf and Top Club. Mangos like pebbles on the ground and handsome American sailors. My head filled up with pictures, smells and music, where before there had been a colourless space — just the name of a place where my cousins came from.
I started saving that year and spent two months in Tonga over my seventeenth birthday. It was monumental. The kids called me Pālangi, Crazy Pālangi, and Ghost Girl because I didn’t eat meat, jumped off the American Wharf, and had short hair like Demi Moore in Ghost.
I welcomed the “crazy” tag. It felt familiar. In New Zealand, I was a nerd, weirdo, geek. Being an outsider because of my personality quirks was an identity I could embrace. Better than being defined purely by my lack of culture and language. Give me Crazy Pālangi over plain Pālangi any day.
I noted everything. The furtive touching of men lining the corridor to the Top Club bathrooms. The bumbling puppies who disappeared ominously. How you could cut thick strips of skin off pineapples because there were so many it didn’t matter how much flesh went in the bin. The two-storey mango trees with as many mangos as leaves.
Tongan language felt suddenly available. Beautifully destructive insults designed to get rid of unwanted attention from men became comfortable to say. Necessary. A dark hilarity I hadn’t understood in my cousins who lived with us started making sense.
Like the time a Tongan guy picked up my friend when we were walking along the main road and carried her away. He laughed approvingly and put her down when I chased him, yelling my Tongan swear words. The Tongan friend from school we were staying with, said: “If guys think you’re Tongan, they’ll respect you and leave you alone.” Being Tongan was desirable. I was desirable.
Something else was happening, too. When I stepped off the plane and smelled the air, which was like a convection heater blowing through a palm tree, something landed in me. Something deeper than what I spoke or knew, or what people thought of me. Deeper even than my personality — a kind of cellular vibration.
Everything moved me. Walking through pools of perfume beneath frangipani trees moved me, warm salt breeze sweeping in over the sea, the way the night leaned close to my cheek. I felt like I was home.
When I got back to New Zealand, I signed up for my school’s Tongan performance group. It was decided that seventh formers would do the tau’olunga, so that meant me, a complete noob. At our first practice, the tutor told me to get up and give it a shot. “Just try and keep up,” she said.
The other seventh formers seemed to know the whole dance. I was hopelessly lost, doing some kind of mashed potato mix-up. Horribly, I could see my reflection in the swinging doors of the school hall, my head tilting inexplicably more and more to the left, like an unbalanced budgerigar with vertigo.
There was a line of Tongan mothers sitting in front of us watching. One mother giggled and nudged her neighbour. Then it caught on. They didn’t bother to hide it, the row of them laughing and pointing. Their heads thrown back, happy. I kept “dancing”. Not because it didn’t hurt, but because I accepted it was painful to try to be Tongan.
My dad solved it. He set up private lessons for me with the Tongan tutor. By some serendipitous stroke she worked at the rest home he managed. We spent many hours together in her home, running through the moves again and again until my knees were jelly. I was still so far off. My hands like branches when they were meant to be birds. My feet stomping when they were meant to be patting.
Still, St Mary’s came third equal in tau’olunga at Polyfest that year. There’s a photo of Dad and me at the festival. He’s wearing white and blue, a smart ta’ovala, and his glasses have shaded in the sun and look like Aviators. We both look happy and proud.
After high school, I took a Tongan language class at university. We learned some songs, and then the first assignment was to write a four-page essay, which I got my dad to do. My “trying to be Tongan” fell away after that. I started working in advertising, where I was usually the only brown face in the meeting, room, company, building, conference. Living proof of diversity and the person eyes darted to whenever comments about Māori or PI were carefully posed: “I’m not a racist, but …”
This was until the phone call to Dad.
I suppose I hoped he might have someone like the Tongan dance tutor tucked up his sleeve. But the days of the rest home had long passed and he was back working as a psychiatric nurse in South Auckland. Maybe it brought up memories of happier days, or he just didn’t know anyone and that was why the conversation was so short. I think we both thought we had more time.
Towards the end of last year, I saw the play Te Po, by Carl Bland. There’s a blind Māori character, Werihe, played by George Henare, who opens the play with a monologue in te reo. He reminded me a little of my dad. His reo was beautiful.
As he spoke, I felt the same kind of feeling that I did that first time I stepped off the plane in Tonga. A deep knitting of something. I shut my eyes, and there was a sense of black waves moving, interlinking perfect design, like leaves on trees, the emergence of trees from the earth, the arrival of birds, and sparkling sunlight when you try to look up at them.
The play was about death and loss. Carl Bland was grieving for his wife when he wrote it. I could feel my grief churning inside me throughout the play. Not just for my father, but for my numbness, for my desire to connect to this beautiful indigenous language and worldview, injured so deeply through colonisation, for my frustrated yearning to be able to say my own family name as it deserves to be said.
It occurred to me that I will never feel truly at home in New Zealand without te reo.
It also occurred to me that I, too, am indigenous. I don’t have knowledge, and I don’t have language, but I have bloodlines and I can feel my ancestors when I go home, to Tonga.
I understood then that I need the languages of my heritage — of my father, and of the whenua I was born into. I feel an urgency to know them both, to make them a part of my being.
Every semester, there are language courses for Pacific Island languages, including Tongan, at the Pasifika Education Centre in Auckland — and for te reo at Unitec and wānanga all over New Zealand. The courses are free for New Zealand citizens.
All they require is time, commitment, and a willingness to face the emotions of connection.
My reo Māori lessons won’t start till next semester because the classes at Unitec were full. I’m told many of those who’ve enrolled there are Pākehā, which fills me with warmth for my fellow Kiwis. But I’ve started the Tongan language classes and I’m loving them. Last week, the teacher asked me if I spoke Tongan growing up, because my accent is good. The pleasure was like an electric shock.
Dad belonged to a generation of Pacific migrants whose pride and identity was eroded by the attitudes they met in their adopted country. I think he thought he was sparing us from that pain by not passing on his mother tongue, but it has left a yearning that, for me, has also been painful.
My Tonganness is still here and will always be. In my blood and in my ears and memories. But it needs the language of my father — my language — to give it substance and connectedness, to bring it fully to life.
So I’m trying again. I think my dad would be happy about that.