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Monologue by Francesca Michels

Michels, Francesca
Sinnett, Julia
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming obstacles; Relationships with people and places; Cultural identification; Tolerance and respect
Francesca Michels talks about the year she spent on the island of Tonga.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Julia Sinnett interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
FM (Francesca Michels): I am Francesca Michels. I was born in San Antonio, Texas, raised in Tennessee and currently living in Charlotte. I spent the last eleven months on the teeny, tiny, beautiful, happy little island of Tonga, in the South Pacific. It's about a thousand nautical miles from Fiji, which means it's really not close to anywhere. Um, [long pause] I was teaching English to the Tongan children at Saint Andrews High School in the capital city of Nuku'alofa on the main island of Tongatapu, which was twenty by forty miles at its longest and widest, and was by no means square, so very, very small. [Pause] The Tongan people are very fascinating people. They love to eat, and they love to sleep, and make babies and lie on the beach. [Laughs] Um, I had many great adventures there. They also had a very, very communal attitude about personal possessions. In fact, there's really no delineation between personal and communal, which I found [pause] that to cause a little bit of stress with my American sense of self and my belongings, which I had carefully packed and planned and brought, including my favorite shampoos and toiletries, all the way from the beautiful USA. And, I had several Tongan friends who enjoyed generously using my Tigi Bedhead, um, hair gel. [Laughter] I can't talk. My precious toiletries dwindled quickly, um, the more Tongan friends that I made and the more Tongans that I invited into my little home, uh, particularly my dear soccer mate and friend Lupe, who quite enjoyed spending her nights and weekends at my house, showering with my Bath and Body Works Herbal Garden scented bath gel. [Laughter] And, painting over her nails, Tongans do not believe in removing nail polish. They layer it on over and over. Um, so needless to say, most of my cultural experiences were gained through sharing of my wealth. Um, another thing, I was mystified by the Tongans in a lot of the things that they did, but I know they were just as amused with some of the things I did which was keeping film, and lip gloss, and nail polish, and vitamins in my refrigerator. And one time I was there, with a couple of Tongan girls and, I put, I put my camera in the refrigerator. And with a look of amazement, Lupe was like "Why?" And I said, "That's where it goes." And so then I picked up a box of tissues and put them in the fridge. And she looked on in horror as I began to put other random items into the fridge, [laughter] thinking, "What is this American girl doing?" And I had to break down and laugh and take everything out. [Laughter] I was like. ( ) Anyway. Um, but yes, the Tongans unabashedly borrow your clothes. I had another girl, show up in my tank top. At, a tank top I had been searching for because I didn't have that many with me, and you couldn't get them very easily. Proudly displayed it, hugged and kissed me in greeting, without even thinking to explain why she was wearing my rainbow striped tank top. But, oh well, all accounted for losses, I guess. Um, I guess in favor of Lupe I should say her family, the Likilikis, on my last night in Tonga, cooked me an entire pig, which was quite a sacrifice, and presented me with many handmade gifts, which, I'll probably never really use for their intended functions, but they will decorate nicely, my new apartment. Um, [long pause] the Tongan people live in a kingdom, with a king and their own language, and their own currency, and thirteen noble families which are revered as demi-gods, basically. Um, the king lives in a palace on the seaside, which is about as big as a medium-range suburban home. But it's the, by far the most spectacular thing on the island of Tonga. Um, I think it was completely imported from England actually. And he has a dog named, something with a "B," the name of a battleship. It was a nice dog. Anyway. Um, the king sort of appears every so often, he's about eighty years old, he was the heaviest monarch in history. He weighed close to four hundred pounds, and then they built a gym on the island and he started a fitness craze and he has still, even though he can barely move, he has his gym time where the gym is, everyone has to clear out of the gym, and it's like, guards line the streets and the king parades from his palace to the gym to do his workout. And the soldiers stand along the front entrance of the gym and they clean the gym floor. Every day between two and four the king does his workout, which just, is remarkable to me how he can work out because he's incredibly frail. Um, so anyway, he's lost a lot of weight and inspired, supposedly, the rest of the nation. But the Tongans don't like to do much as far as extra work goes. They're quite happy to be plump and lazy. I don't want to make it sound negative. They're very content people. No one in Tonga dies of a heart attack, or has ulcers, or, many other things that we suffer from. [Pause] There is a phenomenon in Tongan culture, called the "fakaleiti." This is where they will take a particular boy child and raise him, not as a girl, but as a "it," a feminine boy. And he's not expected to do all the work a boy would do. And they often grow their hair long and braid it, and they talk in very different voices, and they're treated, they're almost prissier than the actual girls, 'cause the actual girls will get down and dirty and harvest clams and start fires and build huts, etc, and the fakaleiti will, um, I don't know, I don't know what they do, they cook. Um, there's a famous fakaleiti named Joey, he's like the most famous fakaleiti in Tonga. He owns the, one of the only Tongan owned beauty salons on the island. And he is impeccable, he makes most women look shabby. He keeps himself very trimmed, he keeps his hair done, his makeup, even in the tropical heat. Every single time you see him. He has no shame in wearing off the shoulder, little shirts, and bike pants, I don't know how. Um, but this is a really interesting thing because the Tongan society has very much embraced traditional Christian values, and they can still accept the fakaleiti. In fact they have their own parade every year, and they come from, the Tongan fakaleiti have moved to Australia, New Zealand, they'll come home, and they will be in costumes, and they will have these, there's like a, portion, a talent portion, there's a, you know and you see everything from dancing and singing to, well I guess that's basically all they do [laughs], prancing around, they wear costumes, they wear a particular hat, they have a hat display, they're all sponsored by local business, and it's really quite incredible. Certainly a spectacle, they will stuff their bras, and it's really amazing, that it goes over there. So, that's the fakaleiti. The word actually, "faka" is the Tongan word for, it's for comparative, like comparing, if it's "faka" something, it's "like" to that. So "fakaleiti" is "it's like a lady." But, anyway. Some fakaleiti, most fakaleiti get married to women and have children. And, it's very strange.