Updated: Jun 15
Ko e ki'i fehu'i= A little question.
I've been thinking so much about cultural identity since coming to the UK. This one is based more on my personal experience as a Hafe-kasi, questions about identity and acceptance, with a hint of a racist encounter. As I wrote before in "Ko hoku hingoa" my Tongan name doesn't match my Asian face, and Tongan people I meet for the very first time tend to get really confused, especially when I also start speaking in Tongan to them. I think my sister would have a similar experience, except that she has a Japanese name to match her Japanese face. On the other hand, our brother also has a Tongan name like me, but unlike my sister and I, he is brown-skinned with curly hair. People hardly question his biracial background, if anything, they tend to forget he is mixed at all. We are siblings and while there will be similarities in our hafe-kasi upbringing, our lived experiences and how we carry our identities are very different.
How many times though, have I heard in my life "Sai 'aupito ho lea faka-Tonga! Your Tongan is excellent!". My siblings and I were all born and raised in Tonga. Each of our fonua/afterbirths is buried in Tongatapu, connecting us to the land from birth. We have a Tongan father. We are half Tongan. It would be more ridiculous if we didn't speak Tongan at all (Sidenote: Reading and writing in Tongan is a whole different story though. It takes me ages to read or write anything in Tongan, which is why I always failed the Sunday School written exams every bloody year. I was so happy when I finished high school and didn't have to go to Sunday school anymore🤣🤣 anyway...).
There have been some occasions though, where people have really treated me like I was super suspicious when I speak to them in Tongan. One instance is when I rented a bungalow in town for my friends and I for a weekend getaway. We sat in the bungalow, drinking and laughing all day, then when the sunset, we got dressed and went bar-hopping to drink and laugh all night until the bars closed. We got back to the bungalow, drank whatever alcohol that was still left, and absolutely crashed. Before we left, we made sure to clean up the whole place and throw out the trash. My friends waited in my car as I went to reception to return the key and get back the deposit paid.
It was a little old lady at the front desk, so I said in Tongan "Malo e lelei! Kataki ko e kii eni kihe fale, temau check out aipe." (Hello! This is the key to the bungalow and we'd like to check out please!). She did a whole double-take, slanted her eyes and asked me in English, "What are you?". I was a paying customer, so I did think it was rude at how she asked, but she looked really old, so 🤷♀️ I replied: "I'm a customer. We were in bungalow X". She raised her eyebrow, and continued asking me in English "Where are you from?". "Ha'ateiho". "No, where are you really from?" "Ha'ateiho". "If you're really from Ha'ateiho, do you families XYZ?" At this point, I was thinking well fuuuuck me, Ha'ateiho is a big village, how the fuck would I know everyone? I smiled politely and said, "No, I don't". She grinned as if she had won a prize. "So you're lying. You're really not from Ha'ateiho then".
Luckily, my best friend came in. She was tired of waiting in the hot car. The old lady still kept asking "Where are you really really from?". I just wanted to check out and get my deposit back so I relented and explained: "My dad is Tongan, my mum is Japanese and we live in Ha'ateiho". Somehow, that explanation STILL wasn't enough and she said "You can't be part Tongan. You look Chinese. Your eyes look Chinese" My best friend at this point was furious "That's rude and racist!". The old lady just looked at us, and I reminded her again, as politely as I could, that I was there to return the key, get my deposit back and leave. With her eyebrows still raised, she summoned her grandson to check the state of the bungalow, then finally gave me back my deposit.
We got into the car and my best friend exploded "Why aren't you angry? She was fucking rude and that was fucking racist!!" "Well, she was old. Did you expect me to paa'i her?"🤷♀️. Don't get me wrong, I was angry. But I also have a personal rule I try to stick with. (1) Always be nice and kind to little children because they're still learning about the world. (2) Always be nice and kind to old people because they don't have that long left to live in the world. (3) The rest of the people, I leave to karma. That's that. That rude old lady, she fits in rule (2) and racists burn in hell soo 🤷♀️🤷♀️🤷♀️ Anyway, I have tonnes of similar racist microaggressive experiences like that but that's another story for another day 🤷♀️🤷♀️🤷♀️
It's not like I've experienced racist remarks only in Tonga. I've had to face them too here in the UK and in London, especially when the Coronavirus first started becoming a big deal. People were really scared at first about the pandemic, especially in the UK Lockdown 1 period that started around March-April 2020. 🤷♀️🤷♀️🤷♀️ People think all Asians are Chinese who were responsible for Covid, and racist hate crimes attacks on Asians in the UK were becoming a thing. I remember the dirty looks I got when I went grocery shopping, and people looking me up and down and backing away like I have Covid. I didn't like those dirty looks, but I was ok because refer to Rule (3) above and me being me koe fingo mai, koe fingo atu. I'm not really a "turn the other cheek" kinda person lol. Anyway, let's go back to Tonga.
I always felt it was strange. Being born and raised in Tonga, having a Tongan parent and being able to speak Tongan...yet still, be treated as an outsider, to be so othered and experience racism in my own birth country. Throughout school, at work, and even by our extended family, they still call us "muli" and "Siapani". What other boxes do I need to tick to be part of "the group"? I can't change my skin colour. I can't change my eye shape. I can't tau'olunga. I don't have a nifo koula. Isn't the blood in my veins enough? What does it mean to be Tongan then if my birthright isn't enough?
Thinking about identity is confusing for me. I don't really like to say I'm Tongan, because it kinda feels like a lie and I'm erasing my Japanese side. I don't like to say I'm Japanese either, because that also feels like a lie and I'm now erasing my Tongan side. I prefer Hafe-kasi. If anyone asks, that's what I usually say. I'm hafe-kasi from Tonga. Depending on how much patience I have, I'd even disclose what type of hafe-kasi 🤣🤣. Of course, the original English concept of the word "half-caste" was meant as a racist, derogatory, colonialist term, meaning the half-breed offspring of a "lesser" (i.e. Black/Indigenous/coloured) and "superior" (i.e. white) race. Half-caste, that English word, sounds cold, sharp, elitist and divisive. Yuck. Yet, I love the sound of the Tongan version of it. Hafe-kasi. It feels more mellow, like the sharp edges of racism has been ironed out, but it's still kinda there as a reminder. Does that make sense?
Hafe-kasi. Despite its ill-intentioned origins, I personally embrace and love that word. Hafe-kasi to me gives me a sense of fluidity in my identities. Sometimes parts of the Tongan and Japanese boxes I fit into, sometimes parts of the boxes I don't fit into. There's always that space between the boxes, where sometimes you feel accepted and you belong, and sometimes you just don't. Being Hafe-kasi makes that make sense for me. Being hafe-kasi is my favourite identity because, despite its fluidity, this is also the most unchanging element of my identity.
Again, I write this from my experience as a hafe-kasi Tongan/Japanese growing up in Tonga and sometimes still feeling not fully accepted at times and exposed to racist encounters. I do apologise if it sounded ranty, but this is my lived experience. I acknowledge my privilege in my hafe-kasi upbringing, that I was raised and exposed to both cultures and can understand both languages. I acknowledge my privilege in being hafe-kasi which allows me to have both an inside and outside lens on a lot of cultural matters (like my poems "Lolo" and "Why"). There are some hafe-kasi kids out there who only know one side of their biracial background, or identify more strongly with one side of their background. Highly likely they have a whole different hafe-kasi perspective from me and that's not my story to tell. But I bet at some point, we would all have in common questions about our identities, and how we make sense of it.
So anyway, there's my little fehu'i. Identity. Acceptance. Questions. What does it mean to be Tongan? Even if you're not hafe-kasi, what does it mean to be Tongan to you?
That's my fehu'i and that's Ta'emahino Tuesdays from me. Tu'a 'ofa atu.