Vai's View: Polynesian culture offers barriers, blessings

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 11:00 a.m. MST

Despite our cultural biases as Polynesians, children don't learn from being beaten. Instead, they become resentful and often incapable of solving problems without anger. Moreover, abusive behavior is perpetual and therefore cyclical. Abused children become abusive parents. I suspect one reason why Tongans and Samoans have succeeded so spectacularly in football is because of our familiarity with the physical aspect of the game. Sadly, much of that is cultural. Our young warriors relish dishing out the hits because they've grown up on the other end of it. Modern prophets have warned against the physical abuse of children. I've come to learn that children respond much more effectively and consistently when they're taught with lowered voices, without anger or threat of physical abuse.


Humility is so highly prized in our culture that it is often sought at the expense of our children's self-esteem. Tongan parents sometimes use sarcasm to belittle their children publicly as a way of keeping them humble and to know their place. If asked how a child is doing in school, a father is likely to say for others to hear, "Malo pe." "Thankful just to be getting by," especially if the child is an A-student. We don't want to appear presumptuous or haughty. To his credit, my father broke cultural tradition by consistently praising me publicly, much to his peers' chagrin and annoyance. "My son will someday be the heavyweight champion of the world," he would declare, before holding his palms up for me to throw jabs into as he counted, "one-two, one-two." Dad may have sacrificed humility in the interest of raising a champion, but in retrospect, I've never lacked for confidence in my life — except in academics — but more on that later. Truth is, hearing his praise had the subconscious effect of instilling within me enormous self-confidence that propelled me to BYU, the NFL and NBC.

Another famous Tongan rebuke is: "Tuku ho'o fie poto!" "Stop being so smart!" Predictably, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


While many of our sons and daughters are privileged to attend prestigious universities on athletic scholarships, far too many who aren't gifted athletically simply aren't going to college. It is imperative we create a "culture of college" within our homes. Limhi and Vai Latu raised their eight children in Orem on his construction worker's salary. Limhi supplemented his job by shoveling snow in the winter and other odd jobs in summer months. The five oldest Latu kids all graduated from BYU. The youngest of the eight Latu children is currently a BYU student, and two brothers are on missions but will return to BYU. It wasn't enough all eight Latu kids were accepted to BYU, they ALL had academic scholarships! All but Wayne, who accepted a football scholarship and was a backup running back for the Cougars until '09. Melba Latu practices law in Salt Lake, and Wayne graduated in bio informatics, is currently a student aid teaching freshman biology as he prepares for medical school.

As a boy, Limhi Latu would sit mesmerized listening to the chapel piano as it was played by the wife of an American missionary couple serving in his village. Limhi vowed that his children would one day play — and did they ever. Wayne is classically trained and once toured mainland China and Canada. An older sister graduated from BYU in piano performance and another in cello performance. Another has an English degree. All attended American Heritage, a private school in American Fork, except for Wayne, who went to Timpview so he could play football. Their mother, Vai, never worked outside the home despite Limhi's meager wages. There were no vacations, no Xbox, no Wii, no McDonald's or Burger King. Resources were pooled and sacrifices expected, in order to claim and reap the blessings of education.

There aren't enough Latus in the Polynesian community.


Finally, one of the most erroneous taboos in Polynesian culture is the subject of sex. Discussion of sex in any setting is a serious TAPU in Tongan culture. Protocol demands that no reference can be made to it in the company of women, but especially women within one's family. Historically, severe beatings and in some cases, death, have been dealt to offenders. Polynesian children often find themselves caught between their culture, which forbids the mere mention of sex, and American culture, which is saturated in it. The results are predictable. Many of our youth and young single adults often find themselves vulnerable in breaking the law of chastity being raised in a sexually repressive culture, where they can't ask questions or dare mention even thinking of it with someone they trust. Naturally, they find difficulty managing and developing healthy, appropriate interpersonal relationships, which often continues into loveless marriages.

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