Vai's View: Polynesian culture offers barriers, blessings

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 11:54 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series exploring the cultural barriers and blessings in the Polynesian culture.

Taboo.

It is Tonga's sole contribution to the English language. Taken from the Tongan word "Tapu," meaning "restricted" or "sacred." Technically, we could also claim "tattoo," though it's an amalgamation of a Polynesian word — Tahitians called it "tattau," Samoans' "tatau" and Tongans' "ta ta tau," all meaning "to mark."

I think it's interesting that both words, taboo and tattoo, apply to our bodies. We view the human body as sacred, to be restricted from others and even ourselves, from sexual touching or arousal in ways that are taboo. As Latter-day Saints, we are counseled by modern prophets to avoid marking our bodies with tattoos or body piercings.

British sailors exploring the South Pacific in the 18th century were enamored with the tattoos that adorned chiefs and warriors throughout Polynesia. Thus began a history of sailors and tattooing in foreign ports that exits today. In the last 10 to 20 years, the art has become more mainstreamed in American culture. I see it on shoulders, ankles, wrists and calves in our pews on Sundays, and that's just in Relief Society. I concede that here in the East or any place with new converts, we must be understanding of alternative lifestyles before conversion. But more often than I'd like, I see tattoos on returned missionaries and some women who grew up in the church.

Anybody who watches NFL football can easily identify Polynesian players by their tribal tattoos and the shock of hair covering all those vowels on the back of their jerseys. Tattoos and long, wild, unkempt hair does not a culture make. My sense is such outward tribal appearances seem to fill an identity crisis. Frankly, on Troy Polamalu and Chris Kemoeatu, I somewhat understand it. On a Latter-day Saint returned missionary, I don't. And there's the rub: The dilemma between culture and gospel culture.

I was born in Tonga, lived in Tonga, attended elementary school in Tonga, Tongan is my first language, therefore Tongan culture is an important part of my life. But for all the Tongan blood that courses through my veins, I was raised, nursed, nurtured and identify more closely with gospel culture. Some in my family, who more closely identify with our ethnicity, accuse me of being a "cafeteria Tongan" — meaning, I pick and choose the parts of my culture that suit my lifestyle. Indeed, I do and make no apologies for it. I credit much of my unexpected success to my ability in making those distinctions. Frankly, some cultural traditions are better left in the old country. What I've kept, such as my fluency and literacy in Tongan, has been a blessing in my life, and I hope it will be for others in the future.

I became a student of this topic with more than 40 years of experience, observation and my own unscientific, yet very personal research. Here is a sample of my findings.

KAVA

For centuries, kava was an integral part of Polynesian life, but today, kava is the bane of our culture. The kava plant is pounded into powder, mixed with water and used as a ceremonial drink. Anciently, chiefs counseled together over a bowl of kava, and the kava plant was used in the marriage ceremony. The Tongan word for "covenant" is "fua kava," which literally means "first fruit of kava." Today, the once-sacred kava ceremony has evolved into kava parties, where men drink kava for hours and sometimes days. Kava is often the culprit in unemployment, financial hardship, broken marriages, infidelity and occasionally, untimely death. Church leaders once tiptoed around kava, careful not to offend cultural mores, but today, they've simply counseled us, "STOP."

DISCIPLINE

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

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.

EDUCATION

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.

CHASTITY

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.

Though I had practically no family modeling, I dutifully followed church counsel and at appropriate ages — which was different for each one — I took each of my children from school and spent a day together to discuss the most wonderful, amazing and incredible experience that was simply "to die for." Over lunch, I explained to each the wonders of the human body and the godly powers given us to be partners in the procreative process. While at first awkward, slowly each warmed to the idea that Dad was opening a door for questions and to dispel myths they had learned at school or elsewhere. I'm certain my children's self-awareness and confidence in living the law of chastity stemmed from those special lunches, sex talks and occasional Family Home Evenings and Family Councils on chastity and dressing modestly.

Our Polynesian culture can be both a blessing and a constraint depending on how we draw on it. Our faith is legendary and often recognized and cited by modern prophets. Yet, we are sometimes shackled by cultural barriers that keep us from reaping the full blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Next week, I'll explore the delicate balance of straddling gospel culture with one's ethnic culture and the unique blessings we all reap because of our individual heritage and upbringing.

Vai Sikahema is the Sports Director and Anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia and host of the "Vai & Gonzo Show" on ESPN Philadelphia Radio. He is a two-time All-Pro, two-time Emmy Award winner and was a member of BYU's 1984 National Championship team.

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