31 August 2010

How to eat in Tonga

As we were sharing an evening meal with an Australian trainer couple several nights ago, the president of the Free Wesleyan Education office stopped in to say hello to them. He is enigmatically quiet with a deadpan sense of humour, and started joking about his obligation to eat all the food set before him at a feast, despite the possibility of his health reacting negatively to it.

Heavily laden feast table
His pastoral skills are in huge demand, and so he had recently attended a feast after one of the many times he had been invited to preach. Because he had eaten quickly, an older gentleman next to him had started jokingly giving him a hard time, saying that since he was the guest pastor at the event, everyone was looking to him to indicate when to start and stop eating, and that if he stopped eating now, the slower eaters would leave hungry.

“You must take a little piece from each dish because you never know how hard someone has worked to put it in front of you,” the older man said to him. “They could have been sitting up all night to catch that fish, coming back at four in the morning. Because of this, you must touch all the food around you, because as the guest of honour, you are blessing it!” his seat neighbor joked. What is a guest pastor to do? He just had to eat all the delicious food in front of him.

The story made me think yet again about all of our cultural, family, and individual quirks about food, and everything we’ve learned since our first time eating in Tonga. Many of our initial inclinations are in fact the opposite of what Tongan culture dictates!

How to eat in Tonga:
  • When you are eating with a large group informally (not at a feast), my first reaction is to stay until everyone is finished eating, but in fact, it is quite acceptable to leave when you are done, even if you are the first to finish.
  • If someone is eating near you, I would never go over for the sole purpose of asking them to share their food with me unless I had something to contribute in turn, but in fact, it is normal and fine to go share someone's meal.
  • When bringing food to eat during the day, my first inclination is to pack just enough for me to eat, expecting that no one will want to share my food, but in fact, one should always bring extra to share with others around you.
  • When someone offers to share their lunch with you, my first reaction to break off a small portion so as not to be greedy, but instead, it is rude not to take the whole piece of food.
  • When there’s nowhere to sit, my first reaction is to just stand and eat, but it is much more polite to sit even if it’s on the ground.
  • When we are invited to someone’s house for a meal, my first reaction is to bring a dessert to share, but in fact, bringing food would subtly imply that your host does not have enough to feed you.
  • When trying to get to know neighbors, my first inclination is to invite them for a meal, expecting they will later do the same in return. In fact, Volunteers are usually invited only to Sunday dinner, because the rest of the week’s meals are not special enough to share with an invited guest.
  • When you are a guest at an event or feast, my first reaction is to chose an out-of-the-way spot to sit as the newcomer who does not know the group, but in fact as a guest, you will likely be put in a position of honour up front, and will be served first.
  • As an invited guest, my first inclination is to wait to eat from a buffet/snack table so as to not look over-eager, but in fact, if you are the guest of honour, everyone will wait to get their food until you start eating.
  • As an invited guest, most foreigners feel comfortable choosing a dish or two and eating until they are satisfied, but in fact, it is more polite to eat a little from everything in front of you, and keep slowly eating until the next part of the feast starts. I don’t have trouble with this because I love to try things too much, which does make it more culturally appropriate, but inevitably ends with abdominal distress.
  • As a guest at a feast, hosts will tell you to finish all your food, which I am inclined to try to do, but actually, most people will just eat a little of their feast food, and then take home the rest to enjoy later.
  • At a buffet meal, my first inclination is to take a modest-sized plate, finish it, and then if I’m still hungry, go back for more. However, going back for seconds is seen as “fa’akai” (lit. “always eating”) or greedy, so most people take a huge plate the first, and only, time around. A plate piled high is not seen as greedy, as long as it’s your only plate.
  • Sometimes, at informal meals, some people eat and talk with their mouths open (both in Tonga and in the US). This is considered bad manners in both cultures.
  • At any meal, some foreigner’s first inclination is to use eating utensils, in an effort to be polite, but actually, it is fine to eat with your hands- a cultural value that especially comes in useful when you are ripping large chunks of pork off of a roast pig at a feast.


  1. Incredibly interesting post! love hearing about little facets of Tongan culture!

  2. awesome post. Wow. Doesn't it just go to show how much we have to learn when we change cultures? Our very attempts to be polite can be rude and offensive.
    Good thing that so many cultures also have a high degree of graciousness towards guests!!

  3. Do you mind if I link to your post on my blog? It's a great run-down. Also, in terms of inviting people to your house or bringing food to the house, I learned from my down-the-street neighbour that if you obviously have a bundle of food (i.e. not covered or somewhat disguised), it is rude to walk past a house and then give it to the house after. It's also slightly rude to invite the people from the next house and not the one you had to walk past to get there. Not incredibly rude, but slightly.


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