Wednesday, 16 August 2017

But aren't they all from Tonga? Silence as strategy for holding unity.

A dear friend asked me recently about attitudes among Tongan-Australian "next gen" leaders. The young adults concerned were a mix of migrants (born in Tonga), 1.5-ers (born in Tonga or other Pacific Islands, but at least partly educated in Australia or New Zealand) and 2nd Gen-ers (born here). Whe couldn't understand why they would not talk about Marriage Equity and possibilities of Same-Gender Marriage. After all, several had expressed interest privately.

It was difficult for someone like me to talk about. I have never been to Tonga, although I have many Tongan friends. What I have observed is that Tongans value their relationships with other Tongan very highly. They don't want to do things that may risk tensions or conflicts, if they can possibly avoid such things. I have learnt that there are differnt streams of Tongan church culture in Australia. They might all be from Tonga, but they are worlds apart in style, attitude and particular beliefs. Nevertheless, they work hard at being together on a regular basis.

I asked my friend how could we assume that Tongans had a single understanding of or attitude to same-gender relationships or concepts of marriage? Did we have a single view in Australia? The conversation made me realise how conditioned we have become to the token voice - the single story that is meant to represent an entire population. This is how we reduce societies to stereotypes. We struggle to imagine the cultural complexity of "the other" and cannot possibly imagine a blended existence. Perhaps this is why, as a child, people called me "mongrel".

Living in more than one culture leads hyphenated children to develop hybrid world-views. We are almost impossible to assimilate longterm. People try it for a decade or sometimes even two, but eventually hyphenated identity people tend to seek out the rest of their identity. Migrants who have both parent culture and emerging new country culture are on a continuum of attitude. They may be vacillating between understandings, swayed by experiences and relationships.

Placing relationships as a higher priority than being 'right' means avoiding situations of conflict, tension or potential disagreement, in order that the community might hold together. This may involve suppressing ideas and holding back on Truth-telling. This is seen as a wise and respectful course.

Silence does not necessarily mean assent. It does not necessarily mean there is nothing to say. Silence may be a way of avoiding shame - for self or others. Silence may seem negligent to some and the same silence may be heard as comforting to others. Sometimes, silence provides the space required for prayer and meditation. Companionable silence may be required for community discernment.

For some, silence may feel like a shutting down of real conversation. However, silence may be inevitable when there are no words that convey helpful meaning. Languages are complex. Sometimes vocabulary in one language does not exist in another. Sometimes silence is preferable to words that accuse or judge. Sometimes silence simply means - we are not ready to talk.


  1. Such silences happen in congregationd which are mostly multigenerational Anglo, too. We just can't use ethnicity for an excuse :)

  2. Absolutely Andrew! And when we think about when and why it happens in congregational life, it make sense that sometimes people just shut up in council or committee settings too. I have just got back from the 2nd Gen and Next Gen CALD National Conference - several younger people (in their 20s and 30s) said that they often dont speak (waiting for the courteous invitation to speak) but they never get invited because people assume they will speak up. Culturally, that is a western assumption that cuts across culturally polite behaviour.


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