The Tonga People live in Zambia and Zimbabwe. But that’s not where I am spending the next year. I am in the Kingdom of Tonga, a small country of 100,000 in the South Pacific, a one-hour flight from Fiji. I have joined my husband, a Canadian, who has a work contract here.
Tonga calls itself the land where time begins. Situated immediately left of the International Date Line, Tonga is the first place on earth to greet each new day. That’s a really romantic headspace to be in, right? Tonga boasts incredible natural beauty and snorkeling, both of which I look forward to enjoying. I read that Tongans are pleased with their self-image and love of food, that being heavier ain’t no big thing. I’ll be right at home. And the people in Fiji look towards Tonga and sigh, “It’s paradise over there.” So I want to be in Tonga, right?
Preparing to leave Toronto, I looked at my calendar and saw all the things I won’t be a part of, all the people and things that make up my world and give meaning and pleasure to living in Toronto. A self-imposed exile from my own little kingdom. I felt homesick even before I left.
I have been in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga for two days so far. It’s hot here. The humid heat and I are not good friends. I still want to give this temporary relocation a go, but I can’t get over what I’m missing at home, not knowing what Tonga holds for me yet. So I take stock of what I left behind. I want to remember what shaped me as I open myself to new experiences and a new people.
I don’t care that CBC marketers say (their snooty old commercial ranked people who value ideas and therefore listen to CBC Radio at the top of the intelligence scale), I have no doubt that people and relationships define my world more than things and ideas. But specifically, what of this network of people and relationships do I miss?
I had two send-off dinners with my family the week I left. I will miss Sunday dinners with them. I won’t be with them for Christmas, Chinese New Year, or my brother’s birthday. I was reluctant to leave my mother, who relies on me for so much, even knowing how independent she has become (I’ve trained her to be so since my father’s passing) and how capable my siblings are in filling in for me.
My neighbours and I have dinners together, send each other food, go shopping, take pottery and belly-dancing classes, go camping, look after each other’s houses.
The day of my departure, my neighbour and her dog drove me to the airport at 7 AM.
That’s a friend, not just a neighbour.
My not-my-dog. My next-door-neighbour’s very smart, funny, sweet, obedient, black golden doodle that I look after when they are at work. Nelly and I have had many adventures. On those afternoons that we spend together, I fantasize we really are a girl and her dog roaming nature trails, scaling fences, crossing creeks, and tossing a ball back and forth. I don’t want Nelly to suffer from my absence.
As I write this, I know the befanas have combed their eyebrows and polished their noses in preparation for their spectacular shrieking at the Kensington Market Winter Solstice Parade. Almost every year, I have screeched with my hag sisters to beckon the sun’s return during Kensington Market’s celebration of the Winter Solstice. This performance always marks the beginning of winter for me. And now I am truly with them in spirit, sending them the heat and brightness of the Tongan sun.
Last September, I joined the Echo Women’s Choir, a dedicated group of women with wonderful voices. The music directors, Becca and Alan, wanted theirs to be an inclusive, scent-free choir. They were singing my song. I am sensitive to smells and scents. This choir does not require an audition. So, imagine professional coaching for the likes of me, who doesn’t have a natural singing voice, can’t carry a tune and can’t read music. I got into it. I started private singing lessons. I enjoyed the 80 welcoming women in the choir. I started to read a bit of music as lessons from high school music class came rushing back. I regret so much not being able to take part in January when the choir resumes.
In the last few years, I learned to embrace winter in Ontario, going outdoors as much as possible, taking long walks with Nelly, skiing, dogsledding. I liked being snowed in, with friends and family inside, hot soup on the table, roast in the oven, a rolling blanket of soft white out the window, and the crisp, fresh air just an open door away. All that seems like a dream now, sitting in this Tongan heat.
The Fatal Light Awareness Program is a group of dedicated bird rescuers and educators. Their goal is to reduce bird strikes against buildings. Preventable bird deaths, redemption from wrongs against nature. It’s been my honour to volunteer for them. While I can still do some work from Tonga, it’s not the same as being in Toronto to meet in person and communicate as the need arises.
Of the many nature trails and parks I visit with Nelly, I love this trail best. We have a routine here. We park in the St. Clair West and Yonge area, we walk to a hot dog vendor, we buy a hot dog with bun for me, a hot dog without bun for Nelly. We go to a bench and eat our lunch. Then we enter the trail from St. Clair West and Pleasant Blvd. I tiptoe and balance over rocks in the creek while Nelly scampers into the water back and forth waiting for me to finish my crossing. We head to an open area and throw the ball around. Nature is all around us. We are full of glee.
Many years ago, I became friends with a woman at work. She made my wedding dress, we had children around the same time, the children played together, then I returned to work. I guess I always thought she was just a phone call away. Twenty years passed. Our children, now in their early twenties, met at a party. Somehow, they made the connection that they played together as toddlers and that their mothers used to be good friends. We reconnected through our kids. We had dates. We spent a few days up north. She joined our little exercise group. She came to my choir concert. And now, I leave her again. I hope she visits me in Tonga.
I am one of the statistics. An early adopter of online shopping, I continue to prefer the ease and speed of ordering from reliable websites. But in Tonga, the cost of shipping would be prohibitive. I don’t have a house number. The address of my apartment: In Sobo, on Vanu Road, near the Black Pearl restaurant. I have no faith any parcel would find its way here from overseas.
The refurbished Bloor Cinema was conducive to many evenings of feeding the body and feeding the mind. A film at the cinema and a bite on Bloor made for a very satisfying evening for me. The only theatre in Nuku’alofa burned down in the 2006 riots and has yet to be rebuilt. Internet services are expensive if you stream movies and surf as a pastime. No movies for me.
Will it be “Razzing Toronto: version 2.0”, under John Tory? Or will Tory salvage Toronto’s image and maybe even make it work better? I really want to be there to see it unfold.
– Mary Li
Read more about Nelly and Mary here and here. And here’s more about the Hags and the Kensington Festival.
This article can be found in GOING OUT, in the section Where We’re Going, and in WHAT’S HERE in the section The City.