The Sadness and Shame of 'Jonah from Tonga'

Guest Post by Alisi Tulua

It is hard to unpack the debilitating sadness and frustration I felt watching the HBO series Jonah from Tonga; so hard that it took me a long time to write this down. I imagine that the same is felt by my fellow Tongan brothers and sisters who have watched the show.

I am Tongan. I was born and raised in Tonga and grew up here in America. What does that mean exactly? It means that I was raised fully immersed in the sanctity of respect, humility, and love that fostered a home of over twenty brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

The Tongan language emphasizes the closeness of our relations to one another by the nonexistence of Tongan words for cousin, aunt, or uncle; you are brothers and sisters with mothers, fathers, and grandparents that raise you with core values that hold you closely as a community unit that is family. These relationships are woven so tightly that the sanctity of that closeness holds us accountable to respecting each other at all costs. Understanding our closeness defines how we treat one another, how we treat others outside of our culture, and how strongly we hold on to a community centered in the Tongan identity; even outside of our homelands.

Jonah from Tonga defiles the core values of our Tongan culture and rips apart the fabric that holds us together as a family; as a community. Its vile depiction of our relationships with each other as brothers and sisters, as children of our parents, as members of a larger community, ravishes the sanctity of this respect.

While I cry alongside the larger American community about the brown-facing that misappropriates our identity, my bones are broken, my heart ripped out, and my voice muted because this show violates our culture in a way that feels like being physically violated. Its explicit nature restricts any discussions within my family and its false depiction of Tonganess nulls any analysis. Its mainstream reach is scary because of its ability to define who Tongans are in the eyes of outside communities. Worst of all, its mainstream broadcast normalizes this as Tonganess to the 43% of our community that are youth and didn’t have the privilege of being immersed in the core teachings of Tongan culture.

I came across Jonah from Tonga as I was scrolling through the TV listing at my parents’ house this weekend. My parents were sitting right behind me as I pressed the remote so hard to advance the listing past the show. I felt so much shame fill my face as my mother asked me why that show had Tonga in its title. I couldn’t bring myself to show her, much less explain to her, what the show was about.

"Tamai mo Fa’e (Dad and Mom), you didn’t sacrifice your life across the ocean dreaming greatness for us, for your dreams to be so disgustingly depicted for the world to believe through this show.” Jonah from Tonga IS NOT Tongan.

Alisi Tulua is a community organizer who lives in Los Angeles. She was born and raised in Tonga and grew up in Monterey, California. She holds a M.S. and B.S. degrees from the University of California, San Diego.

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