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Being Okay with Being Uncomfortable

By Melino Gianotti, Peace Corps Kid (Tonga) and Peace Corps Volunteer (Cambodia)

I’m sitting in front of a group of people; we’re all dressed in black. One familiar face is looking back at me, the rest are either complete strangers or family members I had just recently been acquainted with.

Melino with her mother and cousin
Melino's mother, cousin, and Melino

A man is standing at a podium next to me, we’re only separated by an open coffin. My stomach is killing me, a result of eating Tongan food consisting mostly of pork. I feel a stabbing pain and try to adjust the wreath necklace known as a sisi around my neck, causing my woven grass skirt (a tupenu) to rustle loudly and therefore making me feel even more conspicuous. Between wearing the traditional clothes and being in front of a crowd at a funeral, it’s safe to say I’m uncomfortable. I try to distract myself by listening to the speaker at the podium, but my attempt is futile because the language being spoken is a foreign one: the Tongan language.

So what brought a 23 year old uninformed girl from Oregon to this giant room filled with strangers in the middle of Salt Lake City, Utah? And why am I in front of them cluelessly trying to perform fana kaloni, a Tongan custom to prepare the dead where a family member sprays or pretends to spray

perfume around the deceased. Well, it’s because the familiar face in the crowd is my mother and the inhabitant of the coffin is my great uncle, a man I have never met but with whom I share the same blood with.

My mother is Tongan, born and raised on the island of Tongatapu. Tonga is a Polynesian sovereign state in the South Pacific Ocean, a neighbor to islands like Fiji and Samoa, where a monarchy still rules, rugby is the popular sport, and feasts with roasted pig are a normal weekly event. She met my dad in the late 1980’s, a science teaching Peace Corps Volunteer from Alaska, eventually marrying him on the island in 1990. After my father’s service they moved to a very small town in Oregon, where my three younger siblings and I were born and raised.

Melino with her parents and siblings, Oregon

So there I was in Salt Lake City, trying to be okay with being uncomfortable for the sake of my mother. Not doing a very good job, but trying nonetheless. Completely unaware that experiences like these that have involved both my Tongan and American heritage would become a useful tool for navigating through unfamiliar and occasionally uncomfortable situations.

Melino and one of her students in Cambodia

You see, just a year and a half later, I am typing this article in a coffee shop 10 km outside of my rural village in the beautiful Kingdom of Cambodia, where I am serving as a Community Health and Education Volunteer in the Peace Corps. I’m about a year into my service and despite learning an incredible amount about the Cambodian language (Khmer) and culture, I honestly seldom know what’s going on and have grown to not only be okay with that feeling but have come to enjoy it.

An integral part of being a Peace Corps Kid is having the opportunity to be a part of two separate worlds. The one world where my mom would sneak into her neighbor’s yard to climb mango trees for a quick snack and the other, the one where Starbucks are aplenty and where I enjoyed playing sports and being a highschool band nerd. Being a Peace Corps Kid gives you an invitation to two different parties, and sometimes people welcome you with open arms while others aren’t thrilled that you attended in the first place. I have developed an ability to navigate unique and at times difficult situations throughout the years which has assisted me an incredible amount with being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Both worlds are incredibly different, whether it’s my dad’s experiences when he served in Tonga or my mom’s when she moved to a rural community in the United States. I am proud to follow in my parent’s footsteps and am excited to participate in a tradition that brings us, as people, closer together.

Melino in Cambodia

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