Thursday, October 30, 2008


The first word every Western visitor to Fiji learns is “bula.” It’s kind of like “aloha.” It’s a versatile word that can stand in for many things, including “hello” and “thank you.”

I think that what bula literally means, though, is “welcome,” and as you can see, Fijians are a very friendly and welcoming bunch. This photograph was taken at a checkpoint near the international airport in Nadi as I was on my way home from Fiji several years ago. There had just been a coup, and I had been invited to Fiji as a journalist to document the fact that the islands were once again safe for tourists.

This soldier was supposed to be guarding the airport and looking for the leader of the coup, who was then still at large. (Somebody did catch him later, but I somehow doubt it was this guy who nabbed him.) I had asked the soldier if I could take his picture because I thought he looked very fierce in his guardhouse, and I thought a photograph would reassure my readers that Fiji was well protected.

I really wanted a picture of him by himself, with his gun and his imposing bulk, but what I got instead was a man transformed into a giant golden retriever, all eager goofiness and affection. I understand that this kind of unguarded openness is common to the people of the South Pacific and I certainly saw a lot of it in Fiji. I really got the sense that everyone I met there would have given me the shirt off his or her back if I had asked.

I’m trying hard to keep that in mind as I deal with a neighborhood that is invaded every evening by Tongans intent on taking something away from me and my community. I confess that I’ve been struggling with some ugly thoughts lately, stemming from the fact that while about 45% of the state backs Proposition 8—a large cross-section of the California population, in other words--virtually all of the people who have gone to the trouble of waving rude signs in my neighborhood are of Tongan descent.

So I did a little research. I learned that there are thought to be about 20,000 Tongans in California, 75% of whom live in the Bay Area. That means there are about 15,000 Tongans here, and only about 100 of them are actively campaigning against gay rights. That’s actually a pretty low bozo rate—less than 1%--which makes me feel better.

But mostly I just like to remember the chorus of “bula” that greeted me at the airport on arrival in the South Pacific and followed me for 10 days across three islands. I’m trying to hold onto the welcome that was extended to me with no regard for whatever strange or maybe even offensive cultural baggage I brought with me from home. I only wish I were doing as good of a job accepting Tongan guests into my neighborhood, but I have to admit, right now it’s hard.

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