The year Ofa Donaldson was born, in 1972, there were 3600 adoptions in New Zealand. But rediscovering her Tongan cultural roots was an extra challenge.
By Sylvia Giles: Pacific Media Centre
Proud family photographs hang on the walls of the Donaldson’s Hamilton home - just like houses up and down New Zealand. Ofa Donaldson’s picture is somewhat conspicuous in the family line up, as the only brown face in an otherwise palagi family.
Being adopted may not make Ofa, 36, unique - in 1972 there were 3600 adoptions in New Zealand. It does not even make her unique in her own immediate family, where a younger brother is also adopted, the pair being followed by two biological children.
Yet Ofa’s Tongan lineage stares her in the face.
“It wasn’t like I looked in the mirror one day, and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Mum! I’m brown! What’s going on?’
“It was just a natural thing. I always knew I was an adopted kid. It was just like I was adopted, and Mum and Dad were Mum and Dad,” she says.
“It was really funny around teenage years. Mum would come down to school, and I’d yell out, ‘Mum!’ and my friends would be like, ‘Aye? Your mum is white!’ But for me it was always a fun thing.”
Strictly speaking, Ofa Donaldson’s surname is still Talatala, as her adoption was never made formal.
“Mum and Dad just got a call from social welfare saying we have a little girl here, and would they like to come down here and work it out?”
But Ofa still calls herself Tongan, especially in recent years.
“Going to Tonga and meeting actual family. I never thought it would be so important, but it was. And it was like, wow, this is actually where my family is from.”
Unusual circumstances aside, she is a second generation, urban Polynesian, and like so many others finding her place in the Pacific. The urban Polynesian has grown in influence in New Zealand, particularly as it is growing at a faster rate than the overall population.
It is a trend apparent in New Zealand pop culture, visible across film, music, art and theatre; the latest telling hybrid is perhaps Othello Polynesia, which is just about to hit Wellington at the Downstage Theatre.
David Fane is just one of the figureheads of this movement. He is a host at Flava fm, is one of the brains behind Bro’town, and a mainstay of The Naked Samoans, and Outrageous Fortune.
Born in New Zealand, he sees a big difference between him and his parents’ identity.
“When my parents came out they joined the church straight away, to draw the community around them. My generation doesn’t feel the need to be a part of a specific island group.
“But that’s not a breakdown. There is no way we’d survive if we held on to those ways. You need to adapt.”
It’s a theme through his many projects, depicting “the Samoan I chose to be”. He makes a trip back to Samoa every three years also, initially joking it is important to him for the duty free.
“But no, and for the chance to catch up with family. But you become very mindful of the difference between being Samoan and being a Samoan New Zealander,” he says.
“You become half-bred of both.”
Ofa Donaldson herself made two trips to Tonga in her thirties to discover her Pasifika heritage.
However after two weeks, she was so rattled by the whole experience she decided to come home early, to her “normal family, and flushing toilets and normal food”.
But her trip was to culminate in her meeting her biological father, almost by accident. In the network of Tongan families that is now woven across the Pacific, she bumped into the sister of a Tongan colleague from back home in Hamilton.
“She knew I was coming to Tonga, but I hadn’t told her when. And that’s how we met my Dad. Because she said, ‘Your Dad is here, he was been waiting 34 years to met you.’”
“It was really emotional. He cried. He could hardly speak any English. So it went me, translator and then him,” she says tracing out their positions on the kitchen table with an index finger, indicating the interloper placed between them.
“Until then I had only heard it from my mother. He explained how he got deported, how he wrote lots of letters to people he knew in New Zealand to try to find me.
“He wants you to know he hadn’t forgotten about you, the uncle explained. And he and my mother weren’t talking so she didn’t tell him where I was.”
But the voluntary pilgrimage still didn’t make the imprint of being forced to meet her birth mother as a 12-year-old child, an experience she describes as “bizarre”.
Her adoptive mother had been upset for the week leading up to it. Ofa Talatala, after all, was still a foster child.
Her Dad, on the other hand, she described as being “a typical English, middle class male: no emotion, just pat, pat, it will be ok”.
Which runs in stark cultural contrast with the next piece of Ofa’s storytelling: “When we left [her birth mother’s house], I remember her coming out of the house and standing under the tree, and just wailing,” she recalls.
“I was just like ‘get me out of here’. But it must have been so emotional on her part.
At the time I was like, ‘Oh, my god, how embarrassing, who does that? But for her it must have been grieving. And no shame in it for Tongans, I guess”.
So where does Ofa Donaldson take her cultural cues from in such situations, whether she be adult or child, in New Zealand or in Tonga?
“I really don’t know. It has been cool going back to Tonga, and seeing where I am from, but I think I am so heavily engrained in New Zealand culture.
“It’s not like I am going to drown myself in Tongan stuff now. Some people would, but I am happy to know that I am Tongan, and I’ve been there and met the people.
“I’m happy. Just putting the tapa up, I’m like, ‘that’s me!’”
Sylvia Giles is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on the AUT Asia-Pacific Journalism course. She took the photograph of Ofa Donaldson at her home in Frankton.