You Never Know


John H. Groberg
Even though you may be unaware, you’re always an example.

You Never Know

We never know who may be listening to what we say or watching what we do.

Let me give two examples from my experiences with the people of Tonga. Both have to do with the interaction between Tongans and Americans, one in Tonga and the other in the United States.

The first event took place in Tonga during World War II.

It was nighttime, but the moon and the stars gave Finau a feeling of assurance as he carefully guided his canoe across the wide expanse of the gently undulating Pacific Ocean. He constantly studied the stars, so he knew he was going in the right direction. The moon was up, and its brightness was only obscured by occasional wisps of high clouds.

He had heard something about a “war” going on. Several of his friends had gone to the main island and traded their carved tikis and woven baskets to the American soldiers for money—more money than they had seen in all their 16 or so years of life. Finau had collected his very best baskets and carvings and was already anticipating what he would do with the money he was sure to get from the Americans.

The sky was starting to lighten a little, and he could see the waves breaking on the reef in the distance. He knew he was about there.

The sun had just come up as he paddled his canoe through the reef opening and into the quiet lagoon. He saw an American soldier with a gun standing on the shore and made his course towards him. He had heard of guns and of the war and of the American soldiers and of all the money they had and of all the things that money could buy. But now as he actually saw an American and observed his gun and realized he would have to talk to him, he became very nervous and uncertain of just what to do. Finau had learned a few words of English in his local school, but would it be enough? How much should he ask for his goods? He only knew pence and shillings and pounds, and he’d heard that the Americans used dimes and dollars. What were they worth? What would they buy? How should he begin?

Finau felt a little fear as he pulled his canoe up to the beach and the soldier came over. There was no one else on the beach. Would the soldier just take his goods? Would he shoot him? Uncertainty gripped his feelings as he climbed out of the canoe and pulled it onto the beach. He was here and he had traveled all night, so despite his fear he must go ahead.

“You buy?” he said to the soldier as he lifted a few baskets and tikis from the boat.

The young American soldier came over and looked at the items. “How much for this?” he asked, taking a beautifully carved tiki in his hand.

Finau almost panicked. He wasn’t sure of the meaning of the strange words, but he felt he wanted him to say a price, so he blurted out, “Very good. Number one tiki. You buy. One pound.”

The soldier looked quizzically at him, “You’re new at this, aren’t you? How about two dollars for the tiki and these three baskets?”

Finau wondered, “Is that enough? Maybe I should ask more and see what happens.”

“Number one tiki, number one basket. Two dollars tiki, two dollars basket.”

“Oh, you’re a little bargainer are you? I’ll tell you what. I’ve got a carton of cigarettes here. Cigarettes are worth more than money. I’ll give you this whole carton for everything you have here. I guarantee you it’s a good deal. They are good cigarettes. Here, I’ll show you.” The soldier lit one and took a puff and then offered it to Finau.

Up to now Finau had been uncertain of himself, but as he recognized the cigarettes and realized the intent of what was being said, he straightened up and firmly replied, “No!”

“Oh, come on. One sale and you’re all through. Think of the time you’ll save, and if you don’t want to smoke them all yourself you can trade them for other things—even money if you want. They’re rationed, you know. Who can tell their value under these circumstances and in this faraway place? Come on, let’s trade.”

“No,” retorted Finau.

“Come on, come on. What’s the matter? I’ll give them to you first, and you can unload your goods and leave them on the sand. You won’t get a better deal.” The soldier was noticeably irritated by this “stupid native’s” refusal. He looked down at him with all the superiority he felt and again said, “Go ahead. It’s okay. Cigarettes are valuable. Don’t be so stupid.”

Finau, groping for words, stood erect and said, “No, me no smoke. Me Mormon.”

It was as though he had shot the young American. The soldier jerked in startled surprise. He carefully studied Finau, then looked past him and stared longingly into space. He looked again into the lowly native’s eyes. Then he took the carton of cigarettes from under his arm, placed it in his right hand, crushed it, and heaved it far into the lagoon.

Finau wondered, “Why?” He looked at the carton with its bobbing packages scattered about. Then he looked again at the soldier as he turned to walk away from the shore and heard him say, “Yeah, I know. So am I.”

The second example occurred more recently, in the United States.

I was in a hurry to make a close plane connection in a large city, so I was somewhat concerned at the large number of people and their slow movement down the crowded hall. I moved in and out as best I could without jostling others.

I noticed a fairly concentrated group up ahead. There seemed to be some reason for the slowdown since I could see open spaces farther ahead. As I came to the slowed group I could see a young lady slowly making her way forward with braces and canes. She was terribly crippled but doing the best she could. Most people, as they saw the situation, slowed down and patiently let her go at her own speed.

Just ahead of me, two big, strong, brown-skinned young men had just had their rapid pace slowed and could see the reason why. One turned to the other and in his native tongue said, “Ta’ahine faikehe eni ‘Oku totonu ke puna ia ki tu’a ka ta o!” which roughly interpreted is: “What a crazy girl. She ought to be thrown out so we could move!”

I knew of no Tongans living in this area of the United States. Hawaii, California, and Utah, yes, but here? Since I had served a mission in Tonga, I quickly replied to the two young men, “Oua na’a mo lau’i ae ta’ahine oku si’i heke, he taha, ko hono fo’ui,” which is more or less: “You shouldn’t speak bad about the poor girl. After all, it’s not her fault.”

They whirled around to see who on earth spoke to them. They had a combination of embarrassment and disbelief on their faces. All they saw was a typical American man in a business suit, carrying a briefcase, and scolding them with his eyes.

They just sort of disappeared down the next opening with mutterings of disbelief and dismay, “How did he know? Who was that? We better watch what we say, etc.”

I have often thought that the statistical chances of those circumstances occurring as they did—with the relatively small number of Tongans in the United States, the even smaller number in that large city, and the even smaller number of white people who could speak Tongan—were so small as to be almost nonexistent.

I don’t know just how the Lord orchestrates people and places and events so we can learn the things we should, but I do know that we ought not to ever do or say anything wrong, thinking that no one will see or hear or know.

God sees and hears and knows everything, but he also allows situations to occur that let us know that others here are aware as well.

May we all be generous and kind and forgiving and have the certain testimony and knowledge that “he looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning” (Alma 18:32).

[illustration] Illustrated by Scott Snow