Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ability and Disability in Tales of the Tikongs

The arrival -and very final departure - of Mr. Charles Edward George Higginbottom to Tiko is one of the funniest, albeit darkly humorous anecdotes in the first half of Tales of the Tikong. Its humor and absurdity in describing the adjustment (or lack thereof) to life in Tiko is thrown into sharp contrast, however, by the intervention-style chapter about a native Tikong's return home. 
      In Charles' story, he is depicted as both hapless and persecuted, but through a comic lens. The list of hardships he will face in exchange for a significant raise is the first indication of just how little he fits in with his new environment. He is hyper-critical yet hypocritical. In his mind Tiko is a primitive country full of uncivilized people. Yet even as he criticizes Hiti's tendency to hire solely his own family, the narrator cheekily adds that he has forgotten that nepotism was responsible for his own job. He is unable to draw a parallel between his own world and that of the Tikongs, and thus cannot thrive (or even survive, in the end) in Tiko. Though he is not in any way malicious, he underestimates the intelligence of his new coworkers/employees. When he first arrives, it seems as though he is intended to be the boss, yet soon after he arrives, he is already reduced from employer to employee: “Hiti saw that Charles Edward was undisturbed and comfortable by giving him practically nothing to do. Anything controversial or questionable, which was just about everything, bypassed his desk.” (Hau’ofa 15)
Hiti deals – whether consciously or unwittingly – with his new coworker’s adjustment issues by treating him as a simpleton. While the intention seems to be lowering his workload and thus his stress, it seems more likely that Hiti simply sees Charles as foreign and incompetent and therefore gives him only the easiest, least thought-provoking tasks. Charles, who upon coming to Tiko worried about “foreign diseases” and “being mauled by insatiable native nymphomaniacs” (14), is shown that his presumptions are not only largely unfounded but also earn him a lower social and intellectual rank in the society.
In our own country, one of the more recent terms for those experiencing developmental disabilities is “differently abled” in lieu of “disabled.” The concept behind this term is that while those who do not have cognitive, intellectual or physical disabilities may consider those who do “unable,” it is more beneficial and respectful to consider that perhaps these “disabilities” are relative to their environment. As my Neurodiversity teach pointed out the other day, while a hearing-impaired person in a world full of people without hearing disabilities is considered “disabled,” if he or I were to live in a prevalently deaf community, we would be the disabled ones because just as they lack the ability to hear, we lack the ability to understand sign language. The Tikongs seem to almost consider Charles disabled – they are not particularly concerned about his inability to adapt to their society, instead they treat him as a disabled outsider.

On the other hand, Tevita Poto – a native Tikong returning from studying (presumably medicine) abroad – is treated as fully able but disrespectful. His family and fellow Tikongs still see him as one of their own and chastise him for his decreased adherence to their social and religious codes. Though Charles is treated with sympathy, it is apparent that little is expected from him. The Tikongs have a certain pride about their own people which – though they may try their best to treat them well and lighten their burdens – will likely never be extended to outsiders. Charles cannot adhere to the norms of Tiko and is treated as an invlaid. Tevita attempts to rebel against them and is treated as a traitor. While Charles and the other non-Tikongs may consider Tiko a primitive and lazy society, it is clear that in the end it is about both perspective and respect for other cultures – if one chooses to be open to the idea that an unfamiliar culture may be different yet equal to one’s own, they will thrive. If one, on the other hand, treats it as primitive, they will as Charles did, eventually perish – but hopefully not so literally.

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