I was four years old when my single mum found me in the bedroom of our red brick house in Canberra, covered in talcum powder. With my thick curly brown hair and big brown eyes, I wanted hair like Farrah Fawcett and white skin like my Australian cousins. My mother cried that day.
Mum was an educator and an anthropologist. She was in Hawaii studying when she met my Tongan father, a civil engineer, who had moved there for work.
They split before I was born but my father was there for my birth in Melbourne and made sure I had a proper Tongan baptism. They named me Paulina Meliame Moungaafi Knie Fusitu’a. My dad visited us once more when I was about 11.
It was just Mum and me growing up. I would have loved to have had siblings to play with and I dreamt about finding them somewhere out in the world. Mum had always told me about Paul, a half-brother in Hawaii. She said there was maybe another brother too – so I should be careful who I marry.
Then, in year 12, a letter arrived with a photo of a little girl wearing a purple dress. This was Hulita, my half-sister living in San Francisco with my dad and her American mom. I had a little sister! Family and sibling relationships are complicated. The ties that bind are usually around shared history and culture, but what happens when you don’t have that? How would I relate to this little American girl?
We met for the first time a couple of years later. We were visiting Tonga, for the king’s 80th birthday celebrations. I was in my 20s, studying law at Sydney University. Hulita was seven, a firecracker, perhaps a little spoiled. She refused to eat the lūpulu (corned beef in taro leaves) at the king’s birthday kai pola (banquet), and asked why they didn’t have McDonalds. She wondered out loud why the men were wearing skirts.
I was mortified. Hulita was growing up with a Tongan parent and yet she was so culturally unaware. My mum, the anthropologist, had taught me to respect Tongan culture. But being told about something is very different to living it.
Hulita and I kept meeting on trips to Tonga, New Zealand and Australia. Once for a royal Tongan wedding she was a bridesmaid and we were both wrapped in mats that were part of the dowry. At an uncle’s – Lord Fusitu’a’s – funeral, our hair was cut as part of the mourning ceremony. Our relationship grew in intense bursts.
When Hulita turned 18, I convinced her to travel with me to Hawaii. I wanted us to find our brother, Paul. Facebook was new and everyone was looking for old school mates. But Paul didn’t want to be found. He was angry with our father, struggling with addiction and he stood us up a couple of times.
Finally he came to our hotel room in Waikiki. Hulita and I cried and hugged him. At first the interaction was awkward – “When’s your birthday? Did you like school? Let’s compare our hands!” – but we warmed up quickly. Hulita felt guilty because she’d grown up with our dad, but Paul assured Hulita it wasn’t her fault. His reassurance was a gift only a big brother could give his little sisters.
Hulita wanted matching tattoos, and Paul knew a guy. So Trevor came to the hotel room with a tattoo gun. Instinctively, I knew this was a bad idea so I volunteered to go first. Halfway through, the gun broke. My ankle still has a poorly drawn outline of a fish. It’s the only thing I have of our brother Paul.
A year later Hulita and I went back to Hawaii to find our other brother Fil. He too looked like us, and he was so happy that we had come looking for him. He described it as if something intangible had been missing from his whole life and now he’d found it: his two crazy sisters.
I’ve never consciously felt angry towards my dad, but I wasn’t able to get to know my siblings until I was an adult and I do blame him for that. Finding them has helped me feel whole when so much of me may be described as “half”, something I didn’t realise until it happened.
Growing up outside our shared ancestral home, without our language, disconnected from that proud and rich history, we all draw on tradition and lore in our own way – in my case, tattoos, the voyaging and now recording my family’s oral history by making a podcast with Hulita.
I miss my sister. She’s smart, fierce, funny and lovingly affectionate. Even though there’s 14 years and the Pacific ocean between us, she truly gets me. She sees Paulina the lawyer in the western world, the Tongan Paulina, and the half-space in-between.
When Hulita came to visit me in Sydney, after eight years apart, we finally got matching tattoos on our wrists – a Tongan motif with a contemporary twist.