Of the foreign nations supplying Hawai‘i with new residents, the Philippines is by far the largest donor. Over the last five years an average of four thousand Filipinos immigrated to the Aloha State each year. By comparison the influx of Tongans is tiny: around fifty per year.
The Kingdom of Tonga sits well below the equator, and most university-bound Tongans travel to neighboring New Zealand or Australia for school. But in 1978, 18- year-old Tivoli Faaumu jumped at the chance to study in the United States. His aunt worked at Brigham Young University on O‘ahu, so he had an entry and a safety net in Hawai‘i.
You might expect that assimilation would be easy for someone swapping one Pacific island for another, but Faaumu experienced much of the same culture shock that a European might. Tonga has a strong British influence, while Hawai‘i leans heavily toward Asia. Faaumu found mealtimes especially puzzling. Rice with everything? Where were the biscuits and milky tea? “At my first lü‘au I saw these bowls of pudding and thought: At last, something I will enjoy,” he says. “Of course, it was poi.” Over time he grew to love the sour Hawaiian staple.
Like many BYU students, Faaumu paid for his tuition by performing at the school’s Polynesian Cultural Center. He played the French horn and danced—the former skill he had mastered in secondary school, the latter he learned in Hawai‘i. A business management major, he dreamt of owning his own company. But in his sophomore year he and his new Hawaiian girlfriend discovered they were expecting a child. This presented a problem at school. BYU is governed by the Mormon Church and has a strict code of conduct; Faaumu’s studies there came to an end. He and his girlfriend married and moved to Maui, where her family lived. “Our families did not quite agree with our decision,” says Faaumu, “but they supported us.” Strong family orientation is something Tongan and Hawaiian cultures share.
Dropping out of college devastated Faaumu. He assuaged some of his frustration by forming Maui’s first rugby team and found work at a Kapalua golf course. His boss soon recognized that the ambitious, athletic young man was overqualified for yanking weeds. “Go back to school,” the elder told him. But Faaumu couldn’t afford college while supporting his young family. “Become a weekend warrior. Join the Army Reserve,” prodded his boss.
Faaumu took the advice; he’s now a master sergeant. He trained alongside Maui Police Department recruits and in 1985 surprised himself by joining them. He thought he’d had his fill of crew cuts growing up; his father worked for the police force back home. But Maui’s Tongan community was growing, and Faaumu saw that he could be an asset, someone who could negotiate with his fellow countrymen who found themselves afoul of the law.
Once an officer, Faaumu regularly consulted with the patriarchs of Maui’s largest Tongan families and met with first-generation parents who didn’t understand the American school or justice systems— things he’d had to parse for himself. He’d only recently obtained citizenship, after all. “I didn’t know the background to the laws I was enforcing,” he says. “Giving someone their Miranda’s rights didn’t make sense to me.” Plus, he struggled with report writing. English is his second language—British English—and convoluted American legalese confounded him.
So back to school he went, this time obtaining a bachelor’s in business management, the same degree he’d sought years before. When his wife left he became responsible for raising their three kids. He sent them all to college. His youngest played football for the University of Hawai‘i—which in itself probably earned the family local hero status.
Faaumu’s twenty-eight years in the Maui Police Department have been marked by steady achievements. He was a highly effective vice narcotics investigator and helicopter rappel master who spearheaded numerous marijuana eradication missions. He lobbied the County Council to ban drinking at Kalama Park, effectively snuffing out criminal activity in the area. When a teen cheerleader fell to her death at a local resort in 2004, Faaumu represented his department on national television. In 2011 he was promoted to captain of the Kihei station. Last year he helped launch a mentor program for at-risk youth.
For someone who has spent so much time engaging with the island’s criminal element, Captain Faaumu has a remarkably gentle demeanor. “Police work has changed me,” he says. “I’m more tactful, less of an alpha male.” He smiles. “Maybe when I retire I’ll sit under a coconut tree and play my French horn until somebody calls the cops.”