Tongan woman making a new life

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— On a Saturday night at the Slopeside Grill, Ailini George looks like a regular among the crowd from Euzoa Bible Church. Her easy smile and laugh belie her recent transition from an island in the Pacific to Steamboat Springs.

George is from Tonga, a little-known country 400 miles southeast of Fiji consisting of 157 islands and a total population of 109,000. Surrounded by warm beaches, Tonga is a stark contrast to Steamboat's mountainous and snowy terrain.

On Jan. 17, Andrew and Ailini George were married on the main island of Tonga. Andrew, 26, worked as a missionary in Tonga for two months and met Ailini, 19, when a mutual friend suggested he stay at her house while he was attending the University of the Nations. Andrew said he and Ailini had "an old-school courtship." After he left the island, the couple dated through letters and phone conversations for about a year.

"Ailini writes awesome, beautiful letters," he said.

Although the couple married in Tonga, Ailini chose an American ceremony because the traditional Tongan way is more expensive. Because Ailini's father was the only working family member for 10 people, the family could not afford a traditional wedding.

At Tonga weddings, expensive woven rugs called tapa cloths are presented. Tapa cloths are made of tree bark hammered with a mallet, glued and painted. In some cases they can be as large as a football field.

Andrew bought Ailini an American dress to wear during the ceremony. Then, a day before the wedding, Ailini's uncle sent her another American dress as a surprise. Ailini wore one dress to the signing of the contract and the other to the church and wore her native costume to the reception.

Having spent her entire life on the 4-by-8-mile island, Ailini was nearly overwhelmed upon her arrival in the United States around the end of January.

Describing her reaction to Los Angeles, Ailini said, "It is so big, it is scary to me, but when I get here I feel safe."

When she arrived in Steamboat, she saw mountains, rivers and snow for the first time. She also took her first shower.

In Tonga, Ailini lived with her seven siblings and next door to her eight cousins. She was within walking distance of all her friends. She said she was struck by the fast-paced American life. In Tonga, everything is slower, she said, even the way people talk.

"It was hard for me to leave there, let alone her," Andrew said. "Over there they love you for who you are. They're not busy. They don't strive to get ahead."

On a typical Sunday in Tonga, no one works and everything shuts down. Gas stations close, and policemen are off duty.

"They always take their time to go to church," Ailini said.

Although she misses her family very much, Ailini said, "Everything here is good." She has already skied, snowshoed and ice skated and is giving her new friends lessons in speaking Tongan. Ailini is currently volunteering at the Health and Recreation Center.

Lauri Bradt, a mutual friend of the Georges, described Ailini as peaceful and loving. "Every time you see her she gives you a hug. She loves America, and she definitely loves Andy."

"I can't believe how well she's done," Andrew said. "She just fits right in."

Meredith Geldmeier is senior at Christian Heritage School and an intern for the Pilot & Today.

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