Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Is that a pounamu in your pocket...

Where was I? I’ve been trying to follow the so-called “race debate” back home. Distance lends a certain perspective, as well as an alternative frame for all the angst and aggro. For one thing, there’s nothing like being a world away from the landscape of childhood – and dreaming of it every other night -- to reveal a deep and, yes, spiritual relationship to the land, even if you don’t think of a given mountain as your actual ancestor.

And for another, I’m finding it impossibly hard and embarrassing to listen to the litany about how it’s all “take, take, take” on the part of the tangata whenua. From where I sit, pakeha New Zealanders have pocketed a great deal, in every sense of that phrase. It takes some time away to realize exactly how much we owe.

I’m not (just) talking about compensation for land grabs and compensatory policy for all those crucial areas where the effects of dispossession and racism are still deeply and disproportionately felt by people who are Maori – health, wealth, employment, education, social and familial cohesion, ambition, expectation, life expectancy.

(I mean, bloody hell, life expectancy! Tenure on the planet! That’s the equity bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, and it would require callousness greater than I’m capable of to argue that evening up the odds of being around to see your grandchildren graduate from university is some kind of special treatment. Whatever it takes, I’m for it.)

But I’m also thinking about all the intangible benefits white New Zealanders get from living in a country with a vigorous, enthusiastic, staunch, distinctive and uncompromising culture flourishing alongside – and inside – our, let’s face it, largely off-the-peg anglo society.

No, no, sit down, I’m not saying that pakeha have no culture of their own. On the contrary, the culture that we have is inextricable from a relationship – positive or negative – to Maoritanga. It’s in that word, pakeha. As far as I know, it’s unusual for a settler population to denote itself with a term from the indigenous language (haole, Hawai’ian for pakeha, would be another). It’s a small detail, but a crucial one, just as the earliest use of the word “New Zealander” referred exclusively to the original inhabitants of the island.

It’s not that “we” refer to ourselves with “their” word, or called “them” by what is now “our” term. That’s where biculturalism tips into binary thinking, forcing the categories apart and making them each other’s opposite. Rather, what interests me is that the different terms necessarily assume – and create – a shared world. You can’t be a pakeha unless there are Maori; you can’t be Maori, as the term currently works, without the presence of pakeha. (You can also be both at the same time, of course, but people will often insist on making you choose one or the other).

So much cultural borrowing and lending, back and forth, over so many years. And still, so many pompously stupid letters to the editor about how Maori should forthwith desist from using modern technology, blah blah blah, with not a thought to how many benefits -- cultural, economic, social, international -- pakeha derive from our centuries of access to a distinctly local cultural well of imagery, idea, ceremony, knowledge, history, drama, language, humour, family. We’re so quick to brandish our bi-multi-cultural Brand New Zealand abroad, but so damn slow to show some respect at home. What gives?

Ten years ago. Sitting outside a trattoria in Florence, just down the street from the childhood home of Dante’s wife. It was August, the season when Italians flee for the coast and tourists hit town, so most of us were from somewhere else. Vino de tavola, prosciutto e melone, fifteenth century buildings, lovely warm evening. All of a sudden, a large and boisterous group of youths rounded the corner, stumbled drunkenly into formation, and performed a haka.

Not just a haka, of course, the haka; Te Rauparaha’s famous victory number, which commemorates the time his wife hid him in a kumara pit and (gasp) stood over the top of his head. She was strategically violating tapu, or invoking noa, as a cunning way to put his pursuers off the scent; for what proud chief would lower himself thus? (I guess that’s what they mean by “snatched from the jaws of death.”) By some twisty route, this haka has become not just the standard rugby warm-up, but the trick that drunken New Zealanders perform when feeling a bit show-offy or homesick.

I doubt that all of the Tiki Tour kids on that warm night in Florence had a sense of the meaning of the words or the history of the thing. There were a couple of seasoned performers in the front row, where I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of some authentic pukana. But the rest of the rabble was simply going through the motions until they made it safely to the jumpy bit at the end. Still, it impressed the hell out of the elderly English couple at the next table. “Blimey. Was that really the All Blacks?” they asked each other.

Shya, right. But for me it was a reminder that you can take the pakeha out of Aotearoa, but you can’t take the Aotearoa out of the pakeha (even when you wish you could, to save you from embarrassment in a ristorante). In fact, it’s precisely when you take the pakeha out of Aotearoa that they come over most misty about absolutely anything vaguely tangata whenua and discover their deep attachment, and emotional debt, to the idea of indigeneity.

I once sat around a dinner table in Providence with half a dozen other expats, all of us Pakeha (with a big P), and all but one of us wearing a chunk of pounamu or carved bone around our necks. The other one explained how, at her farewell do the night before heading off for the northern hemisphere, her parents announced they’d gotten her “something special to keep you warm while you’re away” – and then gave her a set of thermal undies instead of the longed-for wearable token of home.

She told it for laughs, but her disappointment was palpable, and the sense of entitlement and rightfulness was strong. Not content with just assimilating land and power, we swipe symbols too. Now that’s bicultural. But how will people know you’re a New Zealander -– how will you know you’re one -- if you don’t have a socking great bone-carving round your neck, or a nifty kete on your back? You get the feeling the state should supply them along with your passport, which, incidentally, does come with a handily bilingual front page and a natty kowhaiwhai pattern, useful for flashing about in those moments when you want to really underline that you’re not just another honky from who knows where, but a special one from special old New Zealand.

It’s a double-edged thing, this being white. Writing in the Herald, the always smart and thoughtful Tapu Misa talks about what in the US would be called white privilege, the freedom of the majority to imagine themselves neutral. Or, more specifically, to not imagine themselves anything at all, to live free of limited expectations. The only people who can say "But surely, we’re all just New Zealanders" are those who’ve never been seen as anything but. Who’ve never been asked "S’pose you got in on one of those iwi scholarships, then?" or "So, how long have you been here?” or "Gosh, your English is good!"

But once you’re out in the big wide world, that very unremarkableness can be disorienting, can feel strangely disabling. The Kiwi accent will usually only get you as far as "So, are you from South Africa or Australia?" which isn’t really very far at all. So how do you establish your cultural bona fides without flaunting a bit of Maoritanga?

One thing you can do is make sure to mention New Zealand every other sentence, which worked quite well for a lot of people at the Oscars this year. I spent the whole week afterwards accepting proxy congratulations from nice Americans. "You must be so proud! What a great night for your country! Well done you!"

Which was odd, because about half way through the broadcast, I was getting a bit bored with the whole sheepish, unbrushed, unwashed, golly gosh, cheers thanks, wow, little old New Zealand deal. [Note to Russell: maybe this is "the inevitable jaded, get-over-it commentary" you feared was coming?]. It just didn’t translate all that well. So, like Shane Jones, I yearned for Keisha to win her category so that there’d at least be a bit of te reo, a waiata, a moment of ceremony (and, to be honest, a bit of colour; the final camera pan over the assembled winners revealed it to be the whitest Oscars in a long while). What was lacking was -- and I realize this sounds ridiculous in the context of what amounts to a glitzy and superficial wankfest -- mana.

Now, I know that even if you’ve got a brilliant speech memorized, it’s one thing to practice it in front of the bathroom mirror beforehand (in between bouts of nervous vomiting) and another to deliver it with perfect sang froid when hauled up onto the stage, dazed and bemused, gripping the golden dildo for dear life and suddenly unable to hear yourself think over the blood pounding in your ears.

And I know there was a 90 second speaking limit (of which Annie Lennox swiped 85, thus forcing Fran Walsh to elbow her way back to the microphone to dedicate her award to Cameron Duncan), and a five second delay, which all helped to constrain any voluptuous outpourings of gratitude and astonishment. But I wanted someone, anyone, to take the microphone, take a deep breath, and say a little something about WHY this was such a big deal. Something like:

"Kia ora koutou katoa. Greetings to you all. I’m thrilled to accept this award, on behalf of my team, in recognition for the work we put into the film. We’re very proud to be standing here. But this is about more than the trilogy. New Zealand is a small country, and you know we’ve always been a good backdrop, happy to stand in for anything from 19th century Japan to 1950s Massachusetts. By insisting that these films be made not just on location but in the location, our brave director has changed the cultural landscape..." etc.

It looks a bit dicky written down, and it probably would have sounded dicky as well. That’s the problem with throbbing nationalist rhetoric; just as we giggle every time an American president invokes God or makes a claim about being the world’s greatest democracy, Americans go “huh?” every time we use a phrase like “our creative economy,” which sounds a little too much like “creative accounting.” I guess one man’s jingoism is another’s incomprehensible jargon. It just doesn’t necessarily translate.

Describing the opening of the "Paradise Now?" exhibition in NYC last month, John Daly-Peoples makes a similar point.
For the record, the show is an important one and has been well received, but Daly-Peoples offers a refreshing alternative to the puffery and self-congratulation that tend to accompany such events. More than once, at New Zealand presentations abroad, I’ve winced at the sheer dorkiness on display, the peculiar combination of cringing self-effacement and blurting boastfulness, and it sounds like there was a bit of the usual going on here too.

What most caught my eye here, though, was the description of how the powhiri played – or rather, didn’t play -- to an audience unfamiliar with its protocols. Not only did people not get it, they didn’t necessarily get that there was anything to get:

The American audience didn't know what was going on. Straining to see what was happening, one local concluded that "it must be a call to prayers," while another remarked, "I think the guy with the stick has gone into a trance," and another remarked of the women, "They must be some sort of vestal virgins."

Had I been there, I’d have been hard put not to turn to one of the overly chatty spectators and say “Yo, have some respect!” And this, in turn, made me ponder how reverent, and defensive, even the most disgruntled pakeha talkback caller would likely be in the face of such willful ignorance, whether or not they themselves understood the words or gave a toss about the powhiri or the exhibition or the New York art world or whatever.

It’s like the way you can bitch and moan about your annoying family all you like, but the minute someone else weighs in, you spring to the defence of your beloved tribe.

I bet the lads who interrupted my dinner in Florence en route to thirty European capitals in thirty days would have had something very stroppy to say to anyone who’d belittled or interrupted their half-arsed, hamfisted, heartfelt haka in the piazza. Somewhere under the bravado and the bone-carvings is a fellow-feeling, a mix of pride and gratitude and identification, that is not easily analysed or dismissed. It’s not exactly a conscious apology for two hundred years of colonial dicking around and disingenuous "who me?" dithering over the appropriate response -- but in its own way, maybe it’s a start.