Happy to be a little pakeha

I have no idea what it is like to be Maori. Nor do I have any idea what it is like to be Samoan, Asian or anything other than the little Kiwi white boy that I am.

New Zealand is my home and it is all I have ever known. When confronted with census forms I don’t much enjoy ticking the NZ European box. ‘European’ feels foreign to me. I’d prefer to tick New Zealander. Or even better, pakeha.

I like being pakeha. The word seems to have snuck out of vogue ever since someone muttered sniffily that it might be derogatory, but for me it’s an identity I grew up with, comfortably and with Kiwi pride.

In my mind the pakeha label anchors me to my country. It helps define me as a white person of New Zealand. In a multi-cultural line up, I’m the indigenous white guy, if there is such a thing.

New Zealand has three official languages: English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language. I’ve had a crack at learning all of them. A hefty dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language has sat on my bookshelf for the past decade. I’ve worked out how to say “Would you like coffee?” but that’s about it so far.

I took te reo classes at university. I’ve since forgotten most of anything I learned but I’ve retained a healthy respect for the Maori language. It is a language filled with nuance, poetry and humour.

I can’t think of any real downside for a nation that is bold enough to embrace the richness of its own heritage. In fact, I wouldn’t object if te reo was a compulsory subject in every New Zealand school. Maybe that’s too far for some people but it would be wonderful to see a whole generation of New Zealanders able to converse in Maori.

Delving into a language gives you a better appreciation of its associated culture. Some people have no time for Maori culture and that’s understandable. Culture is where world views collide. Differences lead to misunderstandings. It’s hard enough visiting the relatives at times.

My cultural confession is that I don’t like hangi. I also don’t particularly enjoy kapahaka songs. Is that a form of heresy? I love the poetry of the language, but not so much the food or the music.

I did once take part in a proper haka and it was glorious. Our te reo class had stayed for a week on a marae and it was time to thank the hosts with a concert. The women did their singing thing and then we men stepped through with our haka. I was the little white guy at the end of the line, but in releasing that haka I was swept up by a wave of adrenaline that took me completely by surprise. In the spirit of being culturally connected it was a spiritual moment for me.

In many respects I am a cold hearted rationalist. I struggle with the underlying spirituality that informs a lot of Maori tradition. I do my best to appreciate and respect the symbolism of concepts like tapu but it’s not easy because at a fundamental level I am not Maori and I don’t always understand the depth of some of that stuff.

So, mostly, I keep to my pakeha world where my first language is English and my second language is internet acronyms. Imagine if Maori was a natural second language for most Kiwis? I can only see benefits to that.

New Zealand is growing into a multi-cultural society. We’ve inherited fraught histories and bothersome politics, but one way or another the whole motley lot of us have ended up living together in this little land we all call home.

One thing we have that no other country has is te reo Maori. This pakeha thinks that is something to be celebrated.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 21 March 2014. Reproduced with permission.