What makes a Kiwi?

I’ve been trying to figure out what defines me as a New Zealander. There’s a definite something that makes me Kiwi, but I’m not entirely sure what that something is.

I fell into pondering this last Friday night during an amazing performance of original te reo songs by Mana Farrell.

I had never heard of Mana Farrell until he stepped onto the stage at Tauranga’s National Poetry Day celebrations. We had already enjoyed an eclectic night of poetic and musical treats at the Mauao Performing Arts Centre. Then, at the end of the night, Mana and his two female vocalists turned up and blew everyone away. Their harmonic collision of crooning operatic songs soared with majesty. We gave them a standing ovation.

Their act was a fusion of class and culture. They sang in te reo and their hands did the wiri – that jiggly fluttery finger thing that often accompanies traditional kapa haka. (The wiri is a mystery to me. I tried to jiggle my fingers at my desk just now. Can’t do it fast enough.)

I was knocked into the stratosphere by their performance. At the same time, I also found myself a teeny bit envious of the deep well of cultural heritage that Maori artists have at their disposal.

Now, it would be silly to suggest that Maori have a monopoly on deep wells of cultural heritage. I’m not saying that at all. But it did get me wondering: what deep wells of cultural heritage do I have?

My ancestry is a hodgepodge of Welsh and other random flavours but my family has never identified strongly with any particular culture other than our own.

What is my culture? I am first and foremost a Kiwi, a New Zealander.

We often hear statements like, “my Maori heritage is really important to me.” You can insert in there any combination of other cultures that are meaningful and true for you. Indian, Dutch, Scottish. We cherish our roots.

My roots are Kiwi.

I’m not sure I have ever said out loud: “My New Zealand heritage is really important to me.” Well, of course it is important, but if I think about it honestly I have to confess that I still can’t articulate exactly what my New Zealand heritage is.

Advertisers would have me believe that being a New Zealander means I should crave Vogel’s bread when I’m overseas. There must be more to being a Kiwi than that. Is it fish ‘n’ chips? Is it barbeques at Christmas? Is it our superior mastery of the flat white?

One thing I know that makes us unique as a nation is the way te reo is part of our everyday lives. We are able to greet each other with a “kia ora” and we understand words like mana, whanau, waiata, and tapu. I wholeheartedly believe that the best future for New Zealand is one in which the Maori language is embraced rather than marginalised.

National identity isn’t something you can define in a single newspaper column and there are as many recipes for what makes a New Zealander as there are New Zealanders.

Perhaps being a New Zealander means something different for each generation.

Who knows? Maybe in centuries to come our descendants will put on their ceremonial jandals and share a traditional meal of battered fish wrapped in ancient letters to the editor.

Then they will lick the salt off their fingers while reciting the sacred greetings of their ancestors: Yeah, nah. Kia ora. Ka pai te kai. Sweet as bro, sweet as.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 29 August 2014. Reproduced with permission.