That old tiresome question

12 July 2017

… is what writer Hisham Matar calls the question ‘Where are you from?’ He was born in New York of Libyan parents and has lived for a large part of his life in London. He is, in his own words, “a person of mixed identities, a man whose preoccupations do not fit neatly inside the border of one country”.

‘Where are you from?’ is an innocuous question and should be easy to answer. But Leilani Momoisea, Pasifika journalist and broadcaster, only replies ‘New Zealand’ when she’s not in New Zealand. When she’s home she feels the question is ‘But where are you really from?’ or ‘Why are you here?’

Māori introduce themselves with a pepeha that includes their affiliation to a mountain, a river, sea or lake, and a waka (canoe). Their identity is deeply rooted in the landscape and their ancestors who came to Aotearoa in ocean-going waka, some as many as 30 generations ago.

Pākehā, the collective name for non-Māori New Zealanders, do not have the same claim to generations of affiliation with a particular mountain or river. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the relative isolation of the country and its compelling landscape, many Pākehā feel a similar deep-rootedness. Indeed, Michael King, the respected New Zealand historian, went as far as saying that Pākehā could be called indigenous because of their focus on this country and its culture, rather than on the country and culture of origin. He described his own strong relationship with New Zealand’s natural world, intensified by living by the sea, boating, fishing, tramping and camping. He also cited his engagement with the history of New Zealand and his relationship with local literature as central to his identity. He rejected the idea that Pākehā do not share the same spiritual feelings for lakes, mountains and rivers as Māori. “This country and its experiences and its traditions are in my bones. I have no other home, no other place where I want to live or could live with the same sense of belonging and enrichment.”

Emma Ng, a third-generation New Zealander whose Cantonese grandparents migrated here, has written Old Asian, New Asian. She feels strongly that Kiwi and Asian identities are not mutually exclusive and, like Leilani Momoisea, she has experienced the feeling that she is not seen as fully belonging in this country. She’s had “Go back to where you came from!” yelled at her by a stranger. Emma is presently living and studying in the United States, which she says has revealed the deep-rootedness of her identity as a New Zealander and the impossibility of locating her turangawaewae (the place where one has the right to stand) anywhere else.

I recently took part in a whakatau (welcome and introductions) for a new staff member in our Auckland office. The people around the table were Māori and Pākehā of British, Chinese, Latin American, Malaysian, Samoan and Tongan descent. Their pepeha were delivered in te reo Māori, Mandarin, Malay and Spanish. Mine alone was in English, the only language I speak. Later one of my colleagues offered to help me with my pepeha and asked me a version of the ‘where are you from?’ question – ‘which country do you most identify with?’ She is a Pākehā of British descent whose ancestors came to New Zealand during the early 20th century. She could not accept that New Zealand is my home, it is the place I most identify with and the place I’m happiest to be. It is where I’m from.