When you touch down in New Zealand you arrive in a country of two parts. On the one hand, New Zealand is ‘Aotearoa’, the home of the indigenous Māori and the lifeblood of their unique cultural identity, one that is based around land, kinship and community. On the other hand, New Zealand is a capitalist, westernised nation governed by an imported British system of government. The modern Kiwi therefore has a heritage that is built on elements of both Māori and European culture. When I came to NZ I expected to find a culture that was at once familiar and somehow, magically, different and exotic. I’ve been fascinated to find that this really is the case, although not quite in the way I imagined.
One of the first things I noticed at Auckland University was the separation of different ethnic groups. Students from the Pacific Islands like Tonga and Samoa tend to group together with students of a Māori heritage, while ‘Pakeha’ students – the descendants of European settlers – form separate groups. This is not to say that this separation is in any way discrete, but I started to notice it everywhere, particularly on the streets and in bars and clubs. An interesting by-product of these separate groups is the amount of different languages spoken. I will often hear Asian, Pacific, Māori and European languages spoken simultaneously in the same bar or restaurant. In 2013 only 21 per cent of the Māori population spoke Māori , but over half of these speakers were under 25. These statistics prove that young Māori’s are actively renewing Maori culture in modern, urban NZ. But there’s a flip side to the coin. Though there are many Māori’s flourishing and reviving their culture in multi-cultural NZ, there are also many Māori’s who have lost out. I see A LOT of Māori people sleeping rough on the streets and the press often draws attention to disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment and domestic violence among the Māori community. Gang violence is also a problem. The European influence on New Zealand has changed it in every way, however for some the changes have been less positive than the unified outward image of NZ would suggest.
Another thing that has fascinated me is the attitude of ‘Pakeha’ New Zealanders towards their identities. Almost every person I speak to greets my accent with ‘Wow, you’re English! My mum/granddad/ great- great aunt/ distant cousin by marriage is from England! So I’m basically English!’ (despite the fact that they are a second, third or fourth generation New Zealander). It often feels like people deliberately ignore the fact that they are Kiwi by desperately trying to tie themselves to European countries. I find this hard to wrap my head around…from what I’ve seen so far, New Zealand is amazing. Every time I go to the beach or out in a boat I wish I could stay here forever. I think that New Zealand is still very new in terms of being a place where indigenous people and settlers can claim an equal stake in their country. In spite of cultural differences that I’ve noticed, one thing that you cannot escape in NZ is the mind-set. Complete strangers have offered me a bed, I’ve had no end of free bus journey’s after getting lost, and I have been hauled out of knee deep mud and over a small cliff by an elderly lady after losing my shoes (that was one unfortunate day). Every single person I’ve met in New Zealand has been laid back, welcoming and easy-going. So though I haven’t quite found the perfectly multi-cultural country that I expected, I have found NZ to be a mix of really interesting, defined cultures that share warmth and a humour that is completely unique. Add this to all the other things NZ has to offer – rugby, amazing scenery, beaches, pies, extreme sports and the Haka (it’s almost as familiar to me now as ‘Flower of Scotland’ was in Edinburgh), and you have one bloody great country.