Who Are You?Auckland, Spring 2012
Identity is tricky.
We’ve been talking a lot in my Maori and Watching Television classes about cultural identity. For Maori in New Zealand, there’s this constant push and pull between tradition and modernity, between family and individualism. Many kids in my class talked about their experiences growing up in the city, where when they return to their ancestral home where some of their family has lived for decades that they feel oddly like strangers. They go to Maori immersion school in their early childhood, and then go to public schools with other kids, sometimes losing their ability to speak Maori. While they know they are Maori, they sometimes feel like they’re not Maori enough, because they don’t have traditional tattoos and other markers that signal to others that they are different, that they belong to a unique culture that isn’t the White European (Pakeha) majority. While these students are Maori, they are also citizens of New Zealand, and sometimes these identities come in conflict. We’ve talked a lot about the Maori protest movements in the 1970′s that closely mirrored the Black Power nationalist movements in the U.S. during this time. Sometimes Maori in these movements would completely disregard being a Kiwi as part of their identity and instead solely stress their specific Maori tribe or the fact that they were Maori. We’ve been talking about how we form identity in class: do we get to self-identify or is it something that in someway is given to us by the society in which we grow up? Is identity a large buffet where we can pick and choose or a rigid, immovable label?
While I don’t wake up every morning looking at myself in the mirror saying “I’m American! USA USA!”, I do count my nationality as part of the complex web of what makes up my identity. I think national identity is something I discover about myself when I go to a country that has new cultural and national norms. When not surrounded by a majority of people from my country, I begin to think and dissect that identity a bit more. I’ve been learning a lot from my various classes about perspectives on the U.S. in New Zealand: some professors are staunchly anti-American, others make punchlines about the Bush Presidency and the Iraq War, and others are seemingly neutral about the whole situation. A lot of U.S. culture and knowledge in New Zealand comes from popular culture (it’s everywhere!), which is usually based on re-runs of Friends and the Simpsons. While sometimes it’s a bit awkward to explain that those singular things aren’t always representative of what actually living in the U.S./being a U.S. citizen is (sorry guys, no one breaks into song like Glee in actual high school. I’m understandably bummed as well…), I know that a lot of the things I heard about New Zealand before I came here were exaggerations or incorrect as well. As much as I love Flight of the Conchords, not all of New Zealand is full of farms and/or people that enjoy watching sheep herding on television. There is a lot of cultural knowledge I’m gaining from my classes and having good discussions in and out of tutorials: the personal aspect to living somewhere and being a part of something is hard to learn from books or lectures (as I’ve said before). While sometimes it would be easier to not claim being a U.S. citizen, I know that it is an important part of who I am, especially when I’m abroad and get to represent my country for a whole load of people who may never go there and experience what it’s like. That may seem like a giant burden, but I actually love sharing differences and similarities with people. That’s how we grow, through late-night candlelit chats and catch-ups over warm cups of coffee.
I’ve loved learning about what it means to be a New Zealander and a Maori and a German and a Brit from all my various friends and professors at university, and it’s helping me figure out what being a traveling-obsessed, shower-belting, Spanish-speaking, waffle-eating biracial chick from Rochester, NY really means. While identity is tricky, I know that living in Auckland for the past couple of months has shown me who I’m becoming, and insight like that only comes from venturing outside my comfort zone and experiencing a bit of something new with the help of great friends. Here’s to loving and learning in the big N-Z!
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