Being Kiwi

Cushla McKinney

Script for Sunday Supplement, Broadcast on National Radio, 8th February 2004

Like most Kiwis, I am immensely proud of being a New Zealander, but what it is that makes our people unique is hard to define. One thing that springs immediately to mind is our rich Māori heritage, but this is only part of the answer. I have no Māori blood, but neither do I feel any strong association with my British ancestors, so where exactly do I fit in? I suspect this is a disease that many young people struggle with, one for which the Big OE is an attempt at self-medication. Somewhere between the ages of 18 and 25, we become claustrophobic and dissatisfied with our limited horizons, migrating to new and larger spaces in an effort to find ourselves. Maybe I'm just strange, but this was never something that appealed to me.

When I was hired to a research position in the States, I was extremely ambivalent about the prospect of leaving home. I'm the kind of person who tends to put down roots in one spot and shriek if anything attempts to relocate me. I had fully intended to settle in my little house on the hills overlooking Dunedin, and quietly insinuate myself into the bricks and mortar until one day I just disappeared from view entirely. New, exciting experiences? They were the kind of things that happened to other people, a foolishness that I fully intended to avoid. Besides, the States was the last place in the world I'd have chosen to go! In my eyes, America epitomised the worst excesses of materialism and arrogance. I didn't want to immerse myself in this kind of culture, and I harboured a sneaking fear I might actually like it. One of the cornerstones of my Kiwi pride was that I was not American. What if I found out that I was really no different from them? There are some things it is better not to know! The reality of the situation didn't really hit me until I stumbled woozily out of Dulles airport into a suffocating Washington midnight. Were it not for my conscience insisting I couldn't just walk out on a job contract (that, and the prospect of another 24h on the plane to get home again), I would have immediately abandoned the whole venture. I'm glad that I didn’t, because it turned out to be an experience that proved to me I really am a New Zealander.

Because America's images of itself so pervade the world, it’s rather disconcerting to find reality somewhat different from the perception. It's in the small things, like walking into a supermarket and recognizing none of the brands on the shelves. Life undergoes a dream-like dislocation, where everything seem familiar but somehow wrong. I soon stopped hearing the American accent, but I never got used to the substitution of Spanish for Māori as the second language. I longed for the vowel-rich, musical sound of Māori; “whanau, mana, kaitiaki, aroha”, and found myself wearing the pounamu pendant I had brought with me like a protective talisman-a link back to my homeland. Although I am Pakeha, I now know that my sense of self is intimately interwoven with the threads of tikanga Māori that strengthen and enrich our society. I return determined to learn more about Māoritanga, and the complexity of New Zealand’s colonial history. Neither Māori nor British, I am a product of the interaction of both cultures, and this is a heritage that is unique.

There is much that I enjoyed about my time in the States, but maybe the thing I am most grateful for is the opportunity to see where my country has shaped me, those little corners that don't quite fit into the well-worn and comfortable curves of the American figure. I still can't distill the essence of New Zealand into words, nor say exactly what it is to be a Kiwi. Perhaps my only qualification is a deep and abiding love of the country in which I was born and raised, the colours, sounds and sensibilities that pervade my memories and my sense of self. And perhaps this is enough.