Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Renaissance (and What's In A Name)

It's a strange thing to have something all over your face (and arms, and legs, and body) that tells people something about you that you're not really sure of yourself.

For me, it's that I'm Not From Here. New Zealand is a country of immigrants but it seems we're sticking to the story that we were just a green figment of our imaginations until were officially founded in 1840, and that the only way you Come From Here is if you are white. Even Maori doesn't immediately connect with the name New Zealand; New Zealander does (making it clear from the get go that NZ doesn't belong to Maori; it belongs to "Kiwis"). And if you are brown but not Maori, you don't get to be a New Zealander at all (unless you have several reputable referees, or do something special, like play 100 tests for the All Blacks). When you fill out a form, the only way you get to be from NZ but not Maori (and actually from NZ) is if you are European (ie Anglo-Saxon); there is NZ Maori and NZ European, and then there is Chinese, Samoan etc. It's irrelevant to what I'm saying, but the first recorded Chinese immigrants arrived here in the 1860s, twenty years after "New Zealand" began.

It started off as an angry train of thought, but I stopped feeling angry and still think if New Zealand was Aotearoa, it would improve our sense of identity and belonging, and hopefully make people like the nut-job who recently set her dogs on recent immigrants to Christchurch think about why they think they have more of a right to be here. Aotearoa, as well as actually meaning something, is Maori. Everybody else is a guest here; we can claim nationality, but that's it.

For years, having to justify myself as a New Zealander has angered and hurt me. I was born here, have lived my entire life here, and having only been to Samoa twice and not knowing how to say much more than How Are You in Samoan, I felt like NZ was all I had; it's all I've really known. On the other hand, I've never been the same as my friends who are From Here, although I'm really not sure if I felt different because I have twenty-something first cousins on my Mother's side alone or because everybody treated me like I was different. When I joined the Samoan group in fourth form, I was still treated like I didn't belong; I was tolerated, and constantly felt like I had to tone it down in case they thought I was the greatest of all sins in Samoan culture; fia palagi. I wasn't. Compared with most of the girls, who spoke Samoan, went to Samoan churches, and knew Samoans to whom they weren't related, I might as well have actually been palagi (fainting from the heat once during practise did me no favours). By the end of the festival, they had accepted me, but as an oddity, a space I was already pretty used to filling.

Last year I met an American guy living in Morocco, who is Jewish, Italian, and several other things, and gay. He said he recognised me as an outsider, and although it might sound trite, he was sincere, and I believed it. We talked about the things being an outsider lends to (writing, drinking, depression), and it didn't seem so bad; being outsiders means being outside the rules. Except that when you're trying to be an insider, you have to keep trying to follow them. And I didn't want to be an outsider; not in the countries that are supposed to be home.

Then the World Cup began, and something happened. Samoans, and Tongans and Fijians, were everywhere, and there were thousands of us. And I felt like I could be part of it; it was my in. I went to the Wales game and even though I worried about not being Samoan enough, no-one questioned me; nobody cared. I went to see The Orator, and I felt so much pride in it; I felt Samoan enough to feel like some of it was mine. And then yesterday I did something I didn't think I would ever be able to do; I went to a protest of mostly Samoans, on my own. I had a flag, and I put red lipstick on my cheeks, and I wore a lei, and I stood on my own, and felt like I should be there, and that felt so good I don't know if anyone could understand. Several people came by and asked me what was going on; at first I thought it was because I looked so legit but then wondered if it was because I looked more like them... but it doesn't really matter. After we came home from The Orator, Vincent and I talked about how separate I felt from other Samoans in the audience, laughing at things in the film that were not meant to be laughed at, and he pointed out the differences between himself and the friends he grew up with in the small town he grew up in. He's very different from them, and always was even when he lived there, but just because he's not obviously of the place doesn't change the fact that it belongs to him. It might make it easier to fit in, but I don't have to be like other Samoans to be one, and it's not my differences from people who aren't Samoan that make me one. It doesn't make me feel like I belong, but it does make me feel like it's mine by right, if I want it, and I do want it.

This has gone on too long and is a bit confusing (even in my own head), so suffice to say, I have had a not insignificant epiphany. I'll try to make more sense of it later.

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