Future Kiwis will be cultural 'bitsers'
New Zealand Herald
7.55pm Tuesday September 26, 2006
By Reg Ponniah
New Zealand used to be white Europeans, dairy farming, rugby and a Sunday roast; in 40 years it could be more about taro, curry, Chinese noodles and conservation.
Social scientists predict New Zealanders will still be “bitsers” – reflecting bits and pieces of many cultural groups – but will remain confused and uncertain about the nation's cultural direction.
After a strong history of Britishness, national identity was now being destabilised by Maori and Pacifika, Massey University academic Paul Spoonley said.
“We are now beginning to see Maori and Pacific elements being incorporated into our national identity.
“Obvious manifestations are the haka but it's much deeper than that. The words we use, our values, how we see ourselves are all impacted by that,” Prof Spoonley said.
Since the Sunday roast and rugby days, waves of Pacific Islanders, Indians, east Asians, even Somalis and Middle Eastern peoples have settled here.
With them came their own cultures, bits and pieces of which have been picked up by those already here.
And immigrants and their descendants have embraced New Zealand traits. Pacific Islanders are in Parliament, lighting up our television screens, and starring in our sports teams.
Where there were once only fish and chip shops, now a wide range of ethnic foods can be bought as takeaways.
The influx of immigrants combined with the propensity of New Zealanders to go out into the world was also speeding up changes in the cultural landscape of the nation.
Otago University history Professor Tom Brooking said New Zealanders were among the world's biggest travellers, so the country had become increasingly global in its outlook.
“'Fortress New Zealand' has collapsed and an end of that particular dream which is always an English concept of the world.”
New Zealand cultural identity was in a state of flux, Prof Brooking said.
“Kiwis are confused and uncertain and Pakeha-Maori relationship has broken down into a lot more component parts.”
While New Zealand was shifting culturally, the relaxed personality of New Zealanders meant it could be a painless process.
New Zealanders were quite forgiving and tolerant of one another and “we're reasonably relaxed”, he said.
“It's probably this quality that has prevented New Zealand from really ever facing large-scale, disruptive civic unrest,” Prof Brooking said.
But he cautioned that disposition was not always advantageous.
“The fact that New Zealanders do not tend to get heated up if they have been offended also takes some new immigrants a bit of getting used to.”
Every five years Statistics NZ collects data on New Zealanders but the composite information says very little of what we are like as a people.
“It's like posing for an epic-scale family photograph,” Prof Brooking said.
“The pictures, we know, are growing older and browner with each instalment. They include more people living alone and more people working until later in life. But they tell us little about the faces behind these statistical portraits.”
The portraits did not explain what these changes meant from a cultural perspective and what kind of people Kiwis were becoming, he said.
Major influences on the nation's changing cultural identity are the increased visibility and strength of Maori and Pacific cultures, feminism, the Green movement, Asian immigration, and Rogernomics, he said.
Asian immigration had signalled the repositioning of New Zealand in the world.
“In the 21st century, we are going to be part of Asia, whether it's trade, immigration or temporary visitors like students,” Dr Spoonley said.
Asian immigration was determining New Zealand's future and Asians would play a much bigger role economically and politically, he said.
And, sport has always played a major role in giving New Zealanders a sense of who they are.
“Twenty years ago we never sang the Maori verses of the national anthem, the haka was done intermittently and not very well. Now we've got a new haka that celebrates our Pacific dimension.”
And the future?
Prof Brooking said the country was becoming more feminist, more Green, and more liberal about things like homosexual law reform.
“Rogernomics and the cafe society and so on, homosexual reforms – there is a whole lot of it going on culturally and socially, it was not just economic policy.”
He said something different – more extrovert, more open, more polyglot, and more complex – was emerging.
“I'm not saying it's better but it is something different.”
The arts were reflecting those changes.
“Rather than fretting about our multi-cultural, pluralistic society, or attempting to make statements about New Zealand as a whole, priorities are shifting.”
Prof Brooking said one of the best things ever to come out of New Zealand television was Bro'Town – which epitomises this shift perfectly.
“And it's among a new wave of creativity taking place in Aotearoa that's being led by Maori and Pacific artists and delivering great productions that could only come out of New Zealand – No 2, Sione's Wedding, Whale Rider and musicians such as Bic Runga, Nesian Mystik and Fat Freddy's Drop.”
Prof Brooking said creative individuals were now more comfortable representing only their own idiosyncratic segment of society, and proud to speak from that position.
“But more voices are being heard . There is more confidence for people to sound off and people are a lot more relaxed about many things – including their sexuality.”
However, New Zealanders feel a bit of tension when confronted with anything that appears non-Kiwi.
He said it was these opposing pulling forces, between reaching out to the outside world, and holding on to their local identity, that represented a developing issue for New Zealanders.
“We are struggling with it and while we want New Zealand to be an international player, we also see our little group of islands at the bottom of the world as a safe haven, a place to escape to.”
This has always been important especially with issues like terrorist threats in people's minds.
Was New Zealand becoming a hybrid nation – with a mix of a wide range of cultures with no definable national characteristics?
Dr Spoonley said the nation was being hybridised with a strong local identity – Maori, Pakeha and Pacifika.
“We are also merging very different traditions both global and local.”
Prof Brooking said a lot depended on who held power although Pacific Island and Maori issues were going to become more important. The one-year-old Maori Party looked like it was carving out a sustainable niche for itself in Parliament.
In society, there were quite defined barriers between different groups and they were becoming stronger, he said.
“We have areas turning into ghettos, Polynesian and Pakeha kids going to different schools. And the discrepancies in indicators like income and health are growing.”
The next 20 years were going to be messy and difficult, he said.
“It will be another one or two generations to begin to sort that out but when you look at overseas experience, some of these could go on for hundreds of years and that's kind of scary,” Prof Brooking said.
“To deal with them, we are going to have to be united.
“New Zealanders have to wake up to the fact that it's better for everyone if we do not allow a social underclass to be created or perpetuated, much less one defined along racial lines.”
That would be our cultural challenge.