Can we enjoy the story?
There’s an ancient Jewish story that tells us the first question God will ask at the gate of heaven is not how good we were on earth, but whether we enjoyed ourselves.
Pakeha New Zealanders might struggle to answer that.
Yes, of course this is God’s own country, the most beautiful place on earth, but are we enjoying it, relishing it, feeling at home in it?
Our artists and film makers don’t reassure us. The cinema of unease was once a brand name for New Zealand movies, though I’m not sure how more recent additions would fit anymore, like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Goodbye Pork Pie Mark Two.
Colin McCahon’s canvases, and for that matter, Ralph Hotere’s, are dark and agonising.
Younger artists like Lisa Reihana and Simon Kaan are more upbeat, but exuberance and celebration are motifs still hard to find in our artwork.
And the school of Pakeha nationalism that dominated our novels and poetry for much of the 20th century left you feeling lost and lonely, with the magpies squawking “Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle” down on the farm and not soul at home.
Twenty years ago I wrote a book called Killing us Softly – challenging the Kiwi culture of complaint, which was a lot stronger then than it is now.
Back then, Gordon McLauchlan was still dining out on his much earlier book The Passionless People which described an epidemic of unhappiness, mining a deep vein of collective self-loathing, disgust and embarrassment with our Pakeha culture.
Media commentator Brian Edwards chimed in with an attack on how boring New Zealand was. Same old everything. “If I were 40 years younger, I’d be gone like a shot,” he wrote. Happily, 18 years later he’s still here, enjoying retirement, and I doubt he’d be so jaundiced now.
By any count, New Zealand is a much livelier cultural landscape. But as Pakeha we’re still struggling to enjoy it. What holds us back?
There are the dreams of the way it used to be when men and women knew their place and could afford a house, but those are just that – dreams of a past that really wasn’t so golden.
It’s a bit like those of us who hanker back to those classy British cars and motorbikes that we once coveted, forgetting that they broke down all the time.
And deeper than that is our reluctance as Pakeha to let go of being the dominant culture, in the same way that some men struggle to let go of being in charge of everything.
Being Pakeha in the 21st century is all about learning to be an in-between people. Not Māori but alongside Māori, sometimes in the same house, sometimes in different houses, but sharing common ground. Everything in such a partnership is up for negotiation, which is a bit of a shock to those who thought they were running the show.
Learning to be an in-between people stops us overloading our separate identities and expecting too much from the Pakeha label.
It’s not a clear ethnic description in the way that being Māori is. To compare the two is to mix apples and oranges. They speak of different things.
To be in-between is about making a choice about the history we identify with, the place we choose to stand, the relationships we enter into.
It won’t ever have the ethnic clarity of being Māori but it is an honest description about who we are as Pakeha.
There is nothing new about any of this. Pakeha and Māori alike have inhabited a middle ground from the beginning; as missionaries and catechists, settler cavalry and kupapa troops, then simply as Kiwi soldiers, and as what we used to call mixed families, until it became so normal that they all became whanau.
Pakeha seem to find this middle ground harder to live in than Māori.
Pakeha are never asked “How Pakeha are you?,” but we can be heard to ask, “How Māori are they really?”
Like it or not, this middle ground which is the rock on which the future of New Zealand is being built, and it is the best place to stand if you want to enjoy yourself in Aotearoa.
Because if we have learnt to live respectfully here with our neighbours, learnt to behave appropriately here, not to sit on the tables, to take off our shoes in the whare and our hats in the church, to honour each other’s sacred spaces and not to get impatient and to live with the awkwardness when you don’t understand what’s going down on a marae, when you take time to learn some te Reo Māori if only to say hullo and goodbye properly; if you’re making progress on these things, then the middle ground, and living in-between, can become a place to relax and enjoy yourself.
I’m fascinated by the great cultural experiment that is Māori Television. Still only 14 years old, it’s established itself not only as a positive face for Māori but a channel where you can always find someone having a good time, despite all the stories of hardship and dispossession. Its website is organised not in terms of news and on-demand programmes but haka, kai and tamariki. Anyone who gives that prominence to dancing, food and young people is onto something.
And the motto of the channel says it all. Ma ratou, ma matou, ma koutou, ma tatou: For them, for us, for you, for everyone.
Sharing languages, sharing cultures, sharing a history may well prove to be the best way of enjoying this land we all want to call home.
And to be able to do that we have to keep negotiating and renegotiating the terms of our partnership. It’s not as easy as being able to turn off the TV if we don’t like the programme.
There is a growing body of academic knowledge around the notion of hybridity or third space that sees it as a territory of creativity rather than compromise.
It’s a useful foil to the aggressive style of identity politics that poses Māori and Pakeha as polar opposites, each defending some essential inviolable truth.
For Pakeha whose very name is dependent on the gift of someone else, and whose description is cobbled together from a hundred different places, that kind of black and white binary choice is a hiding to nowhere.
Hybridity is the Kiwi reality.
It’s what we need as a nation of two peoples, urgently, before we’re swamped by a global tide of corporate consumerism. It’s what will teach us the trick of standing upright here.
In Glenn Colquhoun’s poem he defines that trick as the art of using both feet. One is for holding on, one is for letting go. That’s what we need to be doing to enjoy living here. Together. Side by side. Awake and asleep.
“Sleep”, says Glenn, “is the feel of clean sheets on skin. The soft gaps between people on floors.”
Not a bad place to be on a cold night.