Saturday, 25 November 2017

So, Are You Kiwi?

I don't like using Kiwi as an identifier.

I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. I think a large part of the issue is that it's not a particularly cosmopolitan means of parsing the question of nationality or, hell, even of ethnicity. Yet I also believe that foreigners associate NZ with kiwi more than they do with silver ferns. That means Kiwi has the same meaning within and without our borders. There is something of a resolution to this apparent contradiction.

When you look at Kiwi what it does is tie an individual very specifically to the land through the proxy of an endemic native bird uniquely found here. That the kiwi is flightless means this sense of "land" is evoked very strongly. Compare and contrast the message of the Thor films, i.e. that "Asgard is a people, not a place". New Zealander and demonyms like it do evoke the place but through the idea of the place. That's different. That's not blood of the earth stuff. It's dangerous to start talking about nationality and identity in this way. This is nativism:

An Homologous American Discourse
Look, if NZ were to become a nativist dystopia I'd be absolutely fine. My family, at least on one side, has been in this country since the 1860s... this is quite a long time in the context of NZ. But basically every generation, if not every generation, has married more recent immigrants. My mother's father is English... from Islington (you know, where Arsenal are from)... and my father came here in his twenties too. Some of my mother's cousins have a Danish father and they married immigrants too. My mother's mother qualified for an Irish passport... and so on. This is the story of New Zealand. As the ACT party says immigration is in our DNA (alongside DIY). My family is not at all unusual in this respect... even if I suspect the 1860s bit is rarer. But I do think the normalcy of this is threatened by using Kiwi as a demonym.

The above is the context that I use to read this incident from two months ago (it has taken some time to articulate my thoughts):
"So are you a Kiwi, or what? You don't say much so we can't judge the accent," said Heather from Christchurch, to a round of hearty guffaws from the dinner table.
I think this question is encouraged by using Kiwi instead of New Zealander. I don't think people are thinking of passports when they hear Kiwi but I do think they think of them when they hear New Zealander. This is really important. Anecdotally, people seem happy to think of citizens as New Zealanders but not permanent residents, even though NZ is home to both. Even though so many NZ citizens spend their entire lives waiting for the moment to permanently bugger off.

I just have to know where accents are from when I hear them. I think that's true of a lot of people. I think that's fair. Yet, consider that I spent five years of college being Britishised by, at times it seemed, basically everyone. That was weird, annoying and somewhat hurtful. What made it so unusual was that at primary my "accent" seemed entirely non-notable but 3km up the road and suddenly it's different? Accents and identity are tricky. But it's so easy to treat think of them in terms of "sounds foreign = is foreign". Despite my experiences at school, I sometimes catch myself thinking like this.

One of the things you have to deliberately work on at uni is at making friends, and talking to people in lectures is one of the ways of doing this. Now, there are always a lot of different potential friends in a lecture theatre and choosing someone to make contact with can be difficult. I think in this anecdote it was simply based on the idea that Sarah (not her real name) was the closest person to where I wanted to sit. So I introduced myself to Sarah, who looks Asian. Then I catch myself being surprised that she has a fairly thick NZ accent. Probably thicker than mine, to be honest given the above. Most Asian people my age that I know have NZ accents.. and I know quite a lot. Some of them were even born overseas. My surprise was not justifiable. In that moment I was Phil Twyford. I was Paul Henry. I was Duncan Garner. And we were all a lot more Enoch Powell than anyone is comfortable admitting. And if that sounds an extreme comparison it is, but that's how you've got to be thinking about it... especially when you remember there were people who tried to qualify Twyford but the Herald ran the story anyway.

Intersection in Central Auckland
New Zealand (and Auckland especially) is a multicultural society. There are quite a few people who look "different" to the normative image of the Kiwi (who is NZ European or maybe, but probably not, Maori). Accents may be deeply flawed means of assessing an individual's place in society but if we could get over this surprise that some of us experience we'd be doing ourselves a massive solid. As many have pointed out, the rhetoric around housing and immigration in NZ has been way too yellow. I think that's encouraged by using Kiwi as a demonym. As far as word choices go, I think people choose it consciously if they want to make someone seem more authentically NZ, if they want to lay claim to some kind of national bona fides. But even if I am wrong about the way it's used (and the implications attached, whether consciously or not)... and I don't think I am, look at that headline with the Paul Henry link... we've got to wake up and recognise that the only change in our society over the last couple of years is that we've got more xenophobic. I really don't think using Kiwi helps us reach that kind of emotional maturity.

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