Naked in Nuhaka: Identity Crisis

Published: Fri 28 Feb 2003 08:43 AM
Naked in Nuhaka: Identity Crisis
By Leo Koziol
Kia Ora, This is Naked in Nuhaka, a regular column exploring issues of identity, culture and place in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. Views expressed in the column are my own and not necessarily those of any other organisations, individuals, or groups. Correspondence is encouraged: Leo Koziol Nuhaka, Aotearoa NZ 28.2.03
"Can you please refer no longer to the likes of Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth and the rest of the ex-Team NZ defectors as NZers -- they are now Swiss. Let's strip them of any references to being Kiwis because as far as I'm concerned they lost that right as soon as they sold their passports for a fat pay cheque. [They] can spend the rest of their lives in Switzerland, sailing around Lake Geneva and taking yodelling lessons in their new country." - Andrew Beale, Manurewa, Letter to the Editor, NZ Herald, 19/20.2.2003 (1)
What does it mean to be a New Zealander in 2003? What depths of patriotism must we display to be a real Kiwi? To be a "K-1, W-1, till the day we die?"
Is Russell Coutts -- who achieved the not insignificant task of winning our nation the Auld Mug twice over in the past decade -- really, as Mr. Beale states, a national traitor worthy of deportation? Or are we, as Jim Belich recently described (2), suffering from the "Kiwi Curse": a "collective mean streak, a propensity to spasms of narrow-mindedness, the tall poppy syndrome, negative egalitarianism and voluntary totalitarianism?"
Are we a close-minded community esconced at the farflung bottom of the South Pacific, or postmodern worldly world citizens ready to take on the challenges of the new knowledge economy? Do we really need to just get over ourselves? Or is it perhaps time we made a concerted attempt to actually find out who we really are?
* * * *
In the past two weeks here in Aotearoa NZ, two interesting events have happened. Both are yet to play themselves out fully.
First event: we've lost three races in the America's Cup final. The first loss, a humiliating dunking for the Kiwi yacht with a snapped mast adding insult to injury. The next two races, much closer, but no less shameful given the context of the first. Our nation's now going through a collective hand-wringing at the prospect of losing the Cup. Just when we've finally gotten over all the anti-Auckland Jafa hatred connected with the Cup race (3), we face the prospect of the golden calf going offshore as the result of Russell Coutts -- an Aucklander! -- doing what Aucklanders do best: following the money trail, wherever it might take them. Then, to cap it all off today, news that all those black "Loyal" silver fern flags we've been flying were actually Made in China! (4) Oh, and all the denial!
Second event: the "Knowledge Wave" emerging leaders forum, our nation's go at bringing together three or four hundred of its leading lights to examine NZ's place in the world - mostly economically, but also culturally.
Last Wednesday, stuck at home with an unwell child, I switched on the telly to find not much yachting but instead wall-to-wall coverage of Knowledge Wave on Sky. So I tuned in.
Day One was a good watch: I liked Jim Belich, was intrigued by Mike Moore, and found Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby's speech heartfelt and important. That he talked with casual regard about his past sexuality embroilings spoke volumes about how our Australian neighbours have progressed on important social issues. It's debatable, however, whether NZ has progressed a similarly distance. I caught a snippet of an interview with one of the newspaper-nominated emerging young leaders, who rabbited on about how our economic decline was as a result of the decline of Christian values in our society. The "Voice of a New Generation." And, on video the next day, I watched the audience squirm as slick American presenter Richard Florida talked about the rise of the cultural class, and how he measures its presence through a "Bohemian Index" and a "Gay Index". Press coverage of Florida's speech similarly dwelt unhealthily on the "gay" issue (5), which perhaps is a hint that our country, and indeed Auckland, would likely rank low on such indicators. Personally, I think Florida's a genius, and Kiwi economic boosters of big expensive stadia, conference centres and museums would do well to listen to him (Bob Harvey, are you out there?).
Day Three's highlights, which I read online (6), were Saatchi's sage Kevin Roberts, and OECD expatriate francophone Simon Upton. In my job with an environmental NGO back in San Francisco, I became close friends with Simon Upton's former PA, who had nothing but compliments for him, so my expectations were high. On a break from his role running the OECD environment programme in Paris, Mr. Upton indeed delivered. Here's a highlight:
"Uniquely, New Zealand appears to be a haven of Celtic rurality, Nordic efficiency and Californian hedonism parked at the end of the earth. And isn't that just what the post-modern age is all about? Hasn't e-connectedness given the future to clever, responsive people wherever they are? Maybe."
World citizens, indeed. But how we reconciliate the conservative Christian values of Celtic rurality with our growing Polyfornian hedonist populace (7) remains unanswered.
One of the more intriguing theories put forward by Mr. Upton was that of drawing upon overseas Kiwis to try and make up for our smallness and our distance. This line of thought is very similar to that of Kevin Roberts, who promotes this very idea on his own (Saatchi-supported) website: Simon Upton had the following to say:
"... there are estimated to be between 600,000 and 1 million Kiwis living abroad, over 400,000 of them in Australia alone (including probably enough Maori to justify a whole extra Maori seat). The fact that they have left says nothing about their commitment to New Zealand. If it comes to important national issues - including some that might be the subject of referenda - can we and should we connect with the opinions and views of up to 20% of our population? In an age of e-connectedness and virtual everything, I think we should be prepared to be very lateral about the way we define our political community."
The above statement encouraged me to do a rather delicate deconstruction of his statement.
Question One: what about all those foreign-born people living here? Shouldn't they be given the complementary right to politically connect with their homelands? And what's the impact if we did so?
Let's look at the math.
At the 2001 Census, there were 0.7 million NZers who were not born in NZ, out of a total of 3.7 million. One in five (19%) of us were born overseas, including: UK and Ireland (6%), Australia (2%), the Pacific Islands (3%), and Asian countries (4%). So one in five of us, according to Mr. Upton, have the option of opting out: according to his theory, their allegiances could theoretically remain to any one of two hundred different home nations (8). Our four million Kiwi population fast shrinks to three.
Expecting Kiwis overseas to see themselves primarily as NZers is shortsighted. Yes, I agree we can connect with our overseas citizens, through business networks, email, and social groupings, but we need to get over it and realise that this place is our "Tu Mai", our "Turangawaewae", our "Place to Stand". Being here in NZ defines us as who we are *now*. Ex-Pat Kiwis overseas are defined as Kiwis for who they *were* in the *past*. Their role in any national dialogue could perhaps continue, via tools like email, but it is we the people here in NZ who every day shape the future of this nation we live in.
Only we can live in the now of here because for us it moves forward with each passing moment.
Question Two: my bemusement at Mr. Upton's use of the word "Kiwi" to describe NZ citizens abroad; not "New Zealander"(9). It's easy to define a NZer, which is basically someone with NZ citizenship and an NZ passport. You don't necessarily have to be born here. My Grandfather was born in the USA, and moved here as a boy, but all his life he was NZer through and through. I myself was conceived in the US and born here, in Wairoa, but I still define myself as a NZer despite these complicating factors. The further permutations are endless; Asian immigrants here who run their businesses back home; second or third generation British people going back on child-of-citizen visas or passports. All NZers.
Defining NZers as "Kiwi" is quite different. Kiwi connotes a psychological connection to NZ, to this land, to this unique set of islands. Kiwi is a Maori word, but free of the emotional trappings (and mispronunciations) of other Maori words. Pakeha and Maori, here and abroad, see themselves proudly as Kiwis without a second thought. There's very little handwringing about the use of the word "Kiwi" as a descriptor for ourselves.
Kiwi is a cultural construct; and its through a cultural framework that we should be connecting with NZers overseas in future: not a political one as Mr. Upton proposes.
Aotearoa NZ is Turangawaewae for all of us who live here each day. It is our place to stand in a world presently in social, economic, cultural and environmental turmoil. Through our collective past histories and our multifarious connections with people, ideas, communities, and media here and around the rest of the world, Kiwis in Aotearoa NZ today have taken on a panoply of postmodern identities. Mr. Upton is right on this count.
But the notion that place is not important, that Kiwis overseas, through their past emotional connections with this place and its people - now made very distant - this notion is wrong. Richard Florida in his speech emphasised this. He spoke of the acolytes of the Internet with their "death of space" dreams now gone down the toilet. Place matters. The spaces we live in and how we view them culturally is critically important.
This place we live in is the one unique thing we all share. From the day we arrived, Maori mythologised Aotearoa and made it our own. Mountains with wild and torrid romances. Taniwha to explain a restless landscape; scars on hills, rivers that flood and go wild. Peter Jackson continued this tradition in his honourable portrayal of our lands as a Middle Earth down under.
Closing the loop. On the day I came home to NZ in 2001, Sir Peter Blake was murdered by pirates in Brazil. Our hero was dead. Two weeks later, I listened to his service over National Radio as a friend and I drove across the Hobbiton plains of the Waikato. And I was sad. I was sad that Peter Blake was gone, and I was sad to hear he was to be buried in England. No Tangi. And it felt palpable that this nation, and the people who dwell here, still perhaps have great lessons to learn about who we are.
Richard Florida's website:
NOTES (1) (2) In his speech at the "Knowledge Wave Leadership Forum" in Auckland, NZ, 19.2.2003. (3) Team NZ last year undertook a tour of rural NZ with the stated aim of "taking the enthusiasm beyond Auckland." (4) See: The Warehouse Loyal to China? =sport=americascup=general (5) Gay Index used to rank hottest cities: ws=general=812597 (6) (7) Including pretty much all those bohemian backpacker visitors to our shores. Oh, and its worth mentioning that the Polyfornians in the Knowledge Wave audience were few and far between (unless you count Dave Dobbyn?). (8) The same might go for the children of these foreign-born residents, who could likely visit their parent's home country regularly and have stronger connections there than here. (9) Andrew Beale uses "Kiwi" and "NZer" the same as Simon. Perhaps the simple solution for all of us would be to not strip Coutts of his citizenship, but to individually take an oath never to call him a Kiwi ever again??
Back issues available at: All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants 2003.

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