This is us

Personal pronouns are complicated in Te Reo Māori (the indigenous language of Aotearoa/New Zealand). For example, the English word “us” can translate into Te Reo in at least three ways:

  • tāua = me and you (but not them)
  • mātou = me and them (but not you)
  • tātou = me, you, and them—all of us

this-is-us-2

This is tāua

I was born in the USA. After an incident in first grade when I nearly died in the playground of the local public school, I went to an expensive private school full of rich white kids. A majority of girls in my class had their own horse at home (not the family’s horse, the girl’s horse). Some of these kids would go skiing in the Swiss Alps during school holidays. These kids had parents who were specialist surgeons and psychiatrists and lawyers. My family was doing ok, but we weren’t rich (both my parents worked, and my mom’s full-time job went entirely towards tuition). Nevertheless, as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), I fit right in among all the WASPs and Jews. One teacher (my favourite teacher, Mr. Goodwin) did his valiant best to teach us compassion towards starving kids in Africa. Still, when an African American kid joined my class (he and his sister were the only two African Americans in the school) I remember wondering whether it was ok for me to talk to him on the playground.

This is mātou

When I turned ten my family moved to New Zealand, land of the “mowries”. I went to a pretentious Christian primary school, then an all-boys high school with a headmaster who pined for earlier days of old-timey English-boarding-school grandeur. I learned to make vile racist jokes about the Māori and Samoan and Indian boys. I tried to fit right in. It didn’t work so well though, on account of my American accent.

kz7-vs-cat

KZ-7 versus catamaran circa 1988

I had the misfortune of arriving Down Under at about the same time that some Australians won the America’s Cup away from the USA (for the first time in 132 years). David Lange boldly stood up to the American allies and announced New Zealand’s new anti-nuclear stance. Relations soured further when Dennis Connor cheated in a later America’s Cup Challenge, racing a catamaran against heroic New Zealanders in the slower, graceful, single-hulled KZ-7 (Dennis Connor was caught on mic calling the kiwis “losers” and “full of shit”). Paul Holmes launched his successful television career by hounding Dirty Dennis off stage (Paul Holmes later called Kofi Annan a “cheeky darkie”—repeatedly—and was knighted for his service). I deeply resented all the anti-American sentiment on the streets during my childhood. My accent marked me as “other” and worthy of casual put-downs, sometimes even from teachers.

I completed my undergraduate university studies in New Zealand, then moved back to the States to work on my PhD. The USA looked and sounded familiar to me, I recognized it from my earliest memories and all the American TV I’d devoured—which made my culture shock all the more shocking to me. Because while I looked and sounded like all the people around me, I couldn’t understand what they were thinking or why they were acting so crazy. Americans hung flags from their front porch all year round and worshiped Ronald Reagan. They bought guns at Walmart, and drove around with rifles in their pickup trucks (there was a campus shooting shortly after I arrived). It seemed everyone brought a bicycle to university, but never rode it—drivers didn’t even know how to behave around bikes (they would honk at me on my bike for some reason when driving past). I was now a foreigner in the USA as well.

My partner and I were living in the USA when 9/11 happened. I remember listening to the news that day, struggling to process what was going on. I remember shock, grief, confusion, helplessness. People on the streets, on the news, were all saying “we’re at war”, then asking “who are we at war with?” People needed more flags. Cars now had flags (plural). Flags flew from car windows and flag magnets were stuck to car doors. Guns were selling like crazy at Walmart. Two days after 9/11, I remember we were at the mall, being served by a lady with some sort of Eastern European accent. My partner said something to her along the lines of “that’s a lovely accent you have, where are you from?” and a look of fear came into the lady’s eyes. I remember realizing in that moment that I shared this woman’s fear. We were maybe a little bit afraid of foreign terrorists, but we were terrified of the angry mob, of the rage-filled, gun-carrying, flag-waving masses who surged all around us looking for a target. That was a very scary time to be a foreigner in the USA.

My partner and I had two kids together. We lived for a few years in Germany and Australia. I finally started to get the hang of being a foreigner and owning my ‘otherness’ without resentment (on a good day). We moved back to New Zealand with our foreign kids.

This is tātou

Last year my family and I went to a wedding in Raetihi, a small town in the middle of the North Island. The bride and groom had two separate groups of friends, equal contingents from Wellington and Auckland who didn’t have much overlap. I was brought along by my partner and barely knew anybody. At the reception I sat at a table full of strangers. I remember sitting next to an Indian guy and wondering how he fit into the picture, so I asked him where he was from—then instantly realized OMG he thinks I’m doing “where are you really from”

[If you live in New Zealand and look or sound even vaguely foreign then you get used to this routine. A stranger asks you where you’re from. Since you live in New Zealand and identify as a New Zealander, maybe you were even born here, you answer by naming your town or suburb. But this isn’t what the stranger is really asking for, so the next question is “no, where are you really from”.]

… so I asked this guy where he was from—and realized it was coming across wrong—and followed up a moment later by saying “I’m from Lower Hutt, myself”. I saw him putting his guard up, then watched relief visibly wash over him. It turned out he was from Miramar. I loved how we were able to connect. Yeah, I sound American and you look Indian or something, but where are you really from? Miramar? Tell me all about that, one Wellingtonian to another.

Two and a half weeks ago a white supremacist terrorist killed fifty people at two different mosques in Christchurch. I heard the news while events were still unfolding and I realized right away this was really, really bad—most of the people at my work hadn’t figured it out yet. I left for home early. I texted a work colleague in Christchurch and found out that he and his kids were in lock-down (he at work, his kids at school). I read the local news over and over, feeling shock and grief… but not surprise. Damnit, this was not surprising. I’d attended university in Christchurch. I knew Christchurch. I knew all about the city’s baked-in culture of racism and bigotry, which was so overt that I began to question my own teenage racism and bigotry.

Back in the 90s some friends of mine lived in a student flat about a block or so away from some sort of armoured bunker, surrounded by a tall fence of sheet metal and barbed wire, with Nazi flags displayed in the windows. This in the middle of an otherwise ordinary Christchurch residential street. Last year I visited my company’s Christchurch office and discovered that the infamous Bamboozle restaurant was less than a block down the street. I remarked on this to a Christchurch coworker, who was genuinely puzzled by my assertion that the menu was racist. For decades I’ve simply understood and accepted that Christchurch had deeply racist undertones, just like the American and Australian and German cities that I’d also lived in. So I was sad and filled with grief at this attack. I was pissed off and angry. But I wasn’t surprised to hear this attack had happened in Christchurch. This is us. Racism and bigotry is part of how we do things around here.

Christchurch-Jacinda-Ardern-headscarf

Jacinda Ardern shows the rest of the world how it’s done

I feel tremendously proud of the government’s response to the shooting. Jacinda Ardern showed other world leaders how to properly do the job of leading the world through tragedy. Jacinda courageously refrained from vowing revenge against the attacker, instead focusing on showing empathy for the Muslim victims, saying “New Zealand is their home, they are us”. Within hours she announced that New Zealand’s gun laws would change, and within a week she confirmed bans on military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles. I’m sure this and other photos of our prime minister wearing a hijab while comforting members of the Christchurch Muslim community will go down in history as defining imagery of our nation’s history.

Wanaka beach flower memorial

Wanaka’s flower memorial for the Christchurch shooting victims

One friend of mine is upset about all the memorials which have sprung up around the country, with flowers and prayers “for Christchurch”. She calls bullshit on that notion, because Christchurch wasn’t attacked, Muslims living in Christchurch were attacked. This friend of mine has dear, close Muslim friends who are basically a second family for her. She fears that some people might be taking away the wrong message, co-opting someone else’s grief and trauma while processing their own complex emotions. Another friend of mine calls bullshit on that, pointing out that everyone processes grief in their own way; this doesn’t dilute the over-riding message of love and inclusion, “we are one”. (I think they both have a point).

James black eye

James with a black eye

By the way, the man in the bottom corner of that earlier photo is James Shaw, Minister for Climate Change and Green Party Co-leader and an old uni friend of mine. Notice his black eye. On the day before the Christchurch mosque shootings, James was attacked while walking to work by a mentally ill person who was raving about the United Nations. In an interview (just an hour or so before the shootings) he asked people to stop worrying about him but stated that he’d long been concerned about death threats and social media abuse fielded by his colleagues Golriz Ghahraman and Marama Davidson. In more recent interviews after the shootings, James stressed the need for us all to look out for one other, to seek help and counselling while dealing with all the grief and trauma of the moment.

I’m heartened to see what might be the beginning of a nation-wide conversation on who we are, and who we want to be. Who is us. Because you can’t begin to heal if you don’t first admit that you’ve got a problem. But let’s also remember that this work is hard, and it hurts, and sometimes it can be really scary to confront the ugly parts of ourselves that we’ve hidden away and tried to forget.

Three friends of my friends have taken their own life in the past month.

This is all of us. Muslim immigrants, refugees, and “others” who’ve lived here for generations—they are us. Violent racist white supremacist bigots—they are us as well. Unhinged mentally ill people who lash out in the street because maybe they’re unable to cope with climate change or job loss or rising house prices or whatever—that’s us too. I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.

This is tātou.

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