A Way of Talking

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We don’t talk like that down here.

These are the words of a caller to Newstalk ZB talking to Marcus Lush. The recording has gone viral. It began with a conversation between Marcus and an 83-year-old woman who refused to accept the correct Maori pronunciation for her hometown of Ōpoho. Another caller phoned to berate Marcus for the way he spoke to this older woman and continued to insist that there was no such thing as the Taieri Plain, only the Tyree Plain.  When asked by Marcus about how they pronounced Camembert cheese, they both appeared indignant at the idea they might say burt instead of bear, one of them adding, because she was ‘educated’. I was reminded of Patricia Grace’s iconic short story A way of talking. This story challenges us all to step up, and to stand up, something that in the Kiwi tradition has not always been easy.

On hearing this recording, I was reminded of my upbringing in the fifties and sixties in post war small town New Zealand.  We regularly mispronounced Maori names, not willfully, but ignorantly. The one I particularly think about is, Mot-you-acre… which when spoken correctly is so much more beautiful as Motueka. Roll forward to 2019, and as a teacher of ESOL to migrants and refugees, I am dedicated to pronouncing the correct vowel sounds for Te Reo and teach Tikanga.

I feel robbed. I try to imagine my life, at primary school in Richmond and the enrichment of my education, if Te Reo had been taught alongside English. For some years, I was a volunteer at Arohata Prison running a book group and some creative writing classes.  I was confronted with many names that I found difficult to pronounce correctly, so I enrolled at Victoria University to do an introductory Te Reo course. The course tutor told me to practise rolling my ‘r’s in the shower, as I had never been able to do this. I’d accepted somehow, that it was impossible.  Faced with my role as a volunteer wishing to connect with women whose names and place names required rolled ‘r’s… I found that yes, with focus and attention and quite a bit of practise, I could roll my r’s’.  Some of the women at Arohata supportive of my efforts, told me to try using a ‘d’ instead of the ‘r’ until I had mastered it. They were encouraging and happy to see me trying.  I also met women who had beautiful Maori names (Rangimarie, one example) who seemed almost ashamed by the difficulty of their name to be pronounced and used correctly, so they preferred shortened nicknames.  In this very paragraph lies a whole other essay as to why there were so many young Maori women in our prison system. As a middle class Pakeha volunteer I was aware of my privilege being there and felt gratitude for the warmth, and at times genuine affection with which I was treated. I wasn’t there to make change, to patronise or to preach. I simply went armed with my newfound love of literature and my passion for New Zealand short stories and authors like Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Alice Tawhai, along with Owen Marshall, and Janet Frame.  Writers I had only newly encountered in my 50’s doing a BA (English Literature).

I grew up in post war New Zealand. A time we considered egalitarian. In my street alone, were the butcher, the baker, the chemist, two school headmasters, and eventually, after I’d left home, a Prime Minister. We are talking suburban Richmond, Nelson. At my Richmond primary school there were two Burmese boys and our next-door neighbours in my early childhood years, were a mixed-race Maori family.  Interestingly, this idea of race, didn’t enter my thoughts and it’s only in retrospect remembering their beautiful names, Arana, Tui and Rangi that I realise, of course, these were Maori names.  I don’t think it crossed our minds as kids to separate friends on ethnic or racial grounds.

The mother of the two Burmese boys was the nurse at our local medical centre. She was a widow, a very attractive woman, and held in high esteem within our community. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop my Dad calling her Bamboo Annie, although not to her face.  I realise now how racist this was, but at the time, I didn’t. My Dad also called her the Iron Curtain because she also acted as a receptionist for our GP and the joke was, you couldn’t get past her to get to the doctor. Obviously, she was doing a grand job.  In my memory (memory is faulty I know), my Dad and whole family had high regard for this woman. The epithets with which she was labelled would seem to dispute this. Again, ‘A Way of Talking’, something we didn’t as kids, challenge.  That my first kiss, was on our front doorstep, from the youngest one of those Burmese brothers, an old school friend, is now, on reflection, quite interesting, when you consider how mono cultural our small town was.

My Dad also spoke of the Yellow Peril and Reds Under the Bed which were prevailing themes post war in suburban New Zealand. Interestingly, although having been a POW, my Dad spoke with a kind of jocular affection for the Jerries.  Was he racist?  In his day to day life as a carpenter, working on building sites, he worked with and drank with a wide range of men, and from my childhood lens… I don’t think he was racist.  I think he was a man of his time, this was ‘a way of talking’. How I loved that story by Patricia Grace when I encountered it.   Yes, all this stuff should have been challenged, and I was in a sense ‘uneducated’.

An uncle on my mother’s side, was in the Korean war in the 50’s and with the Allied Troops in Hiroshima after the war. We grew up with lacquered trinket boxes from Korea on my mother’s dressing table, a beautiful embroidered kimono in her wardrobe while in our sitting room was a picture of two stalking tigers on printed silk.  What a surprise it was for me, when our youngest son moved to live in South Korea, and I encountered those tigers at the Seoul War Museum… my tigers!  We are now a multi-cultural family with a South Korean-Kiwi granddaughter, and I know if my Dad was alive, he would love and embrace this.  I sense the 83 year old woman calling Marcus Lusk and claiming her Ōpoho was the way she pronounced it, may not see herself as racist, but as Marcus put it, wilfully ignorant… and this takes me on a circular argument to my deep regret that we were robbed of a bi-lingual education.  I’m 70 next year, so this woman who has lived all her life in Ōpoho, will have grown up in an even more conservative educational environment than I did.  The whole England is home and Colonial viewpoint. It’s never too late to change, but she does I suspect, represent a way of talking. I am not attempting to defend this, but to examine it.

And there’s something else going on here, I believe. Once I became aware of how to pronounce our Maori place names more correctly, I also became self-conscious about doing this. An example is when we began going up the East Coast to stay at Anaura Bay.  I loved pronouncing this bay correctly, but I began to feel ‘pretentious’ as nobody else I knew said it correctly. Too, my husband’s family used to regularly stay at Matarangi, and we would join them. Alas, they still call it Matter-rang-ee, and again, I feel uncomfortable asserting the correct pronunciation. I’m not a meek and shy kind of woman, but I am able to be a bit of a chameleon when it comes to fitting into different social situations… is this traitorous of me, should I insist on the correct Maori pronunciation?  I remember vividly being corrected by an elderly neighbour as I was packing our car to take our then teenage sons skiing. He asked where we were off to and I replied ‘Awakoonee’… he replied with slightly raised eyebrows saying Ohakune in perfectly pronounced Te Reo, startling me into never forgetting to say it correctly again.

When I first left home in the late 60’s to work in Wellington at the Chief Post Office, I was living at a Post Office hostel in Oriental Bay and almost three quarters of the young women I lived with were Maori girls. Coming from mostly mono cultural Richmond, Nelson, this was my first encounter with so many Maori women. I envied the Maori girls, most (or all) of whom were from the North Island, their sense of camaraderie and belonging… something that I lacked.  Indeed, it wasn’t until many years later that I recognised the shy young man who would come calling at Berkeley House to meet with the girls from the hostel who formed part of a Maori Concert Party to greet incoming cruise ships in nearby Oriental Bay… none other than Witi Ihimaera, who worked I think at the Herd Street Post Office in telecommunications. I don’t recall the use of Te Reo in the hostel, but of course, these girls would have been singing in Te Reo, something I now regret, never going to listen to.

In my retirement, I retrained as an ESOL teacher working with migrants and refugees and have had the greatest privilege of working with students from so many different ethnicities and religions… unimaginable back in 1950’s New Zealand.  What has fascinated me, is the strength and bonds of family with so many of my students and I have encountered a sense of envy.  Many of the migrants and refugees have family spread over many countries with whom they are in regular contact thanks to the use of social media and mobile phones. I contrast this with my recent discovery that my father’s father was a sixteen-year-old Irish orphan immigrant to New Zealand, who never acknowledged paternity. I grew up with almost no contact with my father’s family, until recently.

I love that Lower Hutt, where I live, is now a melting pot of multiculturism. I think of the now banned song by Blue Mink (the lyrics, unpalatable in 2019), Melting Pot which at the time, was a song of optimism for racial integration and harmony. I saw Blue Mink live in Manchester in the early 1970’s and the song resonated, but I understand why it has been banned.  A way of talking, no longer acceptable.

A special experience in my role as an ESOL teacher was our school being invited to Takapūwāhia Marae in Titahi Bay, where our students were welcomed onto the marae and enjoyed a hangi (our Muslim students honoured with a halal hangi and vegetarian options for other religions and I think from memory, even gluten free options). It was also interesting, returning to the classroom to hear the feedback among the Indian and Sri Lankan students who related to the stories of British Colonialism, as told to them on the marae. Most of the ESOL students I have worked with, have no problem with Te Reo vowel sounds and find learning Te Reo alongside English almost effortless.  They are unencumbered with the past. I do warn them though, that the place in the middle of the North Island called Taupo, still presents many Kiwis with a challenge.  Even those who are committed to Te Reo seem to find slightly different ways to say it.

Now, as officially an ‘elderly’ Kiwi, I have a granddaughter, born in South Korea, and at fifteen months, she adores the haka.  And not any old haka will do.  It has to be the 2019 World Cup opening game against South Africa when TJ Perenara on you tube, appears from out of the assembled men in black, his face a picture of expressions.  She becomes mesmerised, goes very quiet and becomes entranced. She understands instructions in English and Korean and her bedtime song is Te Aroha.  After watching the haka with TJ, her next favourite You Tube clip is Ma is White by the Poppets.  I envy her this fluidity of sound and language in which she is immersed. My granddaughter’s name is Emma Aroha. At her day-care in Seoul, they call her Arawa… which is their version of Aroha. She answers to Emma and to Arawa and one day will know that the song Te Aroha which we sing to her, is how to pronounce her name.

I see a new New Zealand emerging from the Colonial English traditions and we hear Te Reo now daily on the radio and on TV. We are absorbing Te Reo words into our everyday parlance and so this, to me is Aotearoa, 2019, English and Te Reo, spoken with confidence by people from almost all corners of the earth. Kia ora it seems beginning to outclass Gidday.

A new way of talking.

4 thoughts on “A Way of Talking

  1. You have a special way of writing here, thoughtfully setting your personal experiences within the prevailing social attitudes of a particular time and place. We had to live a long time to see these changes.

    Like

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