Thursday, July 9, 2009

Learning the Language

The boys couldn’t quite believe that I would freely choose to take a three-hour weekly class with homework and tests, but I absolutely loved my Te Reo Māori class and was very sad to go to the final session last week – although slightly comforted when they gave me an alarm clock that cheerily chirps the time and date in Maori as a goodbye gift.
I am fascinated by language in the first place and I sought out the class specifically because I knew that the Māori culture, while everywhere, was not something a seven-month visitor might easily immerse herself into. Language, as they say, is a window into culture and that proved so true in my class, which was a window not only into Māori culture but into the sometimes (often?) tightly wound relationship between Māori and Pakeha (their term for non-Māori, or white people).
My classmates were a wonderful mix of folks. Among the older-white-guy representatives were Kevin with a ponytail, a smoker’s cough, a motorbike, and a good handle on the language and Fred, a gentle, former hotel manager who was “trying to keep my mind working” but struggled quite a bit with the new forms and words. There were numerous Kiwis with Māori heritage like Mary, a petite 60-ish woman whose father was Chinese and whose mother was Māori, but deaf and dumb so Mary never heard any Māori growing up and had always meant to learn it, she said, but life got in the way with kids and then raising a grandkid. There was also Cherie, a perky 30-something single mom who had been a teacher’s aide; Marie, a lovely nun and counselor; Esther, a former school principal who already knew quite a bit; and Judy, a teacher recently arrived from Britain.
Some of my classmates (left)

My teachers - Marama (right) and Erana (behind them are some rather interesting Disney-style drawings that decorated the walls of the classroom, including Daisy puffing away)
I met my teacher when I first went into Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the school that had been recommended by everyone I asked, to register for the class. Marama couldn’t have been more welcoming until we got to the bit where she noted, “And I’ll need a copy of your New Zealand citizenship or residency papers.” "Oh," I said, "but I’m only here on a temporary visa. I know it’s a free class, but I’m happy to pay if that would help." She went away. She came back. “Unfortunately,” she said, “you can’t take the class.” My face fell. “But,” she added quietly, looking towards the door, “just come anyway. It’s my class.” She, along with every other Māori person I met, was so appreciative that I was interested in learning even a little of their language and culture. I, in turn, was honored that they were willing to share it with me.
Erana leading us in a waiata.

A friend here recounted how she and her husband were out to dinner with another couple. The other couple, who were English, had spent time living in a number of countries and had moved fairly recently to New Zealand. When my friend mentioned that she was planning to study the Māori language, the wife said, “Oh, in other countries we’ve lived in, I’ve always tried to learn the language but here I haven’t bothered. I mean nobody really speaks it.”
It is true that of a population of four million or so, the latest census reported that just shy of 160,000 people claimed they could converse in Māori. That’s not too many people and since it is likely that most of those have some Māori heritage (about 640,000 total nationwide), it is entirely possible that this woman does not know anyone who speaks Māori, even in Wanganui which has a fairly high Māori population of 19% versus the national rate of 15% – especially if she has not gone out of her way to meet any. That said, the language can be seen and heard everywhere – on signs, on the radio, in the newspaper, and woven throughout the folklore and history of the country. The haka chanted (and danced) at rugby games is surely the most internationally known example, but of course there’s much more to it than that.
Like Native American culture, though, Māori language and culture were not always emphasized and celebrated. As recently as the 1960s, children might be beaten for speaking Māori in school and a sea change slowly began when the Māori Language Act passed in 1987 making it the third official national language (New Zealand sign language is the other). A variety of language schools -- from immersion preschools to adult learning courses – developed and have taken root.
When I would mention to people here I was taking Māori, they would gently correct me. “Oh you mean, Te Reo,” which means, simply, the language. But I learned so much more than Te Reo from Marama, her assistant, Erana, and my fellow students. I learned how to introduce myself: you start with your mountain, your river, your waka – canoe – that brought you here, your grandparents, your parents, and only at the very end do you say your own name “because that is the least important.” I learned the days of the week and the months, which reflect the movement of the stars. I learned to sing and dance to waiata honoring the people, the river, and yes, even the Christian God that the Māori (surprisingly, to me) accepted readily from the missionaries. I learned about traditions like that of Puanga or Matariki, the Maori New Year, when a group of local artists and Māori worked together to build driftwood sculptures on the beach and lit them at sundown (see below) as well as folk tales explaining about how the world came to be.
Alex's friend Toby helping to light the first Matariki flames.
And then, in the break room for the mandatory “smokos” or morning tea breaks, we talked a bit about politics and life and why it was important to local Māori that Wanganui, the city, be spelled with the h like Whanganui, the river and the region, have both been for a number of years. Because, as Marama explained, “There is no word, ‘wanga’ in Te Reo. The name is Whanga (harbor) with nui (big).” When Pakeha wrote the town’s name for the first time, they were well-meaning in their attempt to reflect local dialect, which pronounced the wh as w rather than as an f like in most other regions of the country. It is the opinion of most local Māori that the h needs to go back, but a second referendum on the subject during our stay failed decisively 77% to 22%. The rather opinionated mayor of the city made no bones about his belief that the h should stay out and was quite inflammatory about it all, but the referendum is not enforceable. The city now awaits the word of the national geographic board which can mandate a change if it decides to.

H or no h, the thing that made me sad was the racial tension that was clearly agitated by “the H debate.” My Te Reo class showed me that there can be exchange and connection between Māori and Pakeha who respect what each have to bring to the combined heritage of New Zealand. The divisiveness of some of the discussion around the H showed that there are still many issues bubbling just beneath the surface and that it doesn’t take too much to bring them up to the surface.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper on the topic:

To the editor: As a newcomer and temporary resident of Wanganui, I have watched the H discussion with interest while understanding that I cannot possibly fully grasp the deep-seated layers of race, culture, and history it involves. What I can understand and appreciate is that every Tuesday for the last five weeks I have been privileged to attend a Te Reo Māori class of about 20 adult students. We are a diverse group ranging widely in age and background, with roots in New Zealand’s Maori and Pakeha communities as well as a few more recently arrived from abroad like myself. Some are looking to reconnect with ancestral culture that was not celebrated when they were young, while others seek a window into what they see as an integral part of New Zealand’s identity. And yet, as we stumble together over unfamiliar sounds, learn to count again like kindergarteners, and cheer each other on, we share one critical belief: that learning Maori language and culture is worth our time and energy. I hope that the mutual respect and sincere effort I observe weekly in my Te Wānanga o Aotearoa classroom is an indication that those from different parts of the community can come together in a spirit of respect and cooperation. We all have more to learn.

Nikko in his high school basketball practice shirt. If you look closely, you can see that it says Whanganui High School - the choice of his basketball coach, not what the school is actually named right now.