Yes, I call them mine; those two islands nestled in South Pacific; North and South Island of New Zealand. We have known each other for as long as it takes to raise a child to adulthood. And we have indeed raised a great child together. Have earned the right to claim each other. But it was not always like that.
I never thought that one day I will leave Croatia (Yugoslavia when I was growing up), for New Zealand. If I knew I would have being paying far more attention in geography classes and would most certainly found a way to learn English. But then I would not have the experiences I have now!
As it happened, my knowledge of New Zealand consisted of few facts about the country’s location in proximity to Australia, and sceneries I admired from the movie Piano. Once my visa was approved, a friend of mine asked me whether I am really aware how far away I am going. Water swirls the other way around, she said. And it must get terribly lonely on those distant sheep farms. I did not have time to care about such things as farms and loneliness. Or which way water swirls. All I cared about was that the place is as far as possible from where I was leaving. One can go no further. There is only Antarctica after that.
That day in June 1994, when I walked through the glass door at the Auckland Air Port will always live in my memory; a permanent engraving. Inscription made of wind with salt and ocean in it, people’s voices, and signs I could not read. Sound of stamp when it landed on the page of my passport. First motel I slept in. First morning I woke up; scared and bewildered. There is too many firsts to list them. But some are more vivid than the others.
Like the day I first walked under the rain in the downtown Auckland and watched beautiful Pacific girls dancing barefoot with flowers in their hairs.The day my daughter was born in a tiny town called Tokoroa in the middle of North Island and people I never knew came to visit and brought gifts for a new-born baby.
Or the day my next door neighbour, also a new mother at the time, came to visit and we struck a ‘conversation’ even though I could not speak a word of English. In time she would become my best friend and I would learn that she was well familiar with migrant women struggling with English and substituting words with smiles. Her own parents were Dutch.
There are countless stories yet to tell. Our tiny town grew around the local timber industry and was once prosperous settlement. My first job was there. It was also a place where I first encountered New Zealand’s indigenous people; Māori.It was the night I went to my first shift in the local plywood mill. The sea of brown faces greeted me at the entrance of our collective production line. I was one of two white people there. The other one was the boss.
My memories of those days are tightly woven with sounds and scents; sounds of machinery, smell of raw timber, sounds of laughter, and aroma of secretly smoked joints. Sounds of songs that erupted around 3 am to keep us going … ‘you OK cuzz?’ they would ask me. Because I soon become one of the cuzzie bros. We laughed and worked together … and sometimes we cried.
While there are many sounds I associate with Māori, the most distinct is the sound of Kapa Haka (kapa means ‘rank’ or’ raw’ and haka refers to a Māori dance which is often mistakenly thought of as a war dance only, when in actual fact it is an avenue for Māori to express their heritage and cultural identity. Haka is now widely accepted as expression of New Zealandness, that includes all cultures and races).
When I was back in Europe in 2000/01 and living in Italy for some 18 months, New Zealand national rugby team; mighty All Blacks were on TV. I did not know it until the sound of Haka jolted me from my sitting position at the other side of the house. My daughter and I looked at each other and sprinted towards the TV. It was the sound we knew … sound of New Zealand. We were to go home. To our islands. Where water swirls the ‘wrong way’ around, rugby is a national sport and rains for days on end! And where, just like in most places, lots of weird and wonderful things happen.
Some of those weird and wonderful things are;
- New Zealander’s call themselves Kiwis, as they identify with their endangered, indigenous flightless bird,
- New Zealand was one of the last major land masses settled by humans. Polynesians arrived during the late 13th and early 14th century and developed Māori culture. First Europeans made contact around 1642,
- In 1840 the British and Māori signed a treaty known as the Treaty of Waitangi. It made New Zealand a colony of the British Empire. After that immigration to New Zealand increased significantly and smaller conflicts escalated into the New Zealand Wars. Those Wars resulted in much of Māori land being confiscated in the North Island,
- European migrants brought to New Zealand weapan technologies and diseases that destabilized Māori society, and resulted in cultural and numerical decline. However, Māori population began to climb again from the late 19th century and since 1960s there has been a cultural revival which is sometimes referred to as the Māori Renaissance,
- While there was a period when the Māori language; Te Reo Māori was not encouraged, since 1970s efforts have been made to change that, and today English and Te Reo Māori are both official languages of New Zealand,
- Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand and it is commonly translated as ‘land of the long white cloud’. According to Māori mythology, Maui fished New Zealand out of the ocean,
- Despite the small population (currently 4.4 million), New Zealanders are known to stand for what they believe to be right; like protesting over the Vietnam War, against the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa, adopting nuclear-free policy, being the first country in the world to give the women the right to vote in 1893, the first country to have an openly transgender mayor, and later member of parliament. While New Zealand does not currently allows same-sex marriage, it does allow civil-unions that provides most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Bill is presently before Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage,
- Man known as the father of nuclear physics; Ernest Rutherford, was a New Zealander. He is considered the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday,
- The first person to climbed Mt. Everest was also New Zealander; Sir Edmund Hillary. Once he reached the summit, in a true New Zealand spirit, he said to his lifelong friend; ‘Well, George, we knocked the bustard off’,
- Agriculture, horticulture, forestry and mining remain the country’s main industries. While sheep farming was traditionally dominant, dairy-farming has taken over in recent years, and today Fonterra, New Zealand Company owned by 13,000 New Zealand dairy farmers, is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products,
- While during 1950s boasting of the highest standards of living in the world, New Zealand plunged into deep recession in 1970s brought about by oil crisis and the UK’s entry into the EU. As a result the country went through the major economic changes during 1980s, moving from a protectionist to a liberalised free-trade economy,
- Those changes in economy had significant impact on the culture of New Zealand. The culture that is a unique mixture of British, European, and Polynesian cultures, and is usually referred to as Pākehā culture,
- Once proud of its classless, egalitarian society, and welfare state, since 1980s New Zealand has witnessed widening chasm between haves and have-nots. In December last year, the OECD reported that the gap between rich and poor has widened further in New Zealand (and Sweden) than in any other developed country in the past 25 years. New Zealand’s own figures show that one-quarter of all New Zealand children are growing up in poverty,
- Kiwis are amongst world’ best travellers, it is very common for New Zealanders to live and work outside New Zealand, especially in UK and Australia,
- As people New Zealanders are predominantly friendly and often helpful. Traces of the early settlers’ spirit; self-reliance and self-sufficiency can be still detected especially outside the five major cities (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Hamilton),
- One of the most resistant stereotypes is that of a strong, single-minded, pioneer type kiwi male. He is ragged, often violent, unintellectual, rural, fair in his dealings, skilled with animals, handy with his hands and unemotional. That must be the reason Barry Crump’s books were so popular in New Zealand; his characters brought to life Kiwi larrikin and multi-skilled labourer,
- Practical, down to earth and not overlay romantic or intellectual women are generally far more desirable than those with their heads in the clouds dreaming of such things as poetry and literature; hence yours truly remains single -:)!!
- In contrast with many of its progressive polices, New Zealand had also experienced some very conservative measures, for example; from WWI until 1967 law required that pubs close at 6 pm! This was known as ‘the Six o’clock Swill’ as men had to hurry to pubs and scull their drinks as fast as they possibly could, since they only had about an hour between the time they knocked off work before the pubs closed! And it was not until 1980s that shops were open on weekends, while only since 1999 alcohol could be sold on Sunday. The 1981 Springbok Tour was a great example of a clash between the progressive and the conservative parts of in New Zealand,
- As for my own people, records show that people from Croatian coast, called Dalmatians, first arrived to New Zealand around 1880s, at the time Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled Dalmatia. They most likely arrived via Californian and Australian goldfields and became golden kauri gum diggers in New Zealand. Those early Dalmatians suffered lots of prejudice and ignorance for number of years. Harsh rules that favoured the British made it increasingly difficult for them to dig for gum. During the WWI they were mistakenly called ‘Austrians’ and treated as enemies. Their wine was scorned as ‘Dally-plonk’. But Māori accepted them, nick-naming them ‘tarara’; fast talkers. By 1890s they were growing grapes and starting to establish New Zealand wine industry. By mid 1980s over 80% of New Zealand vineyards were operated by their descended. Today the founders’ names read like a who’s who of New Zealand wine; Babich, Selak, Yukich, Nobilo, Delegat,
- While traditionally, New Zealanders do not place much value on intellectual pursuits of any kind, and often suffer from a ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (best described as the ‘cutting down’ of anyone thought to have risen above the general mass of people), New Zealand has produced some outstanding writers, such as Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Alan Duff, Elizabeth Knox, Witi Ihimaera, Keri Hulme, Hone Tuwhare, Gary McCormic, Sam Hunt, Maurice Gee,Margaret Mahy, Lloyd Jones, and others. I still vividly recall the impressions my first reading of Duff’s ‘Once Were Warriors’ left me with.
- Above all, New Zealand is a country of migrants. While for over 130 years (from about 1840 to 1970s), New Zealand strongly favoured and encouraged migrants from the UK, in the years since, immigration from new countries has changed New Zealand’s culture and values. Today, large majority (about 79%) of New Zealand population is of European descent, indigenous Māori are the largest minority, followed by Asians and non-Māori Polynesians.
I have recently read a wonderful book by Gordon McLauchlan, ‘The Passionless People Revisited’. It is a type of book I did not expect to see in New Zealand but am greatly pleased to have found it. McLauchlan keenly and accurately observed a social fabric of New Zealand for many years and outlined his findings without reservations, but also with love. Like a loving father would talk to a wayward child; quite sternly because he cares. And I can relate to that. Because I too care a lot about these islands -:)!