October 13, 2010

Looks and Sounds Like New Zealand

A few days ago, a public New Zealand figure put his foot in his mouth. His name is Paul Henry and he is known to do these things. He co-hosts New Zealand’s morning news show (Americans - think, “Today” on NBC.) The controversial moment came when Mr. Henry commented, while interviewing the Prime Minister, John Key, that New Zealand’s Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand, a born and raised New Zealander of Fijian-Indian descent, does not look or sound like a New Zealander. He went on a bit more in this vein, including asking the prime minister if he planned to choose someone who “looked and sounded more like a New Zealander” as the next Governor General.

But it gets worse.

TVNZ’s spokeswoman, Andi Brotherston, defended Mr. Henry by saying that New Zealanders love him because “he says the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud.”

My initial reaction to this statement was further disbelief and disgust. Was she suggesting that Mr. Henry’s behavior was acceptable because all New Zealanders view ethnic minorities and migrants as non-New Zealanders? However, if I give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she was referring to the fact that New Zealand is a diverse country whose national identity has not yet caught up to this reality. New Zealanders sometimes talk about New Zealand’s “increasing diversity” as if it is a new or even an anticipated, future trend. But discussing the fact that New Zealand already IS a diverse country seems to make many New Zealanders squeamish.

Some of the hesitation to discuss New Zealand’s multiculturalism stems from its bicultural status – Māori and Pākehā . It is argued that calling New Zealand multicultural throws this careful, precarious and extremely important bicultural dynamic off, negating the significance of the partnership and therefore of the Māori themselves. There is an implicit implication, therefore, that immigrants and New Zealand born ethnic minorities must “wait their turn” to sort out their place while New Zealand continues to strive for the bicultural ideal that began 170 years ago. Just the other day, I got into a heated discussion with a New Zealander who got very upset when I suggested that I would like call myself “an American - New Zealander.” That doesn’t fit in anywhere.

I, and I would dare to venture that most immigrants, know the importance of treading lightly, humbly and respectfully around New Zealand’s cultural values. I would not dream of harming New Zealand’s incredibly unique and important bicultural status. I would also never want to do or suggest anything that negates the rights, significance or status of the Māori. And I believe whole-heartedly that New Zealanders need to be able to discuss their thoughts on how diversity has and will change their country and way of life as they know it without being labeled racists. So I don’t know what the answer is. I surely won’t reach it in this blog. But Mr. Henry’s stupid comments had one good outcome – they have stirred public discussion about New Zealand’s diverse population.

Soon after his comments Mr. Henry, no doubt under pressure, issued a half-assed apology to the Governor General. But not to Indian New Zealanders at large, nor migrants or minorities in general, who were insulted by extension and implication. Nor did he apologize to New Zealanders themselves, whoever he, in his not-so-expert opinion deems them to be, for implying that this sort of narrow-minded bigotry is representative of New Zealander’s mindsets. I know plenty of New Zealanders personally who would strongly assert that Paul Henry does not speak for them.

The story continued to explode and Mr. Henry was suspended without pay for 12 days by TVNZ’s wishy-washy chief executive, Rick Ellis – who, by the way, refuses to be interviewed by anyone other than TVNZ. In a moment of true irony, Mr. Ellis asked angry New Zealanders to exercise tolerance about the decision to suspend, but not fire, Mr. Henry. (It is interesting to note that just a couple of weeks ago, a well-known CNN correspondent in America, Rick Sanchez, made inappropriate remarks about Daily Show host, John Stewart, who is Jewish. Mr. Sanchez was immediately fired from CNN.)

News of these comments and others by Mr. Henry has been all over New Zealand’s news and editorial media. It’s hit the international news too.

A few nights ago, my spirits rather low over this whole display of intolerance and narrow-mindedness, I changed my clothes, grabbed my ticket, and headed out the door to the opening act of the Dunedin Arts Festival, a world-class compilation of music, art, dance and performance that goes for 10 days every other year. The Dhol Foundation is a group from the UK, of Punjabi Indian descent, and a dhol, I learned, is a large double-sided barrel drum used in Punjabi Indian music. When I walked into the Regent Theatre on Dunedin’s octagon, an old place with art deco stained glass, lush red carpet, velvety seats, ornately decorated walls, and a suspended balcony level, I saw a mix of people you don’t often see concentrated in Dunedin: its local Indian population. Out in the old lobby of this classic theatre, they were gathered in small groups and dispersed with local Pākehā and Māori faces.

The drumming started loudly and suddenly, pounding out soul-stirring beats that reverberated through the floor and up through everyone’s chest. A couple dozen audience members leapt out of their seats and raced to the foot of the stage and instantly let loose. I’ve never seen New Zealand audience members behave like this, with no hesitation, without copious amounts of alcohol. They didn’t even THINK about staying politely in their old fashioned theatre seats. They were like cabin-fevered Alaskans going to a mediocre banjo show in the middle of a dark, cold winter, starved for musical expression. At the end of the first song, the lights came around the theatre allowing the performers to see their audience. Now noticing the 20 people at the foot of his stage, the leader did a double take and asked, in his thick London accent, “Where the hell did you lot come from? Are you Punjabi?” They cheered in affirmation. “Well, holy shit!” He was a tall, handsome man, with a neatly trimmed black beard and a small, smooth black turban on his head. He wore a red fitted sleeveless shirt and a black skirt over black pants and supported a giant 15 kg drum diagonally across the front of his body. He had instant charisma. His five fellow drummers looked much the same.

Spurred on by these Punjabi ice-breakers, the rest of the audience decided to set themselves free from the clingy grip of their seats too and soon the front of the theatre was packed out and the aisles were filled with bouncing people of all ages and many colors. It was spectacular.

The drummers and musicians played Indian and African rhythms featuring the drums first and foremost, but also the eerie melodic twang of the sitar, and the haunting uilleann pipes of the Irish hills. My cheeks hurt from smiling for the 2 hour duration of the show.

Midway through, a guest singer joined in. He wore a kurta, the long loose shirt worn over pants, banana yellow, from his shoulders to his toes which sported yellow slippers. He wore a turban of the same color above his dark beard. A gold-sequined vest and a sparkly belt that sat just under his beer belly topped it all off. He raised the microphone and belted out tones that travelled through the air to fill my sinuses, rib cage, and even my knees, making me think that perhaps, just perhaps, my ancestry is Indian, not Irish. The audience followed the lead of the 20 or so Punjabi people up front, who knew the song and belted out an “Oooh—oh” at the right moments. The singer lifted his arms up into the air, palms up to the sky, like he was raising the roof, and blissed out completely.

I found myself talking to Mr. Henry in my head as the Indian beats pounded around me. “No, Mr. Henry, this doesn’t look or sound like New Zealand. And isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why this is so amazing and wonderful?” But it was more than that and something about the phrase, “This doesn’t look or sound like New Zealand” didn’t sit quite right with me. I knew there was a connection between this scene of ethnic and artistic diversity and Mr. Henry’s comments. I mulled it over, looking for the right words.

When the music ended the performers stood still on stage and the lights lowered. The audience starting amping up for its required encore-inspiring shouting.

But from the back of the theatre, two rows of about 12 Māori people began a haka – a fiercely powerful Māori “dance” (for lack of a better word) accompanied by strong, unison chanting. The distinctive sound and presence of the haka carried over the bellowing crowd until it quieted them. A sign of welcome and respect to the visiting performers. The performers stood still on the stage and when the haka was finished, the audience members erupted with pride and with gratitude and support for the Māori who shared this piece of themselves and Aotearoa.

I recognized a woman in front of me, a South African immigrant of Indian decent. I heard the woman behind me talking about how “super” this was in a thick German accent. I spotted a fellow student from the Anthropology Department, a tall, lanky Pākehā , and his Chinese girlfriend. And tonight, I felt like an American-New Zealander.

And then it hit me. My conversation with Mr. Henry in my head was all wrong. The Otago community organized and supported this festival. The Dunedin community had recently donated over $100,000 in funds for this theatre’s maintenance. Within its walls tonight, this display of Celtic-African-Indian music performed by Punjabi Indian Britons, for an incredibly diverse Dunedin audience was a display of what New Zealand IS. So, Mr. Henry, I don’t know that last time that you, or all the kiwis that you *supposedly* speak for, actually went out and looked at the New Zealand around you, but THIS is what New Zealand looks like. THIS is what New Zealand sounds like.

Be careful.

Or you might just find yourself dancing in the aisles.


  1. Molly! This is so inspiring and I think you should put it in the local paper or national paper as an opinion piece. Well said my friend and I'm looking forward to dancing in aisles of NZ soon!

  2. Wow, this is great! I'm English (white, Caucasian, albeit half Italian!) with a Kiwi wife and am moving from London to St Clair which will be a BIG change of scene. Being from a very diverse area of South West London, the majority of my friends are not of 'English' parentage. I really value the variety of cultures in London and from time-to-time when I speak to people in NZ, I do detect hints of subdued racism. I'm really hoping Dunedin is more open minded than other parts of NZ and your article certainly supports this!

  3. WOW Molly great piece - shared it with an American New Zealander friend of mine - Amy - she works at Univeristy Otago too - hope you are well and still blogging.

    Theresa, a Dunedinte who has been in Gold Coast, QLD, Australia 4 years..