Kirsten reflects on a life enriched by her bicultural upbringing.
“As a child,” wrote the poet Eleni Sikelianos, “I belonged, absolutely, to everything. To color, to sound, to warmth … What I first belonged to was my senses, and the pleasure of each as it encountered the world new, new, and new. What the senses first teach us is relation.”
We belonged to the drumming thump of short poi between our shoulder blades. To stamping feet and rows of globes, flashing, twirling. To our hands, and the way they sent the poi into a thousand looping flights.
I spent my final two years at primary school in a bicultural unit. Half of us were Māori and half were Pākehā. Our teachers were half-sisters, Whaea Keriana and Mrs James. The unit offered something different, a class in which Māori culture, performing arts and te reo Māori were central.
As schoolchildren, we drifted between the worlds of home and school. Going home, we carried the debris of the school day with us – art, newsletters, wet sneakers. When the current changed, and we shored at school with things from home, we noticed differences between ourselves. Sitting at large tables, crafting poi out of plastic bags, we saw which of us had parents who shopped at expensive places. Setting up the white elephant stall for the school gala, we took note of who donated branded clothing. One of my friends only ever had her white-bread jam sandwich at shared lunch, and another friend never joined in on fundraisers like Pyjama Day – her mum couldn’t afford the gold coin.
My favourite school years were those with Whaea Keriana and Mrs James. Whaea Keriana’s mum, Nani Kuini, often visited and helped to teach us. She told us stories about growing up in Ruatoria – how she had walked barefoot through miles of paddocks to get to school, warming her feet in winter by jumping in cowpoo. “Ooooh!” she howled down at us, wiggling her toes, “Wonderful warm tūtae!”
Remembering that old kōrero now, my toes wiggle in pleasure – as if it were my own memory, as if the warmth weren’t from cowpoo.
We ignored our marbles and reached for our poi instead
As the school term went on, our parents stopped waiting for us in their cars at the end of the school day. They started arriving before the bell, waiting on the benches outside our classroom. After the bell rang, they came inside to look at our work and to talk to our teachers. On and on they spoke, until our parents finally gave in to our sleeve-tugging.
In our second year together we entered the local kapa haka festival, rehearsing for several months beforehand. In the free time between lessons and activities, we ignored our marbles and reached for our poi instead. At lunchtime, we stood on the bench wrapped around the oak tree, and shouted “Kia mau!” and “Anō!” The wiri was hard to master. Our more skilled classmates demonstrated and corrected. “Keep practising!” they encouraged us. “Anō!”
I showed our visiting relatives my kapa haka moves at home. If there was no one around to perform for, I twirled my poi in front of the tv, noticing which of the weather reporters correctly pronounced Rotorua, Tauranga, Taranaki.
On the afternoon of the festival, Alicia, our leader, was given a precious heru to wear in her hair. Before she pressed it into her top knot, she passed it around for us to see. We held the carved comb in our hands and peered into the swirling islands of paua. We ran our fingertips lightly over the serrated bone-teeth. John, who would lead the haka, was presented with a real patu carved from river-green pounamu.
And finally, our practise poi were replaced by official school poi, a set crafted by students who were now old enough to be our parents. These old poi had soft, wrinkled surfaces and were heavier. For weeks Whaea Keriana had been trying to improve our posture. “Slouching again!” she would cry from the back of the school hall. Doing our final practice with those treasured taonga in our hands, it was suddenly easy to stand up straight.
We parted neatly, like the teeth of a heru. Boys swept through the gaps, bulging their eyes, stretching their tongues in the most menacing of pūkana. Our small hands shimmered in wiri, shimmered like water. The boys clawed at their chests with fingernails and hard slaps. Each chest flushed pink, streaked with the red of dawn. We gave our voices to the haka.
Many years later, during my occupational therapy study, I took a Māori Health Promotion elective. Lectures were held on Wednesday afternoons in one of the largest lecture theatres on campus.
One of our first lectures outlined the devastating effects of colonisation on the Māori language. We learned that the first schools in Māori communities had the primary aim of teaching English, a language often enforced by corporal punishment. We watched a documentary clip of an elderly Māori woman who sat on a faded floral settee. She patted her hands in her lap as she described how she had got the strap for translating English instructions into te reo for a younger sister.
The senses don’t always teach relation. Sometimes they teach division. I imagined the welts that must have pushed up under the young skin of the old woman. I recalled how my friends and I had rushed towards each other after kapa haka practice, sticking out our hands for one another to inspect, proudly comparing the rednesses left by our poi.
How could I explain a sadness that was heaviness and emptiness at once?
At the end of each lecture, I dropped my notebook into my backpack and walked out into the air, colder each week. I kept my sadness to myself. How could I explain a sadness that was heaviness and emptiness at once? What could I say about a sadness that held admiration, separation, and shame?
I used to listen to the radio a lot. I wanted something to do while I listened, so I tried knitting. I hoped it might bring me into some sort of connection with the women of my childhood – aunties whose wooden-handled knitting bags were always sitting at their feet, like loyal dogs.
One time, puzzling over the new language (‘k2tog’, ‘k all sts’, ‘beg dec’), I listened to Kim Hill interviewing former politician Don Brash, on Radio New Zealand. In the interview, Brash complained about having to listen, every morning on the radio, to greetings spoken in te reo Māori. He argued that Māori speakers wanting to hear Māori on the radio could easily tune in to one of the many taxpayer-funded Māori-language stations. As for te reo being spoken in kindergartens and playcentres – Brash shared his view that te reo in educational settings only benefits children with “brown faces”. Te reo Māori being taught in schools, furthermore, risked detracting from more “useful” subjects, said Brash.
I stopped my knitting and held my needles in a triangle, the beginnings of a hat hanging between them. I imagined myself and Don brash as mountains – geologically akin, but set apart by a vast valley. The interview continued, the valley widening and deepening with each of Brash’s comments. Once Hill had spat out her agitated farewell, I sat there and wondered how Brash had come to possess such singular confidence in his cultural background.
The end of my occupational therapy study involved a long practicum at an inpatient mental health unit for men. Once, on a day off, I visited the nearby Buddhist temple. I hoped to come away feeling less tired and more peaceful. I had been meditating for a few years but was shy about it, practising in the privacy of my bedroom on a stack of mismatched cushions.
It seemed to be something about power, how the men were spoken about behind closed doors
There were blossoming cherry trees in the courtyard of the temple. Two women sat on a bench across the courtyard, eyes closed. One wore a faded grey t-shirt with a Māori design on it and sat with her legs on either side of the bench. She was murmuring softly, palms open. Her friend sat facing her, crossed-legged, in bright pink shorts. Both women had kicked their shoes off. I moved closer and realised that the murmuring woman was giving meditation instructions. When the women opened their eyes I asked if I could sit with them. Their names were Karen and Moko, and they also worked in mental health. Karen had been guiding them through a breathing practice.
They asked me how I was finding my practicum at the inpatient unit. I told them I was finding it difficult. That I hated walking around the building with my heavy necklace of keys, being able to open any door. At the same time, the residents, almost all Māori and Pacific, couldn’t get into their own rooms without assistance from a willing staff member. I told them that the meeting room was referred to as the whare and that I found it beautiful, with its carved wooden beams and pillars. I explained that I had helped run relaxation and art groups held there, but the room was mostly used for staff meetings called case reviews.
The psychologist always arrived early before these meetings to pull down a large white screen. He warmed up the projector and arranged chairs in the shape of a crescent moon. People arrived – nurses, drug and alcohol counsellors, a social worker, the psychiatrist. The door was closed, and each resident’s notes were shown on the screen, for discussion.
During these meetings, the men of the unit gathered at the windows. They used their hands to make tunnels between their eyes and the glass and they stared at us while we stared at the screen. Where their noses were pressed, huffs of breath appeared on the glass. Every now and again, a nurse would turn to the windows and flick her hand. Go away, the hand said. Eventually, the blinds were closed, and the men went away.
When we’re not bringing aroha to our mahi anymore, we need to return to our marae
“What is it you find hard about this stuff?” Karen asked. I told her it was hard to say, but that it seemed to be something about power, and something about the way the men were spoken about behind closed doors.
“When you first start somewhere,” said Karen, “your main mahi is to observe and to learn. That’s what you’re doing. Keep doing that. And start each day with loving intentions. That’s the purpose of karakia and waiata.”
“Yes, and if it helps, you can remember,” added Moko, “that your tīpuna and the tīpuna of the whaiora are looking at what is happening. You want them to see respect and love. You want them to be saying ‘Hey, our descendants are working together. They are helping each other.’ Later, when you have had your time of observing, you can remind your colleagues of this, as I have. But first, you have to do your learning.”
“Aē, and when we know we’re not bringing aroha to our mahi anymore, we need to return to our marae,” said Karen. “We need to rest, to reconnect with the land where our spirits will be made clean.
I drove home on the southern motorway, thinking about what Karen and Moko had said. We need to rest, to reconnect with the land where our spirits will be made clean.
My mother has lived with mental illness. I think this was why I was drawn to working in mental health. As a teenager, I visited Mum in various respite homes and the hospital wards. The toilets in the hospital rooms had no doors and the walls were covered with porridge-coloured padding. There were kind doctors, and doctors who snapped the jaws of their clipboards too loudly and didn’t look up when they were asking questions.
I began to shape and whisper the words of a karakia
Steve, a curly-haired nurse who brought medication to Mum at home, always said yes to a cup of tea with the gratitude of someone who’d never been offered one before. I wished that Mum didn’t have so much pain, but I admired her for feeling it and living through it. When my own mental health deteriorated several years ago, I found myself ashamed in a way that I had never been ashamed of my mother.
During the worst times, I spent hours of each day paralysed by anxiety. I lay sleepless and desperate night after night. It was as though my whole being had frozen into a glacial mass. Whatever thoughts and feelings had once moved through me were now swirls of ice: hardened, trapped. I have to get out of here, I would think, from the nightmare of my room. Some mornings my partner would pull me up, kneel behind me, and tip my body from side to side until I was able to speak. I just want out, I would finally manage to say.
“Start each day with loving intentions,” Karen had said. Perhaps she meant start each workday with love, but there were days I couldn’t work – getting up to boil the jug was often enough of a challenge. I lay in bed one morning, hoping I would manage it before my partner woke up. Maybe I can make the coffee today, I thought, beginning to shape and whisper the words of a karakia.
Whiti ora ki te whei ao,
ki te ao mārama.
Whiti ki runga, whiti ki raro.
E ngungu ki te pōhatu, e ngungu ki te rākau
Tītaha ki tēnei taha, tītaha ki tērā taha
Come into this changing world
This world of light and understanding.
Cross upwards, cross downwards.
Turn to the rock, turn to the tree.
Leaning to this side, leaning to that side.
Let there be life.
I began to repeat this each morning. Whether I was waking from sleep or had not slept at all. Regardless of whether my role for the day would be health practitioner or patient. Sometimes it took 10 or 15 minutes to reach the end of the karakia, hardened as my mind was in fear. But often, as I made my way through the words, something happened. A tiny softening somewhere in myself. A tiny seeping of myself into the world. Then, from time to time, a small opening through which the world started to return to me, sensation by sensation. I would hear the thud of car doors, smell the rain on the front lawn. I would notice that my hands, under the blankets, were fists.
I would open them.
Feature image: Maori language students at Thorndon school, Wellington. The Evening Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP-Ethnology-Maori Language-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22843660
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.