Contributing to Public Life from Afar

The Interregnum, published this month, is a collection of essays from young New Zealanders about the instability and possibility of today's politics. We republish the collection's seventh chapter by Lamia Imam.

The Interregnum, published this month, is a collection of essays from young New Zealanders about the instability and possibility of today's politics. The essays range broadly in topic, but together take on some of the weightiest issues that shape our era: climate change, identity politics, increasing automation, political disenfranchisement, generational churn.

Below we republish the collection's seventh chapter, an essay by Lamia Imam.

Contributing to Public Life from Afar

Lamia Imam

In the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey. I myself was born in the Year of the Rat, or, as I like to call it, the Year of the Peter Dunne. The Honourable Peter Dunne entered Parliament about five weeks after I was born in the Christchurch Women’s Hospital. Mine was not an overly political household, but politics has become so much a part of my life that I have taken to measuring time according to years served by our elected members.

My identity is inescapably defined by my life experience. I was born into a Bangladeshi Muslim family while my father was on a scholarship at Lincoln University; I then left New Zealand when I was a toddler, and spent my childhood and teenage years in Bangladesh and the United States respectively. I did not come back to New Zealand until I decided to go to Canterbury University. These three nations, their political systems and their cultures have hugely shaped my values.

I have struggled to maintain connection with ‘home’ for as long as I can remember. When we first arrived in Bangladesh I was just three years old, and, according to my mother, I begged to go back home – home being Christchurch. But when our family moved to the United States, I yearned to return to Bangladesh from this place where the language, food, clothes and customs all seemed so alien.

I was in high school in a small town in midwest America when 9/11 happened. My family is relatively devout, but that was the first time I had ever heard the word jihad. There were only three Muslim students in my little high school; in the days after the attacks we were interviewed and assured that we would not face racism. The opposite was true: I had to deal with racism then, and have dealt with it ever since.

When I finally came back to New Zealand years later, I knew I had found home. The thing I remember most fondly is how friendly and welcoming the customs and immigration officer was. ‘Welcome home,’ he said to me after looking at my New Zealand passport; I was happier than I had ever been in an airport. That was the first time someone made me feel like I was at a place that was mine. Everywhere else I was an outsider or a foreigner. Now, I find myself back as a guest in the United States, where I am quite literally an alien. But being away from home is very different in 2015. Now we have Skype and Facebook and Twitter; home is just a snapchat away.

The Pākehā culture of New Zealand is both accessible and exclusive. On the one hand it is everywhere, dominant and ever-present, but it is also restrictive.

Thanks to my global upbringing, I lack a Kiwi accent. And so I am confronted with ignorant opinions from people like the broadcaster Paul Henry, who notoriously claimed that Sir Anand Satyanand, then the Governor-General, did not ‘look and sound’ like a ‘Kiwi’ owing to his lack of a Kiwi accent and his Fijian-Indian heritage. By Henry’s logic, I am probably unqualified to be Governor-General. While I am indeed unqualified to be Governor-General, I would hope that it is not because of the way I look or sound.

Contributing to New Zealand politics via the public media of Twitter and blogging, I find myself having to frequently defend my Kiwi credentials. ‘I was born in Christchurch!’ I exclaim, while listing all the ‘Kiwi’ things that I love. The Pākehā culture of New Zealand is both accessible and exclusive. On the one hand it is everywhere, dominant and ever-present, but it is also restrictive. People who do not look and sound Kiwi are supposed to do whatever they can to be as Kiwi as possible and then they can have admittance to the club. Immigrants are expected to adopt New Zealand’s language, culture and customs, and forget their background – or else be forced to hear that well-worn line, ‘If you love your culture so much, why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ This is not a hypothetical fear. I have frequently been challenged this way in person and online, as retribution for daring to talk about my cultural or religious values. This is the bind: you have to assimilate to be accepted, but you are not accepted because you are still a different-looking person with a funny-sounding name. And a major double standard is at play. When expat Kiwis in Hong Kong or London form social groups around their shared language and culture, it is not frowned upon. But when expat South Asians or Arabs do the same they are seen to be rejecting the idea of being Kiwi. We should be trying harder to ‘assimilate’ – with a group of people who are openly hostile to the things that make us who we are.

One of the most frustrating questions I regularly face, no matter where I go, is: ‘Where are you from?’ Whether I am online dating, walking into a job interview, or meeting new people socially, people are very curious about my ethnic origins. Most people, faced with that question, can state their hometown and move on, but I do not have a ‘hometown’, and my assertion that I am from New Zealand is generally not accepted straight away. ‘But what is your ethnic origin?’ ‘But where were your parents born?’ ‘But you don’t have a Kiwi accent?’ ‘But Lamia is not a Kiwi name?’ These are follow-up questions I face. When I explain my background, the usual conclusion is, ‘Oh, so you are Bangladeshi! That makes sense.’

My immediate family do not live in New Zealand. They chose to emigrate to the United States. I have extended family in Finland, the Middle East and Australia. I am not ‘just a Bangladeshi’, in a globalised world, but is anybody really just one nationality? Many Bangladeshis would frown upon my lifestyle, my life decisions and my political values. I find myself frowning upon their lifestyle and political values: as a progressive feminist, I have views on marriage and religion that are unconventional by Bangladeshi standards. I have a hard time identifying with many aspects of Bangladeshi culture because I was not brought up in that environment. Boxing me into an ethnicity just because it is difficult to accept that a globalised world has led to a global culture may be a coping mechanism for a lot of people, but it fails to deal with the reality of diversity, which is always complicated and multidimensional.

Choosing New Zealand

For many personal reasons, I have chosen New Zealand as my home. The most frustrating aspect of this decision is the fact that other people think they have the right to relitigate and remake it for me. One reason I identify as a Kiwi is New Zealand’s politics. While I was in graduate school in Texas, my peers often made fun of me for my ‘socialist’ perspectives on policy-making. There are differences between the political left and right in New Zealand, but there are also certain values that Kiwis share – and in the United States these are often labelled ‘radical’.

The need for a public health system is perhaps the most striking example. In 2005, I was in a major car crash while travelling from Christchurch to Nelson; my medical bill was $0. I should note that I did not have medical insurance. I am grateful that I happened to be living in New Zealand at the time. I am grateful that an accident has not burdened me with a lifetime of debt. I am happy that I had the opportunity to pay into an ACC system that both afforded me that health care and ensured that other Kiwis could have the same access. I chose New Zealand not just because it chose me through accident of birth but also because it most closely resembles the kind of society I want to be part of.

I have spent my whole life connecting to New Zealand from the outside, even when I was inside the country. Despite being from birth a New Zealand citizen, I was denied a Kiwi upbringing because my parents were not themselves citizens. Later, my accent and ethnicity meant I was not accepted as a Kiwi when I began my adult life here as a student. But I am still, as I said, a New Zealand citizen, thanks to having been born here before 2005, and I am glad of that fact*. Our little country is not perfect, but it has made enormous strides in many areas throughout its history, and has created institutions – such as ACC – that are world-renowned. It has at least attempted to create a partnership with its indigenous people through Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It does not shy away from asserting its values on the world stage. It has been led by women in its executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. These policies and this approach to governance are what makes it easy for me to choose New Zealand as a home

And yet ... even when I was physically in the country, working at Parliament and then later at the Office of Treaty Settlements, I felt I was an outsider. New Zealand tends to clump all minorities in one box and ignore the realities of certain privileges. Being of South Asian heritage is decidedly not the same as being tangata whenua. Being a cis woman is vastly different from being a trans woman with a disability*. Being a heterosexual woman of colour is radically different from being a white gay man. In some respects, I represent the majority – but I am hyper-aware of my privilege because in other respects I am the minority. In the last two years, I have reverted to being an outsider by choosing to pursue higher education and greater work experience in the United States, so that I might one day come back and contribute to New Zealand society in a better way than if I had stayed. I go to great lengths to maintain my connection with New Zealand. My family, who now live permanently in the United States, would love me to make Texas my home. Wages in the United States are much higher and that in itself is a compelling reason; but the politics make choosing Texas difficult. So I continue to comment on New Zealand politics and social issues by Tweeting and blogging, because I am committed to staying connected to my home and these platforms provide that opportunity.

And yet ... I recall standing in line to pay tuition fees at Canterbury and being yelled at by the woman behind the counter for not standing in the International Students line. She had no way of knowing by looking at me that I was a New Zealand citizen. I felt humiliated because I was not given the opportunity to defend myself while all the other students assumed I was a confused foreigner. When I finally walked up to the counter and explained quietly that I was a New Zealand citizen, the woman’s embarrassment was not enough vindication for me. I felt publicly disgraced and I wanted to tell every student who heard and saw the incident that I had a right to stand in that line. In another instance, I was volunteering at the Canterbury Community Law Centre and a highly distressed client started screaming at me about immigrants, and specifically Muslims, taking over the country and ruining his job prospects. Even when I was trying to ‘integrate’ by getting an education and giving back to the community, acceptance was hard to come by. Contributing to New Zealand society from the outside is not a new experience for me even though it is only now that I am physically far away from it.

Connecting to New Zealand

My experience is no different to that of many minority ethnic people living in the developed (white) world. Our parents or our grandparents emigrated to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and to European and Asian countries, in order to give their children a better life. We in turn try to challenge their belief systems and the societal norms within which we are forced to exist. In our parents’ world we are defiant, too westernised, and devoid of faith and a sense of duty. In our own society, we are prudes, we have strange eating habits, we steal jobs, and we have tendencies towards terrorism. And yet my identity isn’t just my skin colour or religion. I was a political staffer (and I continue to live and breathe politics); I am a woman of colour; I am a blogger; I am a progressive feminist.

Ordinary Kiwis supposedly do not care about identity politics, which suggests to me that they don’t have an identity. The current narrative separates identity from politics when they are in fact intertwined. Are there no hard-working, tax-paying lesbian Kiwis wanting to own a house? Are there no Kiwi mum and dads raising a transgender child? Are there no Māori women wanting equal pay? Are there no hard-working Kiwis with family members in the criminal justice system? The welfare system? The health system? Identity provides a unique perspective on the problems faced by Kiwis. When identity is removed from these issues we do not get the full picture. The term social justice is supposed to represent the intersection of identity with government policies. Some of these policies, which disproportionally exclude certain people with a specific identity from having the life that all Kiwis seek, can only be critiqued from the perspective of someone with that identity. For example, we assume that everyone has equal access to our public health care system but it is clear that trans people do not. There are not enough doctors to cater to their unique needs and when concerns are raised, those concerns are dismissed because trans health care is seen as an identity politics issue rather than a health care issue. We also seem not to have any space for intersectional feminism; indeed it is often derided as ‘identity politics’, something that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘real issues’. I am not the only person who is an outsider because of my accent and skin colour. The culture of our society designates people as outsiders so their voices can be lawfully excluded and marginalised. This happens when we give more credence to privileged groups and by default silence the less privileged.

When identity is removed from these issues we do not get the full picture. The term social justice is supposed to represent the intersection of identity with government policies.

I take to social media to dispel some of the myths about people like me, but also to submit an alternative voice to the current narrative. Much has been said about ‘social justice warriors’ on social media. They are mostly denigrated by self-proclaimed thought leaders, pundits, commentators, and even journalists. It is unclear if these groups resist alternative views because citizen-initiated investigations and political blogging are an encroachment on their work or because they view discussions regarding social justice on social media as ineffective. But politicians, journalists, and other powerful entities are on social media, and so it provides an opportunity to influence debate in a way that has never been available to advocates of social justice previously. I should note that I do not believe I make a material difference by being on Twitter or by blogging my ideas. What I do believe is that I am bearing witness. I do not want future generations to ask, ‘Why did you not speak up?’ and I believe I can get my voice heard better on Twitter than on the steps of Parliament, although the effect will not likely be seen for quite some time.

Traditional methods of activism are not necessarily applicable in the twenty-first century. Social media has allowed me to connect to ‘home’ from the outside and continue to be part of a new form of political conversation. On the one hand, social media is dismissed as a bubble, an inconsequential medium. But often it is also cited as the source of opinions, thoughts, an indicator of public sentiment. This Schrödinger’s social media, which is simultaneously trivial and significant, is often the only way that previously marginalised groups can get their voices heard. It is unsurprising to me that this very fact might make many people and institutions nervous. We as a society do not have a good history of including marginalised voices in decision-making at the highest level. When politicians talk about ‘welfare reform’, how often do they consult women, the largest group of recipients because of historical exclusion from the workforce, childbearing and rearing responsibilities and other reasons? When we talk about ‘racism’, how often do we bring racial minorities onto a TV panel? When we talk trans health care, how often do we actually talk to trans men and women? How often do we dismiss issues that affect actual people’s lives as not ‘real’? These issues, combined with the enormous economic and environmental burdens we face, mean that our generation faces an incredible uphill battle. We may not be able to afford to buy our first home, we are burdened by more debt than our parents ever were, we are living under mass surveillance with our every selfie and sexy email potentially tracked, and we are tasked with the enormous responsibility of dealing with climate change and instability around the world.

But in New Zealand at least, we still have a chance of forging a better future. In 2004, just five months after I had moved to New Zealand as an adult, the foreshore and seabed hikoi culminated in front of Parliament. I confess I had no idea what it meant or what the issues were. But I remember that when I visited Parliament for the first time in 2009, as part of my political science studies, the openness and accessibility of the institution and the politicians shocked me immensely. And just two years later I was working there. I believe that there is no other country in the world where I could have been able to get where I did. Americans firmly believe in ‘American exceptionalism’, their assumed role of being an exemplar to the rest of the world. In New Zealand, in contrast, we have the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – and because of that we forget how exceptional we truly are. If my travels and studies around the world have taught me anything, it is that New Zealand has just as much of a chance to be a leader now on issues such as the refugees crisis and climate change as it did in 1984 when it decided to take a stance on nuclear weapons.

What New Zealand needs is continued engagement, whether it is through hikoi to Parliament or through social media. Instead of getting bogged down in frustration because we are not achieving progress at the rate we want, we have to keep engaging. That is why I continue to connect with New Zealand through blogging and social media. During the 2011 election, I was working for Labour leader Phil Goff. Our central election issue was asset sales. About a week after the election, during a meeting, our correspondence person read out a letter asking whether we were aware that the government planned to sell off state assets and what Labour planned to do about it. We had spent the entire election campaign – every speech, every television ad, and every social media post – telling the public about Labour’s opposition to asset sales, and still we did not get that message to every voting person. That was one of the harshest and most jarring moments of my working life.

I was born in the Year of the Peter Dunne, but I was also born in the year of New Zealand declaring itself a Nuclear-Free Zone. I choose New Zealand as my home because its people and its society have the kind of values I have. People knowingly make certain decisions, but they make many political decisions because they are misinformed. My hope is that perseverance can change that. I dream about evidence-based policies and rigorous public debates, and New Zealand is small enough for us to make those things happen. I want to be a part of that conversation and I want to be a part of that future.

The Interregnum is published by Bridget Williams Books, and is available for purchase.

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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.

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