Nīhaomā was created as an alternative to the potentially offensive Hainamana. But to many, the new kupu carries its own shade of prejudice.
Since the first Māori voyagers arrived on the shores of Aotearoa, we’ve been creating new kupu to accommodate our ever-changing surroundings.
Sometimes that’s by way of compound words, like the word for computer, rorohiko, which combines the word roro, meaning brain and hiko, meaning electricity. On occasion, words are created by way of naming something newfangled like a glass bottle, after something familiar that it resembles – pounamu. Other times, it’s by way of delightful transliterations, like miraka for milk or āporo for apple.
In keeping with that tradition, when Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Maori Language Commission was established in 1987, it took responsibility for creating a number of new words alongside translators.
Today, the proliferation of these kupu hou sits for the most part with the speakers of te reo Māori, but Te Taura Whiri still creates and publishes hundreds of words every year. In a consistently evolving world, it’s a vital part of keeping the language alive and flourishing.
In 2019, Te Taura Whiri announced a collection of neologisms, including rūma tīni kope for baby change and koriana for coriander. Another of these freshly-created words was Nīhaomā – a loan of the Mandarin greeting “ni hao ma”, meaning “how are you?” (or translated more directly, “you good?”) in English – to be used in te reo to mean “Chinese”. It was a replacement for a pre-existing kupu for Chinese in use since the 1800s – Hainamana, a transliteration of “Chinaman”.
But this week, a commenter on Twitter, upon discovering a 2019 article reporting on the new kupu, wrote “wow….nīhaomā being a new kupu..are they serious…experience a decade of my own language greeting being used as verbal assault by wypipo [white people] in Ōtepoti.”
The tweet ignited a bevy of similar criticisms. Many who took to Twitter to denounce the word expressed dismay about the racist connotations of the phrase and questioned why a new kupu for Chinese was necessary, when there already was one. Meanwhile, others debated the imperfect nature of that existing word, Hainamana.
The next day, Te Taura Whiri responded on Twitter and said, “Kia ora, Auē we are very disappointed to discover these translations from some time ago and will be looking into how this has happened and will also be in touch asap.”
It’s not the first time the word Nīhaomā has come under scrutiny since its inception three years ago. Race relations commissioner and Chinese learner of te reo Māori Meng Foon said he received an email in his first year as race relations commissioner to inform him that Te Taura Whiri was considering changing the word Hainamana to Nīhaomā. “I responded to say no,” he said in a text to The Spinoff. “It’s not appropriate to call Chinese people “hello” or a direct translation of ‘you good?’.”
Another Chinese learner of te reo Māori, filmmaker Julie Zhu, remembers cringing when she first heard the word spoken on the radio a few years ago. “When I first came across ‘nīhaomā’, I think I felt disappointed in the translation but didn’t feel like it was my place to speak out,” she says. “Reading the responses on Twitter from other Chinese people who have discovered it in the last few days, I can see the real hurt it has caused.”
That hurt comes from the context of the common derogatory use of the greeting in Aotearoa, explains Zhu. “A lot of Chinese or even ‘Chinese-looking’ people will have experienced being greeted or shouted at with an unsolicited and badly pronounced ‘ni hao’ by a non-Chinese person at some point in our lives,” she says.
Zhu has also experienced the greeting being delivered with well-meaning intentions, and adds that there’s nothing innately belittling about being greeted with a phrase from your mother tongue – if it is your mother tongue, that is. Despite that, for many Chinese New Zealanders, the word is more associated with being mocked and belittled, than with anything positive.
In the past, tongue-in-cheek translations for other groups have gone without criticism. The kupu for French, for example, is Ngāti Wīwī, a reference to the prevalence of French settlers saying “oui, oui”. And then there’s the kupu for Scottish, Kōtimana – a transliteration of Scotsman. Understanding the difference in connotations requires reflecting on our history. The experience of being Chinese in this country has been distinctly tinted by racism — and that’s not the case with being French or Scottish.
“I will never claim to ever be able to understand all the nuances and depth within te reo Māori,” Zhu says. “As a reo speaker I can simultaneously see how this transliteration happened without offensive intentions as well as see why it is offensive.”
Part of the complexity of the discussion is that the original and more commonly used word Hainamana is tinged with racism too, “because it is a transliteration of ‘Chinaman’, which is an outdated and offensive term for Chinese people historically,” Zhu says.
Still, Zhu feels that there’s a difference between the connotations of the two words. “Maybe I have just become so accustomed to using the kupu, but when I hear the kupu Hainamana I feel very differently than when I hear the English word ‘Chinaman’,” she says. “To me, and I think some others, we have felt the kupu Hainamana is a reclamation of sorts.”
Foon’s advice? “Leave Hainamana alone, it’s been with us since 1842,” he says. “I don’t feel Hainamana is derogatory.”
The discussion surrounding both terms opens up the potential to create a brand new kupu – perhaps one that’s more expressive of contemporary Chinese identity and all its nuances, the direct relationship between Chinese New Zealanders and Tangata Whenua, and potentially one that bypasses the need to be mediated by the English language altogether.
At least, that would be the ideal. “I’m sure there aren’t enough resources for Te Taura Whiri to do deep-dive analysis of all cultures,” Zhu says. “So I can understand why the shorthand of transliterations from English happens, as imperfect as it is.”
In a statement to The Spinoff, a spokesperson from Te Taura Whiri said, “We are reviewing how these words were created as the use of the words Hainamana and Nīhaomā in this context is inappropriate and incorrect. We apologise for the confusion their use has created.”
“From now on and until further notice we will be requesting that our staff no longer use Hainamana and Nīhaomā in these ways and that the word Haina is used in the interim as a way to refer to China,” the spokesperson said.
In the end, while language authorities have a vital influence, it’s the community that decides how words are used, and how commonly proliferated they become. In the case of “Nīhaomā”, uptake seems relatively scant – and at this rate it looks unlikely it will be adopted in place of its predecessor word Hainamana. Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the conversation.
“I think the answer is just for dialogue to happen and it’s great that Te Taura Whiri responded quickly on Twitter to acknowledge the hurt caused,” says Zhu. “Everyone makes mistakes and now that hurt has been realised, we can only discuss together what changes can be made to prevent that from happening again.”