The Auckland that Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman found herself in as a nine-year-old was starkly Pākehā – to the point that she assumed Māori must be refugees, too.
Ghahraman’s memoir, Know Your Place, is out this week and opens with a tense recounting of her family’s flight from Iran in 1990. Parts of this essay are drawn from the book.
Those first days in New Zealand were a haze of blue-green. This wasn’t just a different place. We were different. We lived without fear. We had shed the ever-present anxiety that comes with living under a violent dictatorship. We walked outside without covering our hair or our skin. We moved about in wonder. We smiled more easily. Such was our eagerness to be here, to fit in.
Although our situation was uncertain, things made sense. What strikes me when I look back with the distance of three decades is that we didn’t know anything about this place other than it was a free Western country. We encountered New Zealand as a Pākehā nation. We did not have a strong sense that we had moved to a South Pacific island nation, colonised by the British Crown. Instead, just as we looked at our own culture under the Islamic regime with a little disdain, we glorified a lot of what we encountered here as superior because it was Western and we embraced it fully. We were in the lavender haze.
I don’t remember feeling homesick. It was springtime in this upside-down part of the world. The air was chilly, but bright. The greens in the grass and trees were brand-new mints. Everything was constantly washed in sun showers. I was nine years old. I walked around taking mental snapshots of the new things around me. I would look at the big tree outside my school, the unfamiliar row of shops up the road, and think, “That will just be ‘that tree’, ‘my school’, and ‘our local shops’ soon.” I daydreamed about how I would walk by these things, all without even thinking about it. I imagined the gaggle of girlfriends I would soon have at school. In time, we would share memories of the funny things that had happened while we were sitting together on our school’s lawn, walking past our local shops. I tried to remember how big it was to start school in Iran at first, and how small it soon became, how I became a part of the old guard as new kids came through. I thought about that happening here in Auckland one day.
One thing I’ll always cherish about New Zealand is that we arrived here with nothing, and that didn’t seem to matter. On St Leonards Road, in Kelston, where we lived, no one had a whole lot more than anyone else. People always bought used cars, rather than flash new ones. No one dressed in fancy clothes, no matter the occasion. Bare feet were summer wear. This was mind-blowingly casual to us. I remember the number of times people asked us things like, “Did you have refrigerators/cars/microwaves in Iran?” and we would glance down at their bare feet, thinking, “You’re not wearing shoes!” But this was liberation.
During the 2017 election, I ran as a candidate in West Auckland. It felt like a defining choice. I returned to the street on which my family and I had first lived. There I found things starkly, wonderfully unchanged. There were the two little convenience stores and a couple of food outlets, all run by people of South Asian heritage, the same as I remembered it. The storefronts were filled with South Asian snack foods right next to all the old Kiwi-brand lollies, toffee chocolate slabs, sour balls, and pick-and-mix baggies. This was the place where I first encountered diversity.
Today, when I comment on issues of race or immigration as a politician, I come to that from the lived experience of a first generation refugee, a migrant of colour, arriving in New Zealand in 1990. It is a useful point of reference, anecdotal as it is. My family and I were simultaneously the subject of the migrant race experience and objective observers of it. We didn’t expect much by way of a welcome or even equality. We were grateful. But we didn’t come with a sense of degradation, which is borne from experiencing generational racism. We didn’t yet carry the burden of feeling inferior or resentful. Indeed, we weren’t forced to carry that deep sense of rage and grief that must come from the intergenerational trauma of colonisation. Over time, there comes to be an internalised self-hate and systemically imposed inferiority complex from knowing certain doors will not be open to you. It comes from living with knowing that people like you probably won’t be getting the job. So, migrants give up trying to compete against the status quo in the job market, and start businesses and drive taxis instead. We learn to make self-deprecating jokes about our own food and accents. We have to own the exclusion or it will crush us. We didn’t learn that until later. In those early days, we walked around with our heads high. We felt a kinship with all other persons of colour, who we assumed were migrants, even Māori.
When I think back to that first encounter with “multiculturalism”, I’m struck by how monocultural the society we encountered in fact was. As much as we saw other migrants and persons of colour coexisting around us in West Auckland, in terms of dominant cultural cues, Aotearoa as we experienced it through the 1990s was a starkly Pākehā society. Pākehā culture and history dominated the national identity and was presented to us as “Kiwi”. “Kiwi food” was pies and lamingtons. The language was English. Kiwis loved rugby in winter and cricket in summer. Even the books I read through my school years were mostly by English or American authors, with a bit of Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame on the side, and one short story by Patricia Grace.
The striking thing for me now is that there was no strong indication of the special cultural place or rights of Māori as our indigenous people. Since Māori myth or culture wasn’t highlighted at all to us once we got here, it was detached from New Zealand’s modern-day myths about the All Blacks and who invented the pavlova. Te reo Māori was certainly not taught, at least not in any school I attended until high school, where a separate class existed teaching a te reo Māori curriculum separated from the mainstream curriculum. I feel embarrassed now knowing we entered a colonised land without appreciation of its tangata whenua. That migrants regularly integrate into the Crown’s New Zealand without this understanding is to me a breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It’s also a huge loss to all our communities. Since learning about the New Zealand wars, and the violence and repression of Māori culture motivated by resource grab, I see how much our refugee experience might have helped us relate to Māori and understand the history of our new refuge.
After the Christchurch Mosque terror attacks, it was Māori who lifted the voices and experiences of the Muslim and migrant communities. It was Māori who stood up to the fast setting popular narrative that may have absolved our racist systems to say “actually, this is us”, because we have experienced race-based violence before. Maybe there is a reason police weren’t recording reported hate crimes against communities of colour, maybe our systems have always targeted one group and absolved another. Maybe that is because we are missing from narratives about victimhood and violence. It was invaluable to share those experiences across marginalised communities. We are holding to that as we fight police armament today.
Instead of this, in those early days of refugee-dom, my family focused on merging into the Kiwiana around us as well as we could, ignorant to the deeper obstacles ahead.
Know Your Place by Golriz Ghahraman (HarperCollins NZ, $39.99) is available from Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.