This Te Wiki o Te Reo we’re sharing the stories of New Zealanders who have challenged themselves to learn te reo Māori. Today: journalist Shilo Kino (Tainui, Ngāpuhi) writes about finding her way home through studying Mandarin.
I was a visitor even though it was ‘my’ marae.
I watched my mother kneel down, mumble something under her breath and kiss my aunty, who had passed away. She motioned me to do the same but it scared me. I had never seen anything like it. My cousins, who I had never met, sung loudly, their voices echoing between the walls of the marae. I didn’t know what they were singing. But I wished I could sing like that.
Fast forward 15 years. I’m at a marae on a university trip with my Pākehā classmates. For most of them, it was a first.
A visitor asked us who in the class were Māori. I raised my hand. So did a few others but she decided to call on me. She looked me directly in the eye and asked me something in te reo. I was dumbstruck.
“Nō hea koe (where are you from)?” I couldn’t answer her. I didn’t know how. The look of disappointment on her face still haunts me.
My world was very much Pākehā-fied. Growing up, I don’t remember doing anything associated with my culture except not being allowed to sit on tables and every few years attending tangi and family reunions at my marae in Te Kuiti. I learned about the Treaty of Waitangi at school and from Google. The only time I thought about my iwi was when I wrote it on a scholarship form. I took on a whole new identity and allowed society to mould me.
My parents are both Māori. My dad hails from Tainui and my mum from Ngāpuhi. Maybe there is a mix of European ancestry in there too, I don’t know. But for the most part, my heritage is predominantly Māori.
My dad pronounces Māori ‘marry’. I think it’s a joke but it’s not so much a joke anymore because that’s how people actually say it.
My grandparents had the Māori language beaten out of them so I can’t blame them or my parents. My mum even tried enrolling me in Te Kōhanga Reo. Truthfully, back then most Māori probably thought it would be better to embrace Pākehā culture than their own culture. Sad, aye?
But hey, even if I struggled with my identity, society definitely knew what I was. I remember going to the dairy as a kid with my white friend. There was a little counter where we could pick the lollies we wanted, put it in a bag ourselves and then go and pay for it. We would tell the shopkeeper how many lollies we had (back when the world was a little more trusting) and then pay. The shopkeeper happily took my white friends money, but when she saw me, she emptied out my entire bag and counted each lolly one by one. It was the longest minute of my life. From that point on, I knew I was Māori.
I learnt Mandarin when I served an 18-month mission in Hong Kong. A crazy language with five tones that nearly caused a breakdown on several occasions. But I learned it and I learned how to converse with others comfortably and teach people about my faith in their native tongue.
As I learned the Chinese language, something incredible happened. I fell madly in love with the culture. Their customs, traditions, food, everything. It was like their culture became a part of me. Even now that I’m back home, I feel connected with the Chinese people here. More so than my own culture.
Māori is the official language of Aotearoa. My Chinese friends back in Hong Kong thought I was joking when I told them I was Māori, a native of my own country, and unable to speak my own language. They told me it would be like a Chinese person, born in China, with Chinese ancestry, not being able to speak any Chinese.
We all laughed, because we knew that would never happen. But it happened to Māori and it’s sad and ridiculous. And in all honestly, I was a little embarrassed.
The world is noisy and chaotic and it is easy to get lost amongst the crowd. Identity is important. It is about knowing who you are and where you have come from. Everyone needs that. A sense of belonging. It gives us confidence. It changes the perception of ourselves. Instead of the world telling us who we are, we already know.
I know for me, I will make an effort to visit my marae more and I will learn about my whakapapa so I can understand where I come from.
And I will learn the language of my tūpuna.
There are free te reo Māori classes at multiple institutes all over the country. Heck, you can learn from home now. There’s no excuse anymore. Māori need to take control.
And maybe the quest to know and understand my culture won’t ever end. Perhaps it will be a lifelong pursuit before I can truly understand. But I know one thing is clear. I need my language back. Not just for my children and grandchildren, but for the generations that will follow after them. And for a society that has struggled to accept my true identity.
The foundation of Māori culture, the connection to our rich history, of who we are, our relationship back to our people that came before us, has been washed away in a sea of whiteness. I need my language back because it’s what makes me who I am. Although I can speak Mandarin, I’m not Chinese. I’m certainly not Pākehā. I am Māori.
I look forward to the day where there won’t be any backlash for a reporter on a mainstream news channel reading out the weather in te reo Māori.
I look forward to the day when announcements over the airport, buses and trains, will be in English and Māori. Or the day everyone will make an effort to pronounce our names correctly, so my niece doesn’t have to tell people to just call her ‘Ma’ because her real name, Mahinarangi, is too hard to say.
When I walk down the street, I hear conversations in English, Chinese and sometimes Korean. I look forward to the day I will hear te reo Māori too.
And I hope fate will grace me another opportunity to meet that visitor again so she can ask me, ‘Nō hea koe?’ I hope I can answer her proudly, knowing deep down who I truly am.
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