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Rosalea Barker: What does New Zealand mean?

Stateside with Rosalea: What does New Zealand mean?


I was asked that question last week by someone in a workplace literacy programme. It was asked in the context of introducing ourselves and talking about what our names mean. New Zealand, I said, doesn't mean anything. It's just the name given to some squiggles on a chart that Abel Tasman took back from his explorations of the Pacific. The story goes that he thought the squiggles so insignificant he left it to the map-maker's apprentice to make up a name, and the apprentice was feeling nostalgic for his home province of Zeeland.

A couple of weeks earlier I'd been asked by someone at work important enough to have a monthly planner and a need to look ahead, "What is Waitangi Day?". Sure enough, there on planners and desk calendars all over America is "Waitangi Day, New Zealand" for February 6. That's a great question to be asked because it lets you explain things in terms of something Americans can relate to - a founding document and a treaty made with indigenous people. Who would even bother to ask about it if the holiday was called New Zealand Day, I wondered.

I'm no rabid patriot, and I disdain that proclivity as inducive to cultural arrogance at best and senseless violence at worst (or is that the other way around?) but ex-pat fever is like "Candid Camera". When you least expect it you get caught saying and doing the daftest things. Like suddenly yelling out to the collected bevy of becalmed yachts waiting to race on San Francisco Bay, "I'm from New Zealand, and we've got the America's Cup!".

Ex-pat fever causes you to eavesdrop on conversations when you hear a certain twang to see if the person says "six" or "seex". It makes you circumnavigate the ad rotunda on the corner of Market St and Van Ness Avenue in the heart of San Francisco because it's got Air New Zealand ads on it - a golf course in the Bay of Islands, a vineyard at Lake Wanaka - with breathtaking images of green and blue and white.

For most of the Americans I've met that is what New Zealand means. Mountains. Clean air. Clean water. Green pastures. "Why would you want to leave there?" they ask, incredulous at my foolishness. "The libraries here are bigger," I say. Humankind's original hyperlink - that leaping-off place to a million different connections and discoveries - The City - is bigger here. The opportunities and the challenges are bigger here. Besides, you need help and New Zealanders are qualified to give it.

Well, of course, I don't actually say that, because as a piece of cultural arrogance it pretty much takes the cake, but it's hard to look at this nation of people for whom the only thing worth more than gold is fame and not feel sorry for them. Their eating habits are shocking, leading to debilitating diseases that strain their society's ability to take care of the ill and elderly. Their dwellings are full of unsavory recirculated air. They prefer to incarcerate their wayward young people than to educate them.

As for their political institutions - they cling to the old ways, now hundreds of years out of date both in concept and in implementation, because those to whom power has devolved under those old ways will have to be prised out by a popular insurrection and they've made sure there's zero chance of that happening. Everyone's too busy chasing gold and fame - which are in just sufficient supply to convince everyone they're attainable - to want to muss up their hair when they might be interviewed on the shopping channel or be a contestant on "Survivor" at any moment.

If there was ever a moment ripe for saying to Americans "Who put the "mock" in democracy?", this is the moment. If there was ever a time to convince Californians that they can consume less and still survive this is that time. Not by protesting the state legislature's bail-out of the local energy companies but by each individual household slashing energy use as a form of boycott thus taking the market price back into consumers' hands as demand drops and prices fall. "I'm mad as hell and I'm going to turn off my lights!"

On the wall of an alcove in the Seattle Art Museum are some words from a speech attributed to Chief Sealth - after whom the city is named - at a meeting called by the governor of the Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens, in 1854. It wasn't written down till 30 years later and belongs to the "Noble Savage Meets Petty Official and Relinquishes Everything" school of historical reportage that was popular at the time and which enjoys a periodic revival when it suits descendants of either side. Various reworkings of the speech became popular in the seventies, particularly in the environmental movement because it speaks eloquently of the endurance of the land and the spirits that inhabit it.

The full text of the speech is singularly depressing, containing sentences like: "However, your proposition seems a just one, and I think my folks will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them.... It matters but little where we pass the remainder of our days." How different that is from the hope and the intentions of the Treaty of Waitangi with its strong assertion of the rights of the people whose culture would be forever changed by the huge influx of immigrants already visible on the horizon.

What does New Zealand mean? It's just an everyday name - like the name of a sheepdog that gets the job done. But there's a pedigree name as well, a name that tells of the ancestry and the place in the world of those squiggles on Abe's map. The name that says "Have faith that even in uncharted seas in rough, open water, even in your tiny craft, you'll find landfall - because you know what signs to look for." Aotearoa. Rugged individual. Land of the long white cloud.

God bless.

Lea Barker
California
3 February, 2001


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