28 July 2015

What is a Kiwi?

by Dr Mark Keown

What is a Kiwi? Well, according to the freedictionary.com it is “Any of several flightless birds of the genus Apteryx native to New Zealand, having vestigial wings and a long slender bill. Also called apteryx.” This led me to look up vestigial wings, which are apparently things on the body that have lost most or all of their ancestral function; in the case of the Kiwi, the ability to fly.

The dictionary also lists a Kiwifruit as a Kiwi. It is interesting in the light of this blog post that originally the Kiwifruit was Chinese. It originated from north, central, and eastern China and was commonly called the Chinese Gooseberry. It spread to NZ from China in the early 20th century. So, the Kiwifruit which has become a quintessential kiwi icon is an immigrant from China. Interesting.

The dictionary gives another meaning, and this is the meaning that interests me: a Kiwi is “a New Zealander.” Now in popular NZ culture, the term “Kiwi” is not quite used as the Dictionary suggests. Usually, it is used of a “European” Kiwi, i.e. someone who has identified as a New Zealander from European descent. It helps to have a Kiwi accent to be absolutely recognised in this camp. Someone with an English accent may still be called a Pom, or someone with an Australian accent an Aussie, etc. But, generally speaking, the epithet is applied to New Zealanders who speaks with a NZ accent, or more broadly, a European Kiwi. Often it is not used of Polynesian New Zealanders, and even less so of Asian New Zealanders—especially those with an Asian accent.

I often hear Christians use this language as well. Indeed, I find myself using it at times. In recent times, however, I have made a resolution to do my darndest to stop using it as I have and is popular. The reason is that doing so perpetuates an implicit racism that pervades our society (church included). That is, a Kiwi is implicitly understood to be a white New Zealander with a NZ accent. This inadvertently creates an in and out mentality. Us Kiwis of European descent tend to see people who are different from the dominant white majority, as different, and as invading out turf. They are changing our culture. By using Kiwi of white NZers we perpetuate this myth.

And it is a myth! Maori were the first NZers, the first Kiwis, and they are Polynesians. So, if anyone is a Kiwi, a Maori is. They are Tangata Whenua; a Maori is a Kiwi of Kiwis (cf. Phil 3:5). In 2013, 15% of Kiwis identified as Maori. If there is a degree of kiwi scale, they are most Kiwi Kiwis you can find.

The second “lot” of Kiwis are people like my family which came to NZ in the great European migration of the 1800s up to the present. Within a generation or two we took on a NZ accent, and we are recognised as Kiwis. And we are. According to the 2013 census, 74% of Kiwis identified with at least one European ethnicity.

Then there has been the great Pacific migration especially in the mid-late 1900s. 7% of Kiwis identify with at least one Pacifica people group.

There has also been the more recent wave of Asian immigrants to NZ. 12% of Kiwis identify with at least one Asian identity. We cannot also forget that there are many Kiwis now from the Middle East, Latin and South America, North America, and other African countries. These are as Kiwi as my, a sixth generation NZer on both sides of my whanau. A quarter of NZers then are Kiwis but are not European. Many have a different accent, different skin colour, different facial features, but they are Kiwi as you and I.

It is time to jettison the whole “a Kiwi is a European thing” or “a Kiwi is a white person with a NZ accent,” and adjust our perspective and language. We all came off a waka from somewhere, whether it be this generation or an earlier one. If someone has made NZ their home, they are a Kiwi. A Kiwi is no longer necessarily white, and their accents vary (although by the second generation they usually have a common accent).

I find myself having interesting conversations with immigrants. As you do, the question of origins comes up. They might say something like, I came here from South Korea about 15 years ago. Warmly, I will say something like, “So you are a Kiwi then.” They will respond, something like, “oh no, I am a Korean,” or look at me quizzically.

If appropriate, I will push them a bit. “Oh, are you planning to go back and live there.”

They almost always say, “No, I am staying here.”

Often they will express their love for NZ. I will say to them, “so you are a Kiwi then, a Korean Kiwi, you know you can be both ☺.”

Then I will get into a conversation about all this. I find generally that this is received very favourably. Maybe it helps them. I am not sure, but I find it helps me. I am learning that my euro-centric understanding of kiwiism is breaking down as I determine to treat anyone who calls NZ home a Kiwi.

I think it is essential in the church that we do this. We need to recognise that NZ is shifting, especially Auckland. Take a look at the NZ sports teams; they are full of wonderfully gifted Kiwis who have settled in NZ—South African Kiwis like Irene van Dyk, Korean Kiwis like Lydia Ko and Danny Lee, Polynesian Kiwis like Julian Savea or Kevin Mealamu, and more. These people are as Kiwi as you and I. When they begin to fill up our churches, as they are now doing especially in Auckland (PRAISE GOD!), this is not some kind of challenge to “our culture.” Rather it is exciting and thrilling! They just got here a little after us. After all, our forebears ALL came from somewhere else.

I love the way NZ is changing. It is renewing us. I delight in the shift in the church. Churches like my own are now a glorious mix of Kiwis from all over the world. Our community nights are awesome, and food is fantastic. Our discipleship is deepening. We are getting to understand the wonderful truth that in Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, European nor Asian, African nor Maori, Chinese or Iranian. We get a weekly vision of Rev 7:9–12.

So in sum, I suggest we all rethink how we use the term “kiwi.” Of course we don’t need to collapse our vibrant cultures into one bland Kiwi thing. I like the idea of people having the choice of saying, I am a Korean Kiwi for example, or retaining their Korean identity. However, if say a Chinese person who has settled here defines themselves as “a Kiwi,” I say good on them and “yeah baby yeah.”

The truth is that there are many species of kiwi, all human, all making this wonderful nation home—just as all kiwis from the apteryx family are kiwis. Just as the Chinese Gooseberry has become the Kiwifruit through immigration, so indeed there are many and from this global village becoming Kiwi. Let us embrace them. There are a lot of implicit things in our language and attitude that need to change. I think this is one of them.

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