Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"I've never met anyone who doesn't speak two languages"

A few days ago I went out for coffee with some of my coworkers and not surprisingly, I was the topic of conversation. They asked the usual questions like where I'm from in the US, what I did back home, etc. Like many people, they were curious as to why I'd chosen to come to New Zealand and I explained that it was one of the easiest places for me to get a work permit. I also added that my travel choices are somewhat limited by the fact that I only speak one language.

And that's where the conversation came to a screeching halt.

"You only speak one language?" they asked incredulously. "You must speak something else!" No, not really... I took French in high school and can understand very basic Spanish, but that's about as far as it goes.

"But you're Indian," one said. "Don't you speak an Indian language?" I explained that only my father is Indian, and since my mother doesn't speak Tamil (my dad's first language) I didn't grow up around it. My coworkers were stunned. I mentioned that a lot of immigrant parents in the US really stress English, and soon the conversation quickly broadened from language to culture as a whole. "Culture is very important to us here in New Zealand," they told me. "I can't imagine not learning about your culture and your ancestors and everything they went through to give you the life you have today."

An interesting similarity between the US and New Zealand is that both strongly identify as nations of immigrants. However, the way that this plays out is very different. The US sees itself as a melting pot (and happily throws that term around), while Kiwis definitely appear to be more of a "tossed salad" (I don't know if they use that term). To me the main difference between these is that in the US, becoming an American pretty much means renouncing whatever nationality/culture/identity you had before. We become hyphenated Americans--Asian Americans, African Americans, etc. (whether or not you actually use a hyphen is a whole other blog entry in itself)--and these identities are distinct from the cultures of our ancestries. I identify as "Indian American" but not as "Indian." That's not the case with New Zealanders. You can be an Indian and a Kiwi at the same time, and it doesn't seem like they question that concept. As the generations continue, people are still able to maintain their ancestral identities while also being Kiwis. Because of their different perspective, they think that I, and other Americans, have lost my culture.

So because I don't identify as Indian, am I devoid of culture as way my coworkers seem to think? To me, the answer is both yes and no. I definitely don't know as much about my Indian ancestry (or my European ancestry, for that matter) as I wish I did, and I could definitely devote more time to learning about it and involving myself with it. But on the other hand, lacking Indian culture does not leave me without any culture at all. There is quite a bit of culture that is uniquely American (and I should know; it was my major in college, after all), and the longer I spend overseas the more I realize how closely I identify with many of those uniquely American things. Though I like the idea of being able to identify as Indian and American at the same time, I also like the acknowledgment that it is a different experience to be an American (or a Kiwi) with an Indian ancestry. Americans could definitely learn a lot from Kiwis in the way that they see ancestry and multiculturalism, but I think that the American interpretation cannot be written off completely.

On a side note, I have a question for you, the reader. As you were reading this blog entry, how did you picture my coworkers? Specifically, what race/ethnicity did you picture them to be? They all happen to be Maori, and I definitely wonder if I will have any similar conversations with Kiwis who are white. And I also can't help but wonder if this conversation would have happened if I were white. Not that it should/shouldn't have happened no matter what the racial breakdown of the group, but it's just something to think about.


teana said...

the fact that your coworkers were maori has me wondering if non-maori kiwis share that belief, that it's possible to be, say, asian and kiwi. maybe, and please note that my knowledge is very limited, because some maori live in ethnic enclaves, like a chinatown or something [these comparisons seem kinda bad]. if so, it's understandable that they're connected to their culture...they're living it with other people who share that commonality so it's easier to be more connected.

now if they were plopped down else where and grew up in a majority white environment, would they still have that same connection?

Beth said...

Are there a lot of people who are part Maori and part something else? I wonder what their opinion would be.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly sure there are no fullblooded Maori anymore. Not even sure if there are those with 50% Maori blood either... If there are, there are not many.

FAIRY said...

I am new to the blogsite. I just searched some of Indian's blogs and found out yours to be very interesting. Hope you know one other language by now. It is very exceptional in your case.