Monday, July 31, 2006

Tangi, Part 2

On Tuesday morning, Candida (the British girl who was my foreigner buddy at the tangi) pulled me into the kitchen. She had overheard one of the managers berating Rebecca for taking us to the tangi. The manager had felt that taking us was inappropriate, as Candida and I had no connection to the deceased or her family.

I won’t get into the questions of whether the manager was acting appropriately for chastising Rebecca about something that occurred outside of work hours, or whether this was an improper expression of authority. The question I’m more interested in is whether the manager was right. Was it inappropriate for us to attend?

There’s no question that Candida and I were attending specifically for the cultural value of the experience, and that this was the pretext under which we were invited (at least that’s what I assumed). Rebecca knew that we were interested in learning about Maori culture, and that a tangi is something that a “regular” tourist would not have access to. I felt honoured to be welcomed to such a private occasion. When we told others in the office that we were going, they didn’t seem to think that it was strange or disrespectful. Instead they gave us a little background on what would happen, and the next day asked about our impressions.

However, I can see where the manager was coming from in her disapproval. Our attendance could easily be seen as objectifying an occasion that really, really should not be objectified. Funerals are not shows for tourists, and in many ways it’s pretty offensive to even consider this idea. It seems very exploitive in a lot of ways.

In this case I don’t feel like we acted inappropriately because I don’t think Candida or I saw this as a tourist event. But it makes me wonder where the line is between what’s okay for tourists and what’s not. If I as an individual who is living in New Zealand am invited by a coworker to a cultural event where I’m the only foreigner, I don’t see much of a problem, especially if I am adhering to the customs, etc. Taken to the other extreme, it would be horrible for a busload of tourists to show up at a funeral snapping pictures, etc. But the line gets blurrier in the middle.

When I came to New Zealand back in high school, we spent the night on a marae. The night included a traditional meal and a show with traditional dancing. We did adhere to many of the customs—we touched noses with our hosts, we took off our shoes inside the marae, etc.—but it was a clearly a situation designed specifically for tourists. I am a little torn as to whether this was exploitive or not. On the one hand, I learned a lot about Maori culture, traditions, custom, etc. and that experience was a highlight of the entire trip. It was my first introduction to Maori culture, and one of our only opportunities for this on the trip.

But because the visit was a sightseeing activity, packed in between things like visiting wildlife parks and hiking on volcanoes, did that somehow demean the situation? I can’t help but think that a postcard home might have read something like, “Dear Mom and Dad, Today we saw kiwi birds, hot pools, and Maoris.” I get annoyed with people who, for example, vacation in Hawaii, spending the week at a resort and then one night going to a luau and feeling like they learned about the culture. But on the other hand, at least they tried to learn about the culture. And even if they were truly, respectfully interested in learning about the culture, the tourist luau may be the only opportunity they had. Human cultures aren’t--and shouldn't be--like zoos or wildlife parks where you can just go observe when you feel like it.

I definitely think it makes a difference who is running the tourist attraction. Since the marae we visited was run by Maori people, they were the ones who were opening up their culture and inviting the tourists in. Still, people can definitely contribute to the oppression and objectification of their own culture, and when money is involved there are a lot who are willing to do so. Just look at all the actors of color who take stereotypical, offensive roles. So how can I, as a tourist, tell the difference?

I guess the answers to these questions aren’t going to come any time soon, and I’m going to remain feeling awkward about the way I’m learning about Maori culture. It’s especially challenging because as an American with European ancestry, I am doubly placed in a position as an oppressor with regards to Maoris, so I feel like, by default, I am coming into the situation from a paternalistic or condescending position (or at least may appear that way). It would definitely be a different situation if I were trying to learn about, for example, French culture. The challenge is increased because there’s no easy comparison with US culture (at least not one that I can think of--I'm definitely open to any suggestions), which is usually what helps me better understand and work through these situations.

But for now I guess all I can do is remain cognizant of my questions and try my hardest to act in ways that I feel are respectful. Moreover, I recognize how lucky I am to have met wonderful, generous people who are willing to share their culture with me.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tangi, Part 1

Yesterday, my coworker Rebecca, who has very kindly been looking for Maori cultural events for me to attend, invited me to a tangi (a Maori funeral practice). Definitely an atypical experience for a tourist, there was a lot to take in and a lot I want to write about, but for this entry I’m narrowing it down to just one train of thought. More to come later.

Like funerals anywhere in the world, there was quite a bit of traditional protocol to follow. Fortunately, Rebecca and her two friends we went with took good care to explain what to do. Also fortunate was that Rebecca also invited Candida, a coworker of ours who is on working holiday from London. I was definitely thankful to have another outsider with whom I could exchange looks of “What are we supposed to be doing?”

The ceremony was at a marae and started with everyone gathering outside, the women in front and men in the rear. The group was welcomed on to the marae through song, and we entered in a line, now with the men first. Each person was greeted at the door by the elders of the marae (I think that’s who they were), and then went through a receiving line, greeting the members of the grieving family. This part was especially confusing for me because there were different ways of greeting, and I couldn’t figure out much of a pattern to it. I learned on my last trip to NZ that the traditional Maori way of greeting someone is to grasp right hands and touch noses, so I was expecting that. But some people followed it with a kiss on the cheek, and others just did the kiss on the cheek. I tried to just copy whatever Rebecca was doing, but since she knew some of the family members, so she of course greeted people more intimately with long hugs, etc. It’s the same kind of awkwardness as I’ve found at funerals, weddings, etc. at home where you wonder whether it’s appropriate to hug, shake hands, or whatever (remember the “Friends” episode where Rachel kissed her interviewer?). But at home I’m familiar with the clues that tell me what to do, and for the most part I know I’m not going to break any cultural taboos by going for the hug when the other person was thinking handshake. But here there's a different set of social rules, and I don't know how to pick up on the clues.

Luckily for me, it seems as though the people I met were used to dealing with clueless outsiders. In my fumbling through the receiving line, people kindly told me what to do and said comforting things like “It’s hard to know, isn’t it?” It seems as though the Maoris I met are used to this because they encounter it when dealing with non-Maoris. It’s only natural that non-Maori people will end up attending important events, such as funerals or weddings, that follow Maori traditions. Also, based on my interactions with my flatmates and other pakeha (white New Zealanders), it seems that many are relatively ignorant of many aspects of Maori culture. So this was not likely the first (or the last) time that the Maoris I met last night will have to tell someone “Just touch noses.”

My first reaction is to find it disheartening that the pakhea—who have lived next door to Maori culture their entire lives—wouldn’t know what to do in situations like this. I mean, if I, someone who has only been in New Zealand a short time, know that you’re supposed to touch noses with someone as a greeting, shouldn’t people who’ve grown up here? How is it that last night was my second time on a marae, but one of my flatmates has never been on one? Shouldn’t these people be ashamed of themselves?

But upon more reflection, the answer is more complicated than assuming that any pakeha ignorance is the result of a racist and/or imperialist attitude. Firstly (haha, Kiwis say things like “firstly” and “secondly” here all the time—it still sounds funny to me), I have to remember that I have spent eight hours a day, five days a week for the past two months working with a group of people who are almost all Maori and whose job is to address Maori issues. Moreover, I have been actively seeking out education on Maori culture. So it's not really that surprising (though not necessarily acceptable) that I would have picked up more language, ideas, etc. than my flatmates who grew up in Christchurch, a city with a small Maori population.

Secondly (see, doesn’t it sound weird?), I have to think about comparative situations I might encounter at home. I’ve never felt ashamed of myself when attending, say, a Bar Mitzvah or an Indian wedding or a Catholic funeral and not knowing all the proper protocol. I have lived my life in close contact with Jews, Indians, Catholics, etc., but I am not necessarily well-versed in their cultures, let alone cultural ceremonies. Is this the same situation? Should I be ashamed that I don’t know more about my friends’ and neighbors’ cultures?

Maybe I should be ashamed in some respects, but I also think it would be weird if I did know everything that was going on when attending cultural events where I'm an outsider. Part of what makes cultural affiliation so empowering is the ownership that comes with it. I’ve definitely felt a possessiveness when people who are not a part of my culture (whatever that may be in a particular situation) try to be “down” (for lack of a better term). As an outsider to Maori culture, while it would be wrong of me to disrespect their cultural practices and not try to learn proper protocol, it’s also wrong of me to expect that they would want to share everything with me (or anyone else). There’s a time for educating outsiders and a time for just being with your own people, and as an outsider I don't get to choose which is which.

I guess what I end up struggling with is how to learn about other cultures in a respectful way. I am not trying to be a voyeur, but I’m also not necessarily trying to fit in. In studying another culture, where does the balance tip from genuine interest to objectification? And even when I am genuinely interested, what right do I have to have that interest met?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Ring Ring

My job requires me to do make a lot of phone calls, and this has led me to a weird discovery of a new cell phone technology that I have not yet encountered in the States. Not only can Kiwis change the ring of their cell phone for incoming calls, they can change the ring that the caller hears while waiting for the cell phone owner to pick up. So basically what happens is that you hear "ring ring" like any normal phone and then all of a sudden some music (I assume chosen by the cell phone owner) plays over the ringing. I was a little confused the first time this happened, hearing Aretha Franklin's "Respect" playing as the phone was ringing.

This is by no means a bad technology, and I figure that it won't be long until it's introduced at home (if it hasn't been already... I have been away for six months now). The problem comes more that people don't know what to do with new technology. Just as people choose stupid cell phone rings that embarrass them when their phone rings in public, people have been choosing pretty stupid rings that I hear when I'm calling. This is the same thing that happened when we first got answering machines and people thought it was funny to record stupid messages, and the same thing that happened when people were allowed to choose their own email addresses. The rule translates pretty easily: If you're going to use your answering machine for business purposes, don't record have your three year old do the recording. If you're your email is for business, "" is a poor choice. And if you're going to give out your cell phone number for business purposes, I just don't think you should choose to have Jaime Foxx's "Slow Jamz" playing in the background.


PS- Sorry about the lack of blogging lately. Please address all concerns to my job, which has blocked access to

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Brush with Fame

Originally I was going to just email this anecdote to Emily, but I figured that others might be interested as well.

A few days ago I was eating lunch with some coworkers and the subject of Lord of the Rings came up. Not surprising given that we are in Wellington, home of Peter Jackson, his studios, and most of the LOTR filming locations. One of my coworkers, Albert, casually threw into the discussion, "Oh yeah, I was in that." Awesome! I had lunch (actually, multiple lunches) with a movie star!

Albert said he was an extra in the Helms Deep battle. He's a pretty big guy so I can see how it would not take much makeup/costuming to make him look the part of a Middle Earth warrior or whatever. Unfortunately he said that you can't see him at all in the movie. Not too surprising, but still disappointing. It guess this whole movie extra thing is not really that exciting for Wellintonians because apparently everyone and their mom who was living in Wellington during the filming got to be an extra, but it's still cool to me.

Albert did give us all the dirt (or at least as much dirt as an extra can get), so of course I have to share:

  • Filming for his part lasted two days, and he said that mostly it was a lot of standing around and being cold.
  • He did get to meet Peter Jackson, but the extent of the meeting was Jackson shaking his hand and saying thank you.
  • Viggo Mortensen kept everyone entertained by yelling "For Frodo!" overdramatically.
  • He did not get to meet/see Liv Tyler
  • Overall he found the actors just to be regular guys
  • ... although, he said that Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom were way too pretty and that their faces were so chiseled that they didn't look real.
  • He had to sign pages and pages of confidentiality agreements. They were not kidding about keeping it under wraps.
So now that I have met Albert I am probably one step closer to Kevin Bacon. And I'll be on the lookout for more fame brushes, especially given that Peter Jackson's the hot item in movies right now. Denzel Washington was here last week in talks with him, and I can only hope that they will begin filming on that movie before I leave.


This is how ubiquitous Lord of the Rings stuff is around Wellington: I came across this while just taking a walk one day. They're everywhere.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

From New Zealand, with Love

Obviously this post is a bit late, but I just wanted to thank everyone who sent birthday greetings last week. It was definitely awesome to get overseas phone calls, not to mention a certain package containing one of the greatest birthday gifts ever: Take 5 candy bars. It was also pretty awesome to have a flatmate who, although he has only known me for a short time, took the time to bake me a delicious cake from scratch. I'm pretty proud that we polished that thing off in a matter of days.

The only sad thing about having a birthday away from home? I'd say being away from friends and family, but really the saddest thing was not being able to go to Stucchi's for my free scoop of grasshopper pie. You can talk to friends and family from anywhere in the world, but ice cream just can't be sent through the mail. And what a tragedy that is.