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?

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