Biculturalism in Aotearoa

“We got lots of internationals here, eh?”

We, over 100 college students devoting the weekend to volunteering in the Akaroa community, stood at the gate of the Ōnuku Marae – women in the front, men behind, awaiting the Pōwhiri welcoming ceremony.


“Hehe, you’s is in fer a real suhprise,” he cackled. The Kaiāwhina leaned slightly forward on his intricately carved staff. He seemed to emanate old wisdom in a modern generation.

This wasn’t just a new experience for the internationals. Many Kiwis have never stayed on a Marae, and they know little more than a few token Māori songs from primary school.

I am not at all an expert on Māori culture or traditions; I still stumble through my mihi mihi and could not have not fully experienced the backlog buildup of a century and a half of racial tensions between Pakeha (white Europeans) and Māori. But I have learned, perhaps even begun to intrinsically understand, heaps more about living in a bicultural country than I did prior to moving here in January. Nine months ago, all I knew was that the native people are known as Māori, and email greetings often begin with “Kia Ora.” In truth, I wasn’t all that interested. I mainly chose NZ for the tramping and breathtaking landscapes. I did not understand the marginalisation of a whole people group, the continual persistent uphill efforts to recognise and value the mana of te reo and tikanga.

I faked my way through my first three Pōwhiris, the first of which marked the commencement of the Master’s program I am in. A primary mission of my program is to uphold and advocate for effectively teaching Māori students, letting Māori learners be Māori, allowing their strengths and cultural traditions to shine through in the classroom. The Pōwhiri removes the tapu of the Manuhiri (visitors) – to make them one with the Tāngata Whenua (People of the Land), gradually bringing the two groups together. It was a lot of ceremony and singing and listening to an old respected sage drone on in a language I didn’t understand.

Had I visited New Zealand for two weeks, I would have tramped my face off and found the geography to be the world’s most stunning. Those two weeks would be treasured, and I would certainly want to come back.

But I would only partially pick up unique facets of New Zealand, the little things that, put together, make the culture what it is. Like this video:

I hope you find that funny, because it is. And it is so very Kiwi – meat pies, hunting and fishing, construction, cars, motor bikes, rugby…and all taught to your daughter, who will be a beautiful, tough woman someday, and know just how to handle a Kiwi bloke of her own.

But there’s no way for you to know that many people really are that relaxed. Do you know that those short pants are quite long for a guy? Do you know that gum boots are an essential component of drinking games for white water kayakers? Or that it’s just as important to be able to walk barefoot anywhere (anywhere, sidewalks and public places like the mall and grocery store) that you could sprint in jandals? Do you even know what jandals are?

New Zealand is so unique, because its more recent human history is a conglomeration of a rooted, unified, highly spiritual people group and a rough-and-tumble bunch of alcoholic whalers and down-to-earth farmers. More recently, New Zealand demography has become increasingly diverse and is home to many Asian immigrants. These different groups don’t often live in harmony – people like to stick to others like them – but they do make New Zealand the country that it is.

Lately, I’ve had this impression that I actually get it. I live here – I teach in a low decile school with many Māori and Pacifika students, I have made Kiwi friends, participate in lots of different clubs, and drink endless cups of tea. I know, at least more than a tourist, what it means to be a Kiwi. I understand the importance of Māori values being upheld in society, as more than tokenism, coupled with the influence of European colonisation.

This past weekend was my sixth Pōwhiri. I still don’t understand much of te reo Māori, but I picked up on a few words – love, care, family, Amen, greenstone. More importantly, I just sensed the spiritual importance of preserving and sharing the culture. Then I got to serve. The earthquake was five years ago, but damage is still evident. My team and I spent all of Saturday doing hard manual labour, moving bricks from five chimneys that had collapsed in the quake. The woman managing the reserve about twenty minutes from the Marae is a hard worker, but she hasn’t been able to do the work because there are too many tough emotional associations. Every time she has tried, she just breaks down. I skipped and ran and smiled my way through the work – it really is better to give than to receive. Back at the Marae, it was pretty much a camp setting, and I stayed busy cleaning the kitchen after meals, talking around the bon fire, and playing games. I have been spending so many weekends on mountain trails that I had forgotten that I feel just as alive, purposeful, and passionate in an environment of service.

The wee chapel at Onuku Marae, overlooking Akaroa Bay

When I came home last night, I went to Southwest Baptist, the church I have chosen to be a part of this year. They do active mission work, spreading the gospel and  fighting injustice, while also not neglecting the spiritual importance of prayer and worship. The character of the church is summed up well in the prayer we say together as a congregation each week, from the Catholic Archbishop and San Salvador activist Oscar Romero.

The Romero Prayer

Let us not forget, we are a pilgrim church, a church on a journey. We are sometimes misunderstood, sometimes disliked, but we are a church that walks on undisturbed, because we bear the force of love.

Our Christian faith does not just have meaning in the world around us, nor is it only spiritual, ignoring the pain that surrounds us. It is a looking at God, and from God at our neighbour as a brother or sister. It is an awareness that whatever we do to the least person, we do to Jesus.

As I am just starting to “get” Māori values, SWBC has been upholding them and welcoming all people from all nations since 1866, not long after NZ’s first settlement. They practice the work of reconciliation, they “get it,” because it’s so wrapped up in the character of Jesus – one who invites all people to himself, the prodigal father who lavishly loves, forgives, and brings us home when we run after our own desires.

After the earthquake, they chose to not spend over a million dollars on a new building, investing that money into helping the poor instead. They did have this carving made, though, placed in the lobby at the entrance to the gym. It represents so much of what I am coming to understand and love about Aotearoa NZ.


Jesus at the centre and on the cross, connecting to those on either side of him. A celtic symbol representing the heart of God, reaching out in love and forgiveness. All the different faces, made of various New Zealand woods, each with its own expression, one even sleeping (as is true in church!), representing the many different people who make up the body of Christ. And underneath, a pathway sweeping up, in a Māori style, but composed of all cultures. It’s a beautiful piece of woodwork, and it so accurately sums up Christianity in a culturally grounded context.

We finished the service worshiping to this song.

He hōnore, he korōria
Maungārongo ki te whenua
 pai e
Kingā tangata katoa
Ake ake, ake ake
Te Atua, te piringa,
Toku oranga
Honour, glory and
peace to the land
May good thoughts come
to all men
for ever and ever, for ever and ever.
The Lord is my refuge
and my life.

I’m a sucker for hymns, which timelessly give God the honour he is due, and I think Māori and Pacifika ones are particularly beautiful. You would never sing a waiata like this back in the States, at a church or elsewhere. I like it, though, and I suppose it reminds me a little bit of Southern Gospel music. Something about God being praised by every tribe and tongue.

I’ve been marinating on these thoughts for a while, this feeling of “getting it,” what it means to live in a bicultural country, and I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it. The feeling first struck me when I was in the Canterbury Museum about a month ago, walking through eras of New Zealand history, and knowing the native wildlife, the heritage and customs, the pioneering spirit, in more than an informational, read-the-panel kind of way.

I’m studying here on a Rotary Global Grant, and I’ve realised that my being here has achieved their mission. Their fourth guiding principle is “the advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.” I understand a different culture (indeed, one that didn’t seem all that different on first landing), and have effectively become an ambassador for Māori tikanga. I will be returning to America so much more aware of other people’s cultures and backgrounds, and how to embrace them and build on them in the classroom.

I am finding one whakataukī to ring particularly true, whether it is through teaching, community service, or church:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

As I enter the last stretch of my time in New Zealand, and as I venture into whatever awaits next, may people, regardless of background, be the focus of my service and love.

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