Last time I wrote one of these - well over a year ago - I’d been in New Zealand for 8 weeks, had just had my staff induction at AUT and was contemplating my first foray outside Auckland. It all feels a long time ago. What have I learned since then about New Zealand, and about myself?
It didn’t take long to understand that New Zealand happens outside of Auckland. There’s Auckland and then there’s everywhere else. Even though one third of people live in Auckland, and the city and its Jafas (google it) are the economic engine of the country, ‘everywhere else’ is where New Zealand actually occurs. You can tell this because every time there is any kind of opportunity, everyone pisses off immediately. During the December/January holiday break, Auckland becomes so deserted that you can wander down Queen St and see only two or three other people, instead of the usual twenty.
Having now also been to Wellington and Christchurch a couple of times and being therefore familiar with the biggest three of New Zealand’s Big Four, I’ve come to suspect that perhaps New Zealand really happens outside of cities altogether, at least in everybody’s minds. If New Zealand cities feel like a begrudging concession to the wisdom of having things clumped in one place every now and then, Auckland feels like the result of an unspoken national agreement to locate the biggest clump there, where it won’t cause any trouble. Even so, the city flaunts a kind of insouciance in trying to see how spread out it can be.
Like most mish-mashed things and places that spring up out of necessity and convenience rather than intention, Auckland as New Zealand’s citta franca is a vibrant and interesting place in its own right, with its own rhythms and unique character. Because I retain my Australian bias, conceptually it puts me most in mind of Brisbane, if Brisbane had more natural assets to work with. Auckland is embarking upon a grand program of infrastructure catch-up, rezoning, urban renewal and iconic civic identity projects, similar to the path Brisbane started down 20 years ago. The vibe this creates – an optimistic buzz of possibility and discovery while being relaxed, quaintly old-fashioned and not in a position to threaten anyone – feels very far removed from the pace and tenor of much of the rest of the world at present. It’s enjoyable. And perhaps in all this, Auckland is really a cipher for New Zealand after all.
There have been a few moments over the last year or so where I feel I’ve started to get New Zealand. The first was during my visit to Wellington last year for the Australasian Research Management Conference (which I said I would write about in my last post in Sep 2017, and here we are! Sometimes you just have to be patient). The conference was held at Te Papa Tongarewa, which is New Zealand’s premier cultural institution and ranked as one of the best museums in the world. It began according to Māori meeting protocols with speeches and songs in Te Reo. The audience - buttoned-down university administrators most of whom had just flown in from Australia at some ungodly hour - were not quite ready for this and many were visibly discomfited, especially by the singing. The overall effect was a warm and heartfelt welcome nonetheless calculated to let you know exactly where you are and where you stand – as a visitor and a guest. And then we all got on with the kaupapa of the conference.
The second moment I got New Zealand also involved singing. It was when Serena on my team at work left to move to Australia (to that Mecca for expat Kiwis, the Gold Coast). The farewell party was the usual endurance test of paper plates and paper-thin speeches borne with good grace, until we surprised her by singing a waiata, in the face of which everything melted and so did she.
The emotional and political force of singing stops in me my tracks whenever I am witness to it. It happened again when I went to my friend Iresh’s PhD graduation at University of Auckland earlier this year. A university graduation is an occasion steeped in pomp, ritual symbolism and such deep solemnity as is possible to muster while wearing silly costumes. The historical context of those traditions comes from another time and place (lots of Latin), and the ceremony culminates with the Vice-Chancellor and the senior faculty calling up the graudands one by one to receive a handshake before walking one by one across the stage to be ‘capped’, where the head represents the seat of knowledge and power. One of the Māori students stops midway through his walk, turns to the audience and performs a haka to great whooping and applause, while the Dean waits to shake hands, upstaged. At other moments, Pasifika graduands freeze on-stage as their family members in the audience stand and call out to them in song. The seat of knowledge and power in these moments is the heart, and watching these proud traditions collide and intermingle, negotiating each other, is incredible. There is a discernible moment when the mood changes as everyone pauses to adjust, and then the energy in the room from all directions goes up a notch. I am reminded of the advice I was given once when things looked like they might get out of control - kia kaha, mate! Stay strong and give it heaps.
If strength in humility is essential to understanding New Zealand, nowhere is this more striking than when encountering the natural scenery. Whether the black sand beaches, the sparkling blue harbours, the green rolling hills of the mighty Waikato or the imposing peaks of the Southern Alps, the landscape is welcoming but nonetheless calculated to let you know exactly where you are and where you stand – as a visitor and a guest of the land. For someone used to world travel, to travel in New Zealand, especially in the South Island, is to have a voice inside your head insistently yelling ‘there’s no-one here!’ But there are, you just don’t see them much. In New Zealand, both the people and the landscape can frequently be relied upon to give it heaps, without going out of their way to draw attention. Or as the delightful Maori whakataukī has it, kāore te kumara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka - the sweet potato doesn’t call itself sweet.
Perhaps another way to see New Zealand’s modest and unassuming cities then is not so much as begrudging clumps, but as humble containers of treasured things and people that come from the surrounding land. This is more or less what Te Papa Tongarewa actually means, which aside from making it a fitting emblem of New Zealand, just goes to show that often the secret to unlocking the knowledge and power of both head and heart is in plain sight if you care to look for it. I look forward to visiting again next time I piss off out of Auckland.