Samuel J Hennessy*
The screen pans to reveal pastures, lush, exotic and inviting. The world may be torn between good and evil, and a quest which holds the fate of mankind in balance, but what a place to set the end of it all! The saga gathers momentum and a range of allies as well as foes. Through battle, magic, and threats at every turn, our hobbit hero eliminates evil for all time at the throat of a formidable volcano. Not only did The Lord of the Rings enrapture audiences worldwide, it placed our small nation in an international glass bowl, with all looking in with wonder and intrigue at the “fantasy” nation that may have otherwise remained unheard of.
Certainly if the screen can capture the essence of this paradise, what must it be like to actually exist there? Surely, New Zealand is the land of dreams, and possibly even hairy feet?
Perhaps one of the most frequent experiences of my travels over the world, regardless of whose border I fall within, is the reaction to my being a “Kiwi”.
Hitchhiking over Europe, people would welcome me into their vehicle but after hearing my accent seem to ferment a little from their hospitable disposition…that was until I cleared up I was in fact not an Australian. Being a Kiwi had enormous advantage both in Europe and South East Asia and even the neighbouring pacific… “Kiwi” are loved, and it seems people assume a great amount of understanding about our three island nation. As if Lord of the Rings had enlightened everyone to comprehend just what it is to be from New Zealand…everyone, that is, except us here at home.
That is the frustrating reality for myself, and the population at large. I feel that we are desperate to ascertain a sense of identity, but at a great cultural loss as to how to achieve it. Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have a beautiful language, culture, and rich heritage to draw from…connected deeply with the earth and spirituality, but it’s been muted over a history of violence, dishonesty, and now inequality many would attribute to complications in the colonization of New Zealand. Add to that, Maori only now make up 16% of the population (Statistics NZ, 2012), and its influence, while being hastily recovered, is still not something common enough to all New Zealanders to assume identity with. Surely, though, New Zealanders can affiliate with their strong roots in British notions of empire, and unyielding dedication to the Queen and good manners? Though I claim no expertise, it’s apparent that at one point New Zealand felt British…but today the monarchy represents nothing but an irritating union jack on the flag, a woman named Elizabeth on the currency, and unfortunate accounts of promises not met by the agreement between this land and Britain.
Allegiance to the Crown may well have been strained due to two world wars that demanded significant sacrifice of New Zealand life and resources, all assumed under the banner of loyalty to the Crown. It certainly seems the rift between Britain and New Zealand became evident in the decade 1940-1950, with the current national anthem “God Defend New Zealand” gaining significant popularity (over “God Save the Queen”) and introducing New Zealand Citizenship, instead of British. Ties seemed to break between the empire and small nation until finally in 1973 the UK joined the European Union settling once and for all where our unity lay…scattered over thousands of miles of coast and culture. So losing our British-ness, it would seem, leaves us the rich opportunity to evaluate our worth and establish a foothold on what it means to be “Kiwi”.
Instead we found a rugby ball.
In true fish bowl likeness, New Zealand elected an obscure sport- not only deciding to be the best at it, but creating a religion out of it. To make it in New Zealand socially is to, at the very least, have an appreciation for the game. And beer. And the ability to fix your own appliances when they break.
We are a little older than 200 years, and perhaps with no substantial history or war meeting our shores, a rugby ball is a functioning “foster culture”. We will make do with the field as a national metaphor until, with seasons and bravery, we begin to place the spade underneath the manicured grass, and find a national identity in values:
To be a New Zealander is to ameliorate injustice in our backyard. To find common ground with everyone. To share resources, to bring harmony. To protect what’s ours not in order to exploit it, but to share it. To give women the centre stage. To try fix wrongs of our recent past. To be brave. To maintain ingenuity. To take mammoth risks to success. And laugh if it doesn’t go according to plan.
And one day not drink so heavily and violently.
I believe and I hope…and practice these things in the meantime.
*Samuel writes from Auckland, New Zealand. He writes poetry, plays the violin and is everything unconventionally “kiwi”. Sam can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org