My children are Maori. They’re half English too of course, but they are considerably more identifiable as Maori than European. I am very fair in complexion, so my olive-skinned children look nothing like me. That’s something we don’t even think about until people ask ‘Are they yours?’ or ‘Where did you adopt them?’ or worse, ‘but they’re not yours!’ Do I look like Angelina or Madonna?
(actually I wish I did).
A particularly unpleasant event on a train recently illustrated what mixed heritage families like us face from the outside. It happened like this:
My youngest hates being woken up, and she always falls asleep on the train home from Wellington. On this particular day, when the train pulled into our stop, I had to wake her up to get her through the doors before they shut. I carried her as she was having a right royal tanty in protest. But what it looked like was this: I was kidnapping someone else’s child. A woman got out of her seat, stood in front of me and asked the question I’ve heard too many times: ‘Is she yours?’ If my arms weren’t full of a wriggling screaming child and I had to get through the open door fast, I could have really snapped.
They are mine, but they also belong to a heritage to which I’m very much a tourist. That’s why our four nights in Hicks Bay were so important – the girls connecting with their wider family and their iwi. Their Maori heritage is in Hicks Bay, as that is where their Marae is, and where their ancestors come from and are buried. Their family still has a decent little bit of land with a gloriously run-down house on it. It is by the sea, rural and looks a lot like paradise.
The plan was to head straight to Hicks Bay from Napier, stopping at Gisborne for lunch. I thought it would be about four hours of driving, but it was more like six, nearly seven. Pulling the van really slows me down. The landscape is worth slowing down for though. New Zealand gets greener, more lush, and the wildlife more abundant the further you get to the cape. The temperature was hot too, so it felt like I was abroad suddenly, Thailand maybe or Laos.
We parked the caravan by the side of the girl’s uncle’s house. We were invited to stay in the house of course, but we’d decided to carry on sleeping in the van. Pa Wars was on in a few days, the day we were due to leave actually. This was where the many Marae of the Ngati Porou tribe, or Iwi, were competing against each other. For those involved, it is a way of connecting with the past and the people of their marae – the feeling of going into battle, but this time it was through kapa haka and dance, fast sprints, netball, rugby league, darts and Trivial Pursuit matches and many more competitions rather than violence. It’s for handy extra funds in prize money for their Marae , but also a great excuse for gathering. (If I’ve got any of that wrong, Maori/New Zealand readers, do leave a comment correcting me.)
My children’s father and his family were converging from all over NZ to their old family home in order to compete for their Marae. I was bringing the girls along so they could connect with their whanau (family) and their heritage.
I really enjoy spending time with my ex’s family, his brother and sister especially. They are good people with a terrific sense of humour and I joined in their highly competitive games of Scrabble with enthusiasm. It didn’t matter who won, as long as I got more points than my ex. That rivalry was the source of a lot of fun, and the whole stay really was a hoot. It’s funny how you can go to hell and back with an old lover but you’re able to put it all to one side for your children. So, we played Scrabble and snap with the girls, they took us to swimming holes in a nearby river, and visited elderly relatives and the graves of those members of their family long gone. It was fantastic for the children and they had a ball.
By the end of our visit, I regretted that we weren’t staying for Pa Wars itself. I just felt that it was going to be a long hot day for Miss Three, and me; I’d have been chasing after her amongst the nearly 2000 people (apparently, but that may be an exaggerated figure) that were expected to be competing that day. No thanks. Maybe next year though, when she’s just a little bit older.
We went with the family to their Marae the day before Pa Wars and our departure. As usual on a marae and amongst a Maori community, everyone was extremely welcoming. I got kissed on the cheek by just about everyone belonging to the Marae just as if I was one of them. I believe in their eyes, as mother of two of their own, I kinda am, in a weird honorary way. I felt out of place though. I’ve been in NZ long enough to know the protocols of Marae culture, but I’m not at all at home on a Marae to be honest. Maybe that will change over the years to come, but for now I see it as my job to take my girls along until they are old enough to get there themselves. Even then I will probably still come along to watch them dance and run and compete for their Marae. (And beat their father at Scrabble.)