First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2013 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo
About a year ago a little girl walked up to me and asked if my baby was adopted. My daughter has brown skin, while my own skin is fair. The question came as a surprise and I was a bit offended. When I said, “No,” the little girl looked puzzled and ran off. So I didn’t get to ask her what she saw that made her think we looked too different to be related.
As my baby has grown, I’ve become more aware of how people react when they see us together for the first time. While no one else has asked about adoption, most people look surprised and a little confused – although, when my husband is with me, less so. I guess seeing him helps to “explain” our difference.
I’m well placed to talk to my daughter about looking and being “different”. Being of mixed cultural heritage, I’ve never fitted into stereotypes of what a “typical” Kiwi of Polynesian descent is supposed to look like.
My mum is very fair too, although she grew up in Samoa and is fluent in the language. On that side of the family, our mixed European-Polynesian heritage goes back five generations. My great-grandmother was a Tongan-Scottish woman who begot my grandfather through a relationship with a German-Samoan. And although that might seem complicated, it was pretty commonplace throughout the Pacific during the 19th century.
In defining my own identity, I’ve come to think of myself as a Kiwi Polynesian. A New Zealander of Polynesian descent. For me, that descriptor is much more accurate than ticking one box, whether it be Pakeha, Samoan or Tongan. But unfortunately, when it comes to ticking boxes – as we had to do in the census – there just aren’t enough of them to accurately capture that reality. Especially when it comes to my daughter’s ethnicity as, to add to the mix, her father is Niuean. She is a Kiwi fruit salad, just like me.
When I lived in Australia I remember having a discussion with some of my Aussie mates about how they deal with this. They said frankly that for most people in Australia, being “Australian” comes first, ethnicity second.
When I asked why that was, they explained that it was because of the fraught context in which Australia as a nation was founded – and in particular the appalling way in which their indigenous people were treated. Because of this, for those not of indigenous heritage, there was little advantage to publicly emphasise ethnic difference any more than necessary.
This was later confirmed for me when I met a young Tongan bouncer at a nightclub in Canberra. There aren’t that many Polynesians in Canberra so I was keen to have a chat with him. When we met, I asked him if he was Tongan. His response was not what I expected. He said, “Nope, I’m Australian.” He was adamant that he was an Australian who happened to be Tongan.
This was a different response from the one I was used to. Having grown up in Auckland, where 17 per cent of the population is Polynesian, I was used to conversations where Pacific ethnicity is emphasised as a point of reference, while our nationality – as New Zealanders – is taken for
granted. Most of the island kids I grew up with would always – and still do – refer to themselves as Samoan or Tongan, etc.
Now that I’m back in Auckland, after seven years away, the advantages and disadvantages of being a Kiwi fruit salad are both more apparent to me. Certainly, my mixed cultural heritage allows me to draw on a range of perspectives that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
And referring to myself as a Kiwi Polynesian also feels right because Aotearoa is located in the Polynesian triangle, as opposed to Melanesia or Micronesia. Having a solid sense of location – in the Pacific – reinforces my own sense of identity.
Because of these two factors, I’ve dedicated a significant amount of my academic and professional career to understanding the challenges and opportunities for Aotearoa in the Pacific. Something many people are not really interested in, despite this country’s prominent place in the region.
Research by Statistics New Zealand shows that the Pacific population in New Zealand is one of our fastest growing ethnic groups (along with Chinese and Māori). By 2026 it’s projected that the Pacific population will be 10 per cent of the total population, compared to 6.9 per cent at the moment.
Of the total existing Pacific population, over 77 per cent live in Auckland – and it’s easy to see the proportion of Aucklanders who identify as Kiwi Polynesians is going to grow. How and when the statisticians will start to capture the fruit salad nature of our heritage more accurately is unclear. By the time my daughter is grown, will they understand what she is?