Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Good old-fashioned “Kiwi” hospitality

I started this post a long time ago, and I am only now getting around to finishing it, but I was so inspired by the talk I attended that I really wanted to share, so even though it was a few weeks ago now, I think it is really pertinent. Plus, it helps me reflect on something positive in a week in which I have felt less than productive, and a bit disheartened with respect to my thesis and work here.

A few weeks ago, New Zealand celebrated Maori language week, during which Kiwis all across the country celebrate Te Reo Maori (Maori language). Unfortunately, I missed most of the events, but I managed to make it to two events at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery one Saturday. The first was a tour of the gallery completely in Maori, and the second was a talk, in English, on the topic of the week – Manaakitanga, a word generally translated into English as hospitality, but as I learned, means so much more.

Taking a tour in a foreign language is interesting. I could see the pieces of art to which the tour guide was referring as well as the tour guide’s gestures and expressions. I could see how those who understood reacted, and I could read the signs next to many of the pieces. But I understood about one word in the entire 45-minute tour. And I am not alone in not understanding. According to the statistics at the talk I attended, in 1910, 92% of Maori spoke te reo Maori, but by 1978 that number was down to 20%. In 2006, only 4% of New Zealanders were conversational in te reo Maori. 4%! It is a national language!

I am not going to use this post as a place to discuss the arguments for and against saving a language. To me, it is a no-brainer; language is culture, and it binds people together and keeps our cultures alive. The talk on Manaakitanga I attended is a perfect example.

Like so many words central to a culture, there is not one translation of Manaakitanga. The presenter offered the following: hospitality, hosting, tolerance, caring, respect, and *discipline. It reminded me of the YMCA Four Core Values, which are Respect, Caring, Honesty, and Responsibility. She explained what these words mean and how they permeate Maori, and now Kiwi, culture.

Hospitality and hosting mean you never turn anyone away. They also mean never showing up empty-handed. Respect, caring, and tolerance have the same meaning as everywhere, but the speaker mentioned a few particular to Maori culture, including taking your shoes off when you enter the home, never sitting on a table, and of particular concern to her – learning to say peoples’ names correctly.

I have talked before about the incredible hospitality of the Kiwis. I have never before felt so accepted in a place by people, even if there are some disagreements about world events. What I have not mentioned, and that the speaker noted, is that one way to effect Manaakitanga in the workplace is to welcome visitors and offer refreshments. I have not gone to any office here where they did not offer me a tea or coffee, or as they say, a “hot drink.” The other day I went to Volunteer Otago’s office, and when I declined the hot drink, the person said, “are you sure? Do you mind if I have mine?” What do you say in response? Of course I do not mind!

I also really liked the explanation of Manaakitanga being about *discipline. After further explanation, it became clear that this translation is broader than the word discipline and is really more about the “negative” (in the sense of not us being the person being respectful) side of respect, where we ensure that boundaries are respected and either we, or others, are also being treated well. The examples the speaker gave included Correcting undesirable/unacceptable behaviour in visitors to our home and “Having the courage to tell others (in a diplomatic way) if their behaviour is inappropriate,” in the context of the workplace.

Thus, Manaakitanga is about how you personally act, but also how you engage with the community as a whole. More importantly, even if the word is not well known to the average New Zealander, the concepts are. I still believe that language preservation is important, and there are some movements trying to encourage that in New Zealand, including Maori language week. But it is encouraging to see the influences and preservation of culture even when language might not be up to par.

The talk was a slightly closer look at one way that Maori culture has influenced the Pakeha, those of European descents who live in New Zealand.  I finally feel ready to write about other ways in which I have seen a Maori influence on modern New Zealand culture, but that is a post for another day. Until then, I am grateful for having attended the tour and the presentation as a way to more fully understand how language is a part of that.  

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved