From 2007 to 2009, I lived on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, and had the pleasure and challenge of experiencing a culture very different from my own. Hannah Williams is the daughter of one of the dear friends I made during that time. She has her own unique perspective on the two cultures she has inherited and the struggles of living in both those worlds.
My own experiences with clashes of cultures started before I was even born, when my New Zealand born father made a fateful trip to the Cook Islands in 1989, where he met my Cook Island born mother. Ever since birth I have lived as a happy mixture of my parents Pacific (Cook Islands) and European heritage. I have also lived with the resultant stigma, stereotypes and conflict of my mixed heritage. The most common and pervasive of these conflicts is the eternal question: “But what are you, really?” Everyone loves boxes, we don’t admit but it is in our nature to compartmentalize, to analyse and to compare. I often find I am consistently affronted with being forced to choose an ethnicity, a culture and an identity on the spot by family, friends and even strangers. In a melting pot society such as we have here in New Zealand, it is even more important to those around you that you identify yourself, and early. This is not so easy for me, I am not “really” any one ethnicity or culture. Additionally, I’m a stickler for details and hate giving one-dimensional answers. In any case, how does one answer questions like “But what are you, really?”
Reality is a sphere we all inhabit. Reality is a spatio-temporal space that, for myself, I define using particular questions. I like to think of these questions as the great ‘Who-What-When-Where and Why’.
Who am I? What do I do? When am I? Where am I? Why am I? Who am I, really?
These questions help me to shape my reality; being of mixed heritage in an environment that always favours homogeny this has become increasingly necessary, as I’ve grown up. These ambiguous questions I ask myself act as a compass for my life and my ever-expanding capacity to self-define. The ambiguity of my form of self-definition actually provides me with stability and a propensity for growth that I cultivate and relish. My agency and capacity to self-define is a right that I defend and cherish constantly. Self-definition has long been necessary for me. I am ambiguity in one of its most conspicuous forms: an ethnically diverse, educated female born in a country far flung from the origins of both sides of my family.
People have always had an obsession with who and what I am. I apparently don’t sound, act or think like how I look. I have dark skin, hair and eyes but not the stereotypical accent or mannerisms of those who like me. I have the childhood, education and background of someone who wouldn’t typically look like I do. The clash of cultures that started when my parents met continues through my every action and interaction. It’s insufferable.
Stereotypes and generalisations have always run amok around me. It often leads to people remarking ignorantly “Oh, you’re not even as [insert generalization] as I thought you were/would be/should be!” People are consistently socialized into thinking homogenously, unilaterally and comparatively about others. We measure each other up, we use broad terminology and fixate on minutiae. This is even more complex and disturbing when you are, as I am, a half-caste. There exists an obsession over how much of this you are and how much of that you are. There exists constant checklist of how you measure up against each standard or stereotype which may be applied to you. Every person you meet may have different standards or stereotypes which they may wield at any given time, usually during polite conversation. I have been bombarded with accusations such as “where did you learn such good English?”, “how come you grew up where white people live?”, “how come your only half Cook Island?”. These are all consistent battles in the clash of cultures for those of mixed heritage.
So for this reason, rather than be consumed by everyone else’s questions about myself I have long chosen to instead ask my own.
- Who am I? I am a young, female, atheist, New Zealand-born Cook Islander who has spent the better part of a decade studying evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland. I am a daughter, a sister, a grand-daughter, a niece. I am a friend. I am a reflection of my family and their values and experiences.
- What do I do? I look after myself, I pay my own bills, I love and care for my family members, I defend my people, I support and celebrate my friends, I feed my cats, I love my boyfriend.
- When am I? I am every day that my family has lived in New Zealand, I am every day that my family lived in the Cook Islands, I am every day that my parents lived in unison, I am every day since they parted ways, I am every day ahead of me and every night as well.
- Where am I? I’m everywhere that someone I love has gone to, I am everywhere that my actions speak loudly, I am everywhere my two feet can take me. I am wherever my family is. I am wherever someone needs me. I am everywhere I can be at once.
- Why am I? I don’t know, but I hope one day I won’t need to ask.
The list of things that I am not is shorter than that. I am not a reflection on you. I am not the embodiment of some aspect of society that you are upset with. I am not an example. I am not an excuse. I am not a referential point on a continuum. I am not plastic, not-real, not really x, disconnected, a fake or a phony. I am not a poor representation of [this] or [that].
My reality is shaped by questions I ask myself as I know I am the only who can answer them. I am the only person who defines me because I’m the only person with all the facts and all the tools that are required. I am the only person who is allowed to discuss Who I Am, What I Am and Why. That is my agency, the only thing that makes me different from
I have a lot of experience with people not understanding this. I think I know why; I do not fit clearly into pre-cut boxes. I require custom-made boxes. The reality here is that we all do. No one is the same as any other person. That is a simple fact; it is undeniable, cold, and clear. Where it becomes murkiest is when one of my custom-made boxes is similar to one of your custom-made boxes. That’s when people start getting animalistic and peeing around their version of their box. “You can’t be [x] because I am [x] and you’re not like me.”
That is ridiculous. The person who creates your custom-made box is you (and whoever you allow to help you). Even if our boxes seem similar, they are not. Even if they look, feel, smell, sound and taste the same, they at least mean different things to us.
At this point I should clarify my motivation for this post, and if anyone has made it this far down then you are no doubt tiring of my unfocused diatribe. I am referring to my experiences with being labelled as a ‘plastic’ Pacific islander. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to people who are of Pacific island descent that are seen (by others) to not fulfil an intangible ideal of what this ethnicity entails. ‘Plastic’ is specifically used to accuse Pacific people, who do not know their native language or do not follow traditional customs, as being unworthy of identifying as Pacific people. It is used most prominently by Pacific people to attack other Pacific people. It is commonly used to insult or offend afakasi (half-caste) Pacific people. It is not a light-hearted term of endearment as is often touted, it is mean-spirited and a reflection only of the user and never of the receiver.
I have often been labelled as a ‘plastic’ Pacific person. This no doubt stems from my inability to speak and understand Cook Island Maori (Maori Kuki Airani), my rejection of the Christian church, my non-Pacific heritage and my various mannerisms that show my relationship with my Pacific culture as being atypical. I have no apologies to be made for any of these characteristics. I view them all as being effects of my upbringing, family and life which, as my fingerprints, are unique to me. Furthermore, as I discussed earlier, I choose to define myself by the myriad of things that I am and not by things that I am I choose to value and define myself by my Pacific heritage – it is an aspect of myself that is undeniable both physically and emotionally. I am connected to my native land through my memories, my experiences and most importantly my family. I have a rich and fulfilling appreciation for my own brand of Pasifika culture, which feels very real to me. This is my reality. It is not plastic. I am, by self-definition, not plastic.
Any attempt to rob me of my self-definition is an attempt to rob me of my agency and capacity as an individual. Any attempt to label me as ‘plastic’ is an insult to the experiences and struggles of my family members, Pacific and not, who toiled to make my life a reality. Use of the word ‘plastic’ to injure, degrade or assert oneself over another is a blight on all Pacific culture and indigeneity as a whole. It is sad that I am consistently affronted with ‘plastic’ accusations, and it is almost sadder that I am almost so desensitised that I usually say nothing.
The most ironic and ridiculous part of this for me is that I commonly experience similar accusations from papa’a (European) communities also, upon my assertion that I am also of European descent. I am usually met with… “but you can’t be, you’re so [insert extremely awkward silence] tanned.” The awkwardness of my apparent ambiguity is a perpetual headache, as all mixed-race, bi-cultural people will understand.
This brings me full circle to the beginning of this post, my reliance on my own brand of self-definition. It dawned on me early in life that it is left to little-old-me to take control and dictate the terms of my definition. If I had listened to everyone I ever spoke to I would identify as neither Pacific nor European but as some unwanted middle-ground to be dealt with later. That isn’t right, or fair. And so I reject it, I reject the notion that I need to be evaluated by someone else. I instead choose to trust myself to ask the hard questions, Who am I, What am I, Where am I, When am I and Why? I encourage you to do the same, what you will find is something no one can take away.
That’s what is real.
Hannah Williams, is a 24-year-old New Zealand-born Cook Islander. She is a recovering student loan addict having just completed her Bachelor of Science, Postgraduate Diploma of Science and Master of Science (Biological Sciences) at the University of Auckland. She currently works for the Ministry of Social Development, in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Her brief stint of full-time employment will soon be terminated however as she will be heading for the U. S. of A to start an age-old kiwi rite-of-passage called the “Big O.E” (basically jetting off overseas and working dead-end service jobs in various countries).