Are Kiwis really one big happy family?

ACROSS THE DIVIDE: Barry Lowe and Sue Pearl, found their relationship ‘‘road-blocked’’ because their families came from different cultures.
ACROSS THE DIVIDE: Barry Lowe and Sue Pearl, found their relationship ‘‘road-blocked’’ because their families came from different cultures.

For seven years, Barry Lowe's parents refused to meet his partner, Sue Pearl.

His father had migrated to New Zealand from China in the late 30s and ran a fruit shop with Barry's grandfather. He brought his wife and an infant Barry over from Hong Kong in the 1950s.

They rejected Sue out of fear for their grandchildren. What would Asian-Jewish-European children look like? And where would they fit in?

Sue's Jewish grandfather had fled Europe before World War II to the corner of earth farthest from Hitler's Germany. She understood what it meant to be different.

She liked all the things that made Barry Chinese: the language, the food and the culture.

"I had awareness of difference, so it was shocking to be road-blocked with our relationship like that. It was about cultural difference," Sue said.

Then, one day, before the couple left for their OE, Barry's mother told him that when they returned they would accept Sue into the family.

But with more than 10 per cent of New Zealand identifying with more than one ethnic group, the grandparents were right. Sue and Barry's children have had to negotiate difficult issues of identity growing up in New Zealand.

Their eldest daughter, Nicky, who is "very obviously Eurasian", has struggled with her ethnic identity.

"She has never managed to not be Chinese. She has wanted to be white, but she can't get away from looking and feeling Chinese," said Barry.

Nicky is engaged to the son of Taiwanese migrants.

Sue and Barry's youngest son, Richard, has taken a very traditional Chinese girlfriend - a real surprise to his parents.

"It speaks of the era that a 21-year-old grew up in and what was his playing field at primary school and his immersion with other cultures," Sue said.

LINDA STRICKSON met Mua Pua in Marriage and Kinship 101 at Massey University in Palmerston North in 1982. They were wed within the year.

The marriage opened their eyes to the complex diversity of New Zealand. Their relationship questioned their understanding of the value of the people and cultures of this country.

"I always thought I was going to marry a Samoan, so when Linda courageously challenged me about that I had to go away and think. That is a paradigm shift, that is opening up new expectations," said Mua, a poetry-writing reverend of Samoan, Chinese and Irish descent.

Before the couple could become Strickson-Pua, Mua had to send a formal letter to his family asking for an opportunity to talk about their plans for marriage and Linda had to be interviewed by Mua's family.

Linda discovered that her history - her father migrated to New Zealand from England in 1953 - had its own value.

"There is a whole attitude that I am white, so I don't have a culture, and the whole understanding of what a culture is," she said.

Their multicultural family dynamic (a daughter, a son and four grandchildren) has raised questions about Kiwi identity and what it means to be a New Zealander in a country that was built by immigrants and markets itself on diversity.

"My granddaughter is just starting high school and is deciding what language to learn, Samoan or Maori," said Linda.

"Our daughter sees herself as Pakeha," said Mua.

EARLY 20TH-CENTURY New Zealand struggled with its emerging ethnic diversity. The colony had a strong fear of cultures that weren't British.

In 1936, poet Anton Vogt was riding a tram in Wellington, speaking his native Norwegian to his father. Another passenger punched his father in the mouth and told the pair to "speak English damn you", writes Michael King in his History of New Zealand.

A New Zealand woman who married an "alien" lost her British citizenship and her right to vote and Chinese immigrants were charged a "poll tax" on arrival - an attempt to reduce their immigration to New Zealand.

Twenty first-century New Zealand prides itself on racial tolerance and equal opportunity.

"There is a very high expectation that people will subscribe to the view that New Zealand is a warm welcoming, tolerant country with good race relations," said Joris de Bres, the race relations commissioner, himself a Dutch immigrant whose family arrived in New Zealand in the 1950S.

But the reality is a society still tainted by racial discrimination, violence and inequality.

A Statistics New Zealand report published in 2012 estimates that, in the past 12 months, 187,000 people (or 6 per cent of the population) in New Zealand experienced racial discrimination.

In 2002, Helen Clark apologised to the Chinese population for the poll tax and the general discrimination experienced by the group. But it is people who identify as Asian who still face the most prejudice, followed by Maori and Pacific Islanders.

"People in New Zealand experience discrimination, prejudice, racism, and get beaten up and abused because of ethnicity. We need to be more honest about that fact that these things do occur," de Bres said.

Last year a man and woman were sentenced to prison for setting their dogs on a Vietnamese man, a Filipino man and a Japanese woman. Three young people were sentenced to prison or home detention for attacking a Korean family. In one week, Jewish graves were desecrated, a house graffitied with Nazi insignia, and a former immigration minister, now an immigration consultant, had a bullet shot through his front window.

Racial inequality is the biggest slur on New Zealand's racial reputation, says Damon Salesa, associate professor of Pacific Studies at Auckland University, and the first Rhodes Scholar of Polynesian descent. "If you want to see the true measures of society, you look at who are we putting in jail and who is running the country. You don't look at the messy middle."

Salesa points to prison populations, where Pacific Islanders and Maori are incarcerated in dramatically disproportionate numbers; health findings, that reveal high rates of diabetes and obesity in Polynesian minorities; and suicide statistics that show more young Maori and Pacific Islanders are taking their own lives. "Clearly something is going wrong when the sick and the imprisoned share similar characteristics," he said.

And merely tolerating each other will not close New Zealand's growing social gaps.

"Toleration should not be our goal. That is better than punching you in the face, but it is not a lofty ambition," Salesa said.

Communities no longer bridge social demographics, and the working class and low income earners have been condemned to the edges of cities. What it means to be a Kiwi is no longer a common experience.

Mua Strickson-Pua's Samoan parents met on a tram in Ponsonby.

The Auckland suburb now famous for fine dining and high fashion was once the home of new Pacific Island immigrants.

Mua was part of the generation of Pacific Islanders who grew up in Ponsonby and became the Polynesian Panthers and Street Poets Black, the movements that campaigned and performed for racial equality in New Zealand.

"Ponsonby and Grey Lynn for me will always have those struggles, overstayers, dawn raids, Polynesian Panthers, the Pacific Islands Church, and that whole response to that social growth."

Now it is not uncommon for those forced to live in Auckland's fringes, in the west and south where housing is affordable, to have never visited downtown Auckland, said Salesa. "It should not shock us that they live in a profoundly different New Zealand. You get a shared understanding of New Zealand where what we share becomes less and less," he said.

Child poverty was the vogue issue that drove New Zealand's debate around inequality in 2012. But poverty was formerly a mark against society, now it is seen as an individual's failure, Salesa said.

"For a long time, living in a state house and working in a factory was a badge of honour. If you did a hard day's work you deserved to live in a good house and live a life of dignity," said Salesa, whose father was a factory worker with Fisher and Paykel.

"Being poor in New Zealand, the first thing you don't get is dignity."

The denial that this inequality exists has been labelled the modern form of racism in New Zealand. Race relations wasn't just about being kind to each other, it was about being fair to each other, said de Bres.

"The holding up of a vision and belief of excellent race relations in New Zealand is a denial of the reality. The irony is it is so important in our national view of ourselves that any challenge leads to quite strong denial."

Sunday Star Times