Motueka's multicultural melting pot

02:07, Jul 07 2014
ETHNIC DIVERSITY: Motueka High School International Student Ball at Elevation Cafe, Motueka. Brazilian, German and Japanese students were among this group of revellers.

Hola amigos. Is it just me, or is Motropolis feeling mighty multicultural these days?

Perhaps the gloriously global World Cup is colouring my vision, but it seems that everywhere I look, I'm finding examples of how the small town in the heart of the whitest district in New Zealand is less lilywhite than expected.

Partly that's because my expectations were pitched too low. When I moved back to New Zealand seven years ago, vowing to avoid living in a city, I assumed that part of the price of living in the sticks would be to sacrifice ethnic diversity.

Having grown up in 1970s and 80s Otago, I could not imagine a small South Island town where even if a good chunk of the town were not distantly related, they at least shared the same gene pool.

For seven years I had been living in a neighbourhood of Oakland, California, that was the most ethnically diverse in the entire United States, so I was convinced I would find it difficult to adjust to isolated, monocultural, provincial New Zealand.

I was flat out wrong. New Zealand had changed dramatically in the 20 years since I had last lived here and that didn't just mean that the most popular restaurant in Motueka was Thai (although that was a relief).


My neighbours at my first Riwaka rental were half Indonesian Dutch, next to them was a French family, and I quickly learned that the town had a history of welcoming outsiders. Because harvesting the tobacco crop was a labour-intensive effort, Motueka had long depended on itinerant workers, and the town's unofficial historian Eileen Stewart told me that economic necessity had bred a tolerant community.

That tolerance has been tested at times, as I've reported, but the economic necessity remains. Harvesting remains a labour-intensive business and as any orchardist will tell you, there is no way the crop could be brought in on time without a small army of foreign backpackers and the 900 RSE workers from the Pacific Islands employed throughout the region.

But now, in the depths of winter, the harvesters are gone, the tourists are scarce, and yet signs of globalisation remain.

I recently reported on the international student programme at Motueka High School, which marked the mid-year changeover of visiting students with its International Ball last Saturday night.

The high school will host 45 international students this year, the most ever, who will contribute $378,000 in revenue to the school's coffers. That beats the hundreds of sausage sizzles, chocolate sales and firewood raffles that schools have to resort to these days.

Most of that revenue goes into the care and education of those students but the chunk that does drop to the bottom line makes a significant difference to the school. And the benefits are not just financial.

When I left high school to take up a scholarship to an international school in the US, my mind was blown by being surrounded by students from 70 different countries. I learned about apartheid from black and white South Africans, Middle East politics from Israelis and Palestinians, and how to shotgun a beer from Americans.

I had come from a Dunedin high school that featured one Maori student on the roll and perhaps one Scot and one Australian, who, accents aside, were indistinguishable from the rest of us pale spotty-faced southerners. But the Kiwi students at Motueka High School don't have to go halfway around the world for their multicultural education.

With the 10 Brazilians in their midst they have already shared lessons in samba and football, not to mention the benefits of high achievement, since the Brazilians are all winners of Brazilian government scholarships funding their Motueka education.

From the Japanese students they have learned that they are lucky to learn in an educational style that values discovery and partnership with teachers, rather than rote learning and compulsory classroom cleaning, and from the sheer range of students they learn with, lessons in just how vast and varied the world is.

We may be more global than we once were, but New Zealand is still remote and tiny on the world stage, and no amount of Googling and Skyping can make up for face-to-face interactions with people whose experience is very different from ours.

In the time I was gone, New Zealand changed from being profoundly monocultural to at least bicultural. This time of year, with almost every school studying Matariki, which was celebrated at Te Awhina marae on the same night as the international school ball, reminds us that Maori culture has largely moved from being ignored to celebrated and something we see as central to our identity as New Zealanders.

That's great progress, but we need to widen our focus in our increasingly globalised world. Perhaps it is time for Motueka to celebrate all its cultures. A good start was made earlier this winter when the local Rotary organised Sounds of Tonga, a concert featuring groups of RSE workers which raised funds for Rotary to continue its aid work in Tonga.

The following day, the Nelson Multicultural Council held its annual Rainbow Praise concert also featuring various RSE worker choirs, usually held at Nelson Cathedral, in Motueka, and Parklands School's annual Turangawaewae festival celebrates the many cultures at the primary school.

This week I watched perhaps the best game of the World Cup so far, as a plucky but overmatched US side repelled wave after wave of Belgian attacks. The game was locked at 0-0 after 90 minutes but in extra time, it was Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku who made the difference, scoring the first of Belgium's goals and setting up the second.

Belgian-born Lukaku, the son of Congolese-born and former Zaire national player Roger Lekaku, is a prolific scorer in the UK's Premier League and is fluent in Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.

I'm betting he is the most popular person in Belgium this week as well as being an inspiring advertisement for the global game - and the benefits of having global citizens.

The Nelson Mail